More than 7,000 schools have been damaged as a result of the expanding conflict in Ethiopia, the education minister has said, with 1.42 million students unable to attend classes in the war-torn region of Tigray.
Northern Ethiopia has been wracked by violence since November, when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent troops into Tigray to topple the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the regional ruling party, saying the move came in response to attacks on army camps.
The 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner promised a swift victory, but the war has dragged on for months, triggering a humanitarian crisis in Tigray, while the rebels have pushed into the neighbouring Afar and Amhara regions.
“As a result of #TPLF futile war in northern #Ethiopia in Tigray, Afar and Amhara regions, more than 7,000 schools have been fully (some partially) damaged,” Education Minister Getahun Mekuria said Monday on his official Twitter account.
“More than 1.42M students have been out of school already (in #Tigray) or will be out of school (in Afar, Amhara),” he added, calling the development “very sad”.
There was no immediate response from the TPLF to the claims, which could not be independently verified.
As the conflict has deepened, the humanitarian toll has surged, with aid workers struggling to reach cut-off populations and 400,000 people facing famine-like conditions in Tigray, according to the United Nations.
Last Thursday, the UN’s humanitarian agency OCHA said the flow of aid to Tigray had virtually stopped since August 20, with no trucks able to enter the region.
“Stocks of food assistance are depleted, and new distributions of food have stopped, other than in areas where supplies were already dispatched and en route,” OCHA said in a briefing note.
Since the conflict erupted, Abiy’s government and the Tigrayan rebels have traded blame over the issue, with each side accusing the other of obstructing aid convoys and driving a desperate population into famine.
Earlier this month US aid chief Samantha Power accused Ethiopia of blocking humanitarian access to the region, a claim Abiy’s spokeswoman denied.
According to OCHA, more than 5.2 million people require food supplies in Tigray while over 300,000 people are now estimated to be displaced in Afar and Amhara.
More than 210 people were killed over several days of ethnic violence in Ethiopia’s tense Oromia region last week, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) said Thursday.
The state-affiliated but independent commission said witnesses described gunmen affiliated with the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), a rebel group, arriving on August 18 after security forces withdrew from Gida-Kirimu in the western region.
“The area’s residents and others have told the commission more than 150 people were killed by the gunmen,” the human rights body said.
The attack forced women and children to flee to neighbouring areas, and sparked a wave of revenge killings.
“In subsequent days, some residents carried out ethnic based reprisal attacks, killing more than 60 people” and triggering a further exodus of civilians fleeing the violence, the commission said.
The panel called for “immediate action” to prevent the instability from spreading further and an investigation into why security forces withdrew from the troubled area.
In a statement, the OLA denied responsibility for the attacks.
The OLA was designated a terrorist organisation by lawmakers in May alongside the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), whose rebel forces have been fighting in Ethiopia’s north since November.
The government has accused the OLA of massacring civilians in Oromia, the country’s largest region, and in Amhara, the second largest.
Clashes involving the two ethnic groups killed more than 300 people over several days in March, federal officials said.
The militants have denied allegations of spearheading the grisly massacres.
Believed to number in the low thousands, the OLA broke off from the Oromo Liberation Front, an opposition party that spent years in exile, but was allowed to return to Ethiopia after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office in 2018.
Earlier this month, the OLA and the TPLF announced they had reached an agreement to fight together against Abiy’s forces and his allies.
A spokesman for the OLA said the two groups mutually agreed that Abiy’s “dictatorship” must be removed and that they were sharing intelligence and coordinating on strategy.
The government denounced the pact as a “destructive alliance” between two groups seeking to destabilise the country.
Northern Ethiopia has been wracked by conflict since November when Abiy, the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner, sent troops into Tigray to topple the TPLF.
He said the move came in response to TPLF attacks on federal army camps and victory would be swift.
But nine months later, the conflict has spread into the neighbouring regions of Afar and Amhara, and drawn in forces from across Ethiopia.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed issued a call Tuesday for all eligible civilians to join the armed forces as fighting rages in multiple regions of Africa’s second most populous nation.
“Now is the right time for all capable Ethiopians who are of age to join the Defense Forces, Special Forces and militias and show your patriotism,” Abiy’s office said in a statement released less than two months after he declared a unilateral ceasefire in the war against Tigrayan rebels.
