News of a unilateral truce offered by the Ethiopian Federal Government to the Tigray Defence Forces (TDF) has raised hopes that the eight-month conflict between the two may be coming to an end. The war has further diminished the prospect of stability and democratisation of Ethiopia, which had begun to show signs of development. Amid a number of other domestic political issues, including growing concerns over the country’s leadership and a wider rise in ethnic violence, for the 116 million Ethiopians the prospect of a stable future is becoming increasingly uncertain.
The Tigray War
The federal government’s unilateral declaration of a ceasefire has not disguised the TDF’s military success over the last week. While Addis Ababa has claimed the truce is for ‘humanitarian’ reasons, and despite the near-blackout of communications in the region, reports have confirmed government forces were overwhelmed by a TDF counterattack, which has so far reclaimed large parts of Tigray, including Mekelle and Shire.
However, with Amhara militants still occupying western parts of Tigray, and Eritrean troops also believed to have remained in the north, the TDF may choose to channel the momentum gained from its military successes into reclaiming the remainder of Tigray. Reignited conflict with Eritrea and the neighbouring Ethiopian region of Amhara is possible as the TDF rides high on its success. Whether the TDF continues past Tigray’s borders during a possible offensive is likely to decide the level of international support it will receive during and post-conflict. Pushing beyond its pre-conflict boundaries will change the TDF from victim to aggressor in the eyes of the international community, possibly hampering aid initiatives and worsening the humanitarian disaster. While the TDF’s chosen course of action remains to be seen, a TDF spokesperson has speculated ambiguously that its forces will stop at nothing to secure the region, while their own ceasefire conditions demand the complete withdrawal of all foreign forces.
A humanitarian crisis
While the conflict has been burning, the last eight months have seen a growing humanitarian crisis unfolding in Tigray. An estimated two million Tigrayans have been displaced by the fighting, and 400,000 are currently experiencing a famine, with international aid now required for relief efforts. Despite calling a truce for apparent ‘humanitarian’ reasons, Addis Ababa, in cohorts with Asmara, may yet block aid access to Tigray, further worsening living conditions for the Tigrayans. It is possible that the federal government will use the truce to regroup, while Tigray battles an internal crisis, allowing Addis Ababa to reignite the conflict in a few months against a weakened enemy. Initial signs that this is the strategy being deployed include actions by retreating Ethiopian troops, such as the destruction of Tigray’s communications networks, ransacking its banks and destroying vital infrastructure connecting Tigray to the outside world. Commentators continue to call for regional and international bodies to facilitate a dialogue between the warring parties, to remove this possibility and ensure secure routes for aid into Tigray.
Abiy Ahmed and a disunited Ethiopia
The TDF’s offensive was timed to coincide with Ethiopia’s most recent general elections. Arguably, the elections were freer than ever before, but they have also been plagued by rumours of voter intimidation, arrests of candidates and opposition boycotts. Out of 547 constituencies, 110 had their voting delayed due to ‘logistical and security’ reasons. Alongside Tigray, several other areas of Ethiopia are currently experiencing conflict, which has led to the removal of their civilian governments by the state in favour of military rule, and the suspension of voting.
Lingering historical grievances and continuing socio-economic disparities between ethnicities have gained significance following democratic reforms implemented by Abiy. New freedoms have permitted inevitable discussions over power-sharing agreements and the constitution. As ethnic groups vie for greater influence at local, regional and national levels, political parties representing their respective ethnicities are increasingly calling for greater autonomy, and in some cases (such as Tigray) secession from the state. In a number of areas, such as Benishangul-Gumuz, the competition between ethnic groups has resulted in ethnic violence, which has seen targetted massacres against minorities. With continuing ethnocultural polarisation, there are heightened concerns over the future unity of the state under the federal government.
This year’s election has divided many, seen by some as an imperfect step in the right direction, and by others as an illegitimate move to legitimise Abiy’s authority. With results yet to be announced, but Abiy expected to win, the prime minister will be responsible for navigating negotiations concerning Ethiopia’s political future, which will determine the future unity of the nation, and are likely to impact the stability of the wider region.
An Ethiopia preoccupied by internal division is one less able to provide stability in East Africa. Ethiopian troops are a large part of regional peacekeeping missions, including in Somalia and South Sudan, without which significant gains abroad are at risk of reversal. Intensified domestic conflict may lead to a drawdown of Ethiopian troops deployed on foreign missions, creating power vacuums in volatile areas; Somalia is currently dealing with a constitutional crisis, while neighbour Sudan continues to lay claim to the contested al-Fashaga region. Additionally, a withdrawal of Ethiopian troops from the Abyei region, contested between Sudan and South Sudan, could reignite conflict there. And while Ethiopia co-operates with Eritrea militarily, the former provides tacit support for Isaias Afwerki’s authoritarian regime, which continues to flout international and human rights laws.
Continued conflict, either in Tigray or elsewhere in Ethiopia, will unavoidably cause further displacement and increase flows of refugees into neighbouring states. From the Tigray conflict alone, two million people have been internally displaced, while approximately 60,000 have fled to Sudan. This refugee crisis serves to destabilise the region, by placing greater pressure on resource-poor states and generating tensions between neighbours.
Ethiopia’s internal conflict occurs within the context of the regional dispute over Ethiopia’s Nile dam, the GERD. Egypt and Sudan continue to conduct joint military exercises in a display of might against looming water insecurity. Repeated rounds of talks have failed to produce an agreement on the dam’s operations, which increasingly brings the three nations closer to conflict. Focused on internal fighting, Ethiopia is unlikely to be capable of producing an outcome which satisfies all parties, while partners Sudan and Egypt may seek to leverage Ethiopia’s internal disarray and border disputes, to produce an outcome in their interests. The risk of an armed confrontation between these three parties continues to worry many who understand its potential to destabilise the Horn of Arica.
Author: Lauren Snelling, Analyst, NORTHCOTT GLOBAL SOLUTIONS
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