A fortnight ago, as the world was reeling from a bitter and divided US Presidential election, it would have been easy to miss a potential humanitarian and political emergency roaring into life in Ethiopia. Claiming an attack on a military installation in northern Tigray by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed deployed troops into the region, escalating the already fraught relationship between the federal government and the regional party towards potential civil war.
One could argue that this conflict has been on the horizon for quite some time. Abiy has been a transformative leader since taking office in 2018; on the one hand negotiating peace with Eritrea, but on the other butting heads with the TPLF, which has been a dominant party ever since the end of the Ethiopian Civil War in 1991. Yet, Tigray officials claim that Abiy’s refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of the September local elections (cancelled by the federal government due to Covid-19), undermines their sovereignty in the region. The designation of the transitional parliament as a terrorist organisation the day before the onset of violence illustrates both sides’ unwillingness to concede.
This? conflict differs from what we might typically conceive as civil war. While the Tigray representatives are asserting their legitimacy over a region, they are not necessarily a secessionist state. Despite accusations that it was the TPLF who sparked violent conflict, Abiy’s decision to deploy troops to the region is fundamentally about asserting central authority over a dissident region. He has cut off communications, as well as transport links into the region, thus making any hopes of humanitarian access to those affected a serious question mark.
Abiy’s refusal to seek peaceful solutions to the tensions will no doubt ignite controversy surrounding his receival of the Nobel Peace Prize in the previous year. The New York Times listed him alongside Aung San Suu Kyi as a “questionable choice” for the renowned honour. The UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has already voiced concern at the shutdown of communication and transport links into the Tigray region, barring aid access to already vulnerable groups who now find themselves in a conflict zone.
Many are arguing that this conflict is already far more complex than a strict central government barbarically suppressing a helpless region. The International Crisis Group reports that the TPLF has a well-trained local militia, numbering 250,000 men. Furthermore, its previous dominance in Ethiopian politics means that the region is also home to the largest army base in the country, itself containing a great deal of heavy weaponry.
It has become clear in recent days that this conflict is developing into a lengthy and large-scale humanitarian disaster. Amnesty International is currently investigating photo and video evidence of a massacre in the region, supposedly carried out by the TPFL, which is believed to have left hundreds dead. If true, the UN has affirmed that the actions would constitute “war crimes”. The Tigray government has denied this, however witnesses and evidence speak to the contrary.
Beyond the cost of life, war will be nothing short of disastrous in terms of aid and development. The UN reports that 10% of Ethiopia’s population already rely on food aid, and war will no doubt increase that figure dramatically. Instability in the region also looks likely to influence the conflict dynamics further. Reports on 15th November suggest that Tigrayan forces have fired a rocket into Eritrea’s capital Asmara. TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael has previously accused the Abiy government of cooperating with the neighbouring country, claiming that Eritrean forces had crossed the border to aid federal forces. While this may seem strange considering that the two countries have a history of war, Eritrean grievances were mainly directed against the TPLF. Therefore, collaboration with Abiy and the federal government against the Liberation Front may be too enticing an opportunity for Eritrea to pass up.
Looking beyond the Tigray region, other potential flashpoints emerge. While Sudan has been interestingly muted on the conflict, Abiy will want to ensure that they do not ally with the TPLF, something that may prove difficult as the Sudanese lay claim to an area of land in Western Ethiopia (although this is disputed by the Amhara people). Further south, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has offered to mediate the conflict, which, while on the surface a helpful proposition, will undoubtedly complicate the already far-reaching political ramifications of a politically delicate region.
In the next few weeks, the conflict will likely only escalate. It seems that Ethiopia is on an unavoidable collision course with deadly civil war.
Image: Office of the Prime Minister on Flickr