Ethiopia’s Cease-Fire Collapses
After five months of relative calm, Tigray is once again under fire.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.
The highlights this week: Fighting resumes in Ethiopia’s Tigray province after a tenuous five-month cease-fire, Angola’s ruling party ekes out a narrow victory, and French President Emmanuel Macron seeks to salvage ties with Algeria.
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Fighting Resumes in Ethiopia
Fighting resumed last week in northern Ethiopia’s Tigray region, ending a monthslong cease-fire and burying hopes for a peaceful resolution of the country’s civil war.
The conflict began nearly two years ago and has pitted Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s federal government against the region’s rulers, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which Addis Ababa has since designated a terrorist organization. So far, as many as half a million Ethiopians have died, and more than 1.6 million people have been displaced.
“Respect for this truce over the past five months has saved countless lives,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in response to the renewed hostilities, which began last Wednesday. He warned that “a return to active conflict would result in widespread suffering, human rights abuses, and further economic hardships.”
Both the Ethiopian government and the TPLF reported fighting between their forces but denied instigating the fighting—blaming the other party.
The Ethiopian Ministry of Defense said in a statement that its Air Force shot down a plane carrying weapons for Tigrayan rebels from neighboring Sudan on Aug. 24. TPLF spokesperson Getachew Reda wrote in a tweet that the statement was “a blatant lie.”
Hostilities have escalated quickly since then. On Friday, UNICEF condemned an airstrike by the Ethiopian government that the organization said “hit a kindergarten, killing several children, and injuring others” in Mekelle, Tigray’s capital. Local medics say at least seven people were killed. International media cannot verify these numbers because the region remains inaccessible to journalists.
“Yet again, an escalation of violence in northern Ethiopia has caused children to pay the heaviest price,” UNICEF executive director Catherine Russell wrote in a tweet.
Graphic images of wounded children circulated on social media and were broadcast on a Tigrayan TV station. The Ethiopian government subsequently denied targeting the kindergarten, saying the Ethiopian Air Force only targets military sites. It urged residents of Tigray to stay away from military facilities.
Meanwhile, the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) said Tigrayan authorities stole 570,000 liters of fuel from its warehouses in the region last Wednesday, jeopardizing humanitarian operations there. According to the United Nations, supplies of food, medicine, and fuel in Tigray are critically low. The organization says full-blown famine looms in Tigray as East Africa experiences its worst drought in 40 years.
“Millions will starve if we do not have fuel to deliver food,” WFP executive director David Beasley wrote in a tweet condemning the theft. Tigrayan authorities hit back with a statement claiming they had loaned more than 600,000 liters of fuel to the WFP this year.
Security experts had hoped Tigray was finally on a path toward peace when, in January, Abiy’s government released Tigrayan opposition leaders from prison and indicated a willingness to talk with the TPLF. In a statement two weeks ago, Addis Ababa again signaled its intent for peace “and restoration of services to the region.” After fighting began in 2020, the government cut essential services like electricity and banking in Tigray.
In response to the government’s overtures, TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael said his side stood ready to “negotiate in good faith” but that the peace process “envisaged” by African Union mediator and former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo was “set up to fail.”
The TPLF has demanded the federal government restore essential services and humanitarian access to the region before talks begin, whereas the government rejects preconditions. The TPLF has accused Obasanjo of siding with Abiy on this matter.
Last week, Getachew, the TPLF spokesperson, wrote in an op-ed published by the Africa Report that a negotiated cease-fire and political settlement “are nowhere closer to being achieved now than they were at the time of Mr. Obasanjo’s appointment a year ago.” Getachew accused the AU of being “an apologist for a brutal regime seeking to starve and bomb its own people into submission.”
Although the TPLF has appealed to the U.S. government, efforts by the Biden administration to end the conflict have also proved ineffective.
On Aug. 2, the new U.S. special envoy to the Horn of Africa, Mike Hammer, joined his European Union counterpart, Annette Weber, on a one-day visit to Tigray. Both had hoped to facilitate the beginning of talks and called for the “swift restoration” of essential services in Tigray. Ethiopia’s federal security advisor, Redwan Hussein, criticized the envoys for echoing the TPLF’s demands.
William Davison, an analyst with the International Crisis Group, told Foreign Policy that the TPLF’s fuel seizure “unfortunately makes it less likely that the federal government is going to allow … unfettered humanitarian access” to the region.
There is no new foreign actor who can apply any more leverage than has been attempted so far, Davison noted. To temper the TPLF’s rejection of Obasanjo, Davison suggested the AU bring on an additional African mediator. “Realistically, there would have to be a reformulation … with Obasanjo having some role but not necessarily the exclusive lead mediating role,” he said.
“If the federal government was willing to resume services [to Tigray] and if the Tigrayan leadership was willing to meet and discuss their differences at talks convened by the African Union and other African partners, that would help,” he added. But most analysts—Davison included—fear there is little prospect of progress toward reconciliation and peace soon.
The Week Ahead
Monday, Aug. 29, to Friday, Sept. 2: Gabon hosts Africa Climate Week in the run-up to U.N. climate negotiations later this year.
Thursday, Sept. 1, to Friday, Sept. 2: Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa travels to Mozambique for the fifth Portugal-Mozambique summit.
