Viewpoint

Ethiopian officials admit using a Biafra-like siege to starve Tigray

The federal government may blame the TPLF for Tigray’s suffering, but its medieval siege strategy is an open secret.

In 2004, Eskinder Nega, an Ethiopian journalist, activist, and politician, oversaw the publication of at least five columns in his Askual newspaper that labeled Tigrayans the Jews of Ethiopia and called for Ethiopians to emulate the strategies used by Nazi Germany.

When the civil war broke out in November 2020, such ideas have been implemented against Tigrayans by the Ethiopian government in concert with its allies in Eritrea and the Amhara region.

Comparisons to the Holocaust may seem a bit extreme. But events in Tigray are eerily reminiscent of the 1967-1970 Nigerian civil war. 

In response to a secessionist war waged by Lt. Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu in a predominately Igbo-populated territory called Biafra, the Nigerian government purposefully starved the population—leading to the death of up to a million children.  

As evidence of the similarities, in 2021, the state-owned Amhara Media Corporation said Tigray’s future is “like Biafra” and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed boasted that the Ethiopian government decides whether aid gets into Tigray or not.

Despite a slight improvement in the humanitarian situation since April, these genocidal plans are ongoing in Tigray. Much of the Ethiopian public seems to support these policies, or chose to remain silent out of fear and pressure, while the international community has not taken them seriously enough.

Manmade famine

Policies implemented by the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments that appear designed to induce famine conditions in Tigray have been documented since the beginning of the war. 

In June, despite the blackout imposed by Ethiopian authorities, determined reporters reached Tigray over rocky footpaths and, in a rare occurrence, filmed the horrors of the war. On 2 July, ARTE TV broadcasted their documentary, titled “Tigray: in the land of hunger”, which showed the effects of manmade starvation and the devastation of the region’s health system.

The events discussed by the interviewees and depicted in the 24-minute report include the Aksum massacre perpetrated by Eritrean soldiers, an eleven-year-old boy at the hospital who weighed only eight kilos, and people simply dying at home because they know that the medical centers are out of supplies and so can’t help them.

The UN recently posted celebratory announcements rather than telling the truth that its workers are still prevented from reaching much of the starving population of Tigray.

On 29 June, the UN claimed on social media that, since 1 April, the World Food Programme (WFP) has delivered enough food to Tigray to feed 5.9 million people per month.

However, the WFP Ethiopia country brief contradicts this. It states: “In the Tigray Region, WFP delivered food assistance to 461,542 people in May.”

Also, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs’ (OCHA) 17 June situation report notes: “Food partners in Tigray assisted more than 340,000 people with 5,303 MT [metric tons] of food during the reporting week.”

“Cumulatively between early April and 8 June, more than 20,000 MT of food have been distributed to more than 1.2 million people in the region,” OCHA’s report continues.

The reality is that from April to June 2022, a period of three months, the WFP only transported enough food to Tigray to feed 5.9 million people for one month in total.

Owing to the lack of fuel, only 1.4 million of the inhabitants of Tigray, about 25 percent, have been reached, while 15 percent of the required fuel and 35 percent of the cash needed for humanitarian operations has been allowed into Tigray by the Ethiopian authorities.

As one UN staffer told us: “It would be more accurate to report on impact than on MTs and number of trucks that made it through.”

Another Biafra?

Government officials have openly claimed to be imposing a Biafra-like siege on Tigray in an effort to subjugate the region and eradicate the TPLF.

On 12 June 2021, Minister of Foreign Affairs Demeke Mekonnen declared, without providing evidence, that humanitarian actors tried to smuggle weapons to the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF). Such accusations have been used to block aid from entering TDF-held areas.

Eleven days later, in a TV interview, Abiy argued that the Derg government made a mistake during the 1980s famine by allowing aid delivery to Tigray. He was referring to accusations that the Relief Society of Tigray (REST), the TPLF insurgency’s humanitarian wing, diverted some of the aid towards military purposes in the 1980s.

