Conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray risks escalating out of control and threatening regional stability

The civilian leader of Tigray’s government, Debretsion Gebremichael. (Photo: EPA-EFE / STR)

Ethiopia has a long history of failed conventional military operations against guerilla armies in its vast countryside. The rapid escalation of the conflict between the national army and Tigrayan rebels threatens to go the same way – and to potentially further destabilise a huge swathe of the Horn of Africa.

On 4 November 2020 Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered the Ethiopian National Defence Forces (ENDF) to stage a military offensive against the ruling regional Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) government in the north of the country. This followed claims by the Ethiopian Federal Government that the TPLF had attacked a military base in its territory, which is part of the northern command, resulting in the death of Ethiopian soldiers. The TPLF vehemently disputed this charge, stating instead that forces in the northern command had defected to the TPLF.

A vast country, Ethiopia is inhabited by 110 million people, making it the second-most populous African nation. Being bordered by six countries – Sudan, South Sudan, Eritrea, Somalia, Kenya and Djibouti – an escalation of the ongoing conflict would be catastrophic, with the potential to create a humanitarian crisis that could send tens of thousands of refugees across borders into neighbouring countries.

Analysts say the unnecessary conflict could tarnish the reputation of Abiy Ahmed, who was awarded a Nobel peace prize for a 2018 peace pact with Eritrea and won plaudits for initiating sweeping domestic reforms,  releasing thousands of political prisoners, allowing exiled opposition leaders to return, as well as opening Ethiopia’s economy and easing a repressive political system. Abiy has resisted diplomatic pressure to halt the offensive.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for peace efforts with Eritrea, however, the deal is yet to bear fruit. (Photo: EPA-EFE/Hakon Mosvold Larsen, / POOL NORWAY OUT)

The TPLF, which ruled Ethiopia for close to three decades under the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition, was ousted from power following the wave of Oromo uprisings that swept across the Oromo State and the capital, Addis Ababa, culminating in the resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn on 15 February 2018. Abiy Ahmed, the former chairperson of the Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation (OPDO) was confirmed and sworn in as the new prime minister by the Ethiopian parliament on 2 April 2018. A purge of senior TPLF military, intelligence and government officials followed and many of the old regime’s leadership retreated to Mekelle, the capital of Tigray regional state, citing marginalisation by Addis Ababa.

Apart from the TPLF, the EPRDF coalition included the OPDO, the Amhara Democratic Party (ADP) and the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM). The TPLF and Abiy Ahmed came into further conflict in December 2019, when the prime minister and his allies disbanded the EPRDF and replaced it with the Prosperity Party (PP). The OPDO, which later became the Oromo Democratic Party (ODP), the ADP and SEPDM joined the PP but the TPLF refused to get on board, claiming that the PP was a platform aimed at dismantling the ethno-federalism system in favour of a unitary one. This caused more friction between the TPLF and the Abiy Ahmed government.

(Images: Google Maps)

The growing tensions took another turn when the TPLF defied the central government by holding regional elections in September, despite Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announcing the cancellation of both federal and regional polls scheduled for last August due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The Ethiopian government declared the newly elected Tigray regional government, still under the control of Debretsion Gebremichael, “illegal” and the TPLF countered by labelling Abiy’s government “illegitimate”, claiming that its mandate had expired back in August.

With the ongoing military offensive in Tigray in full swing, the Cabinet has declared a state of emergency in the region for six months. The federal authorities have also shut down electricity, telephone, and internet services across the region and this has made it difficult to verify events on the ground. With the region virtually cut off, food and fuel supplies are running low, potentially creating a humanitarian situation that can deteriorate further with increased escalation. The conflict is now centred in the western parts of Tigray in its border region with Amhara State. The Ethiopian air force has conducted strikes near and around Mekelle, saying it was targeting TPLF’s weapons stockpiles.

Reports indicate there are hundreds of casualties on both sides and thousands of refugees have crossed into Sudan. Abiy Ahmed has characterised the military offensive as a quick “law enforcement” measure aimed at dislodging the TPLF and replacing it with a compliant interim regional government. But given TPLF’s well-trained, heavily armed forces, analysts fear the conflict could drag on for a long time, potentially drawing in neighbouring countries.

