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Scenarios for civil war in Ethiopia’s Tigray region

Nov 19, 2020
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Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed deployed federal troops to
Tigray region on 4 November, after claiming that its governing
party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), had attacked
the military’s Northern Command base in Mekelle and a town near the
disputed Tigray-Amhara border earlier in the day. Subsequently, the
Ethiopian federal Council of Ministers declared a six-month state
of emergency in Tigray regional state. On 7 November, Ethiopia’s
upper house of parliament, the House of Federation, adopted a
resolution to establish a transitional government in Tigray region
to replace the TPLF regional administration. On 17 November, Ahmed
warned TPLF-aligned forces that his three-day ultimatum for them to
surrender had expired, and that the “final critical act of law
enforcement will be done in the coming days”, indicating a new push
by federal forces into Tigray.

The Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF) operation in Tigray
aims to secure the Northern Command, key roads, and urban areas and
to arrest the TPLF senior leadership. The ENDF has encircled
Tigray, with external borders closed by Sudan and Eritrea, and
internal borders secured by the ENDF supporting the regional forces
and militias in Amhara and in Afar. Since 8 November, the ENDF has
launched an offensive from Amhara into western Tigray, with the
government claiming to have retaken Dansha and Shire. Supporting
the ENDF, Amhara militias are likely to have secured disputed
border areas of Welkait, Tsegede, and Raya, including key towns and
major roads. Other ENDF deployments are moving into Tigray from
Afar, likely aiming to take the regional capital of Mekelle, where
the government claims to have destroyed TPLF long-range missiles
and significant weapons stocks in airstrikes, although the TPLF
demonstrated over 13-14 November that it continues to possess
long-range rockets (with attacks targeting the airports of Amhara
region’s Gonder and Bahir Dar, and Eritrea’s Asmara) and artillery.
Federal police and the ENDF are pre-emptively disarming Tigrayan
ENDF and police officers throughout the country, likely to prevent

Scenario 1: The federal government will succeed in
broadly regaining control over key Tigrayan cities

The most likely scenario is that, by January 2021, the federal
government will succeed in broadly regaining control over key
Tigrayan cities, including the Northern Command base, but that
fighting featuring heavy weapons use by both sides will continue
through the end of 2020. This continued intensity of fighting
increases the likelihood of widespread destruction of assets in
Tigray (and to a lesser extent in the neighbouring areas of Eritrea
and Ethiopia’s Amhara and Afar regions) as a result of artillery,
rockets, and airstrikes cumulatively multiple times a month,
affecting airports, urban areas, power infrastructure, major
commercial projects, including mining and industrial parks, and
military bases, as both sides use heavy weaponry in attempts to
deny the other control of them. Eventual federal control would be
achieved by arresting or killing senior TPLF members and
establishing a transitional government in regional capital Mekelle
with senior loyalist Tigrayans. Federal control would also extend
to other major towns such as Shire and key inter-city highways
(such as the A2 and B30) during daylight hours. However, there will
probably be continuing TPLF support in northern Tigray,
particularly home areas of senior leaders including Adigrat, Adwa,
and Axum.

The TPLF is likely to retreat to strongholds in the northern
parts of the region’s mountainous terrain and deploy insurgency
tactics, especially around Adigrat and to a lesser extent around
Raya in southern Tigray. Smaller towns and major highways,
particularly in rural areas, would likely be subject to small-arms
attacks targeting federal forces and non-Tigrayan road travellers.
TPLF-aligned fighters would also likely launch night-time attacks
in Shire, Wukro, Axum, Adigrat, and Mekelle to undermine government
control. Other tactics by TPLF elements would probably include road
ambushes and improvised explosive device (IED) attacks targeting
Tigray transitional government officials and Tigrayans and militias
loyal to the central government. There will be a high risk of
collateral damage and targeted attacks against commercial assets
such as mines guarded by the ENDF and perceived to be contributing
to the federal government’s revenues, particularly if ownership of
them is taken over by perceived pro-government entities or

Scenario 2: The TPLF would still retain control of
cities and territory in the Aksum-Adigrat-Mekelle

