Swimming Against the Current of Weaponized Humanitarianism: Politicization of Humanitarian Concerns in Ethiopia’s Tigray Conflict

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Since the onset of the conflict in Tigray on November 3, 2020, Western political elites and media giants like The New York Times, Economist, CNN, and BBC have adamantly expressed buyer’s remorse over the Nobel Peace Prize winner that went to war. No such reaction, however, over the much-petitioned humanitarian-ceasefire-turned-offensive in Tigray that subsequently displaced over 200,000 people in the neighboring Amhara region and over 100,000 in Afar region. After a concerted pressure campaign on Ethiopia’s Federal Government to cease its Law and Order operations in search of two dozen members of the TPLF armed rebel group, the Federal Government succumbed to these pressures, stating that a pause in hostilities will also allow the resumption of agricultural activities in Tigray- Ethiopia’s most food-insecure region. The global media, however, was quick to label the withdrawal of federal troops as a decisive military victory on the part of the TPLF; a true David and Goliath story.
The sudden, yet marked, shift from humanitarian outcries to zero-sum conflict rhetoric is not limited to Western media giants. The United States, and its European counterparts, have stayed largely silent as the TPLF declared its military gains on its march to Addis Ababa. The group’s spokesperson, Getachew Reda, even stated the group’s determination “to go to hell and back to disintegrate Ethiopia.” Even with TPLFs overt war-mongering and thoroughly documented war crimes, the United States and Europe cannot bring themselves to renounce their old regional ally. The United States has, instead, further inflamed ethnic tension by flippantly calling for the return of bitterly contested lands that have caused residents, and the wider Amhara region, to raise up arms.
By advocating for the proverbial “national dialogue” during an election year, pushing for condemnation of Ethiopian forces in the court of public opinion, even the desperate, albeit outrageous, EU envoy’s claims of an unnamed senior government official personally expressing genocidal intention, the US and EU continue to undermine Ethiopians leadership and its institutions so as to impose their own will. With over 38 million people voting in what is widely lauded as Ethiopia’s most democratic election yet, why is the United States reluctant to acknowledge Ethiopia’s relatively successful elections? Why is it, instead, calling for a national-level political dialogue? The US does not acknowledge the success of the elections- nor congratulate the incumbent Abiy- because doing so would undercut its publicly held stance that a transitional government based on “national dialogue” is a better alternative to an elected one.
Though the seemingly symbiotic relationship between the US and EU political interests and the skewed global media coverage of the Tigray conflict merits closer attention, very few of the aforementioned media outlets dare to host or feature Ethiopian voices with legitimate criticisms of the government. They, instead, feature armed rebel leaders such as Jal Merro and Getachew Reda, grossly misrepresenting Ethiopia’s political landscape. With an international chorus calling for an “all-inclusive national dialogue” spearheaded by the US, is it a mere coincidence that reputed media houses give a platform to armed ethnic insurgents and their cause? There seems to be deafening silence from the state and non-state actors who pushed for a humanitarian ceasefire regarding the widely reported child-soldiers of Tigray who were presented as “highly motivated young recruits.”
What is most extraordinary, however, is the parallel realities of unmitigated hunger and destitution in Tigray AND improved relief activities and TPLFs speedy advance to Addis Ababa. The US first broke its silence since the unilateral ceasefire to raise concerns over the treatment of Eritrean refugees by “TPLF allied forces.” However, there is yet to be a thorough condemnation of the TPLF for its escalation of violence, obstruction of aid, and egregious human rights abuses in Tigray, and in neighboring Amhara and Afar regions.
Among the US and TPLF’s shared talking points is the need for a humanitarian corridor, i.e. along the Ethio-Sudanese border. The Ethiopian government, and the wider public, dismisses this demand as an obvious security threat to Ethiopia who has been fighting Sudanese trained and armed ethnic militia in the country’s western-most region of Benishangul-Gumuz. In addition to the national security implications of an Ethio-Sudanese “humanitarian corridor,” the TPLF built its military momentum and ultimately toppled the Derg regime, through arms- smuggling and sales via Sudan propped as relief supply. According to the BBC’s retrospective reporting of the massive humanitarian relief campaign in Northern Ethiopia, Gebremedhin Araya, an ex-senior member of the TPLF elucidates on how he posed as a Sudanese grain merchant in a scheme to buy nearly $100 million worth of weapons. Owing to its past success with a steady inflow of arms from unsuspecting humanitarian pockets and the covert support of the US and UK, the TPLF seems intent on redeploying the same strategy thirty years later.
From the destruction of the historic Tekeze bridge to the blockade of the Afar-Tigray route, humanitarian organizations and global leaders seem less concerned about TPLF’s strategy of obstruction of access roads into Tigray, but rather a Sudanese “corridor” to best facilitate aid. To further blur the lines between political and humanitarian ends, USAID Administrator Samantha Power, taking on Jeffrey Feltman’s role as Envoy to the Horn of Africa, is traveling to Ethiopia “for a fresh diplomatic push by President Joe Biden’s Administration […].” In addition to granting the usual carte-blanche to TPLF escalation, the United States has deemed the Federal Government’s unilateral ceasefire and subsequent withdrawal to be a blockade- i.e. so long as there is no Ethio-Sudan corridor. United States Ambassador to Ethiopia, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, openly placed all blame at the feet of Ethiopia’s Federal Government in her interventionist Security Council plea in early July. From acknowledgment of atrocities, lootings, and killings of aid workers, the US Ambassador is- without a doubt- demanding complete capitulation of Ethiopia’s leadership.
Ethiopian officials, as well as the local media, have recently become vocal about the frequent political attacks, disguised as humanitarian concerns, on the Ethiopian State. Martin Griffiths, the new UN Relief Chief labeled the Ethiopian government’s legitimate concerns of bias in reporting as unconstructive, stating “ they need to be backed up by evidence if there is any and, frankly, it’s dangerous.” The evidence implicating the Ethiopian government’s alleged blockade of aid routes, however, is yet to surface.
One might say: heavier scrutiny should be on the Government of Ethiopia and it should always be held to a higher standard; this would have been a fair criticism. However, the United States, the European Union, and UN high officials are grooming the TPLF as an equal stakeholder and worthy negotiating party- but with none of the accountability. Without a burden of responsibility or accountability mechanisms, the TPLF has used its undue legitimacy from the West to normalize its transgressions: mass executions of government collaborators, recruitment of child soldiers, expansion of conflict zones. It is not the West’s unyielding accusations and undue pressure on the government of Ethiopia that makes its partisanship so evident, it is their blatant disregard for TPLFs crimes- who they insist is a legitimate administrator of Tigray.
Similar to the Ethiopian politicians, the Ethiopian public is convinced of a bias in reporting and blame attribution aimed to weaken national cohesion and collective security. It is neither dangerous nor is it off-limits to decry the disparity in reporting and blame attribution. The US, EU, and UN agency officials should pause their blanket demonization of Ethiopian officials as opposed to addressing the legitimate concerns of Ethiopians. At the very least, these same officials should cease legitimizing the claims of one party over the other’s as “humanitarian concerns.”

Bethlehem is an International Relations expert based in Addis Ababa. Johns Hopkins University SAIS, M.A.