The conflict is already spilling into other parts of Ethiopia with reports that TPLF rockets have struck airports in the neighbouring Amhara region’s major towns of Bahir Dar and Gondar, causing deaths and damage to infrastructure. Claiming that Eritrean forces have joined the Ethiopian military campaign, the TPLF leadership has threatened to strike Eritrean targets, including the capital Asmara and the strategic port of Massawa, raising fears that the unfolding conflict could translate into a fully fledged regional war involving other countries. In the late 1990s, Eritrea fought a bitter border war with the former TPLF-led Ethiopian government

The TPLF sees the 2018 Addis Ababa rapprochement with Asmara as a sinister move aimed at isolating the Tigray region. The Ethiopian-Eritrean peace deal did not include the TPLF, even though the disputed territory of Badme that the two countries bitterly fought over in 1998-2000 is located inside Tigray and administered by the TPLF government. Following previous negotiations, the UN had awarded Badme to Eritrea and there are fears that the Eritreans might take advantage of the current conflict and attempt to seize the territory by force, although Asmara insists it will abide by a UN agreement calling for a peaceful transfer of the disputed territory.

Ethiopia recently alleged that a foreign power is backing the TPLF without mentioning names. This might be a veiled reference to Egypt, which is at loggerheads with Ethiopia over the construction and filling up of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Nile, which it considers a threat to its national security. In the past, the Egyptians have even threatened military intervention as a last resort if a favourable settlement is not struck by both parties. If the military offensive escalates, Egypt may take advantage by supplying arms to the TPLF to put more pressure on Ethiopia to come to agreeable terms over the Nile waters.

Can Abiy Ahmed decisively end the Tigray standoff or is his military offensive an ill-timed move? Based on Ethiopia’s history of protracted conflicts, it appears that Abiy Ahmed’s military campaign could turn out to be a serious miscalculation. In the past, Ethiopian regimes that declared all-out war against armed insurgents ended up being bogged down in endless guerilla warfare in the countryside and were eventually defeated and brought down by rebels or driven from power by mass popular protests.

In 1977, Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, the leader of the Derg Military Junta, declared all Ethiopian rebel movements “counter-revolutionaries” and ordered massive military campaigns to “neutralise” the insurgents. In Eritrea (which was then part of Ethiopia), the Derg faced off with the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) and another rebel group, the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF). During the Eritrean War of Independence, the bigger and better armed EPLF fought protracted battles with the Soviet-backed Mengistu army which deployed heavily mechanised infantry units supported by air strikes. Throughout the 1980s, Mengistu’s forces carried out six major counteroffensives, driving the EPLF into the countryside. But each time, the EPLF regrouped and regained territory.

At one point, it appeared that the Derg army was on the verge of victory, but the EPLF retreated to its Nakfa mountain stronghold and held its ground. Towards 1988, the tide finally turned against the Ethiopian army as the EPLF captured major cities with the decisive battle coming at Afabet, where the Eritrean army destroyed three Ethiopian battalions. From then on, the EPLF drove the Ethiopian army from all other major cities including Asmara, Assab, Keren and Massawa. By late 1990, thousands of Ethiopian troops surrendered to the Eritrean forces and in 1991, the EPLF’s Secretary-General, Isaias Afwerki, declared Eritrea an independent state ending a 30-year war with Ethiopia.

To the north, the TPLF forces that coordinated their campaign with the EPLF made inroads in the late 1980s as they pushed southwards seeking the overthrow of Mengistu. In early 1988, the EPRDF union was formed by the TPLF and the Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement-EPDC (later the Amhara National Democratic Movement). They were later joined by the OPDO and other smaller groups. The EPRDF continued with its southward march and in May 1991, it defeated Mengistu’s mighty army. Mengistu fled to Zimbabwe and the Meles Zenawi-led TPLF assumed power under the coalition banner of the EPRDF.

The military offensive will likely stir a deadly ethnic conflict between the Amhara and the Tigray as Amhara security officials openly admitted members of the region’s militia have been deployed to fight alongside federal forces.

