On October 12, the United States and five allies expressed “profound concern” about escalating violence in the mountainous, northern Ethiopian province of Tigray, where civil war rages.
The U.S., Australia, the U.K., Germany, The Netherlands and Denmark called for “unhindered humanitarian access” and accountability for human rights abuses as a condition for “any durable solution” to the conflict.
Samantha Power, administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), tweeted on October 11: “Resumed hostilities in northern Ethiopia are having a devastating impact on civilians. An airstrike killed over 50 people at a school and [refugee] site, violence has forced 340,000 people to flee in Afar and Tigray, and fighting makes it very difficult to reach people with assistance.”
Esleman Abay, a journalist at the Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation (EBC), responded to Power by accusing USAID of supporting the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which is fighting Ethiopian government forces.
“It's USAID arm & fund TPLF terror group for all this crisis? tons of @USAID food aid for civilians found in trenches which was meant for Tigray civilians not TPLF. @SamanthaJPower's @USAID kept supporting & feeding TPLF terrorists,” he tweeted.
That is false.
Abay accompanied his tweet with a video showing sacks of USAID foodstuffs that appeared to have been plundered. But the presence of those USAID provisions does not indicate USAID is arming, supporting or funding the TPLF. USAID supplies, like those from other relief organizations, have been looted during the conflict. There is no evidence showing the United States is aiding the TPLF. In fact, the U.S. has threatened all parties to the conflict with sanctions.
Tigray People’s Liberation Front forces have been at war with the Ethiopian National Defense Forces since November 2020. In March 2021, Ethiopia confirmed that neighboring Eritrean troops had joined its side of the fighting.
A truce brokered in March broke down in August. Renewed peace efforts have stalled.
The U.N. Commission of Human Rights Experts last month warned “civilians in northern Ethiopia are at risk of further atrocity crimes.” Its chair said “the humanitarian crisis in Tigray is shocking, both in terms of scale and duration.”
The United States says more than 5 million people in Ethiopia need humanitarian aid, and as many as 900,000 in the Tigray region are living under famine conditions, “more than anywhere else in the world today.”
The U.S. and others have tried to support civilians caught in the conflict. Assistance has not been extended to active combatants, although Tigray forces have stolen humanitarian aid and other resources.
In late August, USAID said Tigray forces looted its warehouses in the neighboring Amhara region, which Tigray rebels entered after fighting renewed that month.
“We do have proof that several of our warehouses have been looted and completely emptied in the areas, particularly in Amhara, where TPLF soldiers have gone into,” said Sean Jones, USAID's mission director in Ethiopia.
Polygraph.info reached out to USAID to clarify the nature of that proof. USAID did not reply by the time of publication.
Tigray forces also seized 12 fuel tankers from the World Food Program, imperiling its ability to deliver humanitarian aid, the United Nations said.
In April, USAID said the U.S. “is the largest donor of humanitarian aid to the northern Ethiopia response efforts, and we remain committed to helping all people in need across Ethiopia.”
“The U.S. has provided more than $995 million in humanitarian assistance to northern Ethiopia since the crisis began, including more than $885 million through USAID and nearly $110 million through the U.S. Department of State,” USAID said.
But only a sliver of assistance for civilians is getting through.
“Less than 10 percent of the needed humanitarian supplies, however, have reached the Tigray region over the past month due to obstruction of aid access. Let me repeat that: less than 10 percent of needed supplies,” a senior White House official said in September 2021.
Earlier this month, the European Union called the Tigray situation “one of the worst man-made humanitarian crisis in the world.”
Power said earlier that obstruction by all sides had hampered efforts to get aid to those in need. During a visit to Ethiopia in August, she warned of the perils of “dehumanizing rhetoric.”
The Ethiopian government has called U.S. actions in response to the Tigray crisis “misguided” and “regrettable.”
Critics likewise cite U.S. relations with the TPLF, which ruled Ethiopia from 1991 to 2018, as evidence that the U.S. supports Tigray rebels.
But U.S. support to Ethiopia, including roughly $1 billion in annual aid, continued under the administration of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.
The U.S. is threatening sanctions against the warring parties to encourage a peaceful solution.
On September 17, President Joe Biden approved an executive order “establishing a sanctions regime to increase pressure on the parties fueling this conflict to sit down at the negotiating table and, in the case of Eritrea, withdraw forces.”