Northern Ethiopia has been wracked by violence since November after Abiy, the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner, sent troops into Tigray to topple its regional ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), vowing a swift victory.
But nine months later, the TPLF has made advances into the neighbouring Afar and Amhara regions, while aid workers struggle to reach cut-off populations, with 400,000 people facing famine-like conditions in Tigray, according to the UN.
On Tuesday, the government’s patience appeared to have run out, with Abiy ordering security forces “to halt the destruction of the treasonous and terrorist TPLF organisation and the machinations of foreign hands once and for all”.
Those unable to enlist could contribute in other ways, including “providing supplies and moral support for the army”, the statement said.
“Every Ethiopian must work closely with the security forces in being the eyes and ears of the country in order to track down and expose spies and agents of the terrorist TPLF.”
Civilians shot, killed
As the fighting drags on, the humanitarian toll has spiked, with thousands killed and at least two million others forced to flee.
Both sides are trading blame for civilian casualties.
A medical official in Afar told AFP Tuesday that 12 people were killed and dozens wounded in an attack on displaced civilians.
The incident occurred on August 5 in Galicoma town, said Dr Abubeker Mahammud, medical director of the Dubti Referral Hospital, where victims were being treated.
“Twelve dead bodies arrived at the hospital,” Abubeker said.
He said almost 50 people were injured, nearly 75 percent with bullet wounds.
Survivors told hospital officials they had been shot by TPLF fighters, he added.
Two officials with Afar’s regional government put the death toll in Galicoma at more than 200, but the figure could not be independently verified.
Ayish Yasin, head of Afar’s bureau for women and children, told AFP that “out of the 200 bodies recovered, 107 are children — 48 girls and 59 boys”.
The head of the UN children’s agency UNICEF, Henrietta Fore, said Monday she was “extremely alarmed by the reported killings of over 200 people, including more than 100 children, in attacks on displaced families” in Afar.
A UNICEF spokesman said Tuesday said it had received “credible information from partners” about the attacks and that various UN agencies were planning to assess the site “as soon as security permits”.
Ethiopian officials have seized on the Galicoma deaths as proof of the TPLF’s disregard for the worsening humanitarian situation in Tigray.
But TPLF spokesman Getachew Reda said on Twitter Monday that government troops “launched an offensive on August 5 against our forces in Galicoma”.
He said the TPLF would “investigate any incident that may have occurred”.
Aid agencies have warned of dire days ahead as humanitarian access remains hamstrung by security woes.
On Tuesday the UN refugee agency UNHCR said it had regained access to two Eritrean refugee camps in Tigray for the first time since July 13.
Although aid deliveries resumed on August 5, UNHCR spokesman Boris Cheshirkov told reporters in Geneva that access to the camps, which house 23,000 people, remains “limited by a complex and fluid security situation”.
“Basic services such as healthcare remain unavailable, and clean drinking water is running out.”
Abiy, who has claimed his November offensive came in response to TPLF attacks on federal army camps, has accused the rebels of seeking to destroy Ethiopia.
The TPLF has repeatedly said it does not intend to hold territory in Amhara and Afar and instead wants to facilitate aid access and prevent pro-government forces from regrouping.
Rebels from Ethiopia’s war-hit Tigray region on Thursday seized Lalibela, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the neighbouring Amhara region famed for its 12th-century rock-hewn churches, residents told AFP.
The development came as a senior Amhara official told AFP the rebels, known as the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), were pushing “deep” into Amhara territory and hinted at possible retaliation.
“I believe now, enough is enough. Because the TPLF is no more in Tigray. TPLF is moving deep into Amhara territories,” said Amhara deputy president Fanta Mandefro.
“We need to defend our people,” he added.
The TPLF’s weeks-long push beyond Tigray has drawn criticism from world leaders and, according to Ethiopian officials, displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians.
Tigray has been wracked by fighting since last November, when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent troops to topple the TPLF, the regional ruling party which dominated national politics before Abiy took office in 2018.
Abiy, winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, said the move came in response to TPLF attacks on army camps.
But while Abiy promised victory would be swift, the war took a stunning turn in June when pro-TPLF forces retook the Tigray capital Mekele and the Ethiopian army largely withdrew.
Since then the TPLF has pressed east into neighbouring Afar and south into neighbouring Amhara, where Lalibela is located.
Soldiers and militia fighters have mobilised en masse in parts of Amhara to head off the rebels’ advance, but multiple residents of Lalibela told AFP Thursday that the town fell without a fight.
