The underside of the cup: Ethiopia

Florence Marquis

Global coffee trade represents between 10 and 15 billion dollars depending on the year. More than 2.25 billion cups of coffee are consumed worldwide every day. The coffee economy represents a significant part of the income of several countries on either side of the equator. It is also the most exported product after oil and the movements of goods are therefore closely linked to the geo-political issues of the producing countries and we can see the traces of their histories colored by European colonization strategies.
This column is intended to be a different look at the industry and the content of our cups of coffee, with the perspective of Florence Marquis, an integrated baccalaureate student in public affairs and international relations at Laval University.

A war behind closed doors

For more than a year, there has been a civil war in Ethiopia, between a region in the north of the country, Tigray, and the federal government. This conflict, which could be damaging for Africa, involves military alliances and humanitarian crises. It is these conditions that make direct trade with the farmers of this country tedious. The situation is far from perfect, it is difficult to export products from the country and export companies only leave a small percentage of income to farmers. And still those are lucky whose crops have not been completely destroyed. Today's text highlights the context in which this stormy situation developed, the main actors involved as well as the impacts on the population, mainly in the Tigray region, located at the epicenter of the conflict.

TPLF and Abiy Ahmed

First of all, before 1991, there was a military regime in power in Ethiopia, which did not please the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) which led guerrillas against this regime for fifteen years. During this same period, he established a series of political practices and local governance institutions that helped structure Tigrayan society, thus making them particularly popular within their region. Tigray, which has 7 million inhabitants, is only a tiny fraction of the Ethiopian population (6%). However, it is this region that managed to take power in 1991 and also maintained it until 2019 with the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition. This regime also brings its share of conflicts, mainly with a neighboring country, Eritrea, with which the border question is tumultuous, both claiming mounds of the Tigray region. These dissensions lasted until the 21st century, or rather until the current Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, took power. At the end of their reign, the TPLF was accused of having appropriated wealth throughout their mandate and was not re-elected. Instead, a representative of the Oromo people takes power (the most populous ethnic group, today making up 34.5% of the population). The new prime minister then arrives full of good will, wanting to bring a wind of renewal with his numerous reforms. He first reshuffled the executive, reducing his team, now made up of as many women as men. He also merged the coalitions and formed the Prosperity Party (EPP). This new coalition which excludes the TPLF was enormously criticized by the latter who refused to recognize the new party in power. Indeed, the Prime Minister considers them as obstacles to his reforms and undertakes, from the start of his mandate, to marginalize them. Also, he made the decision to postpone the legislative elections in 2020, due to restrictions related to COVID-19. Despite the electoral commission's ban, Tigray decided to still hold the elections in its province as a sign of protest. Another asset that Ahmed adds to his sleeve is the historic reconciliation with Eritrea which earned him a Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 and which was a strong advantage in his favor during the civil war which broke out shortly after .

Civil war and crimes against humanity

Then, on November 4, 2020, Abiy Ahmed launched troops against Tigray, accusing them of attacking federal army bases. The goal was simple: to overthrow the provincial power that the Prime Minister describes as criminal, terrorist, as well as to regain control of the province. The attacks begin when the population reaps the harvests. Several farms were therefore pillaged, and civilians were forced to flee. In December 2020, the federal government took control of Mekele, capital of Tigray, established a provisional government and declared victory over the Tigrayans. This victory, however, was only short-lived. In June 2021, the balance of power is reversed. The TPLF regains control of its capital, joins forces with an ethno-regional rebel organization, the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) and begins advancing into neighboring territories Amharas and Afars towards the capital Addis Ababa. Seeing this, the prime minister declared a state of emergency, a measure that allowed him to enlist any citizen of fighting age and who had a weapon, bringing renewed fighting. Massacres, indiscriminate attacks, sexual violence and torture produced by each party are denounced by the Ethiopian human rights commission. Other crimes are also committed by other troops. Eritrean troops invade towns such as Aksum and open fire in the streets, killing innocent citizens. In addition, they steal luxury goods, vehicles, medicines, food, etc. Losses are estimated at several hundred deaths, but many consider this figure to be underestimated considering everything the Eritreans have done. Relations between the two peoples have remained tumultuous since the TPLF came to power. Some soldiers have it on their hearts when invading Aksum: ​​