After Tigray forces retook control of around 70 percent of Tigray on 30 July 2021, the Amhara Media Corporation posted an article calling to turn Tigray into another Biafra by “taking its breath away from all directions.”

Gizaw Legesse, a journalist regularly featured on ESAT TV, argued that the government’s strategy should be to build a buffer zone around Tigray to give the people “time for reflection” for three to five years. 

Gizaw followed this up recently with a post on Facebook calling for the government, “to drag the negotiations for years, to give nothing for free before or during the negotiation, to realize that time is on the side of Ethiopia … and understand that under present circumstances, Ethiopia loses little by pursuing containment.” 

On 4 August, Mitiku Kassa, the Commissioner of the Ethiopia National Disaster Risk Management Commission, publicly rejected calls to open the routes between Sudan and Tigray for aid delivery.

Weeks later, Mitiku stated that the Ethiopian policy is to heavily restrict aid to Tigray due to fears it could boost Tigray’s army. As evidence, he produced a photograph of a surrendered TDF colonel side-by-side with photos of USAID high-energy biscuits.

Mitiku was arrested in early July, but this seems unrelated to his involvement in the Tigray blockade.

On 18 October, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that it is absurd to expect unfettered humanitarian access to Tigray while the TPLF is attacking.

The next day, Abiy bluntly told the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres that Ethiopia will not open up humanitarian access for the UN to Tigray “unless the TPLF withdraws forces” from Amhara and Afar.

A month later, Debede Desisa, State Minister of the Government Communications Service, made unsubstantiated allegations that some humanitarian organizations have a political agenda.

On 5 January 2022, Government Communication Service Minister Legesse Tulu stated that if the people in Tigray want their rights to be respected, they should rise up against the TPLF. In other words, he admitted that these rights are deliberately being violated in order to punish Tigrayans for supporting their elected regional government.

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Shortly before the humanitarian truce was declared on 24 March, the president of Afar region, Awol Arba, said, “there is no way that we allow aid to reach Tigray.”

On 27 March, Yodahe Zemichael, Executive Director of the National ID Programme in the Office of the Prime Minister, stated that calls for humanitarian aid are part of an attempted regime change and that the famine in Tigray is being orchestrated by TPLF to that end.

In late March, the federal government formally communicated that it allowed a full week’s worth of aid into Tigray. This was a tacit admission that the decision regarding whether aid is delivered or not is in the hands of the Ethiopian government.

Finally, as recently as 5 June, Deputy Prime Minister Demeke admitted that the federal government blocks aid because it can be used by the TPLF.

Despite such irrefutable evidence, government supporters accuse TPLF of being responsible for the lack of humanitarian access.

Between 250,000 and 500,000 civilians have died in Tigray, including an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 victims of direct killings, 150,000 to 200,000 starvation deaths, and more than 100,000 deaths caused by a lack of health care. 

Genocidal rhetoric

According to these statements by high-ranking Ethiopian authorities, the siege and embargo of Tigray are intentional acts of war. The plan is to force the people of Tigray and their regional government to submit.

It must be recognized that holding a civilian population hostage is a war crime according to the Geneva Conventions. Using aid delivery and the resumption of basic services such as electricity, banking, trade, and telecommunications as a bargaining chip is also morally bankrupt.

The official justifications for the starvation in Tigray given to foreign diplomats—such as bureaucratic hurdles, that aid trucks did not return, conflict in Afar along one of the dozen access roads, and collateral damage to infrastructure—are incredibly superficial in contrast to the unrepentant statements made by Ethiopian government officials.

In hindsight, the plan to decimate or even exterminate the TPLF and Tigrayans has been articulated by Ethiopian and Amhara nationalist elites for decades.

The shocking statement by Abiy’s advisor Daniel Kibret, a deacon and preacher in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, that Ethiopia needs to exterminate Weyane along with all its supporters fits with the narrative that was initiated twenty years earlier.

Wodajeneh Meharene, an Evangelical pastor and a close confidant of Abiy, also believes that “locking up humanitarian access” to starve the Tigray people into submission is a legitimate way of bringing the war to a conclusion.

