After launching a military operation against the northern Tigray region, the Ethiopian government has increased the risk of a long-running civil conflict and has highlighted internal ethnic divisions. Not only is the government pushing the country to the brink of civil war, but it has a number of other pressing security issues to manage, which ultimately increase the risks of profound socio-economic collapse in the second-most populous country in Africa, a nation of 109 million.
Domestic Ethnic Tensions
Ethiopia is a federation of 85 ethnic groups, each with populations ranging from 25 million down to just 200. The largest are the Oromo (with 25.5 million) and the Amhara (20 million), while the Tigray are 4.4 million, about 4% of the population. There have always been violent tensions between the groups. During the 1990s and 2000s, the government in Addis Ababa was dominated by Tigrays and the Tigray militia TPLF (Tigray People’s Liberation Front). When the TPLF effectively ran the country, Tigray province enjoyed better attention and investment than other parts of the country, an immediate cause of resentment with other groups.
In 2018, Abiy Ahmed, the new prime minister and an ethnic Oromo, stirred up tensions with the Tigray people by removing long-running TPLF figures from government. He moved to turn the ruling coalition, the EPRDF (Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front), into a single multi-ethnic party. The TPLF refused to co-operate; its main figures left Addis Ababa and returned to Tigray to push a new independence agenda. At the same time, several other ethnic groups started expressing a renewed desire to have greater autonomy in their own regions.
The murder in June 2020 of a popular Oromo singer in Addis Ababa led to a fresh outbreak of nationwide ethnic violence: in the subsequent three months, at least 200 people were killed in violence between Oromo protesters, security forces and rival ethnic groups. Then, in September 2020, Tigray held its own parliamentary elections, against clear instructions from Addis Ababa: they were declared illegal by Abiy Ahmed, clearly fearing a fresh independence movement. He responded by withholding funds originally destined for social welfare programmes in Tigray, dissolving the regional government and approving an interim government for the region.
Last week saw unprecedented levels of ethnic violence. Clashes between Afar and Somali militias in the east resulted in nearly 30 deaths. An attack on 02 November by Oromo militants against Amhara people in Oromia province killed at least 50, displaced more than 700, and destroyed 20 homes in three Amhara villages.
Move Towards Protracted Civil War
On 03 November, the TPLF launched an attack on the base of the Northern Command, a national military outpost in Tigray, causing several casualties and apparently seizing large amounts of heavy weapons, including armour, artillery, and reportedly even some air assets. In response, Prime Minister Abiy declared of a state of emergency in Tigray, closing down the internet and phone lines. Ignoring calls from the UN to negotiate with regional leaders, he deployed the Ethiopian Defence Force (EDF) against the TPLF, followed closely by air strikes against heavy weapon sites around Mekele. Fighting has since spread in north-western areas along Tigray’s border with the Amhara region, and near the borders with Sudan and Eritrea. At least eight major confrontations have been reported, from the south-east to the north-west of the province. The EDF has reportedly taken control of the small town of Dansheha, 50km from the tri-border area. Reports are still unclear, but there appear to have been high numbers of casualties.
The international community is increasingly concerned that a conflict between the EDF and Tigrayan forces will not be a swift and decisive operation, but will actually prove to be drawn-out and with long-term implications for regional security. The TPLF is not a small collection of bandits and opportunists; it has a track record of success, having led the overthrow of the brutal communist government in 1991, an action that resulted in its dominance over the government in the subsequent 20 years. Its leadership figures are veterans of this operation, and its soldiers are experienced fighters. Troop numbers of combined Tigrayan forces are estimated by the International Crisis Group to be as many as 250,000 (paramilitaries and local militia) and the TPLF is understood to have access to good quality military equipment.
At the same time, the EDF is likely to struggle from its ethnic makeup. Far from being a single homogeneous army, the EDF more closely resembles a collection of ethnic militias, having been corralled together in the 1990s to co-operate as a national defence force. When the TPLF dominated government, the EDF was dominated by Tigrays, and by 2010 as many as 90% of all key military positions and command roles were thought to be held by ethnic Tigrayan officers. Although the current ethnic breakdown of the EDF is uncertain, it is likely that a large proportion of it would feel uncomfortable about conducting operations in Tigray, and individual soldiers’ loyalty to the regime in Addis Ababa may well be tested in a long-running conflict.
