Ethiopia: Averting Wider Conflict

Members of Amhara region militias heading to face the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) in November 2020. Courtesy of Reuters/Alamy Stock Photo

Prime Minister Abiy’s electoral victory is a pyrrhic one; the task of keeping his country together is far from over.

Late last month, Ethiopia’s Prosperity Party, led by incumbent Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, swept to victory with 410 out of 436 parliamentary seats. Around one fifth of the country did not take part, giving Abiy a narrow form of legitimacy to rely on in pursuit of his ambitions for economic reform and the centralisation of governance.

The Path to Conflict

For outside observers, however, Abiy’s victory was overshadowed by his ongoing conflict with political rivals the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Violent conflict erupted between Ethiopia’s federal government and the TPLF in November 2020. Amid growing tensions, the TPLF unilaterally held state-level elections in September, a move that the government in Addis deemed provocative. Both sides refused to accept the other’s legitimacy.

By late November, Tigray was occupied by the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF), as well as troops from Ethiopia’s Amhara state and the Eritrean Defence Forces (EDF) – the latter supplied by Abiy’s ally, Isaias Afwerki. Abiy was quick to declare his ‘law enforcement action’ successful, but battlefield gains proved short-lived. The TPLF united with Tigrayan opposition groups, military veterans and volunteers. The resulting Tigray Defense Forces (TDF), motivated by atrocities against Tigrayans, inflicted a defeat on the Ethiopian army in late June of this year. Operation ‘Allula’ saw the TDF recapture much of Tigray within days. Thousands of ENDF soldiers were taken prisoner and the federal government was forced to declare a unilateral ceasefire – effectively a fig leaf for its hasty exodus. Having lost two divisions and experienced such humiliating reversals, the ENDF is no longer an effective force, and its poor leadership and organisation are apparent.

The federal government instead put Tigray under blockade. Retreating troops looted infrastructure including banking and telecoms, while Addis put a stop to flights and basic services. Central Tigray has become more accessible in recent days, but the UN reports that around four million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, with some 400,00 in crisis. Justified accusations have since been levelled at the federal government; it stands accused of using food as a weapon of war, and the UN Security Council has discussed the risk of famine.

New Dynamics

The situation has evolved since the TDF fightback in June. Parts of Western Tigray remain under the control of Amharan forces, while Eritrean forces remain inside the northern border. Prime Minister Abiy has stepped up rhetoric against the TPLF, characterising the group – previously proscribed in law as a terrorist organisation – as a ‘weed’ or ‘disease’ that recruits child soldiers. The federal government has also cast blame more widely. The Tigrayans’ failure to support the ENDF operation is being presented as the reason for defeat, and mass roundups of Tigrayans in urban areas have followed. In this way, Abiy is tapping into popular resentment against the TPLF dating back to 1991, when it ruled within a wider coalition which saw corruption and repression amid impressive economic growth.

Undeterred, the TDF has pushed into Amharan-held parts of Tigray and more recently into neighbouring Afar state, threatening Ethiopia’s main rail link via Djibouti. Abiy in turn has called on Ethiopia’s regional states to supply troops. Seven are reported to have offered them: Oromia; Sidama; Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples' Region; the Somali region; Benishangul-Gumuz; Gambella; and Harari.

Whether these reinforcements will save a hobbled ENDF is questionable, but the move is symbolic. Troop mobilisation by Ethiopia’s regional states underscores the ENDF’s weakness, but it could also provide an entry-point to a wider civil war. The country has many fault lines within its states and society. Bouts of communal violence predated the November 2020 conflict. Several states – Oromia, Tigray, Amhara, Somali and the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples' Region – have marked internal political divisions or active insurgencies. Meanwhile, the uneven benefits of large-scale agriculture, infrastructure development and land-grabbing over decades have caused resentment and displacement. Tensions are rising among a populace enduring inflation rates of between 20% and 30%, partly driven by the Tigray conflict.

