Ethiopia on the brink of a civil war

Print edition : December 03, 2021

A pro-government rally to denounce the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and Western interference in Ethiopia’s internal affairs, at Meskel Square in Addis Ababa on November 7. Photo: Tiksa Negeri/REUTERS

Captive soldiers of the Ethiopian Army get their water ration in a prison in the outskirts of Mekelle, the capital of Tigray region on July 7. Photo: Giulia Paravicini/REUTERS

Ethiopia is on the brink of a full-blown civil war, with the rebels’ recapture of Tigray province and a new U.S.-backed alliance of nine ethnic parties led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front encouraging other ethnic groups to raise the banner of revolt against the Abiy Ahmad government.

The strategically located Horn of Africa region has, in recent months, been witnessing a great deal of turmoil. Ethiopia is on the verge of an all-out civil war again after more than three decades. The much-heralded transition to democracy in the Sudan is in tatters after the Sudanese Army staged a coup in late October. A fragile peace holds in war-torn South Sudan, with tensions simmering between the two main ethnic groups, the Dinka and the Nuer. The situation in Somalia continues to be grim. It is only the presence of foreign forces in the major Somali cities that has prevented the radical Islamist group known as al-Shabab from taking over the country.

The situation in Ethiopia is critical and has the potential to plunge the entire region into turmoil. Ethiopia is, after all, the second most populous country in the African continent. The government in Addis Ababa, led by the young Prime Minister Abiy Ahmad, had declared victory over the rebel Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) last year. The Ethiopian Army was ordered into Tigray province in November to quell the rebellion there, which has been going on for more than three years.

The Ethiopian Army was helped considerably by the government of Eritrea in their initial military campaign against the Tigrayan forces. The Eritreans and the Tigrayans have been at daggers drawn since the partition of the country more than 30 years ago. They were allies in the long guerrilla war against the communist government in Addis Ababa. After they emerged victorious in 1991 and the country was partitioned, the two sides led by authoritarian leaders became implacable enemies.

Also read: Why chances for peace in Ethiopia's Tigray conflict look dim

Mekelle, the capital of Tigray, was captured by the Ethiopian federal forces within a week of fighting. The Ethiopian government convinced the international community as well as its own people that it had militarily quashed the battle-hardened Tigrayan forces for good. The international community started focussing more on the need to give humanitarian assistance to the Tigrayan people. The province has been under a military blockade by the Ethiopian Army since end 2020 as the Tigrayan rebels refused to surrender and disarm.

The federal government had kept humanitarian agencies and the international media out of the province. The attack on Tigray created one of the worst humanitarian problems the African continent has faced in recent times. More than 1.7 million people were displaced and famine spread through much of Tigray province, affecting more than 9,00,000 people.

Tigray recaptured

Therefore it came as a surprise to most observers when the TPLF recaptured their capital in a swift counter attack in the last week of June. As Tigrayan troops advanced, Ethiopian Army units began to either retreat from the province or surrender. An entire Ethiopian Army unit surrendered in Mekelle. The Ethiopian Army is one of the biggest on the continent and is reputed to be well-equipped and trained. However, thousands of Ethiopian Army soldiers were captured and paraded by the Tigrayans. The TPLF, far from being defeated as the government in Addis Ababa would like the international community to believe, soon established control over most of Tigray province and started making forays into neighbouring provinces populated by the Amhara and other ethnic groups with whom they had territorial disputes.

Ethiopia seems to have once again degenerated into a full-blown civil war. Before the TPLF was ousted from the corridors of power in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian Army was dominated by officers and soldiers from the Tigray region. They had managed to retain a lot of the weaponry and munitions that belonged to the federal army after their split with the Abiy government. The present government is dominated by the Oromo ethnic group, followed by the Amhara. The Tigrayans constitute less than 10 per cent of the population but have dominated the government and the Army since 1991. Ethiopia is a patchwork of around 80 ethnic groups and 10 regional governments.

Also read: Ethiopia's warring parties must talk

The recent Tigrayan successes on the battlefield has encouraged other ethnic groups to raise the banner of revolt against the federal government. The TPLF, which has now branded itself as the Tigray Defence Force (TDF), has said that it will take all steps necessary to “degrade the capabilities” of its enemies, including marching all the way to Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, if necessary. The Eritrean Army had withdrawn from the fighting within months after the fall of Mekelle. Many of the atrocities committed during the initial campaign against the Tigrayans were blamed on the Eritrean Army. However, there are new reports that the Eritrean government has once again started deploying its battle-hardened troops to help the Ethiopian government fend off the new threat from the TPLF and its allies.

By late October, the Tigrayan forces had launched a wider offensive that for the first time put the Ethiopian Army on the defensive. Two cities, Dessie and Kombolcha, in the Amhara-dominated north-east of the country, less than 325 kilometres from the capital, fell to the Tigrayan forces, sending the Abiy government into panic mode. The cities are located on the main highway connecting Addis Ababa to Djibouti. Much of the country’s exports are routed through the port of Djibouti. The Tigrayan Army spokesman said that the TPLF was ready “to march to Addis Ababa” if that was necessary to break the government siege on their province.

The Prime Minister’s spokesman, while accusing the rebels of spreading “an alarmist narrative that is creating much tension among various communities, including the international community” declared a “state of emergency”. The government said that it was determined to win the “existential war” and urged all able-bodied citizens to take up arms to defend the country. Under the emergency laws, the government has sweeping powers, including the power to detain citizens, curb media freedoms and impose curfews. Many Ethiopians are however angry with the Abiy government for misleading them by claiming that the TPLF was a defeated force and that the threat from the TPLF had been extinguished forever.