“They came in the afternoon, and there was not any fighting. There were no security forces around. The TPLF forces are in the town now,” one resident said.
“The TPLF just arrived in the afternoon. They were dancing and playing in the square of the city,” another resident said.
“Most of the people are leaving the town to the remote areas,” a third resident said, adding that he was hiding in his home with his family.
The United States urged the rebels to protect the heritage site with State Department spokesman Ned Price also renewing calls for an end to the violence.
The TPLF’s push into the neighbouring regions has elicited global criticism, with the UN additionally reiterating calls for all parties to end hostilities.
Billene Seyoum, Abiy’s spokeswoman, told a press conference Thursday that more than 300,000 people had been displaced by recent fighting in Amhara and Afar.
Abiy’s government has long accused foreign, especially Western leaders of overlooking crimes committed by the TPLF, and Billene said Thursday the TPLF “continues to play” some foreign observers “like a ventriloquist.”
“I hope that the international community at this juncture will begin to wake up and see this organisation for what it is: a terrorist organisation that has hijacked the wellbeing of the people of Tigray as a means for its vicious goals,” she said.
Officials did not immediately confirm Thursday that Lalibela was under TPLF control.
Fanta, the Amhara deputy president, said late Thursday he did not have information on the latest troop movements.
He said the region was struggling to accommodate more than 200,000 newly displaced civilians, some of whom have been forced to move multiple times to avoid combat.
“The situation is very sad, pregnant women are delivering in the rain. Babies are born in the rain showers,” he said.
“It’s beyond imagination to describe the current situation the displaced people are living in. It’s the rainy season, the conflict is continuing, it’s nonstop… The government is trying to defend and to stop TPLF but it is very difficult.”
Regional spokesman Gizachew Muluneh said some civilians had been killed, though he did not give a figure.
The Amhara town of Kobo, located roughly 100 kilometres (60 miles) east of Lalibela, is also under TPLF control after days of heavy fighting, an Amhara militia fighter told AFP this week.
“The war was accompanied by heavy artillery. We were armed with Kalashnikovs but they were launching mortars and using snipers,” said the militia fighter, Eskindir Molla, who has since retreated south to the town of Woldiya.
“The TPLF opened fire on four fronts, and we fought for five days,” he added.
“The people who are still there [in Kobo] are begging us to go back to save them. They are currently in a desperate condition.”
The TPLF has said it does not intend to expand territorial gains beyond Tigray and is instead trying to “degrade” the soldiers and militia fighters deploying north.
However it has vowed to “liberate” southern and western Tigray, parts of the region that were occupied by Amhara forces and officials in the early stages of the war.
World leaders, meanwhile, are urging the TPLF to commit to a ceasefire to facilitate aid delivery in Tigray, where the UN estimates fighting has pushed 400,000 people into famine-like conditions.
A convoy bearing food for Ethiopia’s war-hit Tigray came under attack at the weekend, the United Nations said Monday, dealing a further blow to aid distribution in a region threatened with famine.
The 10-vehicle World Food Programme convoy was attacked on Sunday about 115 kilometres (70 miles) from the town of Semera “while attempting to move essential humanitarian cargo into Tigray region”, WFP said in a statement.
The agency said it was working with local officials to determine who was behind the incident.
“WFP has suspended movement of all convoys from Semera until the security of the area can be assured and the drivers can proceed safely.”
Semera is the capital of Afar region, which borders Tigray to the east.
The route via Semera into Tigray had become critical for aid delivery in recent weeks after two key bridges along other routes were destroyed in late June.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent troops into Tigray last November to detain and disarm leaders of the region’s then-ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
He said the move came in response to TPLF attacks on federal army camps.
– Fighting spreads –
The 2019 Nobel Peace laureate declared victory in late November after government forces took the Tigray capital Mekele, but TPLF leaders remained on the run and fighting continued.
Last month the war took a stunning turn when pro-TPLF forces retook Mekele, Abiy declared a unilateral ceasefire and the army mostly pulled out of Tigray.
But after rebel leaders launched a new offensive intended to regain control of western and southern Tigray — contested areas that have been occupied by fighters from Amhara region, which borders Tigray to the south — Abiy vowed to “repel” them.
Officials from six regions and the city of Dire Dawa have since vowed to send troops to back up government forces.
