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Where next for Abiy’s Ethiopia after Tigray operation ‘completed’?

By Nicholas Norbrook, Patrick Smith
Posted on Sunday, 29 November 2020 13:27

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed meets with AU envoys in Addis Ababa
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed meets with African Union (AU) envoys in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia November 27, 2020, in this picture obtained from social media. TWITTER/@PMETHIOPIA via REUTERS

On Saturday night, Ethiopia's Prime Minister declared that the northern city of Mekelle was 'under [the] command of National Defense Forces'. Abiy's claim that the city of half a million people is under control is impossible to verify given the current telecoms blackout. It also leaves the future unclear. Here are three scenarios for how things might turn out.

The Federal forces versus Tigray clash tells us that even in the time of satellite comms and near ubiquitous social media, it is possible to run a military campaign and block any independent reporting – even on the humanitarian consequences of the campaign.

By the morning of 29 November, senior officials of the International Rescue Committee had been unable to contact most of their staffers on the ground in Tigray to assess emergency and logistical needs.

With the TPLF — the Tigray regional government who had been holding out against Abiy – now saying that they will withdraw from Mekelle, the door is now open to a grinding guerrilla war, something the region is familiar with.

READ MORE ‘Abiy Ahmed had to punish those seeking to break up Ethiopia’ – Djibouti President

Some background on why analysts see this as a real threat: the TPLF fought a tough insurgency against Mengistu’s Derg during the 1980s. The Derg were a revolutionary ‘red terror’ military force who had themselves overthrown Emperor Haile Selassie. The TPLF eventually prevailed against Mengistu in 1991, but not before becoming a formidable fighting force in their own right.

The TPLF have clearly not given up the fight. The US embassy in Asmara reported six explosions, as rockets from the region hit the Eritrean capital. Eritrea’s leader Isaias Aferwerki is an Abiy ally, after the TPLF-run Ethiopia clashed with Eritrea in a devastating war in the mid-1990s.

READ MORE Ethiopia: National pride, national shame

But while TPLF economic and development strategists are recognised for their role in the Ethiopian economic miracle of the last two decades, TPLF military planners may have lost their touch. By sending rockets into the Amhara region, hitting the regional capital Bahir Dar, they cemented support for the Prime Minister from the rest of the country.

So where next for Abiy’s Ethiopia?

Will this permanently knock Ethiopia off the reform trajectory Abiy had set for the country?

It has been tempting to frame the Prime Minister in terms of the slide from Nobel peace maker to military leader sending in troops to attack his own people.

READ MORE Will Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict spillover into Eritrea, Egypt and Sudan?

But as Ethiopian development consultant Amdissa Teshome, writing in to comment on a previous piece on the supine African Union intervention told us, “He did not suddenly change from ‘peace lover’ to ‘war monger’. One needs to analyse the whole process (milestones and turning points) not just the event. For example, the government postponed the election giving COVID-19 as a reason. Many countries have done that. How many have become illegitimate the next morning?”

Certainly the milestones Teshome mentions are important; from ruling the country, the TPLF were reduced to minority status by Abiy’s arrival, and have been spending a great deal of money and energy in regaining their place.

Much ink will be spilt on whether or not Abiy’s management of that political process was appropriate. But tension had indeed been brewing for many months.

READ MORE Ethiopia’s Tigray region has seen famine before: will it return?

Some also see a failure of the international community.

“Part of the problem is the overwhelming uncritical almost unconditional international support for Abiy ever since he took office, which emboldened him”, says William Davison, Senior Analyst for Ethiopia at the International Crisis Group.

As a result, the Abiy regime has moved towards the transactional politics more common in wider region, pulled in the orbit of the Gulf countries.

READ MORE The Red Sea: A magnet for outside powers vying for its control

Abiy has, for example, been accused by the TPLF of receiving assistance from the UAE in the shape of drones.

Open source intelligence outfit BellingCat believe that while satellite imagery “suggests that the United Arab Emirates air base in Assab, Eritrea is indeed home to drones consistent with China’s Wing Loong II model of armed uncrewed aerial vehicles”, there is no conclusive evidence that these were used to strike Tigray.

BellingCat / Planet Labs

The crisis also shows the flaws in regional and international diplomatic approaches. The European Union called for a ceasefire mediation while the outgoing US administration gave 100% the Federal Force campaign arguing that neither side was willing to accept mediation.

Yet the incoming US administration aligned itself with the EU approach. President-elect Joe Biden’s National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan backed ceasefire calls, warned of a humanitarian crisis and “risks of violence against civilians, including potential war crimes.”

Ethiopia’s other big partners, India and China, have maintained a discreet silence, despite the strong historic ties between Beijing and the TPLF.

But for many diplomats across Africa, the most sobering conclusion was the powerlessness and the sidelining of the African Union as other players weighed in.

It is all the more perplexing for some given the AU is headquartered in Addis Ababa, and all the continent’s member states have embassies in the Ethiopian capital and were well aware of the growing tensions between the federal government and Tigray.

Beyond the shifting regional landscape, domestic political forces will be key.

There seem to be three scenarios, for the short term at least.

  1. In the first, an Abiy victory in Mekelle is relatively uncomplicated, the TPLF rump is quickly wrapped up, Abiy’s legitimacy is assured nationally, regime stability returns. It sends a powerful message to the region – don’t mess with Ethiopia. That will be heard in Nairobi, Khartoum, Cairo and Mogadishu.
  2. In the second, the TPLF start a small guerilla war; it continues for several months, and keeps Ethiopia on war footing, caught between war and peace, similar to Cote d’Ivoire’s lost decade. Everything is on hold, from economic to political reform, while the military dominates, creating a slow decline in institutions. The intensity of the fightback will depend on wider politics of Tigray; how, for example, the 93% of voters who backed TPLF in September elections now see the party.
  3. The last and worst scenario would see the TPLF launch a well-organised guerilla war, that gains increasing popular support because of the brutal behaviour of government forces. Regional governments in Ethiopia start to tire of Abiy, and take advantage of the government being tied up in the north to push their own independence agenda, leading to schism and more localised violence. Egypt, Eritrea and others in their own way will take advantage of the situation.

Davison of Crisis Group broadly sees scenario 2 as most likely, perhaps edging toward 3, “but without the implication that continued problems in Tigray would lead to Prosperity Party regional governments rebelling. Instead the system might get further destabilised if other opposition ethno-nationalist forces, particularly in Oromia, regain their vitality as they sense weakness.”

An inexact parallel three decades back is the break-up of Yugoslavia over which the European Union presided and prognosticated while ultra-nationalists committed atrocities.

As reports of the fall of Mekelle came through on the evening Saturday (28 November), a senior East African diplomat and mediator warned: “Our diplomatic and economic cooperation structures are not working as this crisis has shown. It should be a wake-up call to strengthen our continental institutions in tumultuous times such as these.”