Potential Wider Destabilisation in Horn of Africa
In 2019, Abiy Ahmed won the Nobel Peace Prize for his plan to bring 20 years of conflict and antagonism with Eritrea to an end. Although much of his proposed solution has not actually been put in place, he has a positive relationship with Eritrea’s president, Isaias Afwerki. President Afwerki (although Tigray himself) has a long-standing antagonism towards the Tigray militias who have regularly sought conflict against Eritrea (and who oversaw the Ethiopian war against Eritrea 1998-2000). He has expressed his fear that the TPLF would once again seek to damage positive bilateral relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia following their removal from power in 2018. It has already been suggested in some diplomatic spheres that the operation on Tigray has in fact been launched with the co-operation and co-ordination of President Afwerki (something that the TPLF has stated openly), and there have been reports of Eritrean military movements close to the border with Tigray. Whether or not this is true, the Tigray militias are now surrounded by hostile forces, and Eritrea can be expected to find itself involved in the conflict either in deliberate operations, or in the defence of its border.
The Tigray region is also next to Sudan, which closed its Ethiopia land border on Friday, in an attempt to prevent armed militants crossing from Tigray. It remains possible that Khartoum may seek to have some influence over the conflict.
Ethiopia plays an important role in the wider security of the Horn of Africa. Several commentators have highlighted the number of troops that Ethiopia has deployed on peacekeeping operations in Somalia – 4,400, the second-largest contribution from a single nation to the AMISOM operation. A lengthy conflict in Ethiopia would likely result in the redeployment of soldiers back home from Somalia, a loss to AMISOM of one-quarter of its fighting capacity. This in itself could lead to a resurgence of attacks by al-Shabaab in Somalia. At the same time, any redeployment of soldiers from defending the Ethiopian border with Somalia will make the country more vulnerable to incursions by al-Shabaab militants, potentially resulting in a spread of that regional jihadist movement.
Any civil conflict would weaken Ethiopia’s position in its negotiating positions with Sudan and Egypt over the future of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Tensions between Addis Ababa and Cairo and Khartoum have been extremely high for much of this year, not helped by President Trump’s comment to the Sudanese prime minister that Egypt “will end up blowing up the dam, I said it and I say it loud and clear, they’ll blow up that dam, and they have to do something” (widely seen as a throwaway comment, but denounced by the Ethiopian government as a veiled threat). A protracted civil conflict in Ethiopia will detract the government’s attention away from the completion of the project, and may even jeopardise the infrastructure itself. Although not in Tigray province, it is located very close to the Sudanese border, and instability in Ethiopia may provide Khartoum the perfect justification it needs to send its military into Ethiopia to ostensibly secure its own border, but in the process take control of the GERD. Such an operation would doubtless have support from Cairo, and with the EDF deployed elsewhere would be very difficult to prevent.
Regardless of the regional risks, such a civil conflict comes at a problematic time for Ethiopia. This military operation, and the wider conflict that may ensue, will have more wide-ranging consequences for the population given a number of other problematic socio-economic issues that are ongoing.
Famine and Humanitarian Crisis
Food insecurity has increased markedly across East Africa in recent months, but a unique combination of inter-related factors has now made it particularly pressing in Ethiopia. Ethiopia’s economy is founded on agriculture, and as much as 80% of the population relies on farming for food and income. Two threats to the health of crops are putting millions of people at risk of food insecurity and ultimately starvation.
Firstly, the situation started with two unusually heavy rainy seasons in late 2019 and early 2020, both of which were the wettest in 30 years. They resulted in floods, landslides, and the devastation of hundreds of square miles of pastures and crops. Additionally, they caused the destruction of rural homes and public infrastructure.
Secondly, East Africa has seen the worst infestation of desert locusts in 25 years, an outbreak that has been boosted by the floods (which help the insects to breed). The species is generally considered the most dangerous of all locusts, with an average swarm of 40 million creatures (and a potential maximum of 150 million), which can consume eight tonnes of food in a single day – it is this single statistic that makes it such a creature to be feared across the Middle East and North Africa. Since the start of the year, an estimated 200,000 hectares of agricultural land has been destroyed, and in neighbouring North Wollo the entire regional crop of maize was destroyed just before harvest time. The FAO has predicted that new swarms will form in mid-December.
For Tigray province, where many of the Ethiopia swarms are currently located, state and international response operations are now impossible in the wake of the fresh conflict. Pest control usually takes the form of pesticides, delivered from the air – this is currently suspended due to the prohibition of air traffic over the province. Emergency food supplies, brought to the province by road, have been paused as a result of the roadblocks that have been imposed after the fighting. To make matters worse, the government’s shutdown of the internet and phonelines has hindered any potential co-ordination of humanitarian and emergency food supplies on the ground.
