Tigray Conflict: Potential Ethiopian Civil War

Ethiopia Civil War

Ethiopian military official said the air force was “pounding targets with precision” in Tigray. Tensions between the Ethiopian and local government in the province have simmered for months, and the conflict risks becoming a full-blown Ethiopian civil war. Here is a quick rundown of how the situation reached this point and why it could be so explosive.

Sudden reforms in the ethno-federal state system have drawn comparisons to the dissolution of Yugoslavia. As the world waited with bated breath last Wednesday for the results of the U.S. presidential election, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent soldiers to the restive northern Tigray province, alleging that regional troops had attacked a federal military base. The crisis escalated quickly, and heavy casualties have been reported in clashes between the national military and troops loyal to the region’s ruling Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

Origins of the crisis

The TPLF dominated Ethiopian national politics for decades: Ethnic Tigrayans, making up around 6% of the population, wielded outsize political and economic influence. That ended with the election of Abiy in 2018 after his predecessor resigned. (Abiy belongs to Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, the Oromo.)  

Abiy pursued ambitious reforms, transforming what was one of Africa’s most repressive countries and winning the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for ending the two-decade conflict with neighbouring Eritrea. But the political opening led to a surge in ethnonationalism, stoking tensions among the leaders of Ethiopia’s states, which are mostly based on ethnic and linguistic divisions.

As Abiy sought to root out corrupt officials, Tigrayan leaders felt they were disproportionately targeted, and the TPLF refused to join Abiy’s multiethnic Prosperity Party.

The tipping point

Tensions between the central government and Tigray intensified after the region held parliamentary elections in September, defying Abiy’s move to postpone legislative elections until next year. Tigrayan officials accused Abiy of using the coronavirus pandemic to mount a power grab. The Tigrayan vote prompted the government to redirect federal funds away from Tigray’s regional leaders and send it instead to local administrators—a move the regional government described as “tantamount to a declaration of war.”

Events came to a head last week as Abiy accused regional leaders in Tigray of attempting to loot the national military’s Northern Command, which is home to half the army’s personnel, and launched a military offensive in response.

Ethiopia’s 10 semi-autonomous regions have their own police and militias, and both the central and regional governments had built up their capacities ahead of last week’s clash.

Happening now

A communications blackout makes it difficult to get accurate information from on the ground in Tigray. But Reuters reports that hundreds of people have been killed since the offensive began, citing government sources. The TPLF is estimated to have a fighting force of around 250,000 troops and access to significant military hardware—it is unlikely to be easily forced to surrender.

On Monday, Abiy denied that the country was on the brink of civil war. “Concerns that Ethiopia will descend into chaos are unfounded & a result of not understanding our context deeply,” he wrote on Twitter. In an emergency session on Saturday, the upper chamber of the Ethiopian parliament voted to dissolve the leadership of the Tigray region, and on Sunday Abiy appointed new chiefs of the military, intelligence, and Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

What could come next?

The sudden liberalization of an ethno-federal state has evoked comparisons to the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Without careful management, the country is at risk of fracturing along ethnic lines and an Ethiopian civil war.

The regional leader of Tigray, Debretsion Gebremichael, has called on the African Union to intervene to prevent a civil war. On Saturday, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres spoke with Abiy and the chair of the African Union and offered U.N. support in resolving the conflict. But prospects for a cease-fire have yet to emerge: The government stepped up its military campaign on Sunday in what Abiy described as a “law enforcement” operation.

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