Under Zenawi, the TPLF ruled with an iron fist and the regime was accused of gross human rights violations, especially in the Oromo, Somali and Gambella regions. In these regions as well as other parts of the country, Ethiopians lived in systematic fear and repression with mass killings, torture, kidnappings, rape, and pillaging becoming the modus operandi during the TPLF’s grip on power. In a bid to clamp down on political dissent and freedom of the press, journalists, opposition leaders and human rights activists were targeted under Draconian anti-terrorism legislation. Dissenters were detained for indefinite periods and many were subjected to torture and mistreatment, while others faced the risk of assassination at the hands of the security forces.

The TPLF faced active insurgencies in the Somali and Oromo regions where the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), respectively, fought protracted battles with regular and special Liyu police forces. In addition to fighting insurgencies, the paramilitary Liyu Police were specifically deployed to intimidate, terrorise, and eliminate regime opponents including civilians, and used scorched-earth tactics, destroying wells and razing entire villages. Despite the regime’s high-handedness, the TPLF failed to “neutralise” the insurgents and by 2015, was confronted by mass Oromo protests that swelled around 2018, leading to the downfall of the regime.

The fall of the Mengistu and TPLF regimes should sound a warning to Abiy Ahmed that military offensives can have disastrous consequences. Besides, Ethiopia precariously faces numerous flashpoints that can ignite ethnic conflicts if the ongoing military campaign intensifies. For example, there are simmering border conflicts across Ethiopia that have led to violent clashes in different parts of the country. The Amhara and Tigray regions have unresolved border disputes and the same can be said of the Oromo and Somali regions, where widespread violence led to the displacement of 1 million people in 2018.

In recent weeks, special Liyu forces from the Afar region staged attacks inside the neighbouring Somali region claiming lives in a disputed area. Worse still, armed militants from the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), a splinter group of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), reportedly recently rounded up Amhara villagers in western Oromia, massacring 54 people in a schoolyard. The military offensive will likely stir a deadly ethnic conflict between the Amhara and the Tigray as Amhara security officials openly admitted members of the region’s militia have been deployed to fight alongside federal forces.

With tension rife across the country, analysts worry the military operation in Tigray may be an ill-timed adventure as it could potentially open the doors to armed militants elsewhere bent on settling old grievances. Furthermore, Ethiopia has not yet recovered from the deadly clashes that erupted on 29 June following the assassination of the popular Oromo singer, Hachalu Hundessa, by unknown assailants. In the wake of his death, hundreds of protesters including opposition leaders were jailed by the authorities for allegedly “inciting” riots.

Moreover, troop morale in Ethiopia is low with Federal forces noticeably suffering from war fatigue stemming from prolonged warfare throughout the Zenawi years with armed rebel groups, including the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), in addition to the ill-fated military intervention in Somalia that has weakened the Ethiopian army. There is no doubt that the ENDF forces are overstretched and the unfolding conflict in Tigray is regarded by pundits as a highly risky affair that may result in gradual or total disintegration of the Ethiopian army.

The African Union and other international actors have rightfully called for a cessation of hostilities. The conflict between the TPLF and the federal government can only be resolved through peaceful negotiations and it is incumbent upon both sides to move toward immediate de-escalation and negotiation. As a starting point, the antagonists need to recognise one another’s legitimacy to create an atmosphere conducive to workable AU-brokered peaceful negotiations. To ease further tensions, the Ethiopian government should release all political prisoners, including Jawar Mohammed and the hundreds of jailed activists.

Peace talks should include all Ethiopian rebel groups and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed should be willing to disband his PP-dominated government and in its place form a transitional Government of National Unity (GNU) espousing genuine, democratic federalism and inclusive of all opposition parties and rebel groups. An Independent Electoral Commission with broad-based representation should be instituted to pave the way for democratic elections in two years.

Like South Africa, Rwanda and other African countries that had put past conflicts behind them, Ethiopians should consider establishing a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to address historical crimes, provide avenues for healing and promote and foster national unity. The road to peace in Ethiopia will depend on the successful pursuit of a peaceful resolution to its ongoing/historic conflicts. DM

A former Research Fellow at York University’s Centre for International and Security Studies, Farid Abdulhamid is a Political/Security Analyst based in Ottawa, Canada.


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