At the weekend rebel forces carried out what a spokesman described as a “very limited action” in Afar targeting special forces and militia fighters from Oromia region, the country’s largest.
A state media report published Saturday night accused the TPLF, which the government deems a terrorist organisation, of blocking aid into Tigray via Afar using “heavy shelling” and “heavy artillery.”
But rebel spokesman Getachew Reda denied any aid delivery had been disrupted, saying the fighting was not near any aid routes.
A senior UN official told the UN Security Council this month that the Tigray conflict had pushed 400,000 people into famine and that another 1.8 million people are on the brink of famine.
Ethiopia said Monday it had attained its second-year target for filling a mega-dam on the Blue Nile River that has stoked tensions with downstream countries Egypt and Sudan.
“The first filling already was done last year. The second one is already done today. So today or tomorrow, second filling will be announced,” an official told AFP, adding there is now enough water stored to begin producing energy.
Water Minister Seleshi Bekele later confirmed the milestone, which officials had earlier predicted would come in August.
In a post on Twitter, he attributed the accelerated timeline to “extreme rainfall” in the Blue Nile basin.
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) has been at the centre of a regional dispute ever since Ethiopia broke ground on the project in 2011.
Egypt and Sudan view the dam as a threat because of their dependence on Nile waters, while Ethiopia deems it essential for its electrification and development.
Talks held under the auspices of the African Union (AU) have failed to yield a three-way agreement on the dam’s filling and operations, and Cairo and Khartoum have demanded Addis Ababa cease filling the massive reservoir until such a deal is reached.
But Ethiopian officials have argued that filling is a natural part of the dam’s construction process and cannot be stopped.
The UN Security Council met earlier this month to discuss the project, although Ethiopia later slammed the session as an “unhelpful” distraction from the AU-led process.
Egypt claims a historic right to the Nile dating from a 1929 treaty that gave it veto power over construction projects along the river.
A 1959 treaty boosted Egypt’s allocation to around 66 percent of the river’s flow, with 22 percent for Sudan.
Yet Ethiopia was not party to those treaties and does not see them as valid.
In 2010 Nile basin countries, excluding Egypt and Sudan, signed another deal, the Cooperative Framework Agreement, that allows projects on the river without Cairo’s agreement.
The Nile’s main tributaries, the Blue Nile and White Nile, converge in Khartoum before flowing north through Egypt to drain into the Mediterranean Sea.
The process of filling the GERD’s reservoir began last year, with Ethiopia announcing in July 2020 it had hit its target of 4.9 billion cubic metres.
The goal for this year’s rainy season — which had been announced before the first cycle was completed — was to add 13.5 billion cubic metres. The reservoir’s capacity is 74 billion.
With the second-year target hit, the dam can run the first two of its 13 turbines, Seleshi said Monday on Twitter.
“Intensive efforts are being made for the two turbines to generate energy,” Seleshi said, adding that “early generation” could be realised “in the next few months.”
The $4.2-billion dam is ultimately expected to produce more than 5,000 megawatts of electricity, making it Africa’s biggest hydroelectric dam and more than doubling Ethiopia’s electricity output.
Ethiopia had initially planned output of around 6,500 megawatts but later reduced its target.
The first two turbines should produce 750 megawatts of electricity, increasing national output by roughly 20 percent, said Addisu Lashitew of the Brookings Institution in Washington.
It is “a significant amount” for an economy that frequently faces power shortages and is sometimes hobbled by power rationing, he said.
The milestone would also have “political implications” for a country going through “a very difficult time” in no small part because of the eight-month-old war in its northern Tigray region, Addisu said.
“The dam is seen as a national symbol, a unifying symbol. It’s one of the very few things that bring together people from all walks of life in Ethiopia,” he said.
“Definitely the government will try to extract some political value from the second filling.”
Rebels in Ethiopia’s war-torn northern region of Tigray have launched a new offensive, two weeks after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government declared a unilateral ceasefire in the eight-month-old conflict.
Here is a timeline of the fighting in Africa’s second-most populous country.
– Troops enter – Fighting begins on November 4, 2020 when Abiy orders a military response to what he calls a “traitorous” attack on federal army camps in Tigray.
He blames it on the regional ruling Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which dominated Ethiopian national politics for nearly three decades before Abiy took office in 2018.
The TPLF denies responsibility and says the reported attack is a pretext for an “invasion”.
