Three months after Ethiopian troops started fighting the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the Tigray region is in desperate straits. Hundreds of thousands of people are displaced and many face hunger or even starvation. It is a distressing echo of 1984, when food was used as a weapon with devastating consequences. In many ways, Ethiopia, one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies, has come so far since then. It would be a tragedy if it slipped back into old patterns.

When the government of Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning prime minister, dispatched troops last November, he said he was carrying out a simple law-enforcement operation to oust the TPLF, characterised as a “criminal clique”. Leave aside the fact that Abiy once led the security services of a TPLF-led government he now says presided over “27 years of darkness”. His promise that there would be no civilian casualties has proved hollow.

Reports trickling out of Tigray point to gruesome violence. There have been all-too-credible accounts of civilian massacres on all sides. One in the town of Mai-Kadra, in which hundreds are thought to have died, may well have been carried out by TPLF loyalists, as the government says. But other massacres were almost certainly enacted by militiamen from the neighbouring Amhara region, which has been encouraged by Abiy’s government to become involved. Witnesses report house-to-house killings, rapes and the looting of commercial buildings and churches.

The government has insisted its fight is with the TPLF and not the Tigrayan people. But many Tigrayans have been targeted, prevented from travelling or suspended from government jobs. And there is strong evidence that troops from Eritrea, a neighbouring country with decades of loathing for the TPLF, are involved in the fighting — even if both Addis Ababa and Asmara deny it. Some Tigrayans smell a plot to divide their region between Eritrea and Amhara.

The government should allay those fears by insisting that armed forces from both Eritrea and Amhara withdraw. Disputes over land between Tigray and Amhara should be resolved through a boundary commission.

The government in Addis Ababa has severely restricted access to Tigray, both to those wishing to get food and aid in and to those hoping to get reliable information out. This must stop. This week, the government struck a tentative agreement with the World Food Programme to allow in humanitarian aid. This is a good start. But the government must follow through and not slow the process, as it has done before, with unreasonable bureaucratic obstacles.

In the longer run, more effort is needed to solve the deeper questions posed by Ethiopia’s ethnic-federalist constitution. Allies of Abiy see the 1995 document as the “original sin”, the poisonous fruit of a TPLF strategy to divide and rule. Yet many in Ethiopia jealously guard regional independence and what they regard as their separate national identities.

It is a fiendishly difficult circle to square. Authorities should start by releasing opposition leaders, including Jawar Mohammed, now on hunger strike in prison. With opposition figures in jail, national elections scheduled for June 5 will not be credible.

Abiy’s government has chosen to blame the TPLF for all Ethiopia’s ills. It is true the TPLF oversaw a police state for nearly 30 years, albeit one that brought rapid development. It is true too that its leaders were angered by the loss of power. But Ethiopia’s problems go deeper. Without a broader national dialogue, the tensions that erupted in Tigray will erupt somewhere else.