2021 Roundup: Ethiopia; a state of insecurity
The complexities of ethnic, political, and historical issues sparked a civil war in Ethiopia after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed established a new policy, which came with a cost.
After a year of fighting, thousands are dead, two million have fled, and Ethiopia remains in a state of emergency as it nears collapse. In November of last year, a tide of armed fighters from Ethiopia's northern region made inroads towards the capital, Addis Ababa. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was quick to respond with defiance by first calling on his people to block the fighters, before commanding his army to advance.
A few days ago, Ethiopia’s federal government ordered its forces to not advance deeper into the war-torn northern region of Tigray. In recent weeks, the federal army and its allies have made huge strides, recapturing major towns and cities in the neighboring Amhara and Afar areas that had been taken by the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) early this year.
That came after the TPLF announced their withdrawal from Amhara and Afar and retreated to Tigray, which constitutes a turning point in the 13-month war that left thousands dead.
Last month, the Ethiopian government called on Tigrayan forces "to surrender peacefully within 72 hours, recognizing that you are at the point of no return."
"To reach a peaceful solution, the following conditions should be met: first, stop your attacks. Second, leave the areas you have entered. Third, recognize the legitimacy of this government," Foreign Ministry spokesman Dina Mufti said, addressing the TPLF.
The Ethiopian Fana station reported that the Ethiopian forces regained control of the cities of Mehal Meda, Chifra, Mekelle, and the surrounding areas, which were under the control of the TPLF, noting that the forces penetrated deep into these areas to eliminate the armed group.
In late October, the TPLF was able to control two towns on the border of the nation's capital, Addis Ababa. However, the Ethiopian army was able to recapture several areas.
In June, a few months back, the Tigrayan forces took control of Mekelle, after months of battles in the surrounding countryside. In return, Ethiopian and Eritrean troops were forced to withdraw from most of Tigray except Western Tigray.
Nobel Peace Prize winner triggers a war
After taking office, PM Abiy Ahmed appeared adamant about reducing the power of TPLF with the aim to drain its influence in the country.
He bagged the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 after bringing an end to the 20-year stalemate with Eritrea. However, the war on Tigray created a swift reversal.
Ahmed seemed increasingly prepared to employ force to deal with the issues he faced after winning a new term in the general elections in late June. He approved a significant expansion in the army's size and boasted of his capacity to recruit one million soldiers to fend off the TPLF's efforts to reclaim control of the territory.
The Prime Minister deployed fighters from Amhara, a region south of Tigray, and fighters from Eritrea. However, in June, the army suffered a defeat and was forced to withdraw from the region. The federal army's military retreat was accompanied by global charges of widespread violations by the government and Eritrean forces, causing the Noble Peace winner's reputation to suffer.
When Ahmed took to office, he adopted a program aimed at bolstering the country's increased development and economic prosperity, as well as a project to bypass the political system established by former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, the leader of the Tigray People's Liberation Front, based on a kind of ethnic federalism. Instead, he emphasized the importance of national integration, the establishment of a centralized state, and the formation of an all-Ethiopian national party.
As part of his new policy, Ahmed adopted a strategy to turn civilians against the front and weaken its popular support failed, and the results were counterproductive because the people felt they were being ethnically cleansed. To implement the policy, he established a stifling siege policy on the entire region, denying humanitarian supplies and committing major crimes against civilians in order to weaken the TPLF's rule.
TPLF and the government
Born in the 1970s, the Tigray People's Liberation Front, a small group of ethnic Tigrayans, became the most powerful armed force in the country, which eventually toppled the government in 1991.
For more than two decades, the political scene was dominated by a coalition of four ethnically-based parties, with Tigrayans, who account for approximately 7% of the population, in the lead. The coalition granted autonomy to Ethiopia's regions while maintaining tight control over the central government.
In 2019, Ahmed disbanded the coalition, but the TPLF refused to join his new Prosperity Party.
This was followed by additional escalation. Tigray's decision to hold its own election last September, for example, was an unprecedented act of defiance against the central government.
Tigray argued at the time that since the Prime Minister's appointment, the central government had not been put to the test in a national election. And polling stations have only recently opened in some parts of the country.
The TPLF also chastised the prime minister for his "unprincipled" friendship with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, who has since sent troops to Tigray to support Ahmed. It is worth noting, Tigray and Eritrea's governments have had a long history of hostility. A territorial dispute along their shared border sparked a war between Ethiopia and Eritrea that lasted from 1998 to 2000.
A war of starvation
After the war broke out last year, heavy fighting between central Government troops and those loyal to the TPLF has left Ethiopia’s northern regions of Tigray, Amhara, and Afar in dire need of humanitarian assistance. And after months of killings, looting, and destruction of health centers and farming infrastructure, including irrigation systems that are vital to the production effort, those needs have only surged.
Ethiopia is facing an "immense humanitarian crisis" as a result of civil war and famine, according to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. The UN Secretary-General made the remarks during an emergency security council meeting, calling on Addis Abeba to allow "unhindered" aid access, just a week after the country expelled seven UN officials.
Thousands of civilians were killed during massacres by soldiers, paramilitaries, and insurgents in Tigray that have been identified by researchers studying the conflict. Reports indicated that the oldest victims were elderly and the youngest were infants.
The information is based on reports from a network in the northern Ethiopian province run by a team at the University of Ghent in Belgium. However, Ahmed claimed that the reports of atrocities are exaggerated or fabricated.
In June, the United Nations reported that tens of thousands of malnourished children risk dying in hard-to-reach areas of Ethiopia’s conflict-wracked Tigray region, now hit by famine.