Two days later, with fighting intensifying, Abiy sacks the head of the military, whose top brass includes many battle-hardened Tigrayans.
On November 9 Ethiopia carries out more air strikes in Tigray with Abiy saying the operation will be over “soon”.
Tens of thousands of refugees flee to neighbouring Sudan as the African Union follows the United Nations in demanding an end to the fighting.
– ‘War crimes’ – After 10 days of fighting, the UN warns of possible war crimes in Tigray.
Neighbouring Eritrea — with which Abiy signed a peace deal in 2018 that helped him win the Nobel Peace Prize — sends troops into Tigray to help Abiy, although their presence is denied by Addis Ababa.
– Capital falls – Two weeks later, having rejected peace talks, Abiy says government tanks are advancing on Tigray’s capital Mekele.
The city comes under heavy shelling on November 28 before Abiy announces military operations in Tigray are “completed”.
– ‘Ethnic cleansing’ – In February 2021 Amnesty International says Eritrean soldiers killed “hundreds of civilians” in November in the holy city of Axum.
The following month AFP documents another massacre by the troops in Dengolat.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken later urges Eritrea to withdraw and describes violence in western Tigray as “ethnic cleansing”.
– Atrocities admitted – For months Ethiopia and Eritrea flatly deny the involvement of Eritrean forces in the conflict.
But on March 23 Abiy admits Eritrean troops had crossed into Tigray. He also suggests they may have been involved in atrocities.
The next day the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission says Eritrean soldiers massacred more than 100 civilians in Axum.
– Withdrawal? – Abiy flies to Asmara to meet President Isaias Afwerki and says Eritrea has agreed to pull its forces out.
About a week later Ethiopia says Eritrean troops have “started to evacuate” Tigray, but on April 15 the UN says there is no evidence of withdrawal.
– 4 million face food crisis – As international outrage mounts, AFP obtains government documents showing that Eritrean troops are looting and blocking food aid.
US President Joe Biden in late May calls for a ceasefire and says rights abuses “must end”.
In June the World Food Programme says four million people face a food crisis in Tigray, including 350,000 risking famine.
– UN ‘deeply disturbed’ – The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet says on June 21 she is “deeply disturbed” by reports of “serious violations” in Tigray and that she has “credible reports” Eritrean soldiers are still operating in the region.
Elections are held across much of Ethiopia that day but not in Tigray.
– Deadly market air strike – At least 64 people are killed and 180 injured in an Ethiopian air strike on a market in Togoga on June 22, according to a local health officer.
The attack was aimed at rebel fighters, Ethiopia’s military insists.
The UN calls for an urgent investigation.
Medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres says on June 25 that one Spanish and two Ethiopian employees have been murdered in Tigray.
– Rebel advance, govt ceasefire – Tigray’s interim government flees on June 28 in the face of a rebel advance on Mekele, signalling a turning point in the conflict.
The federal government announces a “unilateral ceasefire”. The rebels accept it “in principle” while vowing to fight on if strict conditions are not met.
– New assault – Tigrayan forces say on July 13 they have pushed south and recaptured the town of Alamata, staging similar offensives in western Tigray.
The attacks come barely two days after election results showed Abiy’s party had won in a landmark parliamentary poll, guaranteeing him a new five-year term.
Ethiopia’s ruling party has won a landslide in a landmark parliamentary poll, results showed Saturday, ensuring a new five-year term for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed despite a brutal war in the northern region of Tigray.
Abiy hailed the outcome of what he described as a “historic” election — the first time he faced voters since being appointed prime minister in 2018 following several years of anti-government protests.
The winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize had hoped to frame victory at the ballot box as a mandate for political and economic reforms and military operations.
But the poll was held in the midst of the gruelling conflict in Tigray region that has battered Abiy’s global reputation and raised fears of widespread famine.
His Prosperity Party won more than 400 seats out of a total of 436 where elections were held, according to results issued by the National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE).
In a statement posted on Twitter, Abiy described it as a historically inclusive election, adding: “Our party is also happy that it has been chosen by the will of the people to administer the country.”
The vote was meant to affirm a promised democratic revival in Africa’s second-most populous nation, with Abiy vowing a clean break with repression that tarnished past electoral cycles.
The ruling coalition that preceded him claimed staggering majorities in 2015 and 2010 polls that observers said fell far short of international standards for fairness.
