Ethiopia – Tigray: What options does Abiy have now?

By Morris Kiruga
Posted on Friday, 5 November 2021 10:04

Rally to celebrate Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's incumbency at the Meskel Square in Addis Ababa
Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed attends a rally to celebrate his incumbency at the Meskel Square in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia October 4, 2021. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

As Addis Ababa braces itself for a likely assault by rebel forces from the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) and the TPLF, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s options are quickly dwindling, and Ethiopia’s neighbours are worried.

Ethiopia’s rebel groups are set to form a political alliance with opposition groups to prepare for a likely transition in Africa’s second most populous country, an OLA spokesperson told Bloomberg on Thursday 4 November.

The news follows an eventful week, where the OLA and the Tigray – the two main rebel groups in the current conflict – made significant advances en route to Addis Ababa. In response, Ethiopia’s federal government announced a national curfew and urged citizens to prepare to defend the city, terming the conflict an “existential war.”

Abiy’s options

In the Ethiopian capital, it is increasingly clear that Abiy’s options are quickly dwindling. He could dig in further and work to fight out a war of attrition, but the country’s demoralised federal army has faced multiple defeats in the last five months.

Despite the latest offensive, which includes air strikes on Mekelle, the Tigray capital, TPLF forces have gained further ground in Afar and Amhara regions, in a strategic expansion of the theatre of conflict that could have repercussions for decades. Its ally, the OLA, has also made significant progress. Its announcements – of plans to march onto Addis, and that the two groups are forming a broader political alliance – suggests they are working on a post-Abiy transition.

The men and women of the Government of Ethiopia, […] as well as the men and women who constitute the leadership that is fighting the government, must find reason to cease the fighting immediately and to dialogue.

Abiy’s other option may be to pursue peace and try to work out a deal with the rebel groups. It is increasingly clear that it is a war with no victors, as both sides – and Eritrea – have committed human rights violations and possible war crimes, according to a recent UN investigation. Though Abiy could survive as prime minister, a peace deal would offer him a way to negotiate his exit and a proper transition.

Tigray’s leaders have said that their immediate goal is to lift the siege, which has seen aerial bombardments, a total communications blackout and an aid blockade. Their longer-term goals for the country, however, are unclear. One clue lies in the name of the soon-to-be-formed rebel political alliance, the United Front of Ethiopian Federalist Forces.

East Africa rattled

The escalating conflict, which has cost thousands of lives and led to the displacement of millions, has rattled the East African region. It comes amidst a recent coup and counter-protests in neighbouring Sudan, the Covid-19 pandemic, and other multiple ongoing crises.

On Thursday, Uganda’s state minister for foreign affairs said President Yoweri Museveni has called for a regional leaders’ bloc meeting on 16 November to discuss the Ethiopia crisis. In October, President Museveni appointed Amama Mbabazi, former prime minister of Uganda (and his former rival in the 2016 presidential polls) as his special envoy to South Sudan and Ethiopia, but there’s been no progress in getting Ethiopia’s warring sides to find an amicable solution.

On Wednesday 3 November, Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta called for dialogue among the warring parties and offered his country’s help to “assist the process that the Ethiopians themselves see fit.”

“The men and women of the Government of Ethiopia, led by my dear brother in leadership, the prime minister, as well as the men and women who constitute the leadership that is fighting the government, must find reason to cease the fighting immediately and to dialogue,” Kenyatta said in a statement sent to newsrooms.

Although the conflict has been ongoing for a year now, Ethiopia’s regional neighbours have largely let the situation play out, despite the rapidly worsening humanitarian crisis and the risk of further instability in the region’s most populous nation.

Influx of refugees

While most of the tens of thousands of refugees, who have fled the fighting in Tigray, have made their way into Sudan, the escalation of the conflict further south, towards Addis Ababa, could see a refugee influx into Ethiopia’s other neighbours.

There are some reports of refugees from Tigray and other conflict areas making their way as far south as Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. The situation could worsen if the war and its humanitarian crises continue. Kenya and Ethiopia share an 861km-long border, most of it with the Oromiya regional state on the Ethiopian side, that is porous and renowned for smuggling activities.

In a statement shared online on Wednesday, Kenya’s police spokesperson, Bruno Shioso, said the country has “heightened security and vigilance along Kenyan borders and [ ]other critical areas” and asked its citizens to report “suspected cases of undocumented aliens and unprocessed immigrants.” Although the statement did not name the Ethiopian civil war specifically, its timing implies that it was triggered by last week’s events in the Horn of Africa nation.

Regional domino effect

Ethiopia’s conflict could also have other regional implications. The potential fall of Abiy would most likely mean the end of its young peace deal with Eritrea. It could also change relations with Mogadishu, where President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed ‘Farmaajo’ is facing multiple crises of his own, many of his own making.

Farmaajo has worked closely with Addis Ababa and Asmara, allegedly in the Tigray civil conflict too, as he seeks to pivot off Somalia’s dependence on Nairobi.

While PM Abiy’s administration has resisted calls for dialogue and seems largely dug in, mounting pressure may force him to make overtures to rebel forces. The United States’s special envoy to the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, landed in Addis Ababa on Thursday to push for a ceasefire. However, the chances of Feltman succeeding are low, especially since Ethiopia previously rejected the US as a mediator in a different crisis.

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