The Tigray Famine: Lessons from 1984–85

Source: The RUSI Journal

Martin Plaut

7 year old Latebrahan Fessahaatsion, from Chilla, 100 Kms from Axum near the border of Eritrea where famine has arrived.

A blockade of Tigray is producing a manmade famine. The region, at war with Ethiopia and Eritrea since November 2020, is being deprived of humanitarian supplies. While the Ethiopian famine of 1984–85 was primarily the result of drought, exacerbated by war, it can provide useful lessons, as Martin Plaut shows. Unless supply routes are established via Ethiopia or Eritrea, or through Sudan, thousands could starve in what the UN describes as ‘the world’s worst famine situation in decades’.◼

The war in Ethiopia’s Tigray region is having increasingly severe consequences. The UN’s Office for the Co-Ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) assessment, released in the middle of June 2021, indicated that 350,000 people were ‘facing catastrophic conditions (IPC 5)’ or a famine.1 IPC5 (the highest level on the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification) means: ‘Even with any humanitarian assistance at least one in five HHs [households] in the area have an extreme lack of food and other basic needs where starvation, death, and destitution are evident’.2 The manual of the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) suggests that, having reached Phase 5, households will have exhausted all the strategies at their disposal to an extent that death through starvation will take place.3

Fewer than half of those who needed aid were receiving it in mid-June. As the OCHA report stated: ‘Since the Northern Ethiopia response plan on 1 May, over 2.3 million people were reached with food aid out of the targeted 5.2 million, reaching [an] additional 654,000 people last week’.4 By September 2021 the situation had deteriorated still further. As OCHA tweeted on 3 September: ‘Food stocks ran out on 20 August. A minimum of 100 trucks of food, non-food items and fuel are required daily to sustain an adequate response. Since 12 July, only 335 trucks have entered Tigray – about 9% of the required 3,900 trucks’.5

The UN Acting Humanitarian Coordinator for Ethiopia, Grant Leaity, provided this assessment on 2 September 2021: ‘An estimated 5.2 million people, or 90 percent of the population across the Tigray region, urgently need humanitarian assistance, including 400,000 people already facing famine-like conditions, to avert the world’s worst famine situation in decades’.6 He laid the blame for this situation at the Ethiopian government’s door, saying that under international humanitarian law, all parties to the conflict must allow and facilitate the rapid and unimpeded passage of impartial humanitarian relief to avert a crisis:

In particular, the Government of Ethiopia must allow and facilitate the unimpeded entry into the country, as well as movement within the country, of humanitarian relief personnel, supplies and equipment, including cash and fuel, whether over land, water or by air. This includes lifting bureaucratic impediments, expediting clearance of humanitarian supplies, and simplifying administrative procedures relating to relief operations.7

A woman carries an infant as she queues in line for food at a temporary shelter, Tigray region, Ethiopia, March 2021. Courtesy of Reuters/Baz Ratner/Alamy Stock

The origins of the Tigray war are relatively well known,8 with longstanding tensions between the Ethiopian government and its Eritrean and Somali allies on the one hand, and the Tigrayan authorities on the other. Towards the end of 2020 these tensions gradually ratcheted up, with both camps preparing for a conflict. The Ethiopian alliance had pre-positioned troops prior to the eruption of fighting on 4 November 2020, when Tigrayan forces clashed with Ethiopian forces from the powerful Northern Command, based in the Tigrayan capital, Mekelle. Some of the Northern Command troops joined the Tigrayans, while others refused to and escaped into Eritrea, or other parts of Ethiopia. The war had commenced. With the fall of Mekelle to Ethiopian troops on 28 November,9 what had been a conventional conflict was transformed into a guerrilla war. This has continued with unremitting ferocity, a great loss of life and property, many claims of atrocities and gross sexual violence.10

From War to Famine

While almost all wars involve civilian casualties, the current conflict seems particularly savage. Tigrayan civilians are being targeted in a way that goes beyond incidental fatalities. The Ethiopian–Eritrean alliance appears set on wiping out the Tigrayan population. This is not simply a propaganda claim made by the Tigrayan leadership (which has termed the conflict ‘genocide’); it appears supported by the evidence. As the UN report of June 2021 makes clear, aid is being held up at several points before it can reach those in need.11 In the South Eastern Zone, the Ethiopian National Defence Forces are accused of denying access to food convoys, seizing a truck transporting aid and forcing humanitarian trucks to carry military equipment. In the Eastern Zone, trucks belonging to a national non-governmental organisation were seized by Eritrean National Defence Forces, and reportedly used for military purposes. As the UN observes: ‘These acts constitute potential violations of International Humanitarian Law as humanitarian personnel and assets must be protected’.12

