Tigray crisis present challenges to Ethiopia’s future trajectory

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has ordered military operations to subdue and possibly oust the government of the reclusive northern Tigray Regional State after months of political posturing and war rhetoric between the two sides. The Nobel peace prize winner said he ordered the military campaign to “save the country” after he accused Tigray’s ruling Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) of attacking federal forces in the region. “The government… has tried to avoid a war by being tolerant and patient. But war cannot be avoided by one side,” Abiy Ahmed said in a Facebook post.

Internet was cut in Tigray just as the prime minister announced the military operation and the federal government has declared a six-month state of emergency in the region. In response, the Tigray authorities have banned army and all movements in the region. The regional state TV has broadcast patriotic songs and repeatedly aired the Tigray government’s call on the army to defend the people. Widespread violence will deepen Ethiopia’s ethnic and political divisions and rip apart Abiy Ahmed’s reform credentials.

Protracted political confrontation

Tigrayan elites dominated power in Ethiopia after Mengistu Hailemariam, the leader of a socialist junta, was ousted in 1991. The TPLF fell out of favour when Abiy Ahmed came to office in April 2018 with a pledge to introduce political reforms. The TPLF accused the prime minister of sacking its appointees from the government and the army. It has also accused Addis Ababa of a campaign against the Tigray state and the Tigrinya ethnic group. Efforts to ostracise Tigray leaders from federal affairs fuelled intransigence and spawned threats of secession.

Federal forces have frequently staged parades to counter similar marches in Tigray

Federal forces have frequently staged parades to counter similar marches in Tigray

In a move to consolidate power, Abiy folded up the former governing Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRF) coalition and established the Prosperity Party, which the TPLF opposed and refused to join. Years of tensions boiled over after the Tigray administration held its own elections in September in defiance of a federal government’s decision to indefinitely postpone national polls scheduled for 29 August due to the coronavirus pandemic. In reaction, parliament asked the treasury to stop funding to Tigray’s executive, a move aimed at suffocating the administration.

On 6 October, a day after Abiy’s mandate was to expire before parliament extended, the TPLF said that Abiy no longer had authority to deploy the army as his term in office had ended. Soon after, the Tigray state blocked the deployment of generals transferred to take charge of the Northern Command based in Mekele, the capital of Tigray. In response, federal MPs urged Addis Ababa to consider military action against the TPLF.


Key players in conflict

Prime Minister Abiy's closeness with Eritrea President Isaias threatens the Tigray party

Prime Minister Abiy’s closeness with Eritrea President Isaias threatens the Tigray party

Abiy Ahmed: The 2019 Nobel laureate sought to build a reputation as a pacifist at home and in the Horn of Africa region. The former army officer ended 18 years of hostility with Eritrea and introduced sweeping reforms at home.

Debretsion Gebremichael: The TPLF leader and governor of the Tigray state is a former federal deputy prime minister. He has struck an increasingly secessionist tone since being sacked from the national government in April 2018. Debretsion said on 3 November that Tigray forces were ready for war.

The TPLF: For 27 years, the party was the dominant affiliate in the now defunct EPRDF coalition. The TPLF refused to join the EPRDF successor, the Prosperity Party (PP).

Federal army and Tigray forces: Estimates of the army personnel range from 160,000 to more than 200,000 soldiers. The strength of Tigray special forces is unclear but Debretsion has said they are prepared to “defeat” federal troops despite reports of desertions.

Eritrea and Sudan: Eritrea to the north and Sudan to the north-west share borders with the Tigray region. President Isaias Afewerki of Eritrea is in good terms with Abiy Ahmed. Isaias blames the TPLF for the 1998-2000 border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Sudan’s military leader, Lt Gen Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan, concluded a two-day visit to Addis Ababa on 3 November. Burhan and Abiy agreed to boost border security.


Ethnic divisions and fears of civil war

Abiy Ahmed has not spoken of the aim of the operation. However, it is apparent that the military response is meant to subdue the Tigray and if the cost is not too high, oust the TPLF government. Ethiopia is currently battling ethnic violence that has frustrated Abiy’s reform agenda. The nation’s ethnic federalism is under threat. Some media reports have suggested that an armed confrontation in the Tigray region could spark off a civil war.

A protracted conflict in Tigray will stretch the federal army and create security vacuums in other volatile regions of Ethiopia, especially in Oromia and Benishangul-Gumuz, if the government mobilises many troops for war. A long-draw out conflict could suck in the neighbouring Eritrea. Eritrea’s pro-opposition Meskerem website reported on 4 November that Isaias met senior army officials to discuss a possible Tigray war. The conflict will further delay demarcation of the Ethiopia-Eritrea border, which has been pending despite the 2018 peace deal. The crisis escalated at a time when Ethiopia is embroiled in a major dispute with Egypt over a huge hydro-energy project being built on the Nile River. Egypt sees the dam as an existential threat.

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