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Ethiopia: Not too late to stop Tigray conflict from unravelling country

Dino Mahtani
By Dino Mahtani

Deputy Director, Africa Program, International Crisis Group

William Davison
By William Davison
Senior analyst for Ethiopia, International Crisis Group

Posted on Tuesday, 10 November 2020 13:31, updated on Wednesday, 11 November 2020 08:43

Members of Amhara region militias ride on their truck as they head to face the Tigray People's Liberation Front in Sanja
Members of Amhara region militias ride on their truck as they head to face the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), in Sanja, Amhara region near a border with Tigray, Ethiopia November 9, 2020. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

In the early hours of 4 November, a powder keg exploded in the Horn of Africa, as tensions between Ethiopia’s federal government and Tigray region’s leaders erupted into conflict.

In response to an alleged attack by Tigrayan forces on a federal military base in west Tigray, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered the national army to launch operations to remove the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the region’s ruling party. Deadly fighting is now ongoing in Tigray’s west, while federal jets have pounded targets near its capital Mekelle.

READ MORE Tigray crisis in Ethiopia: Federal government marches towards war with TPLF

Abiy, last year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, has rebuffed any suggestion of talks and reiterated his intention to prevail by force.

However, significant segments of the Ethiopian military stationed in Tigray appear to be siding with the TPLF, meaning that the confrontation is likely to be fierce and prolonged. This could not only shatter Africa’s second most populous country, already reeling from other violence, but also further destabilise the turbulent Horn.

‘Stop the war spiralling out of control’

It is not too late though to stop the war spiralling out of control. All of Ethiopia’s external partners need to persuade both sides to urgently and unconditionally cease fire. When the guns go silent, Ethiopia’s feuding political class should kickstart a national dialogue to bridge deep divisions across the country, not least over the country’s disputed federal system.

READ MORE Ethiopia: Federal solidarity is needed to solve Tigray dispute

Watching tensions rise between Ethiopia’s federal leadership and the TPLF over the past few months has been like watching a train crash in slow motion. After Abiy assumed power in April 2018, relations between him and the TPLF, long dominant in Ethiopian politics, quickly soured as Abiy dismissed senior Tigrayans from federal institutions and blamed the TPLF for hiring proxies to carry out violence.

In late 2019, he merged the ruling coalition, of which the TPLF was part, into a single political party, which Tigray leaders declined to join. The TPLF also ignored a federal arrest warrant for a former spy chief who sits on its politburo.

The straw that broke the camel’s back

A constitutional dispute sent relations into a nosedive. In June, Abiy’s government postponed elections scheduled for August due to COVID-19 and the federal parliament thus extended the terms of the federal and regional governments. Tigray rejected this as unconstitutional and held its own regional election on 9 September, in defiance of federal warnings. Addis Ababa subsequently ruled Tigray’s leadership unlawful, while Tigray declared it would not recognise Abiy’s administration after its original term expired on 5 October.

READ MORE Ethiopia’s parliament votes to sever ties with Tigray region leaders

In the week prior to the conflict, the Tigray government had refused to allow a senior officer to take up his post in the military’s Northern Command, based in Tigray region. The federal parliament then said the TPLF should be branded a terrorist group after it was blamed for a 2 November massacre of ethnic Amhara in Oromia, escalating matters further.

A protracted conflict appears all too likely

Federal forces will run up against Tigray’s strong security forces, considerable Tigrayan support for the TPLF’s stance and the fact that some military leaders from the army’s Northern Command do not support the federal intervention. Prolonged fighting will further test the armed forces’ integrity. It may also embolden other opposition groups to ramp up confrontation with the federal government. An armed rebellion is already underway in Oromia, while Amhara factions seek to reclaim territory in west Tigray they allege the TPLF annexed when it was instrumental in designing the federation.

READ MORE Ethiopia: Who and what is behind the Oromia crisis – a view from Abiy’s camp

Ethiopia, a country of over 100 million people, is pivotal to the stability of the Horn of Africa. Its unravelling would have a major impact beyond its borders. Addis Ababa has already recalled some troops from neighbouring Somalia, where it supports the African Union mission to fight the Al-Shabaab insurgency; threatening to create a security vacuum as that country heads into a tense electoral cycle.

Eritrea, which shares a frontier with Tigray and whose President Isaias Afwerki is close to Abiy, could also well be drawn into confrontation with the TPLF. The party dominated Ethiopia’s ruling coalition when the country was at war with Eritrea between 1998 and 2000.

Neighbouring Sudan is also involved. With Tigray squeezed between Eritrea to the north and federal forces elsewhere, it has its eyes on east Sudan to import vital supplies. However, Sudan has closed its border with Tigray, potentially blockading the region, which already had 600,000 people in need of aid.

A major humanitarian crisis is thus in the making, reminiscent of the scenes of misery during Ethiopia’s civil war of the 1980s. In addition, the conflict could spur migration abroad, including towards Europe.

Ethiopian Orthodox Christians light candles and pray for peace during a church service at the Medhane Alem Cathedral in the Bole Medhanealem area of the capital Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Thursday, Nov. 5, 2020. (AP Photo/Mulugeta Ayene)

It may still be possible to avoid this nightmare scenario if concerted pressure is applied quickly to urge the parties to cease fire. That likely requires both sides to realise they have no path to quick victory, and to sit around the table together despite describing each other as illegitimate. Senior Ethiopian statesmen, Ethiopia’s neighbours in the Horn of Africa, the African Union, the European Union, and the U.S. all have a part to play in driving these messages home.

The war between Addis Ababa and Mekelle is the most dangerous faultline in Ethiopian politics, but is far from the only one. Even if the federal government and Tigray reach a truce, a comprehensive and inclusive national dialogue should follow. This should include an amnesty for jailed opposition leaders. Increasingly bitter disputes that have threatened to upend the country’s transition mean that such a dialogue is the best hope of keeping Ethiopia together.

Bottom line

Abiy Ahmed is a Nobel Peace Prize winner. Even as Ethiopia’s international partners urge the TPLF and Addis Ababa to give dialogue one more chance, the prime minister should himself reject the notion that he can resolve Ethiopia’s political predicament through force.

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