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AfricaSource November 11, 2020

Experts react: Understanding the conflict in Tigray

By Africa Center

Recent events in the Tigray region of Ethiopia have made international headlines. Read as Atlantic Council Africa Center experts react, analyzing what the conflict means for the country and its neighbors:

Gabriel Negatu: War in the Tigray region of Ethiopia

Cameron Hudson: What impact will the fighting have on the Horn of Africa?

War in the Tigray region of Ethiopia

On November 4, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched a military offensive against forces of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which is the governing authority of the northern Ethiopian region of Tigray. Coming after months of rising tensions between the TPLF and the Abiy administration, the latest military action was precipitated by an alleged surprise night-time assault by the TPLF on a major Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) base in Tigray that resulted in the killing of non-Tigrayan soldiers and the attempted looting of heavy artillery and weapons. Declaring that the assault on the federal army base had “crossed the last red line,” Prime Minister Abiy maintains that his hand was forced by the TPLF leadership into sending the army “to save the country and the region.” More than a week on, the military operation is still reportedly targeting Tigray’s militia establishments and the TPLF leadership, and not its citizens—though there are worrying reports of civilian casualties, which are difficult to confirm due to an Internet and telephone blackout imposed by the government on the entire Tigray region. The Council of Representatives has also imposed a state of emergency on Tigray, effectively isolating it from the rest of Ethiopia.

For the judicious observer of Ethiopia’s ethnic politics, there have been signs of ominous tensions between Tigray and the central government since Abiy came to power two years ago. The TPLF had held a stranglehold on power for decades, since taking power in 1991. Following a months-long popular revolt that ushered him to power in early 2018, Abiy swiftly curbed the TPLF’s dominance over Ethiopia’s political and economic life, leaving its leaders feeling targeted and purged. The President of the Tigray region charged the Prime Minister with trying to ‘sideline and even criminalize’ the TPLF.

The TPLF had exerted power in Ethiopia through a governing coalition, composed of four ethnic-based parties, called the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). But in 2019, shortly after Abiy took power, the other three parties annulled the EPRDF coalition and moved to replace it with a single national Prosperity Party that was not organized on ethnic lines. The TPLF countered by breaking away from the new governing coalition and launching a vain attempt to unite opposition forces under a new federalist coalition. Failing that, it has now isolated itself from the political process.

In March, the National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE), an autonomous body accountable to the House of Peoples’ Representatives temporarily postponed the national and regional elections scheduled for August 2020 due to COVID-19 concerns. Legislators from Tigray, including the speaker of the Upper House, withdrew from the national parliament in protest. Relations soured further in September 2020 when the TPLF, in open defiance of the constitution and federal government, held elections in Tigray and reported a 98 percent victory in the popular vote. (The election was not overseen by international observers.) The newly-installed regional legislators in Tigray immediately declared that the federal government lacked legitimacy to govern the country and refused to recognize it.

The national assembly then countered by annulling Tigray’s election results and refusing to acknowledge the newly-elected leadership. Federal funding to the region was also slashed significantly, limiting the flow of resources only to local governments to protect basic services, and bypassing the TPLF. The leadership in Mekele, the capital of Tigray, called the cessation of their funding a declaration of war. Days before the assault by federal forces, the region’s president, Debretsion G. Michael, warned the public that the Prime Minister was planning an attack to punish Tigray for its defiance.

Having controlled all facets of state power incontestably for the twenty-eight years prior to its ouster in 2018, the TPLF views Abiy’s democratic reforms and liberalization zeal with a great deal of edginess. His interest in reforming the federalist structure of the Ethiopian state—which divides Ethiopia into nine self-governing ethnic territories—especially threatens to undermine the order that has historically permitted the small Tigrayan ethnic group to wield a power disproportionate to its population. Abiy is an Oromo by origin, and thus a member of Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, and his espousal of a broader nationalist agenda over narrow ethnic priorities is viewed by many of the smaller ethnic groups, and not only the TPLF, as eroding the right to self-rule, including secession, that is granted by the Ethiopian Constitution to ethnically organized regions. The TPLF is also uneasy with Abiy over his intentions to amend the Constitution, which provides the basis of the current ethnic federalism. 

Meles Zenawi, a founding member of the TPLF, created the Ethiopian constitution in the earliest days of his rule and the group’s present leaders sanction the constitution as a canonical text. They consider Abiy’s constitutional reform agenda as a ‘red line.’ The system of ethnic federalism under the EPRDF had privileged the TPLF as first among equals in a coalition government, according it an oversize share of political and economic power relative to its population size of 6 percent. Amending the constitution to redistribute power in proportion to population size would significantly reduce the TPLF’s share of power, which is something that Mekele is not prepared to concede. 