“You have mistreated Eritreans for 20 years, now for 50 years you will starve, then we will kill your men and rape your women. We were sent to clean out the Tigrayans, they will be replaced by real Ethiopians; we are cleansing this country of people like you.”

The government also has a large role to play in this conflict, numerous airstrikes have been carried out by the army, targeting TPLF installations, but most of the time killing innocent civilians, women, children. However, the greatest weapon used by the federal government was starvation. Finally, on November 5, 2021, the coalition comprising the OLA and the Tigray group expanded to include seven other lesser-known organizations from various regions and ethnicities, with the common goal of bringing down the prime minister. Several countries already fear the effect that this conflict could have in the long term on the rest of the continent. Indeed, several countries are already involved and analysts fear that the longer the conflict lasts, more countries will be involved. This risk of degeneration predicted by various organizations encourages them to beg for talks and a ceasefire, to which both parties remain deaf.

Famine and human rights

It is also true that very little consideration on the part of the government seems to have been given to the health and well-being of the Tigrayan people. Indeed, several citizens had to flee their farms even though agriculture was subsistence there and it was one of their only means of survival. Drinking water, already scarce, became even more scarce after that. The generators and short circuits that operated the water pumps and sewer systems had been destroyed or stolen. The water to which citizens now had access was contaminated and a source of disease. 2.7 million children can no longer go to school and are exposed to sexual violence. Tigray has had to endure several indiscriminate bombings as well as others targeting factories, schools and even hospitals. A quarter of school facilities have been destroyed, meaning that as a result of the conflict, fewer children will have access to education. Several people had to flee their homes towards Sudan, some even having to walk for days or even weeks to reach the refugee camps. These same camps find themselves most of the time overcrowded, very unhygienic and security is generally not ensured. Very often, there are no showers, toilets or drinking water supply points. Under these conditions, the risk of disease spreading is very high, as is the risk of child exploitation. The government has also isolated Tigray by blocking roads, communications, the Internet or closing banks and preventing flights to Tigray. As mentioned earlier, the worst weapon the federal government uses is starvation. Roads were blocked, bridges destroyed, flights canceled, no one could go to the province, even though 70% of the population needed food aid and 400,000 inhabitants were on the verge of starvation. Under these conditions, no humanitarian aid could transit to hot spots where the needs were dire. Several shipments of security trucks could not reach their destination due to the state of the roads. Also, there is a blackout, there is no longer access to the Internet, so it is difficult to get information from within the province. Also, despite the conflict between the government and Tigray, the other provinces are not immune to collateral damage.

Ultimately, this conflict is not only dangerous for Ethiopians, but also for Africa as a whole, if it is not resolved quickly enough. Yet with the stubbornness of both parties in not accepting either interference from Western countries or a ceasefire, we are far from having heard the last of this conflict. This is a shame for us, since there are magnificent batches of coffee on the territory of Ethiopia, such as those produced by Kebede Godo Loni, a producer living in Gedeo Woredo in the province of Yirgacheffe, in the south of the country. . Despite their distance from Tigray, exporting their product is not easy due to a drop in air transport to Ethiopia. The main airline suspended 90% of its international flights during the health crisis. Also, if producers did business with an export company, their profit margin on the products sold would only be reduced. It's always a shame to see how conflicts in a country can influence the economy so much and cause businesses to no longer reach their full potential.

Florence Marquis

Integrated baccalaureate student in public affairs and international relations.

Our coffees from Ethiopia:

The Yirgacheffe

The Harrar


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