Civil war in Ethiopia as conflict deepens in Tigray province

The United Nations warns of a humanitarian crisis as Ethiopia’s central government sends the military into the rebellious Tigray province that has been defying central authority ever since Abiy Ahmad became the Prime Minster in 2018. Thousands of refugees flee into neighbouring Sudan.

Published : Dec 08, 2020 06:00 IST

Ethiopian military in an armoured personnel carrier near the border between the Tigray and Amhara regions. This image is made from an undated video released by the state-owned Ethiopian News Agency on November 16.

Ethiopian military in an armoured personnel carrier near the border between the Tigray and Amhara regions. This image is made from an undated video released by the state-owned Ethiopian News Agency on November 16.

Ethiopia is once again in danger of careening into an all-out civil war like the one witnessed more than 30 years ago. In the first week of November, the central government in Addis Ababa ordered military action against the rebellious province of Tigray in the north of the country. The move came after an Ethiopian military camp in the province came under attack from militia forces under the control of the provincial government of Tigray. Trouble between Tigray and the central government has been brewing since Abiy Ahmad became the Prime Minster in 2018, breaking the chokehold the Tigrayans had on power since 1991. That was the year which witnessed the overthrow of Mengistu Haile Merriam.

Africa’s second most populous nation, Ethiopia has witnessed relative peace since the 1990s and has registered steady economic growth in the last three decades. Massive street protests in the major Ethiopian cities catapulted Abiy into power, a development that was viewed as a whiff of fresh air in the African continent. His government replaced the authoritarian set-up headed by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which was in power for the last three decades. Also read: Into the antique land of Ethiopia

A coalition led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the EPRDF stayed in power through blatant vote-rigging and silencing of critics. The TPLF and the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) had jointly fought against the government in Addis Ababa in a protracted war in the 1980s. Both the groups claimed to be Marxist in orientation at the time, but once in power they proved to be ideologically flexible.

The EPLF is still in power in Eritrea with its leader, Isaias Afwerki, at the helm. But the TPLF is now engaged in a last-ditch struggle for its very survival as a political entity. From the point of view of the government in Addis Ababa, the TPLF leadership raised the banner of revolt when it unilaterally held elections in October in the Tigray province. The central government had postponed all provincial elections citing the spread of the pandemic in the country.

Many observers of the region are of the view that defeating the TPLF will not be easy. Abiy insists that the Ethiopian army will enter Mekelle, the capital of Tigray, without much delay. On November 22, he issued a three-day ultimatum to the Tigrayan leadership to surrender. Otherwise, he warned, the Ethiopian army would have no option but to attack Mekelle. The military has urged the civilian population to leave the city “to save themselves”. Abiy had first said that the entire operation would be over within a few days. But after two weeks of fighting, tens of thousands of refugees have fled to neighbouring Sudan.

Before the government declared a six-month “state of emergency” and sent in the military, Ethiopia’s parliament met in an emergency session that declared Tigray’s newly elected government “illegal” and voted to dissolve it. The people of Tigray had overwhelmingly voted for the TPLF in the “election” that the party organised in October. (When the TPLF was in power at the central level, a lot of developmental work had been undertaken in the province.) The Ethiopian parliament stated in its resolution that the Tigray leadership had “violated the Constitution and endangered the constitutional system” by holding the election. Indeed, after Abiy’s ascendance, the provincial administration in Tigray started acting as a virtually independent state, ignoring the office of the Prime Minster. Also read: Bush war in Africa

The United Nations has warned of a looming humanitarian disaster. There are reports of inter-ethnic bloodletting emerging from Tigray, with both sides hurling accusations at each other.

The backstory

Meles Zenawi, the TPLF leader who ruled Ethiopia with an iron hand until his death in 2012, had changed the Constitution to theoretically devolve considerable autonomy to the provinces, which since 1995 have been constituted on the basis of ethnicity. On paper, the provinces were even given the right to secede from the Ethiopian state. In actual practice, the EPRDF government brooked no opposition.

Notwithstanding the rights enshrined in the Constitution, the central government seized land from many provinces and handed it over to foreign agribusinesses and industries. Massive protests against the government land grab had broken out in many parts of the country. The two largest ethnic groups, the Oromo and the Amhara, who felt sidelined by the Tigrayan-dominated central government, were in the forefront of the protests that rocked the country from 2014.

Following the unrelenting nationwide unrest, Abiy took over from Haile Marriam Desalegn, a Tigrayan who had succeeded Zenawi. Despite opposition from the much weakened Tigrayan faction, Abiy was elected as the leader of the EPRDF and in the process became the country’s youngest (he is 41) Prime Minister, and the first from the Oromo region. Abiy’s father is a Muslim and his mother a Christian. Also read: Troubled times in Ethiopia

Abiy started his term in office by releasing thousands of political prisoners, lifting restrictions on social media and legalising parties that were previously banned. Many opposition politicians who had gone into exile returned to the country. A year after coming to power, Abiy formally dissolved the EPRDF and created a new political grouping, the Prosperity Party. The TPLF, already marginalised by the other constituents of the EPRDF, refused to join the new party.