For now, the Ethiopian state is intact, but centrifugal forces are weakening its fabric. With help from his allies, Presidents Afwerki of Eritrea and Mohamed (Farmajo) of Somalia, Abiy hoped to dismantle the TPLF and create a trajectory towards political centralisation. He has failed in this ambition and may now be setting the country against itself. He remains the elected prime minister with a huge parliamentary majority and – for now – broad popular support. As such, the country is in limbo. Abiy has repudiated the political system bequeathed to him by his predecessors, one which can be defined as ‘ethno-federalism’. Yet he no longer has the means to usher in his alternative vision alone.

There are many calls both for peace negotiations and for a national dialogue to deliberate the country’s future. A mechanism is clearly required to air grievances and explore creative solutions. And in the long term, Ethiopia desperately needs to craft a new vision and shared political identity. But with the country effectively at war, this is at best a medium-term option. Right now, Abiy is in no position to negotiate with a movement designated as terrorists in law, and which is threatening his narrative of success and his political allies, the Amhara. For its part, the TDF has refused to negotiate until non-Tigrayan forces leave the administrative region entirely. It is now pressing its military advantage, attempting to lift the siege of Tigray and threatening a repayment in kind by choking off supplies from Djibouti. The Djiboutians are reportedly moving troops to secure the rail link – so far only up to their border. This underscores the possibility of wider regional involvement. There is also the potential for Sudan to be drawn in. Sudanese forces re-occupied farmland along the Ethiopian border in Al-Fashaga in mid-December – coincidentally, the same area through which the TDF is seeking to break the current blockade on Tigray. Eritrea remains dug into northern Tigray. President Farmajo of Somalia is also reported to have supplied troops, a fact that his political opponents are now using adeptly against him during a flagging election campaign.

Despite the regional implications, neither the Horn of Africa’s regional security block, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), nor the African Union (AU) offer an immediate solution. The AU appointed three high-level envoys for mediation, but Ethiopian diplomatic efforts have directed the AU’s energy into an investigation of human rights abuses instead of more robust and immediate political action. IGAD has proved weak or indecisive in the face of previous regional conflicts, and has so far deferred to the AU. Both entities will be regarded by the TPLF as having acquiesced to Ethiopia, leaving them ill-suited to lead any later mediation.

Applying Pressure

External actors have so far called for humanitarian access, a ceasefire, withdrawal of foreign troops and the start of negotiations. The UN Security Council has discussed the Tigray conflict several times, most recently on 2 July 2021. The US and EU have pressured the Ethiopian government in private and in public. In December 2020 the EU paused a tranche of budget support funding worth $109 million. The US has imposed travel sanctions against selected Ethiopian and Eritrean government officials, Amharan forces and TPLF members, and has suspended security and financial assistance. There has been talk but no decision on pausing multilateral development financing that Ethiopia badly needs. Russia and China have been more muted but have not sought to derail UN or Western initiatives thus far.

It seems that an African solution to the Tigray problem is not imminent, at least not via the channels formally established to deliver one. Shifts in the balance of regional forces and the calculations of regional players will be decisive in the coming weeks and months, however. Attention should be focussed on Prime Minister Abiy and President Afwerki in particular. The parties to the conflict will eventually want talks; the question is when and on what terms. The economic pressure faced by both heads of state is growing daily. For Afwerki, the question is how to ensure a troop withdrawal given the internal risks he faces at home. For Abiy, should his enlistment of regional state forces prove indecisive, he will need a face-saving formula to negotiate with the TPLF. As for the TDF, its campaign will need to be halted at the boundaries of Tigray. Its stated goal is at this stage only to liberate Tigray, but separatist sentiment is coming to the fore in Tigray and may drive the TDF’s strategy in unexpected directions.

External actors can help speed the path to negotiations, setting incentives for the actors involved and offering active mediation while working closely with regional bodies such as the AU. They should meanwhile apply pressure on Ethiopia to allow unconditional humanitarian access, and demand respect for humanitarian and human rights law from all parties.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Simon Rynn

Senior Research Fellow, African Security

International Security

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