Lastly, Mekele remains highly suspicious of the recent Ethio-Eritrea rapprochement, which includes the signing of a peace agreement and a promise by Abiy to honor a long-violated United Nations ruling on the demarcation of the border between Eritrea and Tigray. Rivalry between Eritrea’s ruling party, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ, and formerly known as the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, or EPLF) and the TPLF runs deep, dating back to their time in the bushes fighting the Derg. Both Addis Ababa and Asmara stand hostile to the TPLF, albeit for different reasons. Abiy’s cozying up to Asmara without including Mekele is viewed as forsaking Tigray in favor of Eritrea. Consequently, the TPLF accuses Asmara of siding with Abiy to attack Tigray in an effort to settle old scores. Despite TPLF claims to the contrary, however, there is currently no evidence of PFDJ action in this war. This is far from saying Eritrea would not retaliate if provoked. 

Since losing power in 2018, the TPLF has worked to undermine Abiy’s reform efforts. Hard evidence is scarce, but the TPLF is alleged to be behind much of the internal tensions and ethnic violence that has plagued Ethiopia since the Abiy administration took control. Whether or not these reports are true, social media networks in Ethiopia are rife with accusations that the TPLF, working mainly through surrogates and break-away groups, has been fomenting conflict by organizing, training, and financing forces opposed to the federal government. (The recent school yard massacre of Amharas in the Wollega region of Oromia sparked exactly such a round of accusations on social media networks.)

International analysts may be right to fear that, if extended indefinitely, the present conflict may possibly rouse discontented TPLF surrogates in various pockets of Ethiopia to rise against the Abiy government. In the meantime, however, the declaration of war seems to have the opposite effect. Media accounts suggest the rest of the country is galvanized behind what the Prime Minister describes as a ‘rule of law operation’ to guarantee peace and stability and to bring a group that is widely perceived as the perpetrators of instability to justice. Certain ethnic groups along the border could also specifically benefit from the conflict. Amharas living in areas bordering Tigray, for example, harbor territorial claims over land illegally annexed by the TPLF while it assumed power. Such groups have been drawn into the present conflict on the side of the government and are already celebrating the recapture of annexed territory. As of now, no such claims have been made on the Afar-Tigray Border.

The breakout in fighting comes at a time when Ethiopia is contemplating several sweeping reforms. But the two years since the TPLF was ousted from power have not been long enough for Abiy’s brand of politics, and his transformational agenda, to set down firm roots. The democratic opening he has unleashed is yet to fully address the many ethnic grievances that were bottled up under the TPLF, and sporadic ethnic flare-ups continue to occur across the country, even as the region struggles to cope with rising COVID-19 infections rates with consequential impact on economic and social life. The security forces now under Abiy’s control have been accused of not responding appropriately to many of these conflicts. Lastly, Ethiopia remains in the midst of protracted negotiations with Egypt and Sudan over the Grand Renaissance Dam. The recent phase of negotiations resumed days before the breakout of hostilities, attended by water ministers from the three countries and experts from the African Union, European Union, and the World Bank.   

The war in Tigray is unfortunate and could have tragic consequences, almost certainly including the loss of innocent lives. It is important for both sides to take extra measures to protect civilians. Abiy’s protestations that this is a war against the TPLF and not the people of Tigray will be credible only if the government also ensures the safety and wellbeing of Tigrayans in other parts of the country. Many are not at all affiliated with the TPLF or the war efforts, but they may yet be subjected to unwarranted reprisals. But as of now, at least, concerns that Eritrea may be drawn into the war, or that the war may escalate into a regional conflict, are unfounded, or premature at best.

Gabriel Negatu is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center and former director general for eastern Africa at the African Development Bank. Follow him on Twitter @Gabnegatu.

What impact will the fighting have on the Horn of Africa?

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy’s November 4 decision to launch federal troops into the country’s western Tigray region have sent shockwaves across the Horn of Africa region and beyond. With a population of 110 million people, Ethiopia is the second largest country in Africa and borders six other African nations astride the Horn and East African regions. Chronic instability and acute humanitarian needs are rife across the region. A prolonged conflagration between well-armed factions inside of Ethiopia could send hundreds of thousands of refugees across borders, disrupt trade routes, and force Addis Ababa to abandon its role of regional anchor state, mediator, policeman, and peacekeeper. That would be a potentially cataclysmic scenario for a region ill-equipped to handle additional tumult or a humanitarian fallout that could affect more than nine million people, according to the UN this week. 