These could be brushed off as isolated incidents but they appear to be indicative of actual policy. Pekka Haavisto, Finland’s foreign minister, who has served as the EU’s special envoy on Ethiopia, explained to an EU meeting that he had held talks with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in February 2021.13 According to Haavisto, Abiy had revealed his intentions: ‘When I met the Ethiopian leadership in February they really used this kind of language, that they are going to destroy the Tigrayans, they are going to wipe out the Tigrayans for 100 years and so forth’. Haavisto’s remarks were made behind closed doors, but were soon made public.14 If this genuinely reflects Ethiopian policy then the term ‘genocide’ may not appear so far-fetched. This perception was given additional credibility by James Duddridge, the UK’s parliamentary under-secretary of state for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, when he described the Ethiopian actions as a de facto aid blockade.15

That Prime Minister Abiy is prepared to crush the Tigrayans is perhaps not difficult to understand. The Tigrayans controlled the Ethiopian government for 27 years (from 1991 until 2018). They had exercised immense power over that time, through the ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, which they controlled through regional front organisations.16 They populated senior ranks of the government, military and security forces with their personnel, as well as having a powerful hand in business. When Prime Minister Abiy (an Oromo) became premier in 2018, he was determined to remove this influence as a precursor to re-centralising the Ethiopian state. This was an explicit rejection of the ethnic federalist model which the Tigrayans had used to run the country and had long been a source of discontent.17 Once in control of the Ethiopian state, the prime minister was able to dismantle this system and purge the upper echelons of the military and security services of Tigrayans.18 As an article in African Intelligence put it:

As soon as he arrived in power in 2018, the Ethiopian prime minister announced that he planned to reform the Ethiopian army high command, which he saw as a Tigrayan leadership stronghold. The reform, which was carried out quietly over two years, enabled Abiy to remove officers who were too closely linked to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.19

The attitude of Prime Minister Abiy does not, however, explain the involvement of Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki. The president’s hatred of the leadership of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) is longstanding, complex and visceral.20 Isaias’s loathing came about because of deep-seated differences over politics, strategy and – perhaps above all else – the question of which liberation movement was the region’s ‘top dog’.21 Since the Eritreans had been the first to revolt against Ethiopia (in 1961) while the Tigrayans did so in the mid-1970s, Isaias regarded his movement as primus inter pares. The Tigrayans considered his views deeply patronising. These differences festered over time, but they came to the fore at what was perhaps the worst possible moment: the famine that struck Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa in 1983–85. Their quarrel peaked just as huge quantities of aid were being trucked from Sudan into the remote areas of Eritrea and Tigray held by the respective liberation movements (EPLF and TPLF). Both rebel groups had established relief subsidiaries to work with international humanitarian organisations to provide the resources needed to feed their people.22 They were remarkably successful. Some three-quarters of a million tonnes of supplies, worth around $350 million, were transported into rebel-held areas from Sudan before, during and after the famine, from 1981–91.23

However, the relief operation was not immune from the issues that divided the Eritrean and Tigrayan political organisations which had established them. Mark Duffield and John Prendergast, who have produced one of the few studies of the cross-border aid operation from Sudan, gave this account of what divided the liberation movements:

Briefly, the EPLF practiced a more conventional and positional style of warfare while the TPLF adopted a mobile guerrilla strategy … Reflecting its military growth, by 1984, the TPLF began to assert its political programme outside Tigray. Political and ideological differences with the EPLF, hitherto submerged, became manifest. These differences crystallised in mid-1985 with the TPLF establishing a Marxist-Leninist League of Tigray (MLLT). The EPLF felt that the Albanian style politics advocated by the MLLT were a mistake and a sign of a lack of political experience within the TPLF. In a joint meeting the EPLF decided to withdraw cooperation.24

Cutting the Road into Tigray

In the mid-1980s these divisions spilled over into an open dispute.25 There was a complete suspension of communications between the EPLF and TPLF between 1985 and 1988.26 Subsequently, relations were mended and the two movements went on to coordinate their offensives against the Ethiopian government. This culminated in the capture of their respective capitals in coordinated operations in 1991. But the consequences of the rift never healed; this was hardly surprising as the EPLF took the gravest exception to how the TPLF behaved and the insults its radio station and newspapers had carried. If this had been the only consequence of their differences the wounds might have healed, but it was not.

