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Ethiopia: Escalating strife with Tigray could lead to civil war

Ahmed Soliman
By Ahmed Soliman

Researcher on the Horn of Africa with the Africa Programme at Chatham House, with a focus on the politics of Somalia, the Sudans, Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Posted on Wednesday, 11 November 2020 12:37

Members of the Amhara Special Force return to the Dansha Mechanized 5th division Military base after fighting against the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), in Danasha, Amhara region near a border with Tigray
Members of the Amhara Special Force return to the Dansha Mechanized 5th division Military base after fighting against the TPLF, in Danasha, Amhara region, Ethiopia November 9, 2020. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

A simmering feud between Ethiopia’s Federal Government and leaders in the Tigray region has escalated into armed confrontation which threatens to turn into a civil war, with long-term repercussions for stability across the Horn of Africa region. Urgent intervention is needed to reduce tensions and commit both parties to a cease-fire and negotiations.

Ethiopia stands on the precipice of a devastating internal conflict less than three years after the emergence of a new leader in Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali – a Nobel Peace Prize winner in 2019 – and the evolution of a political transition that promised so much in terms of institutional reforms, inclusivity and freedoms. The possibility of civil war not only calls into question the unity of Africa’s second most populous nation, but threatens any possibility of the Horn of Africa and Red Sea region moving beyond decades of cyclical conflict towards stability and integration.

Intensified military action was justified by the prime minister as a response to armed provocation and perceived intransigence from leaders in Tigray, a region in Ethiopia’s north-eastern highlands which is home to seven million of Ethiopia’s 110-million population.

READ MORE Ethiopia: PM Abiy orders military attack against the TPLF

Relations have been fraught for some time, particularly since the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)’s departure from Ethiopia’s ruling coalition in 2019. Both parties have worked hard to delegitimize the other short of open armed conflict in recent months. The postponement of national elections in August due to COVID-19 complicated the crisis, with the lack of inclusivity and consultation around the process resented in Tigray.

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

This resulted in the TPLF holding a unilateral and unconstitutional election and refusing to recognise the Federal Government’s legitimacy. In turn, the prime minister denounced the Tigray elections, cut ties with the regional administration and withheld federal budget subsidies, accusing the TPLF of stoking violence across the country.

Escalation of conflict in Tigray

Clashes began on 4 November, with government claims of an ambush by regional forces on the federal Northern Command base near Tigray’s capital Mekelle. In truth, preparations for a larger confrontation were already underway, with federal troops amassing on Tigray’s borders and the government swiftly imposing a six-month state of emergency in the region.

The House of Federation also approved a resolution to replace the TPLF with an interim administration. Amidst a connectivity blackout in Tigray, Prime Minister Abiy has largely controlled the narrative around developments, asserting that the military action being taken by the sovereign government to extract the rebellious TPLF is a law enforcement measure.

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

The situation is rapidly evolving with federal airstrikes on alleged artillery installations, much of the early fighting concentrated in Western Tigray close to Sudan and Eritrea and the number of reported casualties rising. There are conflicting accounts on the status of the Northern Command, with the TPLF claiming that it has allied itself with the regional government.

Prime Minister Abiy may be calculating that an incisive and intense military offensive will pressure Tigray’s leaders into a climb-down, in order to avoid a full-scale conflict and the undoubted heavy losses that would incur, thus giving Addis Ababa the upper hand in subsequent negotiations.

A more worrying scenario is the Federal Government following-up on its intent to remove the TPLF from Mekelle. Given the TPLF’s military history, organisational sophistication and firepower, this is a frightening prospect. More than half of Ethiopia’s armed forces and armaments are located in Tigray, with much of the country’s military equipment in TPLF hands. Even if Prime Minister Abiy wins the initial battle it would be much more difficult for him to win a protracted and punishing war, or the support needed from the majority of Tigrayans.

Wider consequences

The consequences of growing instability spread far beyond Tigray.

Hundreds, if not thousands, have been killed in the past three months in incidents of identity-based violence in Oromia, Benishangul, and the Southern region. Vast areas in Western Ethiopia are under the control of Oromo militants.

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

Many believe the conflict with Tigray is being used partly to deflect public attention from the government’s inability to stop this recurrent violence. Public trust has been eroded by the exploitation of tragedy for political gain by different groups, including the government’s inability to present credible evidence of its accusations against the TPLF and other political opponents in the federalist camp (like prominent Oromo Jawhar Mohammed), and the limited respect for due process and decisions taken by the courts.