Daniel and Wodajeneh wield significant influence in their respective Christian denominations. Their calls for collective action against Tigrayans show how politicized religious leaders have become in Ethiopia. This has arguably contributed to the war’s widespread acceptance within certain religious communities.

Such views are a continuation of several articles published in Eskinder’s Askual newspaper in 2004. They urged Ethiopians to eradicate “the nation’s cancerous Jews” (the Tigrayans) by imitating Nazi Germany’s extermination policy. Written in Amharic, under the title “Get lost, Judae”, these articles stayed under the radar for most foreign observers.

One article, published on 1 May 2004, states: “The Germans stood up resolutely. Their struggle continued. The Jews were captured en masse and deported to concentration camps. Especially, male Jews between the age of 16 and 60 were targeted.”

In many ways, these pieces read like a script for the massacres, starvation, and detentions that have occurred in Tigray since November 2020.

While Eskinder and others like him are responsible for propagating such blatantly genocidal rhetoric, the direct culprits carrying out the Tigray massacres and implementing the blockade are the governments of Ethiopia, Eritrea, and the Amhara region.

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Editor’s note: Although Daniel Kibret talked about the need to exterminate Weyane and its supporters, he has not made a statement along the lines of “what the British did to the Tasmanians in the 1830s should be committed on Tigrayans.” His statement concerning Tasmania was taken out of context and hence deleted.

This is the author’s viewpoint. However, Ethiopia Insight will correct clear factual errors.

Main photo: Illustration by Illu Poppe, La Libre Belgique.

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Published under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. Cite Ethiopia Insight and link to this page if republished.

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About the author

Jan Nyssen

Jan is a professor of physical geography at Ghent University in Belgium. He has carried out research in Ethiopia since 1994.

30 Comments

  • The first time I heard the story was from Amhara television, they were saying we must do them (Tigrayans) like Biafra.
    Now I think September 20, walta state media is saying “biafras of northern ethiopia”.
    It’s obvious but nice when they say it in words.

  • Can you provide evidence to prove your claims about Eskinder Nega at the beginning of your article?

    • You may click the links in the first paragraph, and also in three paragraphs towards the end of the article.

      • Thank you professor Nyssen for putting a spotlight on the genocide and crimes against humanity atrocities committed by Abiy Ahmed and Isaias Afeworki in Tigray

  • Jan Nyssen,
    Due respect you need to change your eye-glasses, in order for you to observe clearly and also straighten your thinking in order to honestly analyze the facts about the corrupt fascist TPLF regime and its leadership that looted the nation Ethiopia, including Tigray. It is pity such an educated person like you who knows the geography of Tigray and have studied Tigray in depth has to engage in such petty propaganda tasks in order to support a terrorist regime which will never comeback again.

    The TPLF leadership is a confused maddened Communist Organization which became impotent, unable to come out out its past communist ideology and thinking, an ideology that brutally practiced on people of Tigray and wanted to extend same practice on the rest of Ethiopia using Ethno divisive strategy. The goal is like the old Belgian Colonialism (the case of Rwanda the Tutsi and Hutu Ethno divisive strategy) to exploit their mineral resources (not any other way) in this 21st Century.

  • These 2 weeks are dedicated prayers and fasting to our Lady Mariam, in the Ethiopian Orthodox tradition. My prayers to Mariam is to support and help Tigray to prevail and to thrive to be the seat of peace and love forever🙏🙏

  • Ethiopia is a cursed land it is a country that has no integrity, or love or fear of God. Ethiopia had been known for its Christian and Muslim values of humanity and tradition of generosity And love. Clearly Ethiopia is where evil thrives today. The agony of the Tigrians is spreading across the nation ironically and Everyone is suffering with increasing frequency.

    And Thank you for aggregating all the news around the on going genocide in Tigray.

    • 100% true discrimination of what Ethiopia was and what it is now. It is a puzzle to me too. I left Ethiopia about 35 plus years ago and confidently I describing my people, Ethiopian as a spiritual and loving people and now they ask me what made the people to be this much evil and have no Ansewer, because it is not answerable.
      Thank you

  • Dont forget that most Tigreans, like 90%m are full time farmers, and produce a lot of food. That is why there is no famine in Tigray.