Also read: Mass arrests of Tigrayans in Ethiopia 'disturbing': U.N.

The TPLF remains a deeply unpopular party in the country. Ethiopians will take a long time to forget the brutal and authoritarian TPLF rule, which ended only in 2018. Elections used to be routinely rigged, the press thoroughly gagged and dissent ruthlessly suppressed. Abiy had come to power promising pluralism and a more open society. Abiy was only recently re-elected by a landslide to serve a second five-year term as Prime Minister. Foreign observers of the election, held in June, described it as one of the fairest held in the country. Abiy claimed that it was the freest election ever held in the country so far. Some opposition parties boycotted the election saying that their candidates were not allowed to campaign freely. The election could not be held in the embattled Tigray province.

U.S. threatens sanctions

Even as the Ethiopian government was trying to rally the public and raise the morale of the army, the Joe Biden administration announced the suspension of duty-free access to Ethiopian exports to the country. Washigton warned that it would be imposing further sanctions unless the government started peace talks immediately with the rebels. Washington has accused the Abiy government of “gross violation of internationally recognised human rights”. Abiy’s international reputation as a peacemaker has been dented by the blowback from the conflict in Tigray. In 2019, Abiy was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in ending the conflict with Eritrea and restoring diplomatic ties.

Ethiopia’s economy is already under strain because of the year-long war it has been prosecuting against the recalcitrant TPLF. The external debt has mounted along with unemployment and inflation. The COVID-19 pandemic has added to the country’s woes. Before the Tigray conflict began, Ethiopia’s economy was the fastest growing on the African continent.

A joint investigation by the United Nations human rights office and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission released in the first week of November concluded that all the parties to the conflict had committed grave war crimes that could be interpreted as “crimes against humanity”. The Ethiopian Prime Minister claimed that the U.N. report “clearly established the claim of genocide as false and utterly lacking in factual basis”.

Also read: U.S. sanctions Eritrean military over role in Tigray conflict

However, the U.N. Human Rights chief Michelle Bachelet has said that the Ethiopian government refused to grant full access to the investigating team to the worst affected parts of Tigray, including the city of Axiom. Michelle Bachelet said that she was concerned by the “troubling lack of transparency” surrounding the investigations conducted by the Ethiopian government institutions.

Jeffrey Feltman, the Biden administration’s envoy to the Horn of Africa region, warned that the continuing conflict could have “disastrous consequences” for Ethiopia’s unity and its ties with the U.S. After the overthrow of the left-wing government in 1991, Ethiopia has been one of the U.S.’ staunchest military allies in the region. The Abiy government sees the current U.S. stance as a betrayal by a country with which Ethiopia has had a “special relationship” for more than three decades. Ethiopia had sent its forces to Somalia on the request of Washington when the government in Mogadishu had fallen under the control of al-Shabab. Now, however, almost all the other countries in the region, including Sudan, have become close to Washington.

Prime Minister Abiy, in a speech delivered after the Biden administration’s threat to impose sanctions, said that the country had “more allies than the people that turned their backs on us”. Abiy’s statement came immediately after the TPLF leadership announced that it was forming a new alliance with eight other ethnic parties to oust the government from power. The representatives of the nine groups made their announcement in Washington in the first week of November. At the time, Biden’s special representative to the region, Jeffrey Feltman, was in Addis Ababa trying to convince the Ethiopian government to accept a ceasefire with the advancing Tigrayan forces.

The fact that the Tigrayans and their new-found allies were allowed to hold a press conference in Washington by the Biden administration sent a strong message to the government in Addis Ababa. The Ethiopian government considers the TPLF a “terrorist” force and has refused to negotiate with it. The U.S. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, however issued a statement in early November, urging the Tigrayan forces to halt their advance to the capital. He also called on the Ethiopian government to stop the military campaign against Tigray and the mobilisation of ethnic militias. The Ethiopian government considers calls for negotiations as outside interference in the internal affairs of the country. The government stated that it would like to resolve the country’s problems without the interference of third parties. Abiy had earlier described Washington’s threats to impose sanctions as an illustration of the West’s “neocolonial bias”.

Also read: U.S. backs African Union peace mediation in Ethiopia

The new opposition coalition, known as the United Front of Ethiopian Federalist and Confederalist Forces, under the leadership of the Tigrayans, announced that they planned a regime change in Ethiopia either through force or negotiations. The other groups in the coalition like the Agaw Democratic Movement, the Oromo Liberation Army and the Somali State Resistance, are much smaller movements with little firepower. But the military reverses suffered by the Federal government has no doubt emboldened many of the separatist groups. The government has sought to downplay the significance of the new military and political alliance.

Ethiopia’s attorney general, Gideon Timotheos, said that the formation of the alliance was a “publicity stunt”. Many of the groups that are part of the alliance “are not really organisations that have any traction,” he said.

Speaking a day after declaring a nationwide “state of emergency”, Prime Minister Abiy urged his countrymen to defend the capital “with their blood and bones” in order “to bury the enemy and uphold Ethiopia’s dignity and flag”. In a very combative speech, he said that the enemy was “digging a deep pit”. He pledged that Ethiopia would not be allowed to disintegrate and said that “the enemy will be buried” in the “deep pit”.

Ethiopia is also facing external threats. It is locked in a territorial dispute with Sudan. Egypt has joined Sudan in protesting against the commissioning of the Grand Renaissance Dam by the Ethiopian government to harness the waters of the Blue Nile, which originates from the Ethiopian highlands. The waters of the Nile are crucial to downriver countries such as Egypt and the Sudan. Both Cairo and Khartoum are using belligerent rhetoric against Addis Ababa, threatening to resort to force if the dam becomes fully operational.

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