Tension is still high in Tigray, over a month after the war erupted. Though the Ethiopian Army has declared that military operations are over, there is evidence of conflicts going on in the countryside and the whole region seems to be engulfed in simmering tensions. Taken aback by the sudden outburst of military confrontations, international analysts and observers are struggling to grasp with the reasons and long term implications of this conflict. At its source, the conflict unfolding in Ethiopia is mainly between forces supporting the multinational federalist vision expounded primarily by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and those who suggest the return to a model of unitary and centralized governance and state building, led by the Prosperity Party founded by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali. However, the web of factors that have led to this conflict is much thicker and intertwined.
After having been instrumental in defeating the Derg regime in 1991, the TPLF has dramatically reshaped the constitutional arrangement of Ethiopia, substituting the traditionally centralized and unitary model with a federalist one based on the reorganization of the country into 9 regional states (kellel) defined mainly along notions of ethno-linguistic identities and controlled by the umbrella coalition known as Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). According to the constitutional charter adopted in 1994, the 9 regional states were to enjoy a high degree of autonomy in educational, administrative, and development strategies, including the right to full self-determination, if they so wished.
Within this framework, in the last three decades, under the hegemonic rule of the TPLF and the heavy-handed leadership of the charismatic Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia has experienced impressive growth rooted in notions of a developmental state that privileged economic growth as a natural driver toward democratisation. With the assumption that empty bellies could not enjoy democracy the TPLF has marshalled Ethiopia’s socio-economic setting through a radical transformation and its track record has been celebrated by the international community. This one-sided focus on development has led to an impressive macro-economic performance and to an unprecedented enlargement of educational opportunities and infrastructural developments nationwide, but it has also emptied the federal arrangement of its transformative potential. In fact, the TPLF leadership has opted for a sort of indirect rule, which traded loyalty from regional administrators for an overly tolerant attitude towards their rampant corruption and human rights abuses. Dissent within and outside the TPLF has been stifled, through imprisonment, extrajudicial killings and muzzling of the media. This has engendered growing frustration among many sections of Ethiopian society, particularly among the youth. Brought up in the post-Derg era, Ethiopian youth (one could say the first fruits of the TPLF/EPRDF development policies) claimed with increasing determination the fulfilment of the democratic promises underpinning the federal arrangement and, regardless of the extraordinary transformation undergone by Ethiopia, they made clear that they could no longer be appeased by the theory of “filling the belly first”.
The sudden death of Meles Zenawi in 2012 exposed the TPLF difficulties to further maintain its grasp over a fast-changing Ethiopia and Meles’ hand-picked successor, Hailemariam Desalegn, did not have enough charisma and political strength to handle this ebullient legacy. The spread of dissatisfaction among the youth, together with resentment among the two largest ethno-lingistic groups – the Oromo and the Amhara – jeopardised the delicate arrangement of the 1994 constitution and forced Hailemariam to resign from his position. Eventually, the Oromo and Amhara leadership, banded in an unusual alliance, outmanoeuvred the TPLF within the EPRDF to get Abiy Ahmed Ali, who is of mixed Oromo-Amharic parentage, appointed as prime minister on April 2nd 2018. Not to be forgotten, in this process, the main competitor of Abiy Ahmed was Debretsion Gebremichael, the current chairman of the TPLF and Deputy President of Tigray Region. Essentially, one can say that this is when the conflict started.
The rise of Abyi
The unexpected appointment of Abiy Ahmed as Prime Minister raised huge expectations for a major opening of Ethiopian politics and its democratisation. Indeed, the first steps taken by the new Prime Minister suggested that a new era had started: political prisoners were freed, exiled dissidents were welcomed home, restrictions on the media were eased, and the political and economic role of TPLF leaders substantially downsized. These initiatives were welcomed with rapturous enthusiasm both within Ethiopia and abroad. The international community has not been immune from Abiy’s charm and has hailed him as a role model for a prospective new breed of African leaders engaged with issues of democracy, social justice, and gender equality. The apex of this ecstatic adoration was reached in June 2018, with Abiy’s swift move to mend fences with the President of Eritrea, Issayas Afewerki. In fact, on June 5th 2018 the Executive Committee of the ruling EPRDF announced its decision to accept and fully implement the 2002 ruling of the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC) established under the auspices of the Permanent Court of Arbitration.
