Former politician David Shearer is back from his UN job in South Sudan, and talks to The Detail about the tragedy unfolding on the other side of the globe

While New Zealand is looking inward to grapple with the serious complications brought on by the pandemic, there’s a disaster unfolding a world away from our borders.

In Ethiopia a different and yet regrettably familiar conflict is reaching boiling point.

The country is currently locked in a civil war between government forces, backed by Eritrean allies, and fighters from the Tigray region of Ethiopia.

Tens of thousands of soldiers have died; hundreds of thousands are starving, with food shortages accentuated by the military conflict and the reported refusal by government officials to allow aid into the country.

Millions more people have fled.

On today’s episode of The Detail, Emile Donovan speaks with former Labour Party leader David Shearer, who for the past four years has headed the United Nations’ humanitarian efforts in South Sudan. Just back home and talking from MIQ, he tells us about the complicated background to the conflict, the horrifying human cost, and the limited options the global community has in intervening.

Tigray is a region in northern Ethiopia. It has about 7 million people, about 6 percent of the country’s population.

Ethiopia, like many African countries whose modern borders were arbitrarily drawn up by western nations, has many different ethnic groups living in it – more than 80.

In 1974, the country was seized by a military alliance called the Derg, which executed dozens of former government officials and established a Marxist dictatorship. Over the next 17 years, the Derg fought a long-running civil war against a coalition of rebel forces, called the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, which included a faction called the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.

The coalition forces prevailed and introduced, ostensibly, a federal republic. Tigrayan authorities often held considerable sway in these governments, partly because Tigrayans were heavily involved with the victory over the Derg.

While Ethiopia became more prosperous and stable, corruption and authoritarianism remained; in 2018, under considerable public pressure, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn stepped down from the post, saying he wanted to clear the way for reform.

Up stepped the current Ethiopian prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, who dissolved the existing coalition and reformed it into a new party, the Prosperity Party. He began a campaign of economic and political reform, but Tigrayan leaders saw this as an attempt to centralise power and refused to support the new party.

A series of events, including Tigray holding federal elections in the middle of the pandemic in defiance of Abiy Ahmed’s instructions, culminated in Ethiopian forces invading Tigray after TPLF forces captured military bases.

While the government has held the upper hand in the opening salvos of the conflict, the tide of battle has turned and Tigrayan forces now hold ascendancy.

Abiy won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for his efforts negotiating a peace deal with neighbouring Eritrea.

His track record might suggest the government he heads is the clear “goodie” in this conflict – but the situation is more ambiguous.

Abiy’s government has been accused of war crimes, and of refusing to allow non-governmental organisations like the UN to deliver food supplies into Tigray – some observers have described the Ethiopian famine as “man-made” because of this.

Shearer says the combatants are so entrenched in their positions now that the global community has little sway in helping to resolve the conflict unless the respective parties decide they want to do so.

He says the scale and scope of the civil war is massive, and the barriers preventing organisations like the UN from helping citizens are deeply frustrating.

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