Backlash against Tigrayans

The last two years witnessed a backlash against Tigrayans, who were dominant in the previous government. Tigrayans living in the capital and other cities were targeted. More than 1,00,000 of them were forced to flee to refugee camps. Abiy has not been able to control the escalating ethnic strife. Around 150 ethnic clashes were reported this year alone, with the Amhara ethnic group bearing the brunt. The Oromos, the ethnic group to which Abiy belongs, are getting increasingly assertive.

The killing of a popular Oromian singer and activist, Hachalu Hundessa, in July this year triggered riots leading to more than 250 deaths in the capital, Addis Ababa, and in the Oromo heartland. The government has blamed the TPLF and the rebel Oromo Liberation Army for the assassination. Prominent Oromo leaders who have been critical of Abiy’s handling of the “federalism” issue have been arrested. Abiy rose to prominence as a defender of Oromo rights, but as Prime Minister he has taken a strong stance against politics based on ethnicity. There is a fear that other major ethnic groups could emulate the Tigrayans, threatening the existence of the historic Ethiopian state. Ethiopia is a federation of 10 constituent states.

Instability in the region

Already some countries in the Horn of Africa region such as Sudan and Somalia have disintegrated. The break-up of Somalia has contributed substantially to the instability in the region, with the rise of militant groups such as the Al Shabab, which is now aligned with the Islamic State (Daesh). Many outside actors have established their military footprint in the region. The United States and its European allies want to retain control of the region as their rivalry with China intensifies. The United Arab Emirates, an all-weather ally of the U.S., has set up military bases in Eritrea, Somalia and neighbouring Yemen. The control of the narrow Bab-el-Mandeb strait, through which much of the oil for Europe passes, is located in this region.

During the EPRDF’s long hold on power, the major posts in the administration, the armed forces and the security establishment were held by Tigrayans though they constituted only around 6 per cent of Ethiopia’s population. Ethiopia’s biggest army base is situated in Tigray province. It is estimated that half of the Ethiopian army is deployed in the region. The army there could split, with the sizeable number of Tigrayans in the armed forces being divided in their loyalties. Also read: Contract slavery of Ethiopians

Ethiopian officials have acknowledged that some army officers have already defected. Tigray’s paramilitary force, which is said to number around 2,50,000, has been preparing for more than a year for an inevitable showdown with the central government. Before Abiy ordered the Ethiopian army to move against the TPLF, he sacked the army chief, the head of security, and the country’s Foreign Minister, all Tigrayans. The head of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, is also a Tigrayan and had served as a Minister of Health in Ethiopia. The Ethiopian government is now accusing him of being a lobbyist for the TPLF and Tigrayan separatists.

The previous government headed by the TPLF had fought a bitter war with Eritrea over their disputed border. The Eritreans and the Tigrayans, who were once united in their fight against the left-wing government of Mengistu Haile Meriam, had fallen out over a host of issues and had become bitter enemies. Mengistu, like Abiy today, was against the break-up of Ethiopia on ethnic lines. Abiy, however, is reconciled to the existence of Eritrea as an independent nation, though the two countries are culturally and linguistically very close.

Peace Prize and the slide thereafter

Soon after Abiy took over, he made a landmark trip to Asmara, the capital of Eritrea. The neighbours have since agreed to bury the hatchet and re-establish cordial relations. Abiy was feted internationally for ending the war with Eritrea and his peace-making efforts on the African continent, among other things. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019. After that, things started going downhill for him on the domestic front. Many now are questioning the wisdom of awarding him the Nobel Peace Prize.

The TPLF leadership viewed the rapprochement with Eritrea with suspicion. The political opening up initiated by Abiy led to a virtual free-for-all between different ethnic groups, especially the Amhara and the Oromo, jockeying for primacy. The government had to once again resort to jailing of opponents and curtailing some segments of the media as some political parties went overboard catering to the demands of their ethnic support base. Also read: Continent of unrest

The Tigrayans claimed that the government was conspiring with Eritrea against them. Now they are claiming that the ongoing military campaign by the Ethiopian government is being done in coordination with the Eritrean government. As the fighting entered its second week, the Tigrayans fired missiles targeting the airport in Asmara. The Eritrean government denied that its forces were supporting the Ethiopian army in the offensive against Tigray. But there will be no tears shed in Asmara if the TPLF is finally disarmed. Eritrea holds the Tigrayans responsible for the devastating war between the two countries between 1998 and 2000, which left 1,00,000 people dead and a million displaced.

Dispute over Renaissance Dam on the Nile

Abiy, while ordering military action against the secessionist Tigrayans, had alleged that “outside forces” were instigating them. He might have been referring to the U.S. The Trump administration had sprung a surprise of sorts by coming out in open support of Egypt in the dispute over the “Renaissance Dam” being built by Ethiopians. The dam will use waters from the Blue Nile, which originates in Ethiopia. The Egyptian government under Donald Trump’s favourite dictator, Abdel Fatah el Sisi, has been threatening war against Ethiopia over the construction of the dam, claiming that it will deprive Egypt of its fair share of the Nile’s waters. Sudan, too, has jumped into the fray in support of the Egyptian stand. Eighty per cent of the Nile’s downstream waters originate in the Ethiopian highlands. Like Egypt, Ethiopia is also a close ally of the U.S. At the behest of Washington, Ethiopian troops have been deployed in Somalia. Also read: Whose Nile is it?

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