The civil war in Tigray province is fast spreading across East Africa. By Zachary Ochieng in Nairobi.
The Horn of Africa stands on the brink as the conflict in Ethiopia’s rebellious Tigray region continues to escalate.
The war between the Ethiopian state and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which governs the restive northern region, was sparked after separatists allegedly raided an Ethiopian army base in November, killing government troops and looting heavy artillery and weapons.
In the three months since the attack, the conflict has escalated into a regional war, with Tigrayan separatists launching rockets on Ethiopia’s big cities, as well as the capital of neighbouring Eritrea, Asmara, dragging Ethiopia’s long-term foe into the conflict on its side.
But while the Tigrayan threat may have drawn Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki even closer together – the pair signed a 2018 peace deal ending their countries’ decades-long conflict – there are fears the opposite might be true of Ethiopia’s other neighbours.
The instability in the region has already led to disputes with Sudan over the Al-Fashaga triangle claimed by both countries.
‘The displacement of millions of people, who are being forced in to camps or to flee across international boundaries, is creating a complex emergency of monumental proportions,’ explained Dr Wafula Okumu of The Borders Institute.
‘The conflict is also undermining Ethiopia’s contributions to peacebuilding efforts in Sudan, South Sudan and Somalia, the rapprochement with Eritrea, and the AU’s campaign to silence guns on the continent.’
Addis’ war with the separatists comes as little surprise to Ethiopia watchers.
According to Atlantic Council’s Africa Centre, there have been ominous tensions between the central government and the TPLF, which ruled Ethiopia from 1991 until a popular revolt swept Abiy to power in 2018.
‘Abiy swiftly curbed the TPLF’s dominance over Ethiopia’s political and economic life,’ explained Gabriel Negatu, a senior fellow at the Center, ‘leaving its leaders feeling targeted and purged.’
Negatu argues that since losing power in 2018, the TPLF has worked to undermine Abiy’s reform efforts.
The Tigrayan party is allegedly behind much of the internal tensions and ethnic violence that has plagued Ethiopia’s regions since the Abiy administration took control.
The TPLF is accused of working with break-away groups in other regions to foment conflict by organising, training, and financing forces opposed to the federal government.
However, the immediate trigger for war between Abiy and the TPLF came in September 2020, when Tigray officials went ahead with parliamentary elections in direct defiance of the federal government, which had postponed general elections due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Tigray leaders said that by postponing the general elections, Abiy had lost his mandate to lead. In response, the federal government voted to cut funding to the region, which outraged Tigrayan leaders.
The government and the TPLF had accused each other of plotting to use military force before the TPLF seized the federal military base in November.
Fears now abound that if extended indefinitely, the present conflict may rouse groups elsewhere to rise against the Abiy government.
Amharas living in areas bordering Tigray, for example, harbour territorial claims over land illegally annexed by the TPLF when it assumed power.
Such groups have been drawn into the present conflict on the side of the government and are already celebrating the recapture of annexed territory.
More worryingly is how a prolonged conflagration between well-armed factions inside Ethiopia could send hundreds of thousands of refugees across borders, disrupt trade routes, and force Addis Ababa to abandon its role of regional peacekeeper.
‘That would be a potentially cataclysmic scenario for a region ill-equipped to handle additional tumult or a humanitarian fallout that could affect more than nine million people,’ the UN said in a statement.
Just Security, the New York University-based think-tank, said the conflict has already claimed hundreds of lives and displaced thousands more, including more than 40,000 refugees who have fled across the Ethiopian border into eastern Sudan.
The United Nations, the African Union (AU), and numerous political leaders have called for an immediate ceasefire and negotiation to resolve the conflict.
But Abiy – the 2019 Nobel Peace Laureate – has rejected calls for a ceasefire or negotiation, including proposed mediation by the AU.
Instead, he has insisted that his government restores law and order before negotiations can begin, adding:
‘Unless there is an unexpectedly quick resolution to this conflict, it will likely have a destabilizing effect throughout East Africa.’
With a population of 110 million people, Ethiopia is the second largest country in Africa and borders six other African nations, all of which suffer from chronic instability.
Most concerning of these is Ethiopia’s relationship with Sudan, which has been under strain in recent years over Ethiopia’s Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a massive infrastructure project on the Blue Nile that could threaten Sudan and Egypt’s freshwater supply.
Years of negotiation have yet to resolve key differences, with Donald Trump famously predicting late last year than the disagreement might lead to war, after Ethiopia started filling the reservoir behind the dam while negotiations were still on-going between the three sides.