Isaias Afwerki prompted a further deterioration in the relationship. Determined to show the Tigrayans that the EPLF was the most powerful actor in the region, he ordered his forces to cut the road through EPLF-held territory, on which vital supplies from Sudan were travelling into Tigray. His decision has seldom been discussed. Only one author has previously chronicled what happened, and even he was unable to persuade Eritrean sources to speak to him.27 The Tigrayans explained that when the Eritrean roadblock came into force, between 60 and 100 trucks, used to transport the vital grain from Sudan, were left stranded in the town of Sheraro, in northwestern Tigray.28 The Ethiopian forces were just three to four hours away, but – say the Tigrayans – the EPLF refused to allow them to be driven to safety in Sudan. With no way of rescuing their trucks or getting aid into Tigray the TPLF found an alternative. The account described it:

Finally we had to build a new road to the Sudan via Wolqait within seven days and nights and we saved the trucks. It was a miracle! In any case, the EPLF behaviour was a savage act. It must be recorded in history like that! … They closed the road for about two years and we had no access to the Sudan for one month until we built a new road ourselves. And that was at the height of the famine!29

The interviewee was Tekleweini Assefa, head of the Relief Society of Tigray, who made clear the bitterness he felt about the EPLF’s decision.30 The TPLF took another step: it marched 200,000 Tigrayans across the difficult terrain of western Tigray and into Sudan, where they could receive international assistance.31 Many of those who made the journey were old, children, frail or ill. As many as 13,000 are reported to have died along the way.32

Paulos Tesfagiorgis, who was the head of the Eritrean Relief Association in Sudan, recalls the bitterness that the decision provoked among the Tigrayans. At the time he was cooperating with the Relief Society of Tigray, as both organisations worked with international donors to send relief convoys into the areas of Ethiopia held by their respective liberation movements. He confirms that the road through Eritrean-held territory was indeed cut as a result of the bitter rows in 1985: ‘There was a disagreement, a complete cutting off of relations and a propaganda war through radio stations and publications … The EPLF blocked trucks; blocking aid going from Sudan into Tigray’.33 But while the political differences were widely publicised, nothing was said in public about the severance of the aid pipeline. In Paulos’s view the roadblock was not a decision made by formal EPLF structures, or communicated to its membership. Rather, it was a personal decision taken by Isaias Afwerki. Paulos subsequently met Isaias and asked why this dramatic step had been taken, but the EPLF leader refused to discuss it. Instead, Isaias suggested vaguely that it was not aimed at rupturing the food supplies. Something else lay behind the order, Isaias hinted darkly, suggesting that it might have been about the movement of armaments. All Paulos knew was that the Relief Society of Tigray was ‘furious’ that the step had been taken, since it had resulted in such hardship and an immense loss of life. Despite this, he says that the two relief organisations managed to keep relations in Sudan professional and cordial, which was important as they both had to deal with the same international humanitarian organisations, on which they relied for aid.

Lessons from the 1983–85 Famine for the Present Crisis

Prime Minister Abiy has taken the extraordinary step of denying that starvation and famine currently stalk Tigray. As he went to cast his vote in the Ethiopian election on 21 June 2021 he told the BBC that: ‘There is no hunger in Tigray. There is a problem in Tigray and the government is fixing it’.34 Few in the UN or the humanitarian community would agree. Photographs of severely malnourished children have already begun to emerge from Tigray.35 There is concern that the current situation could be even more disastrous than it was in 1983–85, when over half a million died.36 This prediction is made based on two related problems.