A more open contest in 2005 saw big opposition gains but led to a lethal crackdown on protests over contested results.
Twice delayed polls
This time, the polls were delayed twice — once for the coronavirus pandemic, and again to allow officials longer to prepare.
But even with the extra time voting did not go ahead in around one-fifth of the country’s 547 constituencies. A second batch of voting is due to take place on September 6 in many of those left out because of ethnic violence or logistical problems.
But there is no election date set for Tigray, where fighting marked by myriad atrocities raged for eight months before federal troops withdrew at the end of June in the face of rebel advances and Abiy’s government declared a unilateral ceasefire.
The announcement of final results was also later than expected because of delayed counts and complaints by political parties.
The situation remains precarious in Tigray, with analysts warning of potential further fighting and some world leaders denouncing a “siege” blocking desperately-needed aid for a region where hundreds of thousands face famine.
The World Food Programme said Saturday it was sending 50 trucks of aid into Tigray. It was not clear if it had arrived.
Campaigning was muted even in some areas where voting did take place, with opposition parties complaining of a tilted playing field.
In Abiy’s native Oromia region, Ethiopia’s largest, two of the most prominent opposition parties — the Oromo Federalist Congress and the Oromo Liberation Front — pulled out entirely, saying their candidates had been arrested and offices vandalised.
The most competitive regions were Amhara, the country’s second-largest, and the capital Addis Ababa.
Election day saw “no serious or widespread human rights violations” in stations observed by the state-affiliated Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC).
Yet in a preliminary report the EHRC noted some constituencies experienced “improper arrests”, voter intimidation and “harassment” of observers and journalists.
The EHRC also said it had observed several killings in the days leading up the vote in Oromia.
‘Deep political cleavages’
The opposition National Movement for Amhara filed a complaint to the electoral board over “serious problems” during the vote.
“A lot of our observers were beaten and chased down by militias of the ruling party,” senior party member Dessalegn Chanie told AFP.
The official results showed opposition parties and independent candidates winning a small number of seats.
Even low opposition representation in parliament could fend off future instability, said Addisu Lashitew of the Brookings Institution in Washington.
“People, especially the youth, they need to be heard, so they should have a voice in the political process,” Addisu said. “Even if it may not be always successful in influencing political decisions, the fact that they are heard itself is important.”
Incorporating opposition voices into formal political processes means they are less likely to become “radicalised” or spur a large-scale protest movement, he added.
The Prosperity Party “shouldn’t read too much” into the results given the “deep political cleavages” that remain, Tegbaru Yared, a researcher with the Institute for Security Studies, wrote this week.
Instead the party “should focus on stabilising the country, stopping intercommunal conflicts, managing inflation, engaging the opposition and initiating an all-inclusive national dialogue,” Tegbaru wrote. “This could earn it popular legitimacy.”
Ethiopia says it has started the next phase of filling a controversial mega-dam on the Nile River, Egyptian authorities said Monday, raising tensions ahead of an upcoming UN Security Council on the issue.
Egypt said the move was “a violation of international laws and norms that regulate projects built on the shared basins of international rivers,” and had expressed its “firm rejection of this unilateral measure”, its irrigation ministry said in a statement late Monday.
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which is set to be Africa’s largest hydroelectric project when completed, is the source of an almost decade-long diplomatic stand-off between Addis Ababa and downstream nations Egypt and Sudan.
Ethiopia says the project is essential to its development, but Cairo and Khartoum fear it could restrict their citizens’ water access.
Both countries have been pushing Addis Ababa to ink a binding deal over the filling and operation of the dam, and have been urging the UN Security Council to take the matter up in recent weeks.
Thursday’s meeting was requested by Tunisia on Egypt and Sudan’s behalf, a diplomatic source told AFP.
But France’s ambassador to the UN said last week that the council itself can do little apart from bringing the sides together.
Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said in one note to the UN that negotiations are at an impasse, and accused Ethiopia of adopting “a policy of intransigence that undermined our collective endeavors to reach an agreement.”
Addis Ababa had previously announced it would proceed to the second stage of filling in July, with or without a deal.
– ‘Existential threat’ – The Nile — which at some 3,700 miles (6,000 kilometres) is one of the longest rivers in the world — is an essential source of water and electricity for dozens of countries in East Africa.
Egypt, which depends on the Nile for about 97 percent of its irrigation and drinking water, sees the dam as an existential threat.