In a less likely scenario, in January 2021 the TPLF would still
retain control of cities and territory in the Aksum-Adigrat-Mekelle
triangle, having maintained the cohesion of its forces (including
ENDF defectors) and its control of heavy weaponry during this
time.This scenario would likely entail TPLF control of the Northern
Command base, access to the Sudanese or Afari borders for supply
routes, and control of the air-defence systems around Mekelle. This
would increase the likelihood of a declared ceasefire between the
two sides, but mutually exclusive positions on key issues
(particularly the TPLF’s continued possession of military weaponry
and the freedom of its leadership) would likely prevent a more
formal peace agreement. This would leave the opposing forces
deployed in a state of war-readiness, with regular flare-ups of
fighting (including the use of artillery, rockets, and air strikes)
along the line of contract during 2021. Both collateral and
targeted damage to nearby airports, urban areas, highways, power
infrastructure, and major commercial assets would be likely during
such flare-ups. The likelihood of this scenario would be increased
if the Eritrean military responds to the TPLF’s 14 November rocket
attacks on its capital Asmara with confirmed military incursions
into Tigray against the TPLF. The TPLF has already claimed that
Eritrea has been supporting the ENDF operations against
TPLF-aligned forces with ground troops, and with shelling in the
border town of Badme and Zalambessa. The deteriorating humanitarian
situation, as well as direct Eritrean involvement, would bolster
the TPLF’s appeal to the local population and calls for broader
mobilisation. This would serve to reinforce the TPLF’s ranks, which
it claims number up to a quarter of “a million well-equipped
fighters”, but in reality, probably amount to significantly

In both scenarios, the TPLF is likely to encourage other
ethno-nationalist groups to stage anti-government protests and
attacks in order to stretch federal forces. The TPLF is also likely
to encourage Oromo opposition groups to resume violent protests and
roadblocks in major cities with large Oromo populations, such
Harar, Ambo, Adama, Dire Dawa, and the outskirts of Addis Ababa.
The TPLF-aligned Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) will likely escalate
its ongoing insurgency in Wellega, increasing terrorism and civil
war risks in western Oromia.

Indicators of changing risk environment

Increasing risk (scenario 2)

  • Attempted assassinations take place, particularly of senior
    military officials, members of the Tigrayan state-of-emergency
    taskforce in Addis Ababa, or officials in the regional
    administrations of Amhara or Oromia.
  • Confirmation that large numbers of Oromia Liyu police have
    joined the OLA, increasing its forces’ strength amid government
    claims of OLA support to TPLF forces in Tigray.
  • High-casualty attacks take place on ethnic Amhara in cities in
    Oromia, such as Shashemene, Bishoftu, and Jimma. This would likely
    trigger inter-ethnic conflict between Amhara and Oromo regions,
    distracting Amhara special forces from the ENDF operations.
  • Resumption of fighting along the western Oromia border with the
    Somali region, and/or the escalation in skirmishes between Afari
    and Somali militias in the disputed towns of Garba-Issa, Undufo,
    and Adaytu, which would distract Somali Liyu forces.
  • Increases in the number of casualties of federal soldiers and
    injured soldiers sent to Amhara’s hospitals, which would be an
    indicator of the TPLF having comparatively significant
  • TPLF forces re-establish a supply route to the Sudanese border,
    and pro-TPLF elements within the Sudanese government allow the TPLF
    cross-border access, which could include Egyptian government
    funding, weapons, and supplies.
  • Attacks from the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) based in
    Kassala, Sudan, around key towns in western Eritrea, including the
    border town Teseney or the military camp in Sawa.
  • Resumption of fighting in the disputed border area of Fashqa
    triangle between the Sudanese military and Amhara militia.
  • Derailment of Sudan’s efforts to be removed from the US State
    Sponsors of Terrorism list by the end of 2020.
  • TPLF and Eritrean exile forces stage a ground invasion of
    Eritrea, with the intention of removing the government of President
    Isaias Afwerki and using Eritrea as a rear-base against Ethiopia’s
    federal government.

Decreasing risk (scenario 1)

  • The federal government secures Tigrayan capital city Mekelle
    and the Northern Command base, recovering most of the equipment and
  • Confirmation of the Ethiopian federal forces’ chief of staff’s
    statement (6 November) that members of the Special Force of Tigray
    Regional State who were forced to fight have been surrendering or
  • Reports of Tigrayans defecting to the federal forces in the
    thousands as an indicator of de-escalation.
  • The federal government restores internet services in Tigray,
    indicating improving relations between the federal government and
    Tigray’s regional administration.
  • Both sides entering into peace talks, especially if moderated
    by the African Union.

Posted 19 November 2020 by Eva Renon, Senior Country Risk Analyst, IHS Markit

Jordan Anderson, Senior Analyst, IHS Markit

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