    During the Biafra war, the Nigerian army was in Biafra, and there was much more disruption of farming. There has been no battles in Tigray for the past year, and farmers are farming, producing food. Tigray’s small industrial economy might collapsed but 90% of Tigrayans are farmers, and are therefore food self sufficient. They produce enough food to feed the other 10%.

    The people that are in trouble are the people of Afar.

    • This is a theoretical assessment, that could be true in normal years. In the 2021 cropping season however, farmers could only peacefully work on their land starting July, and most crops were sown lately. Many lands were left fallow because oxen had been killed by the invading armies. In addition there has been huge ethnic cleansing in Western Tigray, and many lands were left fallow. The estimate is that the 2021 harvest was about 40% of that of a normal year.
      Mekelle and Ghent university geographers have just published a paper about this topic in “Agronomy for Sustainable Development”: Challenges and resilience of an indigenous farming system during wartime (Tigray, North Ethiopia). The study is based on field data collected in August 2021.
      See also, on Ethiopia Insight, the article by six Tigrayan agriculture experts: Tigray’s once-thriving agriculture sector has been purposely destroyed.

    • Why are you living and deciving their famine in fact 250,000 famine victim died in tigray as part of Ethiopia seag. all food and health got looted by Amhara, eritera Ethiopia army and now since their low rain fall tigray depend on outsiderd on food as the Ethiopian government doesn’t give any food to tigray that is own by the country.

      Tigray ,Somali and oromo are most effected both by war created by Ethiopia army and displacement based on fano attack leaving displaced oromo with food depending on donor. Afar is less effected one god welling news well speak behalf of oromo and somali including afar looting Somali.

      Justice for Somali,oromo and tigray no more persuction at hand of fano and afar.

  • The anti Tigray camp, a continuity with in Ethiopia’s center was clearly calling for extermination of Tigrayans. Now, they are doing what they told us.
    #TigrayShallPrevail

  • A disingenuous propaganda piece, with scholarly appearance. Shame on the author, who seems more interested in justifying TPLF atrocities on the people of Tigray, who’re literally held hostage by TPLF, to save itself.

  • This divisive and evil article is coming from a dude in European. I have question though: Why don’t you worry about the war in Europe and let Africans worry about African problem. For Europeans like you to suggest anything related to war and peace you should first make peace with in your self and end the European war in Ukraine. If you can’t clean your own mess in your house how can we believe that you have a solution for someone’s mess especially when the mess is 1000s mile away from where you leave. Stop the European war in Ukraine that is a problem for current global economic instability; and let Africans worry about Africans problem. We don’t need your lecture or sympathy.

  • Geography professor who did some mediocre research in northern Ethiopia, is now an expert in Ethiopian affairs! Did the terrorist organization TPLF wrote this piece for him?

  • This is all trash to be honest. Seems like it’s authored by one of TPLF old guards and handed over to this guy to publish it in his name. It’s not an objective commentary, but a blatant propaganda. It must be underlined that such elk of insults in name of academic commentary will only complicate peace processes.

    • You are trying to divert the wars direction. It is not the way you think. It is a war going on between ethiopia and the Tigray people. None of the civilians killed in more than 260 specified massacre sites, None of the 120k women, nuns and under age girls , None of the destroyed schools, health facilities, water and power supply lines, Religious sites including mosques, churches and monastries, None of the dismantled industries, vandalized universities and hospitals, None of the burnt villages are . None of the idps bombarded are TPLFS. They simply are Tegaru and Tegaru holdings. None of your argument is acceptable.

  • This article is the usual biased Tplf narratiion. There is no fact but fabrication and propoganda in the last 40 years tplf era.

  • We know you have been working in Tigray for a long time. You might have your own eccentric biases and sentiments to Tigray. But peace can come only through truth, fairness and justice. Presenting distorted information, covering up malicious propaganda with scholarly appearances wouldn’t help anyone. The narrow minded, myopic TPLF gangster should have thought about the future of their people before starting horrendous war against Ethiopia.