Monday, Sept. 5: The deadline for Kenya’s Supreme Court to issue a ruling on a challenge to the results of the country’s Aug. 9 elections by presidential candidate Raila Odinga expires.
What We’re Watching
Angola’s MPLA wins. In Angola’s election last Wednesday, the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) won 51.17 percent of the vote, securing a second five-year term for incumbent President João Lourenço. The main opposition party, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (or UNITA), garnered 43.95 percent—and won the capital, Luanda—in one of the closest elections in the country’s history. Esperança Maria Eduardo Francisco da Costa, Lourenço’s running mate, will become Angola’s first female vice president.
UNITA has rejected the results, citing a lack of transparency in how they were tallied. As this newsletter covered last week, Lourenço’s administration passed a law in September 2021 to centralize vote-counting rather than adding up tallies from each municipality and province. Experts say the central electoral agency is partisan and controlled by the ruling government.
People under age 30 make up more than two-thirds of Angola’s population and largely wanted a change from the MPLA’s 47-year rule, according to polling. In the last presidential elections, in 2017, the MPLA won 61.07 percent of the vote to UNITA’s 26.67 percent.
Clashes in Libya. Libya’s U.N.-backed government says it has taken control of the capital, Tripoli, after deadly clashes broke out on Saturday between militias backed by the country’s two rival administrations. At least 32 people were killed and more than 159 people were wounded, according to the country’s Ministry of Health.
Libya has been beset by months of political stalemate between the U.N.-backed Government of National Unity in Tripoli and a rival administration under Fathi Bashagha in the country’s east. An attempt by Bashagha to install his government in Tripoli in May previously triggered violence.
French-Algerian ties. On Saturday, French President Emmanuel Macron wrapped up a three-day trip to Algeria aimed at improving fractured relations between the two countries. Macron agreed to allow an additional 8,000 Algerian students to study in France this year—an important policy reversal after Paris’s announcement last September that it would cut the number of visas available to Algerian, Tunisian, and Moroccan nationals.
At the time, Macron justified the visa reduction by claiming the three North African countries were obstructing the return of their nationals who had been expelled from France. He angered Algerians further when he questioned Algeria’s existence as a nation before France’s 132-year occupation and accused its “political-military system” of rewriting history. “Was there an Algerian nation before French colonization? That is the question,” Macron reportedly said. Algiers recalled its ambassador to Paris in response.
On Thursday, Macron and his Algerian counterpart, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, announced the establishment of a joint commission of historians to study French colonization in Algeria.
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, European leaders have sought to renew ties with gas-producing African nations, such as Algeria, as these countries gain strategic importance in light of Western sanctions on Russian energy and Moscow’s restriction of supplies. The French delegation in Algeria included Catherine MacGregor, CEO of French energy firm Engie.
Japan holds summit. More than 30 heads of state gathered in Tunisia’s capital, Tunis, over the weekend for the Tokyo International Conference on African Development. The Japanese government created the triennial event—which seeks to limit China’s clout in Africa—in 1993, but this is only the second time it has been held on the continent. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who appeared via video link after testing positive for COVID-19, pledged $30 billion in development aid across Africa over the next three years.
But the summit triggered a row between Tunisia and Morocco after Tunisian President Kais Saied invited the Polisario Front, which seeks independence for Western Sahara, to participate. Morocco regards the territory as its own and withdrew from the event as a result.
This Week in Tech
Burkinabe pharma industry. Burkina Faso opened the country’s first pharmaceutical production plant this week. The $23 million plant, run by company Propharm, was built and funded by the country’s private sector and will manufacture generic drugs. It will initially produce basic drugs like paracetamol and rehydration salts but aims to eventually move toward drugs to manage malaria.
African countries import around 70 percent of all medicines used on the continent. Burkina Faso alone imported around $249 million worth of pharmaceutical products last year. Prime Minister Albert Ouédraogo said at the plant’s launch event that “during the COVID-19 period, these issues were important and everyone recognized the need to develop local production of medicines.”
Chart of the Week
Wavering support for the MPLA in Angola could be a warning of things to come for other independence movements-turned-political parties in southern Africa.
The MPLA, which fought for Angolan independence from Portuguese rule and agreed to end the country’s civil war in 2002, lost the capital, Luanda, as Angola’s young population demanded a better standard of living and an end to state corruption.
In South Africa, which holds elections in 2024, the African National Congress could also lose its stronghold, KwaZulu-Natal.
What We’re Reading
Rethinking Africa’s demography. In The Republic, Yarri Kamara argues that discussions around African countries’ population growth have been limited by a Western framing that fails to take into account the continent’s unique history and demographic nuances.
“Africa’s most populous country Nigeria has a density of 215 [inhabitants per square kilometer], similar to Germany’s. Niger, one of the few countries with a birth rate close to Macron’s alleged ‘seven to eight’ children per woman has a density of just 18,” Kamara writes, referring to comments Macron made in 2017, when he said Africa’s problems stemmed from women having “seven or eight children.”
Blurring the debate are underlying issues around political power, racialized history, and global consumption, Kamara concludes.
Nosmot Gbadamosi is a multimedia journalist and the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief. She has reported on human rights, the environment, and sustainable development from across the African continent. Twitter: @nosmotg
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