As Ethiopia struggles with an ever-increasing rate of coronavirus infections, the country is now facing another potentially devastating internal conflict. The potential implications of this conflict spread far beyond the borders of Ethiopia and present a threat to the very stability of the Horn of Africa region.
The origins of political struggle in Tigray date back to the early 20th century when a series of geopolitical upheavals began to take place including major colonialist clashes with Europe. During this period, the region of Tigray began to decline in prominence within the Ethiopian empire. This trend sparked nationalist sentiments which produced several ethnically centered nationalistic movements, from student groups to separatist factions.
The dominant political party in Tigray today, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) was founded in 1975 as a militant group. The TPLF was highly active in the tumultuous years of the late 1970s that saw both the end to the country’s millennium-old monarchy and the establishment of an ideologically communist military junta.
Over the past 30 years, the TPLF solidified its position as the primary political voice in Tigray and became the most powerful party in the nation as a whole. However, after the formation of the multi-ethnic coalition known as the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), TPLF was shifted to the opposition. Today, the EPRDF in its current iteration — the Prosperity Party — controls Ethiopian politics by a large majority.
Since the beginning of 2020, increased tensions between the regional government in Tigray and federal authorities in Addis Ababa have spiralled into an actual armed conflict. The latest escalation began in early November when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali ordered his forces to attack the TPLF in retaliation for an alleged raid on an Ethiopian army camp in the Tigray region — an accusation the TPLF leadership denies.
Over two weeks since the start of clashes, the conflict is looking increasingly like a full-blown civil war. The central government claims to have secured a string of townships in the western Tigray region. Government forces and fighters loyal to the TPLF have been engaged in battles in the central north of Ethiopia since early November.
The consequences of the conflict have spread far beyond the region of Tigray. Tens of thousands have fled the area in the wake of deadly clashes threatening their safety. Media sources report 27,000 Ethiopians have now crossed into Sudan through the Hamdayet border in Kassala, as well as several other checkpoints including El Gedaref further south at Aderafi. The UN’s High Commission for Refugees is warning of an impending crisis as thousands continue to be displaced by the fighting.
Other neighbouring countries have been sucked into the schism. The TPLF has long accused the government of Eritrea of conspiring with authorities in Addis Ababa first in disrupting local elections in Tigray back in July, and later claiming Eritrea was supporting federal operations against TPLF forces.
On 15 November, several long-range rockets hit the Eritrean capital of Asmara near the city’s airport. The TPLF later took responsibility for the attacks, claiming the airport was being used as a base for attacks on their forces. Any more spilling over of the conflict could trigger escalations on an international scale as several powers including China and the US maintain military assets in the region.
The strides in regional cooperation and economic development are also under threat. Several countries including landlocked Ethiopia have a significant interest in the development of ports along the Horn of Africa coast. Nearly 20% of international trade occurs through the Bab al Mandab Strait and the edge of the Indian Ocean.
The period of stability and peace over the past several years has allowed for cooperation to coalesce around these shared interests, but the brewing civil war threatens all of this progress. Furthermore, the nexus of political and economic tensions could also force other surrounding nations to become actively involved and expand the scope of the conflict.
With Ethiopian civilians escaping in large numbers to Sudan, for instance, Khartoum may find itself inadvertently drawn into the war. This scenario has already been shown to be possible in Ethiopia’s long-standing conflict with Egypt over the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam over the Blue Nile. Sudan has already found itself forcefully involved in the spat.
With the potential calamity for the entire region looming, international leaders have been desperately urging for de-escalation.
At this stage, there are still several concrete steps that can be taken by the international community to mitigate the effects of the conflict and fend off escalation.
First is the necessity to protect human rights from those directly affected by the conflict. Multiple reports have emerged in recent weeks of civilians being targeted by both sides in events described as brutal massacres.
Refugees from the conflict must be given the protection and aid necessary for them to survive and wait out the fighting. Last, the route of mediation must not be abandoned. While authorities in Addis Ababa have not responded to calls for talks, signs of solidarity on the ground in Tigray indicate there is still a real possibility for a negotiated peace.
A resolution of the Tigray conflict is not merely in the interest of Ethiopians, it is a vital necessity for the region as a whole. Attaining peace will mean progressive trends can be maintained in the Horn of Africa for years to come. DM