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Ethiopia’s civil conflict is over – or is it?

Current Affairs

Ethiopia’s civil conflict is over – or is it?

A member of the Afar Special Forces stands in front of a damaged house in the outskirts of the village of Bisober, Tigray.

Although Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to all intents and purposes triumphed militarily over his enemies in Tigray, there could still be plenty of trouble ahead, both for Abiy and for Ethiopia. In addition, the spectre of another 1980s-type famine in Tigray is looming. Abiy Ahmed will need to produce exceptional leadership if Ethiopia, as well as the region, is to be properly stabilised. Analysis by James Jeffrey.

Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed recently appeared on national television to announce that not a single civilian had been killed by federal military forces during its offensive into Tigray, Ethiopia’s most northern region.

Establishing the facts about what happened during the six weeks of civil conflict is hard. Access to Tigray by the media, UN agencies and NGOs was severely restricted during the fighting. The region was put under a total communications blackout too.

But Abiy’s claim is unconscionable given warfare’s nature, that never permits clean score sheets (and Abiy should know as a former military officer), and with the UN and human rights organisations calling for an independent investigation into allegations of civilians being massacred and the shelling and looting of residential areas.

Most estimates suggest that thousands have been killed, and more than two million people have been displaced within Tigray, with about 50,000 fleeing into neighbouring Sudan. 

“No responsible leader can make such claims during times of armed conflict,” says Matt Bryden, director of Sahan, a research think-tank focused on the Horn of Africa. “It raises questions as to whether the prime minister is dissembling, is himself misinformed or actually believes his own rhetoric. Any and all of these scenarios undermine his credibility with much of his own public and with Ethiopia’s international partners.”

The conflict broke out in early November, when Abiy ordered a military offensive against Tigray in response to attacks by forces directed by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the region’s dominant party, on federal military bases housing government troops in the region.

“The Ethiopian government had no option but to respond militarily to this attack by TPLF,” says Tewodrose Tirfe, chair of the Amhara Association of America, a US-based advocacy group for the Amhara, Ethiopia’s second-largest ethnic group. “The TPLF’s action [was] nothing short of a coup d’état to return to power.”

Others argue that it was a pre-emptory strike by the TPLF against the build-up of federal forces clearly preparing for an offensive. Once Abiy gave the order, the Ethiopian military advanced swiftly, seizing various Tigray towns and cities.

The regional capital of Mekelle was soon encircled. Abiy declared victory after capturing Mekelle on 28 November, with the TPLF forces and its political leadership seemingly routed. But it’s looking less simple than that.

Acrimonious build-up

The clash came after months of feuding between Abiy’s government and TPLF leaders, on the back of tensions simmering between the two sides ever since Abiy came to power in 2018, when he launched a broadside of sweeping reforms that pushed the TPLF to the sidelines.

Up until Abiy emerged, the TPLF was the big player in Ethiopian politics. Its founders spearheaded the defeat of Ethiopia’s military dictatorship in 1991 and went on to create the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition party that ruled Ethiopia with an iron fist for the subsequent decades.

Brought to power on a wave of anti-government protests, Abiy wasn’t having any more of the political status quo that favoured the TPLF. By the end of 2019, he dissolved the EPRDF, merging the ethnically based regional parties into a single, national entity, the Prosperity Party – which the TPLF refused to join.

Relations between the two sides further soured when Abiy postponed Ethiopia’s June national election in 2020 due to coronavirus. The TPLF responded that the central government had become illegitimate, arguing Abiy no longer had a mandate to lead the country.

In September, tensions escalated further when Tigray held a regional election in defiance of the Covid-19-related nationwide ban, and Abiy ruled the result illegitimate.

By November, and with the world transfixed by the US national election, Abiy chose the military option to settle his ideological and political differences with the TPLF, which favours a decentralised federal system of regional autonomy, versus Abiy’s vision for a centralised and unitary state.

“At a deeper level, the conflict is about the appropriate system of governance for Ethiopia and whether the system of ethnic federalism established by the EPRDF is in need of reform,” Bryden says.

For now, it appears the conflict is over and Abiy and the Ethiopian government have carried the day. By mid-December, civil servants were reportedly returning to work in Tigray, while the government began re-opening air space and easing the communications blackout, restoring some power and telecoms links.

But deep fissures and tensions remain that could have drastic implications for Ethiopia and the surrounding region. TPLF leaders have pledged to fight back from mountain hideouts to which they fled after the fall of Mekelle.

“There is no doubt that the TPLF has suffered serious losses during this conflict, including some of its senior leaders,” Bryden says. “But the TPLF also enjoys key strategic advantages, including the support of much – if not most – of the Tigrayan population, mountainous terrain that favours the defender, and a large, well-disciplined force. The conflict has already endured much longer than Abiy predicted and heavy fighting is still reported across much of Tigray. I fully expect it to evolve into a long, grinding insurgency with the potential to spread not only to other parts of Ethiopia, but potentially to Eritrea as well.”