“Without humanitarian access to scale up our response, an estimated 30,000-plus severely malnourished children in those highly inaccessible areas are at high risk of death,” UNICEF spokesman James Elder told reporters in Geneva.
His comments came after the UN reported that around 350,000 people in Tigray were facing famine, while two million remained on the verge of famine. “There is famine now in Tigray,” UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock said, stressing that “every expert you speak to will tell you this is going to get a lot worse”.
Earlier, the Ethiopian government has suspended the operations of two international aid organizations for three months, accusing them of spreading misinformation.
Ethiopia Current Issues Fact Check, a government-run website, focused on war-torn Tigray, accused both Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) of breaking several rules. According to an MSF statement, the ban applied to MSF's Dutch section's activities in Ethiopia's Tigray, Gambella, Amhara, and Somali regions.
“Access to healthcare in these regions is already limited, and the impact of a further reduction in services because of a forced suspension will have dire consequences for the people we are assisting, including Ethiopian citizens and refugee communities hosted by Ethiopia,” MSF said.
Empty statements, no action
It is worth mentioning that a few weeks after the war broke out last year, the High Commissioner for Human Rights stated that “We have received allegations concerning violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law, including artillery strikes on populated areas, the deliberate targeting of civilians, extrajudicial killings and widespread looting”.
The UN rights chief pointed to the alleged mass killing of several hundred people, mainly Amharans, in western Tigray, citing many alleged atrocities.
Calls of mass killings and threats of a humanitarian crisis have been made since the breakout of the war, but the situation only got worse.
If fighting spreads to Ethiopia's capital, the country could descend into sectarian violence and see a mass exodus similar to that of Kabul, Martin Griffiths, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, issued a warning.
In an interview with AFP, he spoke about what he called "the world's most worrying humanitarian crisis."
"The worst, I think, from a humanitarian perspective, (would be) if there is a battle for Addis or turmoil around there, leading to increased communal violence across the country," Griffiths said.
According to the UN, the conflict in the country's north has killed thousands and displaced millions, not to mention driven hundreds of thousands into famine-like conditions. "If that were to happen, we're facing something I don't think we have faced before for many, many years: We're facing a fracture... of the fabric of Ethiopia."
"Millions of people in northern Ethiopia are living on a knife-edge as the humanitarian crisis is growing deeper and wider," said Griffiths upon returning from a visit to Ethiopia, underscoring that needs are rising across the country.
Griffiths believes that the ensuing chaos would be far worse than any of the disasters that have ravaged the country over the last 13 months.
Moreover, The UN has repeatedly emphasized the importance of unrestricted humanitarian access, including the opening of the Ethiopia-Sudan border, which is already on the verge of a military conflict due to territorial disputes between the two countries.
What does this mean?
Ethiopia, with a population of 110 million - the second largest in the continent, had been a key, stable ally of the West in a volatile region.
There are concerns that the current fighting could trigger wider violence in this multi-ethnic nation that could even lead to it breaking up. If millions of people were to flee a heightened conflict, its neighbors would find it difficult to cope. Landlocked Ethiopia borders six countries, two of which are already experiencing conflict.
If Ethiopia fails to form a new political arrangement that accommodates its diverse population of 110 million people while also ensuring basic measures of security and justice, the country could be riven by further conflict, resulting in a massive and destabilizing refugee crisis.
External actors who see the strategically important region as a venue for proxy conflict would gain power as a result of the loss of an important voice for African interests on the global stage.
Furthermore, troops from Eritrea are already fighting in Ethiopia and a prolonged crisis could suck in other neighbors. But countries further afield have also been reportedly drawn in.
A possible proxy
The Tigray conflict with Ethiopia can be viewed as a proxy battleground for foreign powers and a way to exert influence over Ethiopian policymakers.
Needless to mention, the Horn of Africa is a key strategic area for the US African Command (AFRICOM). Because the Horn of Africa serves as a transit point between the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea, the conflict has far-reaching geopolitical implications.
However, if Western powers have legitimate and honest concerns about regional stability in addition to their economic interests, they should refrain from using their judgment to influence the ongoing Tigray conflict.
Ethiopia is the West's natural partner; failing to embrace this choice and assist it with its conflict resolution efforts is tantamount to ignoring the greater strategic benefits of partnership, and will undoubtedly destabilize the region further.
What about the dam?
The presence of a stable and strong central government in Addis Abeba is required for Ethiopia to benefit from the dam's long-term strategic plans. Otherwise, the dam's significance to Ethiopia and its ability to benefit from it will be affected.
That said, in light of Ethiopia's tension with Egypt over the dam, the latter will benefit from the internal crisis since Ethiopia is not as focused as before.
Egypt and Sudan have both complained that Ethiopia has begun to fill the reservoir behind the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam unilaterally for the second year in a row.
Egypt, which is almost entirely reliant on the Nile for its water supply, regards this as an existential threat. The dam's filling disrupted Sudan's water supply last year, while Ethiopia sees it as a way to provide electricity to millions of its citizens. The dispute between the Nile Basin States broke out due to claims of unilateral steps adopted by the latter.
Moreover, Ethiopia relies on foreign parties, international banks, and financial institutions to fund the dam project. However, all of these parties may reconsider their position and re-evaluate the feasibility of the dam project in light of the country's civil conflict or weak government.
A policy with a heavy cost
Following its years as an East African model for development and economic prosperity, Ethiopia has fallen into a state of insecurity.
This is due to the complexities of the country's ethnic situation, as well as residual political and historical tensions sparked by Abiy Ahmed's attempt to cleanse the state institutions of the Tigrayan ethnic group that ruled Ethiopia for the previous three decades, a policy that has come with a heavy cost.