Ethiopia: Tigray Still Facing Food Crisis After Failed Harvests


Ethiopia’s Tigray region has been grappling with a severe food crisis for the past six months, resulting in the loss of nearly four hundred lives.

The state-appointed ombudsman reported that 351 people had died in Tigray, with an additional 44 deaths in the neighboring Amhara region. However, according to Ethiopia expert and geographer Jan Nyssen, the actual death toll far exceeds these figures, running into the thousands.

Nyssen, a professor emeritus at Ghent University who lived in Tigray for seven years and conducted extensive research there, reveals that even though the war in Tigray ended over a fortnight ago, the problem of starvation persists. He remains in contact with his acquaintances in the region, who inform him that towns are unrecognizable due to the sheer number of beggars. In villages where the harvest has failed, communities are left with nothing.

The fear of famine has haunted Ethiopia since the 1980s, when the country experienced a devastating famine that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. The word “famine” carries great sensitivity, as it symbolizes the failure of leadership and denial of the existence of a dire humanitarian crisis. The late Emperor Haile Selassie, who was deposed and killed by the army, infamously denied the problem during the famine of 1974. This event served as a catalyst for the military regime to utilize drought as a means of controlling rebellions in Tigray, culminating in the mass famine of 1983-1985 where at least 400,000 people succumbed to starvation. The United Nations suggests that the actual death toll may have been twice as high.

Presently, the situation in Tigray is reminiscent of the famine that struck the country in the 1980s. The warnings of famine issued by Tigray officials as early as December were dismissed by authorities, who insisted there was no evidence of starvation-related deaths in any region of Ethiopia. However, the evidence provided by Nyssen and other sources on the ground paint a grim picture of a region ravaged by hunger and desperation.

The poor rainy season in Ethiopia has exacerbated the already devastating situation in the war-ravaged northern regions. Abiy Ahmed’s government, wary of repeating the mistakes of their predecessors, reluctantly acknowledged the imminent famine. However, the National Ombudsman has now reported that millions of people in these regions are facing starvation, urging the government to prioritize immediate action rather than focusing on assigning blame. 

The adverse effects of the poor rainy season are evident, as the rains, which typically continue until July and August, ceased prematurely due to El Niño. Consequently, crops completely withered and dried out. Under normal circumstances, the country could have relied on reserves from previous years to compensate for the poor harvest. Unfortunately, the continuous warfare in the region over the past two years has further depleted these reserves, leaving the population vulnerable to food insecurity.

Ethiopia: Tigray Still Facing Food Crisis After Failed Harvests
The conflict has left an estimated five million people in need of aid [File: Ben Curtis/AP Photo]
The conflict in the northern regions of Ethiopia has been between the Ethiopian army and the Tigray army, with Tigray accounting for only seven percent of the nation’s population. For almost three decades, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) had held significant power in coalition with other parties. However, this dominance sparked discontent among the Amharic elite and the country’s largest ethnic group, the Oromos, who both believed they deserved a greater share of power. The war has not only resulted in mass killings but also widespread reports of sexual violence. The ongoing violence and political instability have further exacerbated the dire conditions faced by the population in the region.

In 2018, Abiy Ahmed rose to power in Ethiopia and made efforts to reduce ethnic tensions by founding the Prosperity Party. However, the TPLF refused to join the merger, leading to a strained relationship between the two factions. The national elections, scheduled for 2020, were postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Tigray proceeded to hold its own elections in September despite objections from the central government. In response, the Ethiopian government imposed a blockade on the region and attempted to overthrow the regional government, prompting TPLF to launch attacks on military bases. This marked the beginning of a devastating war in Tigray.

During the conflict, numerous atrocities were committed, with hundreds of thousands of civilians losing their lives. The Ethiopian army received support from forces in the Amhara region, and even Eritrea joined the fight alongside the Ethiopian government. Mass killings and sexual violence were reported on a large scale, exacerbating the already grave situation.

The impact on the people of Tigray was immense, particularly in terms of food security. The region, known for its strong commitment to rural development over the years, suffered a catastrophic blow. Soldiers looted food supplies, set fire to farms, and destroyed water systems. The blockade prevented farmers from accessing fertilizer and seeds, leaving them unable to work their land. Additionally, food aid did not reach those in need. The United Nations accused the Ethiopian government of using hunger as a weapon of war, further worsening the dire situation.

The deliberate weakening of Tigray society was evident as farmers were targeted and killed in their fields, and restrictions were placed on periods when plowing was allowed. Despite these challenges, farmers displayed resourcefulness by resorting to night-time plowing or stationing someone atop mountains to act as a lookout for approaching armies. Unfortunately, even these efforts were not enough to prevent the failure of harvests. As the situation worsened, the people of Tigray exhausted their reserves, with some resorting to eating corn cobs as early as October.

The events in Tigray paint a grim picture of a region ravaged by conflict, with devastating consequences for the population’s well-being and survival. The international community continues to call for an end to the violence and a restoration of peace, as the people of Tigray face an uncertain future filled with immense challenges.

The situation in Ethiopia is dire, with over 20 million people in need of food aid, according to Ocha, an agency that coordinates emergency assistance for the United Nations. The crisis escalated when the UN and U.S. suspended food aid to Tigray and later to the entire country after uncovering widespread theft of grain. Shockingly, it was revealed that the Ethiopian army was reselling the food aid abroad, while the Tigray military was embezzling a significant portion of the aid meant for vulnerable families.

The consequences of this suspension were devastating, with the Tigrean government reporting 1,400 deaths in Tigray from April to August. The lack of food aid also resulted in a severe scarcity of food and resources, pushing the people of Ethiopia to the brink of despair. Even though limited food aid has started trickling back into the country since late October, the impact has been minimal. In fact, according to Nyssen, one of the individuals closely observing the situation, it is estimated to be only a fraction of what was previously received before the war.

Nyssen, like many others, is deeply concerned about the future of Ethiopia. The people have always relied on their own resilience and strength to overcome challenges, but now they are losing hope. The scale of this crisis is immense, and it is crucial that immediate and sustainable solutions are implemented to ensure the well-being and survival of millions of Ethiopians.

Ericson Mangoli
Ericson Mangoli is the founder and Managing Editor of Who Owns Africa, a platform for African journalism that focuses on politics, governance, and business. Mangoli is passionate about African stories and believes that media has a crucial role to play in driving the continent's development. In his work, he strives to promote accuracy and objective reporting on Africa.

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