The Eritrea factor

A major fault line that could easily expand is the involvement of neighbouring Eritrea – the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea runs along Tigray’s northern edge – in the civil conflict.

Abiy has acknowledged to the Ethiopian parliament that Eritrea – once a staunch enemy of Ethiopia – sheltered and re-equipped Ethiopian soldiers after the TPLF attacks on their bases, enabling them to return to fight TPLF forces.

But he hasn’t acknowledged that Eritrean forces have been fighting on the ground in Tigray – with reports of looting by Eritrean troops – supported by Eritrean artillery firing into Tigray. Both the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments have denied these reports, with Eritrea’s foreign minister, Osman Saleh Mohammed describing them as “propaganda”.

History has shown that whatever the Eritrean government claims, the opposite is almost always the case; a tendency that Abiy appears to be mirroring, if his claims about no civilian casualties are anything to go by. The US State Department has called for the immediate withdrawal of Eritrean troops, following “credible” reports of their involvement in the civil conflict.

The awarding of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize to Abiy was largely on the back of his brokering a historic peace deal between Ethiopia and Eritrea, ending a decades-long stand-off.

Abiy has since continued to foster cordial relations with Eritrea’s authoritarian President, Isaias Afwerki, who has shown himself a stalwart ally to Abiy during the Tigray conflict.

Isaias loathes the TPLF and its leaders: the TPLF was in power during the devastating 1998-2000 border war between the two countries and, following the internationally brokered ceasefire, it refused to withdraw Ethiopian forces from the area of land that was the main source of contention in provoking the war and which an international tribunal ruled over in Eritrea’s favour.

Regional experts say Isaias has been biding his time and waiting for such a moment as the present one to eradicate the TPLF.

Regional and humanitarian fallout

The implications of Eritrean violations of Ethiopian sovereignty and of what to many Ethiopians – certainly its 6m Tigrayans – is an unholy alliance, are hard to predict. But they are unlikely to bode well for the maintenance of stability in a region prone to volatility.

Another instance of problematic foreign involvement is the reported use of United Arab Emirates (UAE) drones by the Ethiopian army in Tigray.

For a number of years, a type of Middle East Cold War has been brewing in the Horn of Africa as a new generation of Arab powers – Saudi Arabia and the UAE versus their bitter adversaries, Qatar and Turkey – push to gain a foothold in one of the world’s most militarised areas, with leaders like Abiy and Isaias playing a deadly game of chess with the new forces shaping the region.

“In the last few years, the Horn of Africa has become a battleground on which Middle Eastern rivalries are played out,” Awol Allo, a UK-based law professor and frequent commentator on Ethiopia and the Horn region, previously told New African magazine.

Any longer-term redeployment of Ethiopian military resources due to some form of TPLF insurgency could also have implications for the region. Ethiopia is one of the main contributors to the UN’s regional peacekeeping operations, providing a core element of the AMISOM force fighting the terrorist group al-Shabaab in Somalia.

Further conflict in Tigray would also exacerbate the already serious humanitarian crisis. Tigray has long endured food insecurity, and its situation was critical before fighting broke out, due to unprecedented locust invasions that devastated the harvests of Tigray’s largely subsistence farmers.

The impact of Covid-19 has further weakened food supply chains by reducing agricultural output. Restricted access to the region means the UN and its agencies have been unable to restock warehouses with humanitarian supplies to provide much-needed assistance.

Tigray also houses tens of thousands of Eritrean refugees – many fleeing the strictures of Isaias’s regime – who depend on the UN, its agencies and Ethiopian governmental support.

All the above is fuelling fears that a malicious triumvirate of ongoing civil conflict combined with the implications of locust invasions and Covid-19 fallout – compounded by restrictions to foreign aid and Ethiopian government funding – could unleash a fully fledged humanitarian crisis, leading to the sorts of food insecurity levels seen in the 1980s.

It’s estimated that 4.5m Tigrayans need emergency food assistance, according to the Tigray Emergency Coordination Centre established by the federal government.

“These are astronomical figures and suggest many of the fears of a severe humanitarian crisis in Tigray are being realised,” says Crisis Group’s Senior Analyst for Ethiopia, William Davison, who was recently expelled from the country at a time when his organisation was calling for negotiations rather than war and arguing the conflict would have a devastating human cost.

Finding solutions

“To be realistic, this is about seeing the military struggle through – the prospect of a negotiated solution remains distant,” Davison says. “But, regardless, there will still have to be some form of accommodation with Tigrayan nationalist sentiment as part of a willingness by Abiy and allies to address, via a national dialogue, the schisms bedevilling Ethiopian politics, which are primarily the role of ethnicity in the federal system and the balance of power between the central government and regional authorities.”

It’s a view shared by many others, who also highlight the need for more enlightened actions from all echelons of Ethiopian society.

“We need better leadership from Abiy, the political opposition and in civil society to move Ethiopia towards democracy and building strong institutions,” Tewodrose says. “Ethiopians also need to demand better leadership.”  

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