Ethiopia’s Tigray, a New Biafra?
President and Representative to the UNGeneva, Association of World Citizens
On 4 March 2021, at the United Nations, Mark Lowcock, the U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, warned that a campaign of destruction is taking place in Ethiopia's Tigray province, saying that nearly five million of the six million population of the province needed food assistance. For the first time, a high U.N. official highlighted the role of the Eritrean Defense Forces, fighting alongside the Ethiopian central government's forces, in committing crimes of war. He indicated that as the Tigray fighting enters its fourth month, there are “multiple credible and widely corroborated reports from Tigray of widespread atrocities, involving mass killings, rapes, and the abductions of civilians.”
The fighting in Tigray began at the time of the harvest of agricultural production. Much of the harvest has been destroyed as well as farm markets. Thus, there is wide-spread hunger. The question which we must ask is if famine is a consequence of the fighting or a deliberate policy to starve the Tigray resistance - starvation as an arm of war. The famine situation in Tigray today brings to mind the Nigeria-Biafra war of 1967-1970.
During the Biafra war, I was a member of a working group of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva. The armed conflict was the first in Africa in which only an African State was involved, no colonial party used to the European laws of war. The International Committee of the Red Cross faced a new socio-cultural context in which to try for the respect of humanitarian law.
We find many of the same elements in the lead up to the fighting in Tigray: a change in power in the central government, an effort of the new administration to centralize the administration, demands for autonomy or independence based on ethnic criteria, a flow of refugees toward other provinces of the country, the influence of neighboring or other States in the conflict. The Nigeria-Biafra war dragged on for 30 months and at least one million lives were taken.
Blocking food aid to Biafra became a deliberate policy. Starvation became not a consequence of war but an arm of war. The policy of starvation is remembered and still colors politics in Nigeria
The fighting in Tigray becomes more complex by the day, as Ethiopian Defense Forces, Eritrean Defense Forces, ethnic militias from the Amhara region face Tigrayan forces. There is a buildup of Sudanese government forces on the Ethiopian-Sudan border, and there are growing ethnic conflicts in the Benishangul-Gumuz region, as Tigrayans flee into Sudan. Reporting on the war is very limited. Communications are deliberately cut, and journalists unwelcome and under heavy government pressure. Starvation as a government war policy is denied. One would not expect otherwise. However, we know little of the military planning of the central Ethiopian government. For the moment, all efforts for mediation proposed by the United Nations or the Organization of African Unity have been refused by the Ethiopian central government, and the former officials of the Tigray province have fled. For the moment, we on the outside can only watch. We need to do more to uphold human dignity.
 See Ifi Amadiume and Abdullah An-Na'im (Eds), The Politics of Memory: Truth, Healing and Social Justice, Zed Books, London, 2000, 207 pp.