Nowhere are the threats of instability more acute than in neighboring Sudan, which two days after fighting began announced a closure of portions of its eastern border with Ethiopia, and reportedly began positioning more than six thousand of its own forces inside of Gedaraf state, which borders Tigray. Anecdotal reports from inside Sudan suggest that the normally heavy volume of trade at border checkpoints has already been curtailed, and that Tigrayan truck drivers are being prevented from bringing their shipments into Sudan out of fear that federal authorities in Addis could see this as an effort to aid in the Tigrayan resistance.   

Earlier this week, the first truckloads of Ethiopian refugees began crossing into Gedaraf state, according to local media, and will be housed in the first of what could be many new refugee camps being set up to receive people fleeing the fighting in Tigray. At the same time, shipments of arms and ammunition headed for Tigrayan forces were also stopped en route from Sudan, adding to the potentially explosive mix inside Sudan. Sudan’s far eastern states have already been witness to growing tribal and militia-led violence in recent months, and have even skirmished with forces on the Ethiopian side of the border. If Sudan has its own powder keg, it is here. A significant influx of weapons, fighters, and refugees to the area could well unleash substantial new tensions that Sudan’s transitional government has already been proven ill-equipped to handle.

In a table-turning moment last week, Sudanese Prime Minister Hamdok—who lived for the past twenty years in Addis and who benefitted at numerous points from Ethiopian mediation during Sudan’s still ongoing transition and internal peace process—reportedly reached out to his counterpart Abiy, as well as regional Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front leaders in their regional capital of Mekele, to urge caution and restraint. Sudan’s leading army general and leader of the country’s Transitional Sovereignty Council similarly offered to mediate a ceasefire and was rebuffed.

While neither of the two belligerents appear open to formal outside mediation at this time, Sudan is uniquely positioned to play such a role should an opening emerge. Riding high from the recent announcement to remove Sudan from the US list of State Sponsors of Terrorism, and benefiting from renewed backing from Gulf state actors who approved of Sudan’s equally recent announcement of a rapprochement with Israel, Sudan’s Prime Minister has some political capital to spend. As the current Chairman of the regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development, IGAD, he is positioned to marshal the often-underutilized mediation and peacemaking resources of that body to assist. Furthermore, as a party to the ongoing negotiations over Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance dam, and as an important buffer in those talks between Egypt and Ethiopia, Hamdok already has some credibility in seeking to find common ground on issues striking at the heart of Ethiopia’s national security interests.

No less affected by the potential consequences of a war between the Ethiopian federal government and the TPLF, but in no significant position to assist on the political front, are Somalia and South Sudan, both of which have sizable refugee populations inside Ethiopia as a result of their own on-again, off-again civil conflicts. Neither nation is prepared to have hundreds of thousands of their nationals repatriated in the near term as a result of an Ethiopian civil war. 

Both Somalia and South Sudan have come to rely on a substantial Ethiopian peacekeeping presence to help reduce sectarian bloodshed in their own countries. Last week, Ethiopia withdrew approximately six hundred of the troops it has deployed in Somalia’s western border region (though it has so far left its troop contributions to the African Union peacekeeping mission to Somalia intact). Though they are reportedly being replaced with Ethiopian police units, a United Nations security report obtained by Reuters warned that these “redeployments from near the border with Somalia will make that area more vulnerable to possible incursions by Al Shabaab,” which is the al Qaeda-linked insurgency trying to overthrow the government in Somalia. As Somalia’s presidential elections draw near—they are now slated for early 2021 after multiple postponements—a security vacuum in Somalia produced by a drawdown of Ethiopian troops could rapidly undo years of international efforts to bring a semblance of security and stability to the long restive nation. Admittedly, this is a worse-case scenario that will only occur if the fighting between the TPLF and Abiy’s federal forces is prolonged and requires a greater redeployment of Ethiopian military resources than has yet taken place. But the threat is alarming.

Ethiopia’s hard security presence among its neighbors is a source of stability in the region, but even more at risk is Ethiopia’s well-earned reputation as a peacemaker and mediator. In a region with a troubled history of political, military, and humanitarian crises, Ethiopia in recent years has been a net contributor to regional stability—even as internal fault lines were emergent.

Cameron Hudson is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center. Previously he served as the chief of staff to the special envoy for Sudan and as director for African Affairs on the National Security Council in the George W. Bush administration. Follow him on Twitter @_hudsonc.

Related Experts: Gabriel Negatu

Image: Members of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces stand in formation during a ceremony on January 22, 2014. (Flickr/AU UN IST PHOTO/Tobin Jones)