Africa is home to the fastest growing economies and populations in the world, sits at crossroads of international commerce and trade, and watches over the world’s most important sea lines of communication but few Americans are very aware of US military operations or local conflicts on the continent.
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is extremely concerned about the worsening crisis in northern Ethiopia where ongoing clashes between the Ethiopian federal government and Tigray forces are driving thousands of people to flee, more than half of them children.
Since the violence began early November, more than 14,500 children, women and men have fled into Sudan in search of safety, overwhelming the current capacity to provide aid. Meanwhile, services for 96,000 Eritrean refugees inside Tigray have been seriously disrupted, with reports of growing number of Ethiopians becoming displaced internally.
Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered a military offensive, after an army base was taken over by forces loyal to the regional government, which is run by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a powerful ethnic faction that led the ruling coalition for decades until Abiy took office in 2018.
After years of widespread protests against government policies and brutal security force repression, a series of human rights reforms were ushered in after Abiy became prime minister in April 2018.
The government released thousands of political prisoners from detention, admitted that security forces relied on torture, committed to legal reforms of repressive laws and introduced numerous other reforms. At the same time, there has been a significant break down in law and order in parts of Ethiopia amidst escalating ethnic tensions that has resulted in significant numbers of internally displaced persons.
Ethiopia’s national elections were supposed to be held in August 2020 to choose members of the House of Peoples’ Representatives, but were delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Regional and municipal council elections were also planned to be held at the same time around the country but federal officials voted to postpone them until 2021.
In September 2020, The Tigray region held parliamentary elections that Abiy’s government deemed illegal.
The president of the Tigray region, Debretsion Gebremichael, who is also chairman of TPLF, regional forces would keep on fighting until federal authorities agree to negotiate.
Ethiopia’s neighbors fear the fighting in the continent’s second most populous nation could spark a civil war that could destabilize the Horn of Africa region.
The UN refugee agency has called on all parties to respect the safety and security for all civilians in Tigray.
Nine million people risk displacement from the escalating conflict in Tigray, said one United Nations report, warning that the fighting was blocking food and other aid. About 600,000 people in the region depend on food aid to survive, while another million receive other forms of support, all of which are disrupted.
Fighting in Tigray recently moved close to Shimelba refugee camp – which hosts 6,500 Eritrean refugees – raising concerns of mass displacement from the camp. UNHCR is making preparations to receive refugees who have already begun arriving in Hitsats camp, 30 miles away, and is considering further relocation options in the region.
General living and operating conditions inside Tigray are becoming more difficult with power outages and food and fuel supplies becoming extremely scarce. Communications have been cut off creating an information black out.
The numbers of refugees seeking safety in neighboring Sudan are increasing rapidly – with over 4,000 crossing the border in just one day. The majority have crossed at Hamdayet border point in Kassala State and others at Lugdi in Gedaref State.
People are arriving with very few belongings indicating they fled in a hurry. Arriving children are exhausted and scared. The majority originate from Humera inside Tigray, with others coming from the neighbouring towns of Rawyan and Dima.
UNHCR and its partners are ramping up assistance, but the numbers of new arrivals are far outpacing the capacity on the ground.
The conflict has killed hundreds, sent refugees flooding into Sudan, and raised fears it may draw in Eritrea or weaken Ethiopia’s commitment to an African force opposing al Qaeda-linked militants in Somalia.
“There is a risk this situation will spiral totally out of control,” said UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet, adding a massacre of civilians reported by Amnesty International would amount to war crimes if confirmed as committed by a party to the conflict.
A transit center at Hamdayet border crossing with a capacity to accommodate 300 refugees was overwhelmed with 6,000 people. Sanitation facilities are insufficient, impacting hygiene.
Those crossing through Lugdi are temporarily hosted at a transit center in a site called Village 8, located 21 miles away from the border. Hot meals are being provided with support from the World Food Program and Muslim Aid. Local communities are also generously supporting the refugees with food.
The Sudan Red Crescent Society has deployed medical staff and essential medicines, to Hamdayet to conduct health screenings, including for COVID-19, with plans to strengthen health support in the coming days.
As the numbers grow, the Government has approved the establishment of a refugee camp at Um Rakuba, 50 miles from the border, with a capacity to host up to 20,000 people. Additional sites are being identified.
The land mass of Africa is larger than the United States, China, India, Japan, and all of Europe combined. Over two-thirds of the 1.3 billion people who live in Africa, exist in conditions of astonishing poverty.
By 2050, Africa’s population is projected to double.
U.S. military missions are underway in roughly 20 African countries, mostly in the northern third of the continent.
They tend to be small, they are carried out largely below the radar, and most are aimed at Islamist extremists.
Four US soldiers and five Nigerien troops died in a 2017 incident, which resulted in a brief debate in Washington over the executive branch’s extensive powers to use military force abroad without congressional approval and with little oversight.
U.S. Africa Command reportedly has 7,200 personnel on the continent to advance U.S. national interests and promote security in cooperation with 53 African countries.
China and Russia have long recognized the strategic and economic importance of Africa, and 26 nations there hold reserves of minerals determined to be critical to the U.S. economy and security.
Violent extremist networks are expanding in Africa at a rapid pace, due in large part to weak governance and disenfranchised populations.
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