Tigray conflict threatens to ‘catalyse’ tensions elsewhere in Ethiopia

·7-min read

Aid agencies are unable to bring food and health supplies to Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, the UN warned on Thursday in the latest sign that the fighting there is intensifying. Analysts say that federal forces are facing a tough opponent in the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), and that the conflict threatens to further destabilise other parts of Ethiopia.

Tigray has been increasingly isolated from the outside world since the fighting began on November 4: Airports and roads out of the region have been closed while Internet and telephone connections have been cut off. On November 12 the UN’s humanitarian office reported “shortages of basic commodities” affecting “the vulnerable first and the most”.

The same day, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed wrote on Twitter that federal forces have “liberated” the western part of Tigray. But given that communications from Tigray have largely been cut off, it was not possible for news agencies to verify this claim.

On Wednesday, Sudanese officials said that more than 10,000 refugees from Tigray had fled across the border to their country, adding that they expect to see a total of 200,000 Ethiopian refugees.

The European Union, the African Union and the United Nations have all called for a ceasefire. Abiy, however, tweeted on Tuesday that “we won’t rest until this junta is brought to justice” – referring to the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the political party and armed group that runs the region bordering Eritrea. Diplomatic and security sources told Reuters that Abiy is keen to crush his opponents in Tigray and does not want mediation.

‘No incentive for TPLF to stay in the system’

The TPLF dominated Ethiopia’s governing coalition for decades following its leading role in overthrowing the Derg – a Marxist junta led by notorious dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam – in 1991. That changed in 2018, when mass protests – largely amongst the Oromo ethnic group – prompted the coalition to elect Abiy as its new, reformist leader. The Oromos are Ethiopia’s biggest such group, comprising around a third of the population, including Abiy.

After Abiy became prime minister in April 2018, several high-ranking TPLF officials were prosecuted for human rights abuses and corruption. The TPLF responded by accusing Abiy of targeting them in a politically motivated campaign. In 2019, the TPLF refused to join the Prosperity Party, the outfit Abiy created to merge and replace the ruling coalition of ethnic-based parties.

When Abiy’s government delayed this year’s general elections until 2021, citing Covid-19, the TPLF accused the prime minister of using the pandemic to hold on to power beyond his mandate.

The TPLF then unilaterally held regional elections in September. The federal government refused to accept the results. The finance ministry stopped distributing money to the Tigrayan regional administration and said it would have to be given to lower echelons of government.

After the conflict started, the federal government went further, with the Ethiopian parliament voting on November 7 to dissolve the Tigrayan regional parliament. “This leaves TPLF leaders with no incentive to stay in the system,” Nic Cheeseman, professor of democracy and international development at Birmingham University, wrote in a tweet.

‘Abiy is very mistaken’

Despite losing political influence in the rest of Ethiopia since 2018, the TPLF remains a fighting force of up to 250,000 troops, according to the International Crisis Group. Many of its officers were battle-hardened in the struggle against the Derg and the 1998-2000 conflict with Eritrea.

“I think Abiy Ahmed is very mistaken,” said Yohannes Woldemariam, an expert on the Horn of Africa and professor of international relations at the University of Colorado. “This is a very, very serious situation,” he continued. “You just have to look at the history of the TPLP; it is a very experienced organisation. So for Abiy Ahmed to try to dismiss it – that doesn’t seem a very realistic approach.”

“The TPLF were in command of Ethiopian military forces for a really long time, so they have been able to amass quite a significant number of supporters,” added Patricia Rodrigues, an East Africa analyst at consultancy firm Control Risks.

The Ethiopian army’s Northern Command based in Tigray includes a large number of Tigrayan officers and troops. It comprises more than half of the national army’s soldiers and mechanised divisions. Like the TPLF, the Northern Command accrued much of its combat experience from its disproportionate role in the conflict with Eritrea.

“It seems that large elements of the Northern Command leadership, probably the Tigrayan officers, have sided with the regional government or otherwise come under the regional government command after a forceful takeover, and this includes appropriating heavy weaponry,” said William Davison, an Ethiopia expert at the International Crisis Group.

At the same time, thousands of security forces and militia fighters from the neighbouring Amhara region have been deployed to fight for the federal government against the TPLF. A dispute between Tigray and Amhara over the border between the two regions – with Amhara claiming a slice of territory within Tigray – has festered for decades.

“The federal intervention through the Amhara region into southwest Tigray – with some participation of Amhara regular regional security forces and irregular Amhara forces at least around the border areas of western Tigray that are claimed by Amhara factions – has already significantly exacerbated this situation,” Davison said. “If Amhara factions do use the federal intervention in Tigray to try and press home territorial claims, that would make the conflict even more entrenched.”

‘My enemy’s enemy is my friend’?

Ethnic violence has flared elsewhere in Ethiopia over recent months. On November 1, gunmen killed 54 people – including children – after rounding them up into a schoolyard in the far west of the Oromia region, according to Amnesty International. Survivors of the massacre told Amnesty that Amharas were targeted and “dragged from their homes”.

The Ethiopian government said that the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), a separatist armed group, was responsible for the mass shooting. The previous month, some 67 people were killed in Oromia when anti-Abiy protests developed into ethnic clashes.

Abiy came to office promising to uphold Omoros’ civil rights while emphasising Ethiopian national unity within a democratic framework. He won international acclaim by forming a peace agreement with the OLA soon after becoming prime minister – in addition to the accord with Eritrea that won him the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize. Nevertheless, the decades-long OLA insurgency has continued to simmer.

“Because of the tension between the centre and the periphery – and Abiy Ahmed coming in on the back of protests in the Oromia region, and reshaping the federal party towards being a unitary party – you have much stronger demands within the many nations that make up the Ethiopian federation for nationalist claims for autonomy, and they have only been getting louder,” said Ahmed Soliman, a research fellow at Chatham House specialising in the Horn of Africa.

“Some of those claims, in the environment that we now have in Ethiopia, have become much more violent,” Soliman continued. “The country has seen an increasing flow of arms, not only to militant groups but also to civilians who want to protect themselves from increasing security threats around them.”

“When we see this federal intervention to remove a regional government, that does have the potential to catalyse other concerns about the undermining of regional autonomy, and there is a certain amount of support from other Ethiopian ethnonationalist groups for the Tigrayan cause at this point,” Davison said. “Often they have a history of hostile relations with the TPLF from when it was in power – but now that the TPLF is fighting what some perceive as a dictatorial, centralising regime, then there’s a sort of ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ calculus.”