Sudan hopes the project will regulate annual flooding but fears its dams would be harmed without agreement on the Ethiopian operation.
The 145-metre (475-foot) mega-dam, on which construction began in 2011, has a capacity of 74 billion cubic metres.
Filling began last year, with Ethiopia announcing in July 2020 it had hit its target of 4.9 billion cubic metres — enough to test the dam’s first two turbines, an important milestone on the way towards actually producing energy.
The goal is to impound an additional 13.5 billion cubic metres this year.
Egypt and Sudan wanted a trilateral agreement on the dam’s operations to be reached before any filling began.
But Ethiopia says it is a natural part of the construction, and is thus impossible to postpone.
Last year Sudan said the process caused water shortages, including in the capital Khartoum, a claim Ethiopia disputed.
Sudan’s water minister Yasser Abbas warned in April that if Ethiopia went ahead with the second stage filling, Sudan “would file lawsuits against the Italian company constructing the dam and the Ethiopian government”.
He said the lawsuits would highlight that the “environmental and social impact, as well as the dangers of the dam”, have not been taken into adequate consideration.
Rebel fighters in Ethiopia’s war-hit Tigray stunned the world this week by retaking the regional capital Mekele, sparking boastful statements by their leaders and rowdy street celebrations by their supporters.
It came exactly seven months after those same fighters were driven out by the army of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, a Nobel Peace Prize winner who now finds himself mired in an ugly war.
Abiy’s government has since announced a unilateral ceasefire, while the rebels have gone on to seize most of Tigray, the northernmost region of Ethiopia.
As the UN Security Council is expected to hold its first public meeting on Friday on the conflict, world leaders are mulling what comes next — and whether worst-case humanitarian scenarios can be avoided.
– How the tide turned – Abiy sent troops into Tigray last November, saying the move came in response to attacks on federal army camps by the region’s ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
In the first weeks of fighting the army encountered little resistance as it entered towns and cities including Mekele, prompting Abiy to declare victory before the month was over.
Yet federal forces never fully achieved the operation’s stated goals: detaining and disarming the TPLF’s leaders.
The Tigrayan forces managed to regroup, drawing from deep support among the population to mount an effective insurgency — something Abiy himself acknowledged in a speech Tuesday.
“When the army passed through a village without witnessing any movement of the enemy, many people suddenly came from behind and attacked and massacred the army using Kalashnikovs or even machetes,” Abiy said.
The rebels — having rebranded themselves the Tigray Defence Forces (TDF) — launched a major counter-offensive last month that coincided with national elections expected to deliver Abiy a new term.
The blitz — named Operation Alula after a 19th-century Tigrayan general — yielded dramatic gains within days.
– Clashing narratives – The TDF has unsurprisingly touted the events of recent days as evidence of its battlefield superiority.
This week, though, Abiy and other top officials tried to downplay the significance of the army’s pullback.
Abiy said Mekele had “lost its centre of gravity” and was no longer worth holding.
Redwan Hussein, spokesman for an Ethiopian government task force on the conflict, said the rebels were “no longer an existential threat to the wellbeing of the nation” and insisted Ethiopia needed to focus on other security challenges.
Such statements smack of “face-saving justifications”, said William Davison, senior analyst for the International Crisis Group.
“The war was undoubtedly burdensome for the federal government. Yes, they do have other things that they would like to focus on. But I think that the withdrawal comes from a position of weakness,” he said.
At the same time, he added, the TDF has likely “exaggerated” the damage it has inflicted on federal forces.
– Future flashpoints – Throughout the eight-month conflict, Abiy has leaned on firepower from neighbouring Eritrea, which borders Tigray to the north, and Ethiopia’s Amhara region to the south.
So far, Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki’s government has yet to comment on Ethiopia’s ceasefire announcement.
The Eritreans have been involved in some of the conflict’s most gruesome massacres, and the United States and the European Union have repeatedly insisted they must leave.
Redwan said this week they already had, and the UN’s humanitarian coordination office reported Thursday that they had largely “retreated from Tigray” back towards the Ethiopia-Eritrea border.
TDF spokesman Getachew Reda this week called the federal government’s ceasefire declaration “a joke”, telling AFP that rebel fighters were prepared to chase the Eritreans all the way back to Asmara in order “to secure Tigray,” though it is unclear whether that is their top priority.