The conflict in Tigray will devastate international humanitarian assistance in the region if transport cannot access the province soon. The population is 5.7 million, and the United Nations has warned that as many as 606,000 people depend upon food relief assistance (396,000 of whom are food insecure, 100,000 are IDPs, 15,000 are returned migrants and 95,000 are international refugees). The UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs has also warned that as many as nine million people in and around the borders of Tigray are at risk in the conflict, and may be forced to move, potentially creating an internal disaster in the form of booming IDP numbers and increasing demands on international humanitarian NGOs.
100,000 cases of COVID-19 have been reported in Ethiopia this year, and 1,530 deaths, almost certainly a profound underestimate of the real situation, given the lack of reporting procedures and a shortage of testing facilities and equipment. Accurate regional statistics are not available, but it has been reported that at least 1,200 patients are currently in isolation centres across Tigray.
In addition to the current pandemic, Ethiopians remain at risk from other diseases, particularly measles, outbreaks of which have killed tens of thousands of people in the past. Chikungunya, malaria, Zika, diphtheria, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, meningococcus, rabies, tetanus, typhoid and yellow fever, all these are present in the country and require proper medical management to prevent infection and spread.
However, the closure of roads and airspace into Tigray is now preventing international humanitarian assistance with COVID treatment, limiting the medical supplies that can reach densely-populated urban environments and remote rural areas. Not only that, but the absence of such assistance makes it more likely that outbreaks of any other disease will have far greater impact on the civilian population than normal.
Previously one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, Ethiopia has experienced extremely high inflation this year, and it continues to record high rates of poverty. Food inflation rates were thought to be as high as 24% in July, primarily the result of the food insecurity that was already an issue in the summer: given the increasing food insecurity in the wake of floods and locust swarms, this is expected to be now much higher.
Trade restrictions imposed since the pandemic have led to a massive reduction in exports, and a loss of millions of dollars from the income for agricultural workers and exporters. Unemployment levels were last recorded at 2.08% last year, but this is likely to have dramatically increased with the deterioration in the national economy.
Prospects for the Future
Ethiopia is facing a toxic combination of major food shortages, economic decline, potential civil war, wider regional instability and the entrenchment of ethnic divisions. There are concerns that the Tigray people, particularly those living outside the Tigray region, will be targeted by other groups in reprisal attacks, in the way that groups like the Amhara have been attacked recently. Prime Minister Abiy has at least recognised the dangers of this, calling on the country not to target Tigrayans in “identity-based illegal acts”.
Socio-economic collapse is now almost inevitable, certainly at a Tigray regional level, but quite possibly at a national level as well. In this environment of insecurity and looming unemployment, civil unrest would normally be the most expected outcome in a sub-Saharan African country. However, with such a fractured society of opposing ethnic groups, it seems more likely that the growing insecurity will simply act as a recruitment agent for young Tigray men, pushing them into the conflict on the side of the Tigray militias. This will itself lead the current military operation to extend into a much longer-lasting civil conflict, which will need wider diplomatic support to bring to any sort of satisfactory conclusion.
The legacy of the government’s military foray into Tigray province is that international humanitarian assistance will be unable to access the region that needs it most. Civilian casualties as a result of famine and health issues can be expected to be very high, and the impact of the conflict is likely to last much longer than expected.
In any situation of violence and potential outright conflict, any employee, whether foreign or local national, is at risk. They may find themselves targeted in an environment without resource to the usual security procedures and institutions. Some employees may also find themselves in need of chronic or acute medical assistance in a situation in which state emergency support has completely broken down.
All international companies operating in Ethiopia and the surrounding regions should consider the physical and medical security of their employees, as well as the viability of their ongoing operations. Physical safety and operational effectiveness can be guaranteed with the use of appropriate security personnel and escorts. However, to ensure that employees feel comfortable operating in such an environment, a fully resourced evacuation plan (one taking into account the triggers necessary for either hibernation or extraction) should be considered.
Northcott Global Solutions can provide risk assessments, tracking, security escorts, personal protective equipment, remote medical assistance and emergency evacuation. NGS is already engaged with service providers and organisations on the ground, advising on local medical capacity for COVID-19 testing, emergency medical planning and international evacuation protocols.
Author: Jamie Thomson, Senior Risk Analyst, NORTHCOTT GLOBAL SOLUTIONS
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