It has to be recalled that the TPLF-led Ethiopian Government had breached its commitment towards the full implementation of the deliberation made by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2002 and had since followed a politics of no peace-no war that has pushed the Eritrean government into a corner, bringing its regional role close to irrelevance and contributed to the further dictatorial involution of its regime. Eventually, this move has earned Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali the Nobel Peace Prize, though the details of the peace agreement have remained opaque and perplexity has been raised over the heavy sponsorship of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates behind this process.
Toward the conflict
Paradoxically, peace with Eritrea has paved the way to war within Ethiopia. Indeed, the speedy strengthening of relations between the two heads of state has been perceived by the TPLF leadership as the signal of a strategy aimed at their political marginalization. In fact, internally Abyi has been busy radically reshuffling the political map of Ethiopia: sacking TPLF officials from key security posts, arresting Tigrayan generals on graft charges, and introducing changes to counter the Tigrayan dominance of the armed forces. At the same time, official declarations by the Eritrean President Issayas Afewerki, did not help to dispel TPLF’s concerns. Indeed, Issayas declared that the peace proposal forwarded by the Ethiopian government meant “game over” for the TPLF leadership. An initially overlooked signal of the growing tension within Tigray arose in January 2019 when the population of the town of Shire Enda Sellase, close to the Eritrean border, took to the streets to stop the redeployment of artillery and other weaponry stationed in that area to an undisclosed destination.
At the same time, the internal situation of Ethiopia began deteriorating and the initial hopes for democratic rule were dashed. Requests for the full implementation of democratic provisions were met with harsh repression. Within months, again, prominent opposition leaders were jailed, the media muzzled, and key members of the previous leadership were mysteriously killed. Large swaths of western Oromia went into open conflict and tensions started brewing between the Amhara and Tigray regional states as well as in the Benishangul-Gumuz, Harar, Afar, and Southern Regional states, precipitating Ethiopia into turmoil. A further step in the escalation of political tension has been the move made on December 1st 2019 by Abiy to dismantle the EPRDF substituting it with a new party, the Prosperity Party. The new party epitomises a radical shift from the TPLF/EPRDF vision as it suggests a more centralised structure of the State based on the ideology of medemer (getting together/synergy in Amharic).
In economic matters the new party espouses a strongly liberalist approach, based on the massive privatisation of national assets, a cardinal departure from previous policies rooted on theories of anti-intervention, dependency theory, and the central role of the developmental state as a driver towards modernisation and growth. This per se legitimate move by Prime Minister Abiy has been marred by opaque measures, which have basically forced civil servants to join the new party or otherwise face the possibility of firing or demotion from their positions. Moreover, in its strategy to resize the disproportionate presence of Tigrayans in ministries, the army, and State enterprises, the Prime Minister has started referring to them using heavily connoted terms such as yeqen jibotch (“day-time hyenas” in Amharic) thus playing ambiguously with scary practices of ethnic profiling. Instead of capitalising on the EPRDF/TPLF legacy using it as a springboard for his new agenda, Abiy Ahmed has chosen rather to reject it entirely and has cursed it as “27 years of darkness.” The final blow to the fragile internal stability of Ethiopia has been the decision taken by the Prime Minister Abiy to indefinitely postpone the national elections scheduled for August 2020. Justified under the health concern raised by the Covid-19 pandemic, this decision has been met with a fierce condemnation by the TPLF which claimed that this move was simply aimed at illegally extending the power of the prime minister and would have been motivated by the fear of losing the elections, due to the still small constituency of the Prosperity Party nationwide. Therefore, the TPLF decided to proceed unabated and held its own elections within the Tigray regional state, as scheduled. From then onward, both parties started trading mutual charges of illegitimacy transforming what could had been just a political dispute into a fight to the death.