Instead, at least in the immediate term, they might focus on Amhara forces who have annexed parts of western and southern Tigray and who have shown no sign of leaving.
“It seems very unlikely that the Tigray Defence Forces is going to embrace any region-wide ceasefire whilst that presence continues,” Davison said.
– Aid woes – As further conflict looms, the international community is increasingly preoccupied with the dire humanitarian situation in Tigray.
The United States estimates 900,000 civilians are “likely already experiencing famine conditions”.
On Thursday, the UN and aid groups confirmed the destruction of a critical bridge allowing aid into Tigray, intensifying fears about a possible “blockade”.
The UN said the bridge was “reportedly” blown up by Amhara special forces, but the government on Friday blamed Tigrayan forces.
Officials in Addis Ababa have long stressed their willingness to allow aid into Tigray and provide aid themselves.
They say the ceasefire declaration was partly motivated by a desire to facilitate farming.
But with electricity and telecommunications cut off, flights suspended and most roads into the region now impassable, UN officials and diplomats fear the situation could deteriorate further.
“A ceasefire doesn’t mean cutting a region off power or destroying critical infrastructure,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said on Twitter Friday.
“A credible ceasefire means doing everything possible so that aid reaches the millions of children, women and men who urgently need it.”
Ethiopia called Thursday on rebel forces in the war-hit Tigray region to adhere to a unilateral ceasefire it declared earlier this week, amid doubts about whether fighting would actually stop.
“The cessation of hostilities was taken unilaterally from our side. However, to implement this ceasefire fully, it needs two to tango,” foreign ministry spokesman Dina Mufti told a press conference.
“The other side has to react to enact (the ceasefire) appropriately.”
Monday’s ceasefire announcement by the federal government came after soldiers pulled out of Tigray’s capital Mekele, allowing troops from the Tigray Defence Forces (TDF) rebel group to move in.
TDF spokesman Getachew Reda has described the ceasefire as a “joke”.
He told AFP on Tuesday that the TDF was committed to driving all Ethiopian soldiers and their allies — notably troops from neighbouring Eritrea and from Ethiopia’s Amhara region — out of Tigray.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, sent troops into Tigray last November to oust the northern region’s former ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
He said the move came in response to TPLF attacks on federal army camps.
His forces managed to take Mekele in less than a month, prompting Abiy to declare victory.
But after months of regrouping, the rebels — having rebranded themselves the TDF — launched a major counter-offensive last month that allowed them to retake Mekele.
It was a dramatic reversal for Abiy, though the prime minister and other top officials have tried to play down its significance, and warned that they could seize control of the city again whenever they wanted.
The foreign ministry spokesman on Thursday disputed that the fall of Mekele to the TDF represented a military defeat.
He said the two main objectives of what Addis Ababa has long termed a “law enforcement operation” in Tigray had been achieved: freeing federal soldiers detained by the TDF and weakening the rebels’ military capabilities.
Analysts and diplomats, however, say the TDF now appears to control most of Tigray and has benefited from a deep well of popular support within the region.
The conflict has already left thousands of people dead and pushed hundreds of thousands to the brink of famine.
Ethiopian soldiers destroyed UNICEF satellite equipment in war-torn Tigray on Monday, the UN agency said in a statement condemning the attack.
“Members of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces entered our office in Mekele, Tigray, Ethiopia today and dismantled our VSAT equipment,” the United Nations Children’s Fund said in a statement, referring to satellite machinery.
“UNICEF’s priority in Tigray, and across Ethiopia, is to help the most vulnerable children, including the 140,000 children already facing famine-like conditions. We are not, and should never be, a target,” the statement added.
A spokesman for the UN secretary-general Stephane Dujarric condemned “any and all attacks on humanitarian workers and assets” during a daily press conference.
“All parties must ensure the protection of civilians and all humanitarian assistance provided by the United Nations.”
UNICEF warned earlier this month that tens of thousands of malnourished children were at risk of dying in the Tigray region, which has been mired in conflict between federal troops and the regional ruling Tigray People’s Liberation Front since last November.
Intense fighting has persisted throughout the region, with mounting reports of massacres and widespread sexual violence.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government announced a unilateral ceasefire Monday, state media reported, signaling a potential turning point.
Ethiopian authorities deny the humanitarian situation in the northern region is as dire as aid agencies say, even as the UN cautions some 350,000 have been pushed to the brink of famine.