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Inside the conflict bringing Ethiopia to crisis

Ethiopia is confronting what the United Nations calls a “full-scale humanitarian crisis.” The federal government has been fighting a war with the government of the Tigray region in the country’s north. It’s unclear how many people have died, and the conflict has also exacerbated longstanding hunger issues. Special correspondent Coletta Wanjohi joins Nick Schifrin to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Ethiopia is confronting what the U.N. calls a full-scale humanitarian crisis.

    The federal government, based in the capital, has been fighting a war with the Tigray regional government in the north. It's unclear how many people have died, and the conflict has exacerbated hunger.

    Nick Schifrin is back with this report.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Judy, the State Department today called for both sides of the conflict to de-escalate from what the international community fears could become a full-blown civil war.

    The most recent conflict began after Ethiopia's Nobel Prize-winning prime minister sidelined Tigray's powerful regional leaders. But both sides have considered each other legitimate for decades.

    We turn now to special correspondent Coletta Wanjohi.

    Coletta, you have been out reporting. What are you seeing?

  • Coletta Wanjohi:

    Well, the military offensive from the federal government forces against the regional forces in the north continues from 4th of November.

    Internet is down, and so there is a lot that we do not know. But what we are sure about is the influx of refugees into Sudan, approximately an average of about 4,000, it appears, fleeing into Sudan, seeking refuge because they're running away from the conflict.

    Thousands of refugees each day for the last two weeks crossing by foot from the northern Ethiopia region called Tigray into neighboring Sudan, they're trying to escape airstrikes and fighting between the Ethiopian army and the Tigray People's Liberation Front, known as TPLF.

    Long-simmering political tensions between the prime minister, Abiy, and the TPLF, the former ruling party, with each accusing the other of illegitimacy, finally boiled over on November 4. After Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed accused the TPLF of attacking a federal army base, he launched a military offensive, declared a state of emergency, and cut off communications with the Tigray region.

  • Abiy Ahmed:

    The federal government is compelled to undertake a law enforcement operation to defend and protect the constitutional order and uphold the rule of law.

  • Coletta Wanjohi:

    Abel Wabela knows about those ethnic tensions firsthand. In 2014, when the TPLF was part of the ruling coalition of the country, he was part of a group of bloggers that questioned their governance, which faced local and international accusations of human rights violations.

    In response, the government accused them of terrorism. Wabela spent 84 days in the Maekelawi detention center, where many political prisoners were held in the 27 years before Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed assumed power in 2018 and shut it down.

  • Abel Wabela:

    I was very hopeful. I was talking about how he is going to build a good justice system and also he's going to abolish this segregational and ethnic federalism system.

    But, rather than making honest reforms, he preferred to keep some part of the remnants of the previous administration.

  • Coletta Wanjohi:

    But there is significant support for the military offensive, particularly amongst its veterans, who fought in the war between Ethiopia and neighboring Eritrea in 1998.

    Lema Jibili lost his limbs in that war.

  • Lema Jibili (through translator):

    I wish victory for the Ethiopia defense forces. They should defeat this junta group in the north. They should be chased away from this land of Ethiopia.

  • Coletta Wanjohi:

    Prime Minister Abiy won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for reaching long-awaited peace with Eritrea. But now the United Nations is leading international calls for an immediate cease-fire. He says he must first restore law and order in the north.

  • Abiy Ahmed:

    There should not be any mistake made in treating the federal government as equal with criminal groups.

  • Coletta Wanjohi:

    Meanwhile, close to 100,000 Eritrean refugees living in camps in the Tigray region are said to be stranded, with no humanitarian assistance.

    Hundreds of people have reportedly died from the fighting, and Prime Minister Abiy says he's not going to compromise.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Coletta Wanjohi, as you mentioned, the federal government has cut off the northern section, has cut off Tigray entirely. Do we even know how deadly this conflict has been so far?

  • Coletta Wanjohi:

    The best we can gauge is in terms of the refugees fleeing from the region, the northern region.

    So, that shows us that the conflict has intensified, and people feel that it is not safe within the northern region. The government is still quiet about the casualties, although it admits that there have been casualties from both the government forces and the Tigray regional forces.

    And, also, we know that, in terms of communication, the fact that electricity is down the other side, people have been stuck there. We have about 1,000. Americans who are said to have been stuck there.

    Remember, it's a tourism destination. And, also, some members from the European Union are stuck there.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Zoom out for us for a second. What are the regional implications of this fighting?

  • Coletta Wanjohi:

    At first, the prime minister said that it was going to be more of an internal conflict, which is between the government and its northern region.

    But the fact that now the northern region has blamed Eritrea, neighboring Eritrea, over assisting the government, so that brings in Eritrea. And, also, the fact that now Sudan is receiving refugees, then there is a problem there.

    Now, remember, on the other side of the northern region, there is Djibouti. Djibouti has military bases of different countries. And they are also concerned that there could be a spillover effects of this conflict.

    So, we are already seeing a region — I mean, countries within the region reaching out to Ethiopia and saying, probably it's time for dialogue. But the prime minister says, no, he must finish his military operation before he really goes and sits down with people he says will not be corrupt and will not be people who have supported impunity.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Coletta Wanjohi in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, thank you very much.

  • Coletta Wanjohi:

    Thank you. Thank you very much.

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