Stoking embers in Ethiopia
A year ago, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace after formally ending a two-decade conflict with neighbouring Eritrea. Some weeks ago, the same Prime Minister delivered a televised address to the nation declaring armed action by the state against one of Ethiopia’s own regions, Tigray.
Abiy’s message came after the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) mounted an attack on a federal military base last month, evoking scary memories of the civil unrest that swept through the country in the 1980s.
Relations between the government in Addis Ababa and the Tigray region in the northernmost tip of Ethiopia have been frosty ever since Abiy came to power in 2018. Until then, the TPLF had been in effective control of the county’s ruling coalition for nearly three decades.
Established in 1975 in reaction to the Marxist junta that ran Ethiopia, the TPLF grew into the most powerful armed group in the country leading the popular uprising that eventually overthrew the dictatorship in 1991. The front morphed swiftly into a political party and dominated Ethiopia’s political scene until voters turned to Abiy in the last elections.
The TPLF leadership conceded, but the transition has not been smooth. In September this year, the Tigrayan people ignored warnings by the federal government and held regional polls without permission. The Abiy administration responded by cutting direct budgetary support to the region.
Tensions have been rising rapidly, causing alarm across the entire Horn of Africa. Trouble in ethnically diverse Ethiopia could quickly
spill over into surrounding countries, throwing nations into all-out war.
In his TV address, Abiy Ahmed announced a six-month state of emergency but it is doubtful that the time will be enough for the two sides to reach a compromise. The TPLF’S military power is thought to be superior to that of the central government, thanks to decades of combat tradition, and federal troops may be prepared to mutiny and join the Tigrayan cause. Moreover, most of the country’s heavy weaponry is based in Tigray, which was the frontline during the standoff with Eritrea.
On the other hand, bordering regions that have longstanding territorial disputes with Tigray might pounce on the opportunity for war. Eritrea in the north, for its part, also bears grudges against the region from which it has suffered rocket attacks and could now be ready to tear up the Joint Declaration of Peace and Friendship signed with Abiy.
Meanwhile, the central government remains engaged in numerous battles in other states across Ethiopia. Recently, armed separatists carried out a massacre in the Prime Minister’s home region Oromia, just hours after the government moved troops out to position them closer to Tigray.
Since the 1990s, Ethiopia has been slowly moving towards a more integrated democracy, but the infrastructure that holds the country together remains fragile. A crisis in Ethiopia, which is home to some 110 million people, could spread beyond its frontiers and destabilise volatile countries such as Sudan and Somalia. The conflict with Eritrea created more than 30,000 refugees.
The global pandemic has exacerbated the perils of civil war as the international community is busy dealing with the health and economic wreckage at home. Meanwhile, sabre-rattling between the federal government and the TPLF is threatening to push the whole east of Africa over the edge.