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  • Noha Awais

The Weaponization of Starvation in Tigray

The region of Tigray is located in the North of Ethiopia and borders Eritrea. Due to its rich history of droughts, famines, and political conflicts, the region of Tigray is very fragile and volatile. Today, Tigray is experiencing a large-scale humanitarian crisis that can potentially escalate into a famine. The political conflict ignited at the start of November 2020, has evolved into a genocidal war that utilizes political starvation as a potent weapon.

The fierce conflict in Tigray has gone unreported by many international news outlets due to a press blockade imposed on the region of Tigray by the Ethiopian government. This led to international negligence when it came to reports of war crimes. To combat this issue, Professor Alex de Waal dedicated his position as the director of the World Peace Foundation to raise awareness about the atrocities happening to the people of Tigray.

Professor de Waal, who got his Ph.D. on the famine in Sudan in 1988, became interested in the political and humanitarian affairs in the region of the Horn of Africa during his studies at Oxford University. In the early 1980s, he moved to Khartoum, Sudan, to pursue his interest in human rights and the politics of famines through the University of Khartoum. His decision to move to Khartoum was guided by the fact that the University of Khartoum was the epicenter of humanitarian and political studies at the time. There, he cultivated his passion for studying the political motivation behind famines. In 1988, he conducted research about the acute Tigranyan famine of 1984. At the time, Tigray was experiencing insurgence and drought, both of which contributed to the progression of the famine.

To truly understand the root of the conflict currently occurring in Tigray, one has to gain a brief background of the political climate of the region. In 1991, the Ethiopian military regime was overthrown. The new government was led by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). The EPRDF had an impressive record of poverty reduction and famine prevention; however, its human rights record did not compare.

The EPRDF has since been dissolved, with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed coming to power. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for his contribution to the diffusion of the Ethiopian-Eritrean conflict, has reignited the power struggle in Tigray by waging a political and economic war in the region. The ultimate goal for the war is to make the inhabitants of the region severely dependent on hand-outs and stripping the political strength of the region. Prior to the war, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed formed an alliance with the Amhara armed forces and the Eritrean military, both of which have their own motives regarding the region of Tigray. The Amhara forces are seeking the retrieval of claimed land, and to achieve their goal, they are practicing ethnic cleansing of the Tigrayan people. The Eritrean military has a far-reaching agenda that involves invoking instability in Tigray and making the region dependent on aid. The Eritrean military constitutes the largest number of combatants currently in Tigray. However, Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki denies any allegation of the Eritrean military presence in Tigray. The Eritrean armed forces have been committing horrid war crimes such as theft, rape, killing, and torture. The war has since caused major human loss as well as the destruction of the infrastructure in the region of Tigray. The motivation behind the corrosion of the infrastructure of Tigray comes from the fact that these allied forces seek to eradicate the livelihood of the region to induce the dependence on aid packages and suppress the political power of the region. To do so, forces have been deployed by Ethiopia and Eritrea to destroy the economy of Tigray. Factories were burned, farms were destroyed, and hotels were destructed, all in an attempt to stagnate the Tigrayan economy. This strategy has been showing success as global organizations detect the spread of hunger in Tigray. The destruction of the agricultural sect in Tigray will require years to reverse. As a result, hunger is dominating the regions impacted by the conflict. Professor de Waal does not classify the situation in Tigray as a famine yet; however, he asserts that it is rapidly progressing into one.

The main victims of this conflict are the people of Tigray. Everyone residing in Tigray is expected to experience the nutritional impact of this war. If urgent interventions that aim to bring peace and reconstruct the agricultural industry in Tigray do not occur, a famine will ensue. Children are predicted to be the first to endure the unfortunate consequences of this potential famine, such as starvation and death.

Aside from political starvation, rape is being used as a weapon against the women of Tigray. A growing number of morbid cases of rape are being reported by the inhabitants of Tigray. Women who have been brutally raped suffer physiological injuries as well as psychological wounds. Due to shame and health complications, these women become unable to resume their daily activities. Additionally, Professor de Waal reports that due to the fear of being raped, many women are afraid to leave the premises of their homes. This led to the immobilization of females, which ultimately contributes to the dissociation of the economy in Tigray.

Professor de Waal, who affirmed that all famines are man-made stated that this conflict is a well-calculated move by Abiy Ahmed. He continued by saying that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed either planned the conflict or foresaw the trajectory of the dispute and did nothing to help. Professor de Waal also asserted that the culprits are the elite leadership of Ethiopia and that they should be held accountable for their contribution to this humanitarian crisis.

Ethiopia, which once used money from its petroleum reserves to end starvation, is today using the money from the reserve to buy weapons that will be used against its own citizens. These misguided decisions do not only impact Tigray but can potentially affect the entire country. Additionally, the situation in Tigray might replicate in neighboring regions of Eritrea, leading to even more devastating outcomes.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki are using the internet blockade as a tool to conceal their involvement in the conflict and suppress international retaliation. The COVID-19 pandemic has had an adverse effect on the war as it contributed to the diplomatic isolation of Tigray. Diplomatic efforts could have potentially prevented thousands of deaths. However, due to COVID-19 restrictions, diplomats were not able to travel and work on mediating the conflict. Additionally, due to the pandemic, the democratic presidential elections in Ethiopia were postponed, allowing for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to launch and continue his military offensive in Tigray. However, despite their effort to conceal the morbid reality in Tigray, information has managed to escape in the form of oral tales from survivors or videos recorded by both sides of the conflict.

Professor de Waal hopes that his work draws global attention to the war in Tigray. In the long term, he hopes to reap change through his students and those influenced by his work. Furthermore, he hopes that those committed to the cause of human rights would use his reports as a foundation for change.

Professor de Waal has two major upcoming projects, both of which deal with the issue of political starvation and famines. The first is a book called New Pandemic, Old Politics: 200 years of war on disease and its alternatives, which details the history of pandemics in the last two centuries. The second project is another book that is written in collaboration with his colleagues. This book documents starvation crimes and the prosecution of those responsible for them.

To remain updated on the situation of Tigray, you can look out for Professor de Waal’s press releases and articles. Through these outlets, Professor de Waal reports data that has seeped out of the press blockade or was collected through his connections

with some of the high-ranking leadership in the Horn of Africa.

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