    • Tesfaye,
      You are the one engaged in covering up the crimes and terror actions of your paying masters. If there was a shred of conscience in you, you could have asked: how come the Ethiopian regime is blocking independent investigation, free access to media, and has blacked out the means of communications and so on in the Tigray region? Also, you could have figured that it is to cover-up the genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated by the evil trio of Ethiopian regime, Eritrean regime, and Amhara rag tag fano militia and their enablers on Tigreans.

      • Stop your blatant lie. These crimes were investigated by UN human right agencies in collaboration with Ethiopian Human rights Agency. Your made up Tigray Genocide is so dubious. What about the crime TPLF soldiers committed in Amhara and Afar regions. Do you want to talk about that? We know you don’t. Just like he writer you are part of the TPLF propaganda machine. Lots of conspiracies but few facts. Carry on.

      • Ethiopians had zero say in how Abiy/PP came into power, because TPLF blocked path to democracy for decades. In 2020 Tigray held an election that is deemed illegal by the Election Commission. During election campaign, Tigray’s candidate paries openly debated on secession of Tigray. Just look at their televised debate.

        The rest of Ethiopia was watching and observing while at the same time trying to gain control of the federal government to make it accountable to the people.

        While TPLF should have dealt with what was coming as a party without using Tegaru as human shield, they decided to make the narrative about war with Ethiopia. So this war to you is with Ethiopia, with us. Further more Tigray invaded Amhara and Afar regions, and instead of fighting the regional governments and militias, destroyed civilians and livelihoods.

        Now the only thing the rest of Ethiopia wants to know is, are the Tegaru with TPLF or with us? Us being the population of Ethiopia and not the governing bodies. If not with us, then Tigray will be held accountable for every damage it caused to Amhara and Afar people. You legitimately voted for TPLF/TDF? You support them? Then you will pay for the destruction you rained upon Amhara and Afar people. Then the federal government and families of all ENDF members you killed will have their say too. In fact, you will also be accountable for the backlog of debt that is 3 decades worth.

        Or continue fighting and see how that works out..just don’t expect any sympathy or support from the population as the federal government does what it does. And if you come down south again to invade Amhara and Afar regions? Expect no mercy from the people.

        • Afar and Amhara raped and looted tigray including shooting over 9 month non-stop Amhara and afar civilias celebrated in tigray eye Amhara ain’t innocent anyone that celebrates genocide has no right to tell other people what right and wrong when at the same time protect its own crime.

  • An excellent well researched account of the engineering and conduct of the Tigray Genocide. There will be a time when the pepertors of this crime will be brought to justice.

    • No, Tigrayans protect the TPLF from any danger because they believe that the TPLF is more than just a political party, but also a way of life, culture, philosophy, and everything. The TPLF could not be a terrorist because all people could not be terrorists. So you can’t do anything unless the Tigrayans will it. It is up to the people to decide who they want. You must comprehend this. We will never be compelled to submit. All of the facts in the article clearly show that Amhara elites are to blame for the #Tigraygenocide.

    • There is no more terror organization than the Ethiopian tyrant evil regime. Since Abiy came to power, his hidden killing squads murdered innocent technocrats (Engineer Simgenew), Army Generals (like General Seare and Gezai), artists (Hachalu). They burnt people alive like a piece of firewood, threw people over the cliffs alive and after shooting them, carried out mass killings in various regions, among the few terror actions.

      • You are garbage terrorist yourself . If you support a terrorist organization TPLF who committed #ethniccleansing #Genocide of Afar and Amhara people, you’re a terrorist as well because you are supporting genocide on the innocent civilians of Afar and Amhara people who have nothing to do with their agendas. TPLF massacred, raped, burned houses, hospitals, schools, universities and looted everything. The government never killed any civilians in Tigray. TPLF is responsible for anything that’s happened in Tigray. I am 3/4th Tigrian but I know the fact how TPLF is evil terrorist who kept Tigray hostage.

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