The apparent culmination of the Ethiopian government’s ‘law enforcement operation’ in Tigray poses a number of new questions for the future of Africa’s second-most populous country.
The crisis in Ethiopia, which erupted at the start of November, is the culmination of a period of rising tensions between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government and the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
The TPLF, who headed the ruling coalition in Ethiopia from 1991 to 2017, had grown increasingly frustrated with Abiy’s federalist brand of politics and their subsequent alienation from power. Tensions reached a boiling point when the TPLF refused to follow the federal government’s order to postpone elections in September. This prompted the Prime Minister to launch an army offensive against Tigray in order to ‘enforce the rule of law’ – a decision which reverberated around the Horn of Africa.
As war ensued, many analysts feared the worst. In particular, there was a belief that Tigray – a highly militarised region hardened by years of war – would be extremely difficult to defeat by force, leading to a drawn-out conflict. There were also concerns that the war would exacerbate deepening ethnic divisions throughout the nation, precipitating a ‘Yugoslavia-style’ breakup of the nation.
On the surface at least, the conflict has defied many of these more fatalistic forecasts. The apparent takeover of Mekelle on the 7 December, came as a surprise to many. But what does this latest development in the conflict mean? Despite the apparent victory for the government, violence and instability will continue to plague Ethiopia – both on the Tigrayan front and elsewhere.
The Tigrayan Front
While the conquest of Mekelle is a significant victory for the government, hostility and violence continue to cast a shadow over Tigray. TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael claims that fighting is still taking place ‘in three directions’, including near Mekelle. No TPLF leaders have been captured, and no large-scale disarmament has taken place. The renegade forces may be wounded – but they are still very much alive.
The early forecasts that a war with Tigray would be protracted, therefore, may yet prove to be prescient. Guerrilla-style warfare will likely continue in the region until either a negotiated settlement or a military victory.
Though the Ethiopian government has ridiculed the narrative pushed by a number of experts that there would be a ‘protracted insurgency in the rugged mountains of Tigray’, the region’s terrain is unquestionably a boon for rebel forces. The difficulty of pursuing these rebels through the treacherous relief of the region means that a comprehensive military victory for the government’s forces is most likely out of reach, at least in the near future.
The TPLF have remained resolute, despite the setback of losing Mekelle. According to Gebremichael, they ‘are ready to die in defence of [their] right to administer the region’. Northern Ethiopia will thus likely be mired by sporadic, targeted violence for the foreseeable future unless a negotiated solution is reached. This conflict is far from over.
Deepening National Divisions
The Tigrayan crisis is not the only source of violence or ethno-regional division in Ethiopia. The nation, which has a population of over 100 million people, has a long history of domestic tension.
Ethiopia’s disparate peoples are governed by an ethnic federalist system. While in one respect, this system does alleviate ethnic demands for autonomy, it has a corrosive flipside. The regions created are deeply exclusionary, which creates ‘hard’ borders that incite friction.
These borders have historically been flashpoints for conflict, and over the last year, violence along these borders, and elsewhere, has begun to increase.
This map highlights areas that The New Humanitarian has identified as recent ‘flashpoints’ for internecine violence. The widespread nature of these flashpoints paints a picture of the growing instability that has plagued Ethiopia in recent years. The death of an estimated 222 civilians in Benishangul-Gumuz on 23 December is another devastating instance of the impact of this violence.
The Tigray conflict, alongside this violence and ethno-regional strife, has led to some suggestions that Ethiopia could undergo a Yugoslavia-like collapse. The underlying, unresolved grievances around the country that have built up from years of government domination are an undeniable threat to national unity.
However, these fears of collapse have been somewhat overblown. The risk that Ethiopia undergoes any kind of breakup, or is forced to deal with secessionist wars, is very low. Calls for the maintenance of autonomy are not equivalent to clamours for independence. As Adam Adebe, an Ethiopian constitutional scholar points out, ‘secession is not a popular sentiment, even in Tigray’.
There is also a sense that if secession movements were viable, then they would have launched a military campaign at the height of the Tigray conflict, when the Ethiopian army was most vulnerable.
Violence and instability, therefore, will likely continue. Full-scale ‘Balkanisation’ however, is not on the immediate horizon.
How will the situation evolve?
The critical question for Ethiopia’s future, therefore, seems to be whether Abiy will concentrate yet more power in Addis Ababa, and pursue a more authoritarian system of governance, or whether he will seek a negotiated inclusive settlement with regional leaders. Such a compromise is unlikely to be influenced by external forces; Abiy is firmly within the Ethiopian state tradition that abhors foreign intervention in their internal affairs.
Abiy’s relative youth, both as a politician and a Prime Minister, make forecasting somewhat challenging. There are two realistic paths for Ethiopia’s future, which essentially hinge upon Abiy’s political will and willingness to compromise.
Scenario 1: Inclusive Dialogue
Violence and human rights abuses have lost Abiy a huge amount of support internationally, marking a stunning fall from grace since being made a Nobel Peace Laureate in 2019. While the brutality of his response, particularly the way in which it has caused harm to civilians, should be roundly condemned, the role of the TPLF in creating this conflict cannot be dismissed. The Tigrayan leadership persistently undermined Abiy’s government, and knowingly angled for conflict.
Without exculpating this violence, the general thrust of this argument is that at heart, Abiy is not intent on consolidating his authority through force, and even if he were, his power is not established enough for him to survive as a leader by employing these methods. Though some have argued that Abiy is a unitarian, he has never directly disavowed the system, merely pleaded for its reform.
It is in Abiy’s interest, therefore, to broaden his political base by seeking a negotiated settlement with the disparate ethno-regional factions that dominate Ethiopian politics. The elections, which Abiy has said will be held on 5 June 2021, set a clear calendar for any such negotiations.
If the current instability which plagues the country is to settle down, some form of settlement with opposition groups must be reached before these elections. If not, their results will not be recognised by opposition factions or their supporters, which would likely spark mass protest and violence.
It does, therefore, seem likely that talks will be initiated. A satisfactory settlement is certainly a realistic possibility, but will doubtless be complicated.
Scenario 2: Increased Authoritarianism
Alternatively, buoyed by a symbolic victory in Tigray, or frustrated by unproductive dialogue, Abiy could ignore the growing necessity to compromise, and instead tighten his authoritarian grip over the nation, forcing forward an agenda of political centralisation.
This could have devastating effects for Ethiopia, where political authority relies on some degree of regional autonomy and compromise. Internecine violence, which has gradually grown throughout Abiy’s tenure, will likely spiral out of control.
The longer dialogue is delayed, the greater the potential for violence and instability in Ethiopia. The country’s size and significance means that this is not merely a domestic issue. The fallout of the violence and displacement of the Tigray conflict has already had significant regional consequences. Eritrea has sent troops into Tigray in support of Ethiopia, and has been shelled by the TPLF in retaliation. Tens of thousands of refugees have fled into Sudan, creating the conditions for rising tensions on their border with Ethiopia. Finally, the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops in Somalia could sow the seeds for a resurgence of al-Shabaab.
If he goes down this road, therefore, Abiy would not only threaten the stability of his own country, but his actions could plunge the entire Horn of Africa into chaos.