Agencies criticised for failure to deliver aid to northern Ethiopian region

Former UN undersecretary-general condemns response to Tigray’s desperate people

A leading humanitarian activist has criticised aid agencies for not speaking out early enough about the scale of the crisis in Tigray, Ethiopia's northern region, as millions remain in "desperate need".

As the war in Tigray enters its fourth month, millions of people are thought to be in need of emergency food aid.

"In all my years as an aid worker, I have rarely seen a humanitarian response so impeded and unable to deliver in response for so long, to so many with such pressing needs," said Norwegian Refugee Council secretary general Jan Egeland on Monday. "As an international community, we are clearly failing to deliver against the humanitarian imperative we are facing."

Mr Egeland is a former UN undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief. He said the failure of the aid sector to be vocal, to co-ordinate and to respond early hasd "crippled the collective response" in Tigray.


‘Suffering alone’

Aid agencies’ access to areas worst-affected by the crisis has been been blocked by authorities and military forces, despite repeated international appeals. “Millions of women, children and men, including refugees, are in a truly desperate situation, suffering alone without aid or protection,” said Mr Egeland.

The conflict began when Ethiopia's federal government announced a military offensive against the northern Tigray region, reportedly after attacks by Tigray fighters on its own military bases. This came shortly after the region held elections that Addis Ababa denounced as illegal.

Tigray's politicians dominated Ethiopia's federal government for decades, but were marginalised in 2018 when Abiy Ahmed became prime minister. The following year, Mr Abiy was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for entering into a peace agreement with neighbouring Eritrea as well as for promoting "reconciliation, solidarity and social justice" in his own country.

‘Heavy artilleries’

Mr Abiy has previously called Tigray the "womb of Ethiopia" and "a place where the history of our country is cooked". He maintains thatthe war is a "stabilising mission".

The first public statement from Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) leader Debretsion Gebremichael since the beginning of the conflict was posted on Facebook on Saturday. The Irish Times could not independently authenticate it.

The statement said government forces had “temporary military dominance” and “the cities and rural areas of Tigray are being bombarded day and night by heavy artilleries” but “we are engaged in extended resistance”.

"I call upon you, wherever you are . . . to organise and fight and to strive to make all who have reached fighting age take up the fight, and through this to shorten the lifespan of the enemy," Mr Gebremichael was reported to have said in audio shared by the US-based Tigrai Media House, which is affiliated with the TPLF.

Since November, more than 57,000 people have fled Tigray to eastern Sudan, while there are reports of some of Tigray's 100,000 Eritrean refugees being forced to return to Eritrea, a dictatorship known for gross human rights abuses. Officials in Tigray say more than two million have been internally displaced.

Sally Hayden

Sally Hayden

Sally Hayden, a contributor to The Irish Times, reports on Africa