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Is Ethiopia lurching towards civil war?

Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, has sent in Ethiopia’s armed forces to respond to heavy fighting that broke out last Wednesday (4 Nov) in the northern region of Tigray.

Mr. Abiy has claimed the attack was on federal troops in a military camp by the armed forces of the regional government – the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) – and stated that ‘the last red line’ had been crossed. Both sides are reported to have sent forces to the southern border of Tigray, which it shares with the Amhara region.

A six-month state of emergency has been declared in the Tigray region by the federal government. The Ethiopian Council of Ministers has stated that the ‘situation has reached a new level where it cannot be prevented and controlled through regular law enforcement mechanisms’. Abiy announced ‘force is being used as the last measure to save the people and the country’.

It is reported that the government has shut down electricity, telephone and internet services in Tigray. Despite this blanket strategy, Redwan Hussein, spokesman for the newly established State of Emergency Task Force has publicly said the government viewed the TPLF as the enemy and not the Tigray region. A BBC reporter also reported that ‘local [Tigray] authorities have imposed restrictions on movement and they have also closed the airspace’ – further imposing constraints on the Tigray people.

Last Wednesday’s attack and the subsequent response confirms fears by analysts and diplomats, which have surfaced over the last few weeks, that the standoff between the government and the TPLF could plunge into heavy violence. These tensions , which are, according to analysts, pushing Africa’s second most populous nation to the brink of civil war, began in September when the local authority of Tigray had gone ahead with regional elections; Abiy’s government deemed this election illegal due to the parliamentary vote to extend the national postponement of these elections – attributed to COVID-19 concerns.

In a TV address to the nation, Abiy Ahmed claimed Wednesday’s attack on the army came ‘from behind by its own citizens’ and resulted in ‘many martyrs, injuries and property damage’. According to the Financial Times, a western diplomat in Addis Ababa has stated that ‘people have been killed’ but the death toll is ‘uncertain’. Reuters also report that two diplomatic sources in Addis Ababa have said heavy fighting, including artillery fire had broken out in the region. 

The prime minister’s office has stated that the local ruling party of Tigray conducted the attack in an attempt to loot ‘the northern command of artillery and military equipment’. They also stated that the TPLF forces manufactured and wore uniforms to resemble neighbouring Eritrean militants (with whom they completed a 20-year path to peace in 2018) to falsely implicate them in the attack. In the same statement, the prime minister’s office claimed that the TPLF, which lost considerable power following the leadership change in 2018 in which Mr Abiy became prime minister, sees the Ethiopian National Defence forces as a ‘foreign army’ and has ‘chosen to wage war’. The prime minister’s spokesperson Billene Seyoum told Reuters that military operations have commenced, and denied claims by the Tigray government that the Northern Command of the federal military had defected to its side.

On Tuesday, the Addis Standard quoted Debretsion Gebremichael – Tigray’s regional leader – saying “we have prepared our military of special force not in need of war, but if the worst comes, to defend ourselves”. Wondimu Asamnew, a senior Tigray official, told AFP Abiy is ‘playing with fire’, Tigray is ‘on alert’, and said ‘I can assure you we are capable of defending ourselves’. Asamnew also claimeds that the federal government is amassing troops in Amhara, on the southern border of Tigray – this claim could not be independently verified.

A BBC reporter in Tigray claims that the TPLF have also sent forces to the border it shares with Amhara – potentially setting the stage for the first open and large-scale military clash. Getachew Reda, also a senior member of the TPLF, told AFP last week ‘We will never be the first to shoot nor the first to blink’.

The Tigray forces were founded in the 90s when they were used to overthrow the Marxist regime, bringing the Tigrays to the centre of power. They are well trained and well organised. The TPLF previously refused to merge into the new unified Prosperity party, which replaced the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a four-part coalition that was largely influenced by the TPLF, and ruled the country for almost 30 years (1991-2018).  Because of their legacy, and Tigray’s strategic position next to the neighbouring Eritrea, Tigray is home to much of the federal forces and military equipment despite their power waning under Abiy. The Guardian reports that some analysts estimate that Tigray could mobilise more than half of Ethiopia’s armed forces personnel and mechanised divisions. Nic Cheeseman, an expert in African politics from the University of Birmingham anticipates that open confrontation would not result in a straightforward ‘win’ for Ethiopian forces, as the TPLF control much of the country’s military capacity. In addition to this, despite being a small region, they are one of the wealthiest and most influential.

William Davison, senior analyst of International Crisis Group, said that armed clashes and a potential war would be the worst outcome of these tensions, as Tigray’s relatively strong military position could bring protracted and disastrous conflict to a country that is already buffeted by grave political challenges. He stated that conflict would send ‘shockwaves into the Horn of Africa and beyond’.

Analysts also fear a rise in ‘refugees and ‘destabilisation’. Ahmed Soliman, an expert from Chatham House, projects that an open conflict would be ‘unspeakable’ for east Africa, as Ethiopia is the ‘diplomatic cornerstone of the region’.

On Tuesday, the federal government proposed the TPLF as a ‘terrorist organisation, the two sides now see each other as illegitimate and relations have almost completely broken down, but national tensions are not limited to these two groups. Since Abiy’s appointment in 2018, several ethno-nationalist conflicts have emerged, with Tigray being the most serious, and the ten ethnically defined autonomous regions have become largely divided. Many in the country claim that Mr. Abiy’s aspiration to unite Ethiopian identity undermines the federal system that was instilled to guarantee significant regional autonomy.

Mr. Abiy’s appointment, and the political reforms he brought with him, both aimed to resolve tensions between the TPLF, and the Amhara and Oromo regions who felt excluded from power. Instead, lifting the repression of authoritarian rule over the country has enthused ethno-nationalist sentiment in the culturally detached regions to assert their right to power. According to these political developments, an open conflict between Tigray and the government could incentivise other regions in the country to join sides or assume their own military undertaking, which could spiral the country into a chaotic and multifaceted conflict.

Highlighting religious tensions in the country, the events of last Sunday in which the Oromo Liberation Front-Shane – an opposition party that returned to Ethiopia following Abiy’s appointment – allegedly played a role in the massacre of over 50 ethnic Amhara killed in an attack by an armed group – suspected to be the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA). As reported by Amnesty International.

Witnesses stated ‘dozens of men, women and children were killed, property looted and what the militants could not carry away, they set on fire’ –including 20 houses. Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for East and Southern Africa, said that ethnic minorities have been deliberately targeted. Muchena, alongside the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, also stated that the fact that this incident occurred shortly after government troops in the area withdrew unexpectedly and without explanation from an area prone to vulnerable attacks ‘raises questions that must be answered’.

These recent events in Ethiopia, which have been compared to former Yugoslavia, threaten to topple one of Africa’s newest democracies and most promising economies, built on the back of reforms by Mr. Abiy – who won a Nobel Peace Price for his role in ending the 20-year conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Abiy faces criticisms from all sides that he is reversing some of the political reforms he introduced with opposition leaders once more being detained in order to quell dissent. The federal government claims it is clamping down on corruption.

International observers of the conflict have called on a ceasefire and unconditional peace talks in order to address the grievances of both sides and form a truce. The US embassy in Addis Ababa has urged an ‘immediate de-escalation of the current situation in Tigray and a measured response by both sides’. US diplomats also strongly encouraged ‘all parties to prioritise civilians’ safety and security’.