Ethiopia's northern state of Tigray has been making headlines over the last three weeks. The reason? The Ethiopian government is at war with Tigrayan rebels, and the looming threat of genocide has intensified.

Last night, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed posted a message to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) on Twitter which read: “We urge you to surrender peacefully within 72 hours, recognizing that you are at the point of no return.” This statement arrived as army chiefs reportedly warned the region's civilians to "free themselves" from rebel leaders within that 72-hour timeframe, or be offered "no mercy."

Ahmed's alarming ultimatum to the Tigrayan rebels is adding to regional and global concern about the situation in Tigray's capital, Mekelle– particularly given the government has already cut off communication to the region. Essentially, Tigray has been turned into a humanitarian blindspot and there's no real way of saying what is going on there right now.

If you're looking for an overview of the situation, from how the move against Tigray could impact the region to, most importantly, how you can help, we've gathered everything you need to know below.

What’s happening in Tigray?

On November 3, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, on behalf of the federal government of Ethiopia, declared war on its northern state of Tigray. It is being described as a conflict between the Ethiopian military and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). However, according to Tigrayans and many international observers, it looks to be a tactic to suppress the state’s ethnic minority and consolidate the Prime Minister's unitarian power. There are also growing concerns over the looming danger of genocide. Immediately after the declaration of war, the government shut down the internet and phone connections to the region. With no journalists or activists on the ground who are able to report what’s going on, the world is left in the dark.

We know that "hundreds, possibly thousands, of people have been killed in the conflict so far." There are also “injured soldiers on both sides.” Currently, army tanks have gathered around the city of Mekelle and the government has given rebels three days to retreat before the situation reaches a "point of no return."

Ethiopian military had so far avoided any targets that might risk civilian casualties but said that in the case of Mekelle “it might be different”. The crisis jeopardizes not only the lives of its 110 million people, but it threatens the peace of an entire region crucial to global affairs: the Horn of Africa.

Why is this happening?

Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy claims the attack on Tigray is a direct response to the TPLF attacking and looting a military base in the state. According to the TPLF, this is a lie concocted to justify a military offensive. While the Tigray people make up only six percent of the country’s population, they have enjoyed disproportionate power and influence in government affairs.

Furthermore, the TPLF dominated the country’s military and government before Ethiopia’s governing coalition took power and appointed Abiy as the country’s PM in 2018. Abiy gained international acclaim and win the Nobel Peace Prize last year for his peace plans with Eritrea and his ambitions to unify the country. Abiy has said that he wants to increase the federal government’s power and minimize the autonomy of regional governments. This centralization push has created friction with the TPLF.

However, Abiy has been criticized in Ethiopia for delaying elections – allegedly due to Covid-19 – and remaining in office. Worsening already tense relations with Ethiopia's capital city, Addis Ababa, Tigray defied the federal government by decided to hold parliamentary elections in September anyway, regardless of the delays. Ethiopian lawmakers responded by cutting funding to the region. Now under the guise of “restoring the rule of law,” Abiy deployed the army and declared a six-month state of emergency in Tigray. This basically gives the federal government power to suspend both political and civil rights.


How could this conflict affect Ethiopia and its neighbors?

The war is just not with the TPLF but is collectively targeting the Tigray people. Many Tigrayans have been displaced and are subjected to ethnic profiling across Ethiopia. With airports in Tigray closed, roads blocked, internet service cut off and even banks no longer operating, the people of Tigray have been made dangerously vulnerable. Additionally, there is no humanitarian corridor and nearly 900 aid workers from the UN are trapped in Tigray struggling to contact the outside world with pleas for help. Experts warn of the potential for the conflict to spread to other parts of Ethiopia, where some regions have been calling for more autonomy and could threaten more deadly ethnic violence.

This could seriously impact the region

At least 36,000 people have crossed the border, escaping to neighboring Sudan, with potentially up to 500,000 refugees threatening to destabilize a country already facing its own huge political transition. The standoff could also have a devastating effect on neighboring Eritrea and its fragile peace treaty with Ethiopia. The conflict could suck the Horn of Africa – including countries such as Somalia and Djibouti – into crisis. Not only that, but the region is also only a water-crossing away from Yemen and the Middle East.

What has the reaction been?

Many Ethiopians are worried Abiy’s delaying of the general elections coupled with his war on Tigray could be a ploy to remain in power and establish a fascistic regime. People have taken to social media in solidarity with the people of Tigray using the hashtags #StopWarOnTigray and #IStandWithTigray.

Meanwhile, the international community is calling for an end to the conflict. Notably, the leaders of the African Union have urged an immediate ceasefire and an "inter-Ethiopian effort in the pursuit of peace." UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has also warned of the ramifications tweeting, “The stability of Ethiopia is important for the entire Horn of Africa region. I call for an immediate de-escalation of tensions and a peaceful resolution to the dispute.” Despite international calls for dialogue, Abiy has said there will be no negotiations till local leaders are arrested and their well-stocked arsenal destroyed.

What can you do to help?

The Twitter account @istandwithtigray has compiled a full list of resources for how to show solidarity with Tigray. The list includes petitions, places to donate, tweet templates, phone numbers, email addresses, scripts for contacting organizations and elected officials, and more. You can find it all here.

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