The conflict and its regional impact
In this increasingly tense environment the triggering factor for the ongoing conflict was the move made by the TPLF on November 4, when they surrounded and took over the headquarters of the Ethiopian Northern Command in Mekelle, the military force in charge of ensuring the security of Ethiopia along the Eritrean, Sudanese, and Djibouti borders. Condemned by Abiy Ahmed as a criminal act and justified by the TPLF as a move for survival due to the growing exchange of military intelligence, weaponry, and troops between the Ethiopian Government and the State of Eritrea, this move was met with a swift reaction from the federal government which declared a 6 month state of emergency in Tigray and unleashed a full-fledged military operation.
Since then Tigray has been completely disconnected from the rest of the world. Telephone lines, Internet, bank services, food supplies, and humanitarian aid have been cut. Therefore, it has been difficult to assess developments on the ground, and the absence of independent media has left the international community as well as the Ethiopians at the mercy of the flow of propaganda and fake news from both parties. What seems certain by now is that Federal forces have taken control of all major towns in Tigray, possibly with the exception of Axum, but large swathes of eastern Tigray’s countryside seem still to be under the control of the TPLF. Casualties have not been independently assessed but all analysts agree upon the idea that they amount to the thousands. Close to 50.000 Tigrayans have fled the war zone taking refuge in Sudan and there is still no data on the level of material damages caused by the intensive use of heavy artillery and air force.
In spite of the attempt to present it as an Ethiopian internal affair, the conflict has quickly taken a regional dimension. First of all many analysts agree that there is evidence of substantial Eritrean involvement on the side of Prime Minister Abiy. Eritrea is the one player in the region with the potential to stoke the flames of war and it has already done so through the direct intervention of Eritrean troops (four mechanised divisions, seven infantry divisions and a commando brigade), the repeated use of Eritrean artillery on different fronts and the permission granted to Ethiopian forces to use Eritrean airports and ports as logistical bases. Eritrea’s interests in current affairs are multifaceted.
First of all, the Eritrean president has old scores to settle with its historical arch-rival, the TPLF. These are grudges rooted in the years of struggle for liberation, which kept simmering after the Eritrean defeat in the 1998-2000 war. In a broader perspective the Eritrean government has always been hostile to the federalist system espoused by the TPLF, and this conflict offers Eritrea the opportunity to participate in the dismissal of this system and also to return, unexpectedly, as a regional king-maker, as long as the honeymoon with Prime Minister Abiy continues. Another crucial actor has been Sudan who has remained, officially, neutral though Khartoum could benefit from the temporary weakness of Ethiopia to have an upper hand on issues which have seen the two countries at loggerheads.
The first issue is about boundary disputes in the area of El Gedaref, which has witnessed repeated skirmishes and communal violence. It is thus no coincidence that on December 2nd the Sudan Armed Forces reportedly took control, after 25 years, of the area of Khor Yabis in eastern El Gedaref on the border between Sudan and Ethiopia, pushing back the Ethiopian militias that had been occupying these fertile farmlands. The other crucial issue for Sudan is water policies over the Nile. Since its inception into power, the TPLF has promoted an aggressive infrastructural strategy aimed at making Ethiopia energetically self-reliant by building a series of dams on the Nile river. The last and most controversial one, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, has raised the concern of Sudan and, more vocally, of Egypt. Worried about the impact of this project on their agricultural output, both riparian countries have engaged the Ethiopian Government in tense negotiations and, occasionally, the Egyptian Government has hinted at the possibility of taking drastic measures to stop the project.