The involvement of Amhara militia and special forces in the fighting in Tigray alongside the federal army will exacerbate the historical competition between Amhara and Tigray elites and tensions between their ethnic communities. This could hasten the fracture the armed forces along ethnic lines.

READ MORE Ethiopia: Defining Amhara nationalism for a better country

Worries about the intimidation and harassment of Tigrayans in the military and civil service were acknowledged by the prime minister – but he also reshuffled senior officials to consolidate the Oromo-Amhara alliance within his administration and reinforce support for the Tigray operation, which risks further alienating Tigrayans. The government must do all it can to prevent the ethnicization of conflict from spilling out of control and exacerbating instability across the country, which could result in further fragmentation.

Regional implications

The crisis also risks seriously destabilising the entire Horn of Africa, a region still feeling the aftershocks of the 1998-2000 Ethiopia-Eritrea war, which killed up to to 100,000 people and led to a regional proxy war that lasted for two decades. Tigray borders Eritrea (see above map) and the TPLF was at the forefront of the fighting, cementing an enmity between Tigrayan and Eritrean leaders that continues today.

The 2018 peace agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea – which won Abiy his Nobel Prize – has only been partially implemented without the inclusion and support of Tigray. TPLF officials accuse the prime minister and Eritrean president of collaborating to destabilise Tigray and tarnish the legacy and successes of the TPLF dominated era.

Sudan shares a border with northern Ethiopia and is experiencing its own delicate transition. Elites within its civilian-military government have links with Addis Ababa, Mekelle and Asmara. Sudan partly closed its eastern border and deployed troops to the region following discussions between Lt-General Abdel Al-Fattah Al-Burhan and Prime Minister Abiy, and there are indications that Tigray has established a corridor to import weapons and supplies through Sudan.

Sudan’s Prime Minister, chair of the regional bloc IGAD, has also tried to convince his counterpart to stabilise the situation. A prolonged conflict could lead to hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing to Eastern Sudan, a region already experiencing significant inter-communal turbulence. As well as Ethiopians, there are almost 100,000 Eritreans living in refugee camps in Tigray. Such flows could strain Sudan’s transition and exacerbate existing tensions between Sudanese and Ethiopian communities along the border.

READ MORE Eritrean refugees: Still caught in a game of “political football”

Ethiopia is also one of the largest contributors to peace-keeping missions with thousands of troops across the Horn, including in Somalia. Reports indicate that Ethiopia has already begun removing its non-AMISOM troops from Somalia, which could weaken support for Somali forces and provide opportunities for al-Shabaab to retake territory and implement attacks, especially during the upcoming Somalia elections.

The need to prioritise dialogue

From a regional security and diplomatic perspective, Ethiopia is too big to fail. Prime Minister Abiy has so far allayed  considerable international concern, but the UN, AU and EU should ramp up coordinated diplomatic efforts and demands for an immediate cessation of hostilities – as should the US and UK – two of Ethiopia’s largest bilateral donors.

READ MORE US decision to halt aid to Ethiopia over GERD risks complicating talk 

A strong message from president-elect Biden, with bipartisan backing, would be influential and begin to reverse the damage done to US-Ethiopia relations under President Trump. International actors need to be clear that there will be meaningful accountability for attacks on civilians and push for the establishment of a humanitarian corridor.

Both sides need to pull back from the abyss and moderate their extreme demands to secure a truce. South Africa’s ANC and the Chinese Communist Party could potentially play a bridging role to help narrow differences towards reaching a negotiated settlement. The UN and AU should also appoint an envoy to Ethiopia, preferably a respected senior African statesperson, to oversee a cease-fire and facilitate a locally initiated and genuinely inclusive mediation.

Discussions would seek to overcome the constitutional dispute that partly sparked the conflict, reach consensus on the role and responsibilities of political forces moving forward, as well as agreement on the election modalities and timetable. In the current climate, there is little possibility of holding peaceful, let alone free and fair elections in 2021.

History has shown that Ethiopia’s problems cannot be resolved by through bloodshed – a civil war would be unwinnable. Only the commitment to inclusive dialogue, consensus-building and reconciliation can give Ethiopia a chance of progress.

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