Ethiopia – Tigray: Fears grow of ‘descent into warlordism’ if TPLF takes Addis

By Fred Harter
Posted on Thursday, 18 November 2021 12:03

Ethiopia Tigray Crisis
A person holds a national flag as people gather at a rally organized by local authorities to show support for the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF), at Meskel square in downtown Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Sunday, Nov. 7, 2021. (AP Photo)

As rebels from Tigray continue to push south towards Addis Ababa, there are fears that Ethiopia's widening civil war could spill across borders and engulf neighbouring countries.

On Friday 12 November, ahead of his first trip to Africa, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken warned that Ethiopia is at risk of “implosion” if a peace deal is not reached, with potentially disastrous results “for the Ethiopian people and also for countries in the region”.

Millions have already been internally displaced by the conflict in the Tigray, Amhara and Afar states, and regional leaders are plagued by the prospect of new waves of refugees crossing international borders if the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and its ally, the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), try to take the capital.

‘Warlordism’

Such a move could trigger bloody fighting on a far greater scale than seen so far in the year-long conflict. Some 200,000 residents of the capital have joined militias to defend their neighbourhoods, and Amhara leaders, who have portrayed the war as a battle for survival, may opt for full-blown rebellion rather than renewed TPLF rule.

Independent analyst Moges Zewdu predicts a descent into “warlordism” fuelled by ethnic nationalisms and embroiling the entire country, if the TPLF succeed in taking the capital. The group once dominated Ethiopia’s politics, but were forced out by protests in 2018.

“There is too much hostility towards them, they will not have the capacity to govern,” he says. “Assuming the TPLF is successful in capturing the capital and toppling the government, I envisage a situation like Somalia where different warlords govern different zones, as the country deteriorates and breakaway republics are carved out.”

These fears were echoed by Jeffrey Feltman, the US special envoy for Horn of Africa, during an interview with Foreign Policy magazine in April. “Ethiopia has 110 million people,” he said. “If the tensions in Ethiopia […] result in a widespread civil conflict that goes beyond Tigray, Syria will look like child’s play by comparison.”

Rebels deep in Amhara

From the time Feltman made those remarks, the rebels have pushed deep to the Amhara state, where they have been accused of atrocities, and have announced an alliance with eight other ethnic-based militant groups intent on deposing Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.

On Tuesday, they claimed to be in control of Ataye, some 290km from Addis Ababa, after capturing the towns of Dessie, Kemise and Komblocha in recent weeks, though they have met stiff resistance from federal forces and allied militias.

Spillover in the region

This widening of the conflict comes at a fraught time for the region. Sudan – already home to tens of thousands of refugees from Tigray – is gripped by protests following last month’s military takeover, while Somalia’s political elite is wracked by infighting after the country’s president extended his term in April, a move that has triggered gun battles on the streets of Mogadishu.

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Then there is the long-running dispute with Egypt over Ethiopia’s mega-dam on the Blue Nile, which Cairo sees as a risk to its water supply and has repeatedly threatened to blow up.

To the north, Djibouti is watching, albeit nervously. The rebels have tried repeatedly to cut the road linking its port to Addis Ababa, an important source of revenue, and Djibouti’s government is also wary of unrest spreading to members of its Afari community, who have links to Afaris engaged in fighting the TPLF in Ethiopia.

I hope we get to the point where both sides see the utility in coming together to avert a much more severe conflict, but I’m not certain.

In recent weeks, there have also been reports of cargo planes arriving in Ethiopia – from the UAE and elsewhere – possibly carrying arms, as well as speculation that the government is using Turkish drones after it struck a military and financial cooperation deal with Ankara in August.

Having tightened security along his country’s northern border with Ethiopia, Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta landed in Addis Ababa on Sunday for impromptu talks with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and President President Sahle-Work Zewde.

Kenyatta had earlier this month called on both sides to start negotiations. “I have lent the full weight of my office in insisting that despite the pertaining circumstances surrounding the crisis, the fighting must stop!” he said in a statement.

That message was echoed by President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, who has called for a summit of regional leaders to address the crisis in Ethiopia.

‘Small window of opportunity’ for peace

African Union envoy Olusegun Obasanjo has been shuttling between Addis Ababa and Mekelle in an attempt to kickstart ceasefire negotiations. He told the UN Security Council that there is a “small window of opportunity” for peace, but both the TPLF and the federal government continue to publicly rule out negotiations.

Ahmed Soliman, a Horn of Africa specialist at Chatham House, says additional efforts from regional leaders, such as Kenyatta and Museveni, could help bridge the gap, although according to him, more coordinated pressure is required.

“I hope we get to the point where both sides see the utility in coming together to avert a much more severe conflict, but I’m not certain,” he says. “Unfortunately we’ve not seen much give or take on either side so far.”

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