Somalia is another stakeholder in this conflict because of its ambiguously close relations with Ethiopia, developed since the Meles Zenawi rule in the early nineties. Ethiopia has been instrumental in endorsing Somali governments and in supporting their struggle against the Al Shabab insurgency. During Meles Zenawi’s time, this support took the form of a mix of pragmatism and heavy-handed military intervention. In fact, Ethiopia was mainly providing military support to handle the intricate web of Somali politics by renting loyalties. The current Ethiopian government has opted for a different approach that, besides military intervention, tends to partake more actively in Somali affairs, not without raising the eyebrows among part of Somali politicians. If the conflict with Tigray does not end quickly, Somalia will suffer from the unavoidable redeployment of Ethiopian troops. Finally, other major regional stakeholders are Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, both sponsors of the rapprochement between Ethiopia and Eritrea and both looking at the two Horn of Africa states as their main asset in their larger anti-Turkish strategy in the region, including the forgotten war in the Yemen.
The real issue now is how to imagine the future of post-conflict Ethiopia. Ethiopia has survived more protracted and more violent conflicts without necessarily crumbling into pieces. The military success of the Ethiopian Army will probably strengthen the legitimacy of Prime Minister Abiy within the nation and for a while he might capitalise on the pan-Ethiopian rhetoric which he has used to rally the population behind his strategy. Moreover, the TPLF attack on the headquarters of the Northern Command together with the successful media black-out imposed by the Federal Government over the conflict have alienated any little remaining support of the Ethiopian population to the TPLF.
At this stage, in spite of its undeniable achievement and contribution to the development of Ethiopia, it is difficult to imagine the survival of the TPLF as a legitimate political force within the Ethiopian arena. On the other side, the policy of ethnic-profiling of the Tigrayans started by Prime Minister Abiy already in 2019 and intensified during the ongoing conflict, if not interrupted quickly, will alienate the support of the Tigrayan population and provide fertile ground for guerrilla warfare, which could usher Ethiopia back into sad and not to be repeated experiences of the past. What the other Ethiopian regional states will do once the present conflict is settled remains an open question. The apparently unanimous support that has been given to the war against the TPLF might develop into much more nuanced stands as many opposition forces and regional administrators are not thrilled with the prospect of bringing power back to the center of Ethiopian politics. Many of them would rather strive for a more effective implementation of the federal arrangement promised by the TPLF but never fully realized. To this regard, we should not forget that many other parts of Ethiopia, especially western Oromia, Amhara, and Benishangul-Gumuz regions, areas along the borders of the Oromia-Somali and Afar-Somali regional states, and Southern Ethiopia are also engulfed in violent conflicts and atrocities.
Now, the only thing which is apparent and undeniable is that the abysmally irresponsible choice made by both the TPLF and Prime Minister Abiy to militarizze a conflict which could have been solved politically has immediate and tangible costs. The first to pay this bill have been the thousands of Ethiopian (both from the federal army and the TPLF) and Eritrean soldiers, which have been killed or maimed in battle, as well as the tens of thousands of civilians displaced from their homes in Tigray and forced into Sudan as refugees. Other casualties are the 96,000 Eritrean refugees hosted in refugees camps in Tigray, which, all of a sudden, are in a limbo, deprived of their legal rights as refugees and exposed to violence from Ethiopian militias and illegal raids from Eritrean forces, which have abducted thousands and brought them back to Eritrea, leaving others with the only choice to scramble for safety either in Sudan or further south into Ethiopia. From a more general perspective, three decades of Ethiopia’s impressive march towards economic and social development and the hopes for a bright and relatively peaceful future for the region have been dashed, hopefully, not for too long.
On an international level, finally, the main casualty of this conflict is probably the African Union, which has been unable to live up to its motto “African solutions for African problems”. Slow in making any effective move in front of a dramatic conflict, the AU has been humiliated by Prime Minister Abiy’s quick dismissal of their offer for mediation. Ethiopia lies at the heart of African affairs, many pan-African strategic decision-making and coordination entities have their offices there. This conflict could affect the entire continent’s strategic response capabilities. Certainly, we would have expected better from an organization with such a rich history like the TPLF, as well as from a prime minister that had been awarded a Nobel Peace Prize less than a year ago.
Uoldelul Chelati Dirar is Associate Professor of African History at the University of Macerata.
Cover Photo: People wait during for food distribution, organised by the Ethiopian government – Alamata, Ethiopia, December 11, 2020 (Eduardo Soteras / AFP)
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