Tigrayan forces announced they had seized full control of the regional capital Mekelle on Tuesday, as government forces retreated from the city and declared a unilateral ceasefire.
“Mekelle is now under complete control of the Tigray Defence Forces and the legally elected government of Tigray is now in its rightful place,” the statement said.
The Ethiopian government ousted the northern region’s ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in November, triggering a devastating civil war.
“This unilateral ceasefire declaration starts from today June 28, 2021 and will stay until the farming season ends,” a statement released by the federal government and carried by state media said. Ethiopia’s planting season runs from May to September.
The news of a ceasefire came as the country awaits the results of a divisive parliamentary election, which expects to see Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed secure a second term.
Speaking on Thursday, the Chairperson of Ethiopia’s election board Birtukan Mideksa, said preliminary election results would be revealed in the next two days.
The commitment of all sides to the ceasefire could avert a worsening famine, the UK’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Ambassador Barbara Woodward.
“If all sides agree to this ceasefire, the worst effects of famine in Tigray could still be avoided,” she said. “But we’re hearing reports that equipment of aid agencies is being dismantled as forces retreat, which will make it harder for UN and NGOs to use this window to get to those in need.”
Earlier this month, UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock said that “there is famine now… this is going to get a lot worse” after a UN report found that over 350,000 people are in the “catastrophe” phase of the IPC Acute Food Insecurity Classification, the highest number of people under that designation since the 2011 Somalia famine.
As of May 2021, 5.5m people were facing high levels of acute food insecurity: 3.1m were in the crisis phase and 2.1m in the emergency phase, despite humanitarian food assistance that had reached up to 5m in previous months. The situation is expected to worsen through September, with 4.4m predicted to be in crisis or worse and an estimated 400,000 expected to face catastrophe.
Samantha Power, administrator of USAID, summed up the increasing international concern in a tweet: “I’ve spoken to several humanitarian aid leaders, veterans of decades of devastating crises. Nearly all say the same thing: the situation in Tigray is the worst they have ever seen.”
If the conflict escalates or aid is further impeded, most parts of Tigray will be at risk of famine. Many of the causes are man-made – the UN cites the effects of conflict, including population displacements, movement restrictions, limited humanitarian access, loss of harvest and livelihood assets, and dysfunctional or non-existent markets.
The famine raises the need for Ethiopia prime minister Abiy Ahmed’s government to allow unimpeded humanitarian access to the devastated areas.
In less than a year, Ethiopia has plunged from being one of Africa’s most promising investment destinations to one of its most concerning humanitarian situations. The US recently announced visa restrictions and limits to economic and security aid to the Ethiopian government, suggesting that supportive partners are losing patience. The US has called for Ethiopia to rein in Eritrean and Amharan allies who are helping to prosecute the war.
Emerging markets economist at Landesbank Patrick Heinisch said funding pressure may have pushed Ethiopia towards a ceasefire in Tigray.
“With the budget deep in the red, current account deficits, low reserves, Ethiopia needs lifting of sanctions and the resumption of budget support. Important to watch international reactions.”