First, the population of Tigray can no longer escape to safety in Sudan. Nor can the trucks that brought in so much food and medication from Sudan in the last famine make their way into Tigray. This is because a vast slice of land that linked Tigray and Sudan was captured by the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments, supported by Amhara special forces, in one of the first offensives of the war. The aim was clear: to cut possible supply routes to Sudan, as well as meeting the grievances of the Amhara community who claimed that Western Tigray was part of its ancestral lands.37 Human Rights Watch reported that the attack on Humera (at the tri-point of Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea) began on 9 November.38 Ethiopian and Amhara forces attacked the town from the south, while Eritreans bombarded it with artillery from the north. Within two days the town was in their hands. Tigrayan forces were forced northwards and eastwards, and only narrowly escaped encirclement and capture. There then followed an expulsion of Tigrayan civilians. By April 2021 the International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported that ‘there are some 1,000,052 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Tigray region’.39 The largest number fled to the northwestern Tigrayan town of Shire where – according to the IOM – ‘445,309 IDPs are residing in overcrowded collective shelters, including schools, within the host community and in open spaces. A majority of them are from Western and Northwestern Tigray’. By May 2021, Tigrayan websites were publishing documents that apparently showed Amhara farmers being offered Tigrayan farms to settle on.40

While most Tigrayans fled deeper into their own region, some did manage to cross into Sudan. By mid-June 2021, the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) recorded that 63,212 had made this journey.41 The numbers would have been higher had Ethiopian and Eritrean forces not been stationed to turn them back at the border.42 The BBC carried this from refugees in Sudan:

The number of refugees fleeing the northern Tigray region of Ethiopia – where federal and regional forces are engaged in fighting – has reduced drastically after soldiers were deployed to the border with Sudan.

The BBC first spotted the soldiers on Wednesday, at the Hamdayet border crossing point, and has been hearing testimonies from refugees who say their relatives are being blocked from leaving Ethiopia.

‘I arrived yesterday morning and I wanted to go back home to bring my family here,’ said one man who did not want to be identified. Speaking on the banks of River Sittet in Hamdayet, he told the BBC he had been unable to return to Tigray to get his relatives because ‘there are soldiers on the border and those who had gone before me were asked not to return’.43

Denied access to Sudan, the Tigrayan population are at the mercy of the Ethiopians and Eritreans who control access into their region. As indicated earlier, there are regular disruptions to the aid flows, with large areas beyond the reach of the humanitarian organisations.

Second, the ports of Eritrea, Assab and Massawa are the obvious routes to transport the vast quantities of grain and other essential supplies into government-held areas, just as they were in 1983–85. Then, the main problem was a lack of transport in the initial phases, but this was later overcome.44 Today, the ports and roads of Eritrea are (at least for the moment) closed to the humanitarian agencies.45 This may change, but at present there is no alternative to bringing the aid in via Djibouti, which can struggle to cope with the quantities required. Even if this can be done, the assistance will have to be delivered to Tigray from the east and the south, along roads which are (at the time of writing) beset by fighting. Worse still, there is no indication that Eritrea is prepared to allow international distributions in the areas under its control in northern Tigray. This is evident from the access map in the UN OCHA report of 17 June 2021.46 As the evidence of the cutting of the road into Tigray in 1985 cited above indicated, President Isaias feels no compunction about putting the lives of tens of thousands of Tigrayans at risk. Paulos Tesfagiorgis believes it is essential to find a way to access the Eritrean ports. He remarked that: ‘The needs are so huge … There is really no alternative. The international community must put pressure on Isaias to allow the use of the ports’.47

The only alternative would be to use air drops, as the RAF did in 1985. The programme, authorised by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and named Operation Bushel, was useful, supplying 32,000 tonnes of aid.48 But in the overall context of the humanitarian effort it was little more than a drop in the ocean. Undertaking a similar programme in the current crisis would be helpful (particularly in providing medicines to remote locations) but it is not a realistic alternative to a full-scale land and sea aid operation.


Most international concern in regard to the situation in Tigray has focused on Ethiopia, but the evidence suggests that this may be a mistake. President Isaias and Prime Minister Abiy entered the war as allies and their fates may well be linked to its outcome. Without understanding the hatred towards the Tigrayan leaderships that has motivated President Isaias for decades, it is not possible to grasp why this conflict, and the accompanying famine, has been so difficult to resolve. His determination to crush them once and for all is central to the unfolding events, but little understood. The Eritrean leader has shown himself utterly ruthless, and willing to jeopardise the lives of tens of thousands of Tigrayans, as well as the large number of Eritrean youth conscripted into the army. The war that the Tigrayans fought from the 1970s until they captured Addis Ababa in 1991 lasted 17 years. It is impossible to predict how long the current conflict will last, but diplomats would do well to consider President Isaias’s past behaviour as they attempt to negotiate with him over the war and the accompanying famine.◼


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