Ethiopia stands today at the threshold of a new phase of turmoil that threatens the country's unity, territorial integrity and social structure, after the escalation of the dispute between the Ethiopian Federal Government and the administration of the Tigray region as a result of the tension that prevailed over the relation between them over the past two years, and that recently witnessed a serious development, namely the launch by the Ethiopian army of a military attack against the region. This raises serious questions about the fate of the situation in Ethiopia and the future of the Tigray region in light of the ongoing conflict between the region and the federal government.
The roots and development of the crisis between the Tigray Front and Abiy Ahmed
The dispute between the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the leaders of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) is essentially political. It has evolved over time into a military conflict between the two sides, deriving its momentum from the nature of managing the political transition process and the competing visions about the future of the Ethiopian state. Signs of disagreement appeared between the two sides with the rejection by the Tigrayans of the changes that have occurred in the Ethiopian political scene since 2018, leading to the termination of their three-decade rule of the country. At the forefront of those changes was the resignation of former Prime Minister Desalegn and the rise of Abiy Ahmed, who belongs to the Oromos, to the top of the power pyramid.
After Abiy embarked on a number of reform measures within the framework of a declared campaign against human rights violations that raises the slogan of fighting corruption, including the dismissal of some Tigrayan leaders in various state institutions, especially the army, the TPLF expressed its objection to those measures and accused the Prime Minister of targeting it directly and unfairly.
Likewise, the TPLF rejected Abiy’s decision to dissolve the previous ruling coalition (consisting of four parties representing the largest national regions in Ethiopia) and create a new political entity, namely the Prosperity Party (PB), which is a unitary entity in which no ethnic groups are officially and institutionally represented. This step reflects a kind of departure from the policies of multi-ethnic and multi-cultural recognition that have long been the focus of the political settlement in the country. By establishing the new party, Abiy Ahmed's goal seemed to be not only to create another political entity affiliated with him, but also to weaken two of the most powerful obstacles to his vision and future agenda, namely the opposition TPLF and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF).
The elections issue in Ethiopia reinforced the deterioration of the relationship between the two sides. The confrontation between them intensified in light of the divergent stances regarding the timely organisation of the national elections, which was scheduled for August 2020. With Abiy Ahmed's fear that the PB which he leads might not be able to win in a competitive election that would be held a few months after the PB was established in December 2019, he announced the postponement indefinitely of the elections on the pretext of the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic in the country, a move that was opposed by the TPLF and some other political actors. Consequently, the Tigray region decided to hold regional elections in September 2020, in which 2.7 million voters participated, setting a precedent in the history of Ethiopia. the TPLF won the majority of seats in the regional parliament. The TPLF had warned against any attempt to disrupt the elections in the region, considering such a step as a declaration of war. It stressed that it would not recognise the federal government once its mandate expires on 5 October 2020. On the other hand, Abiy Ahmed objected to the TPLF’s pursuit of holding the elections, and the Ethiopian House of Federation (HoF) [the Senate] declared them unconstitutional. The Ethiopian authorities prevented journalists from going to the region to cover the elections considering that they are illegal, and Abiy Ahmed did not recognise the new regional government.
As a result, the Senate of the Ethiopian Federal Parliamentary Assembly imposed a set of punitive measures against the region, including the freezing of the 7.5-million-dollar budget allocated to the administration of the region, which was provided by the World Bank (WB) to implement safety net programmes in the region. Relations with the Tigray Regional Government (TRG) were severed, and any contacts with the new regional government were prohibited. As the dispute escalated, the two sides tended to display their military strength with the aim of creating a state of mutual deterrence by organising military parades. They proceeded with the policy of delegitimising each other: Abiy Ahmed described the TPLF as a "criminal junta", and the Ethiopian Federal Parliament agreed to form an interim government for the region in defiance of the existing authority, and to withdraw its legitimacy by passing its dismissal through the Ethiopian HoF, suggesting that the TPLF be classified as a "terrorist organisation" alongside the OLF. The federal government imposed a state of emergency for a period of six months in the Tigray region, starting from 4 November 2020, accusing the region’s administration of threatening Ethiopia's sovereignty. This exacerbated the dispute and increased the possibilities of continuing the military confrontation between the two sides.
Indeed, this was followed by a military build-up, and the military forces mobilised by the central government from around the country were sent to Tigray. The TPLF accused Abiy Ahmed and the Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki of plotting to wage a war against the region, and refused to implement the central government's decisions in the northern military region stationed in Tigray on the pretext of their illegitimacy. The TPLF banned flights in its regional airspace, warning against any military movement near its borders. With the attack by Tigray's forces against the Northern Command stationed in Tigray, Abiy Ahmed announced that military operations would take place in Tigray in response to this attack. His forces launched large-scale military attacks against the TPLF, declaring that they would target fighters, disarm local militias, and seek to restore law and constitutional order. Despite the severance of communications and the Internet in the region, which makes it difficult to verify the developments in the situation there, reports indicated that the Ethiopian forces took control of several areas in the region, such as Dansha, Barken, and areas of Sheraro and Humera Airport, and destroyed all the heavy weapons controlled by Tigray. On the other hand, there were reports that the Tigrayan forces shot down Ethiopian fighter jets in the region. This warns of the continuation of the war between the two sides and the increasing risks of a civil war that would not only destabilise the country and its unity, but also threaten regional stability in the Horn of Africa.
In light of the ongoing conflict, some consider that the cohesion of the Ethiopian army today is at stake. The ethnic diversity within it warns of the possibility of a deep crisis that would result in a state of division in its ranks in light of reports about the resistance by some forces in the northern region of the Prime Minister’s decision to attack Tigray. The TPLF leaders claimed that many forces and officers in the northern region were unlikely to support any federal intervention in Tigray, and that some of them might even join the Tigrayan forces. The regional administration called on the federal forces to abandon the federal government and join the struggle led by the TPLF, which could threaten with splits in the ranks of the Ethiopian army, causing catastrophic repercussions for the future of the state and peace and security in Ethiopia.
Fears of the internationalisation of the conflict and the positions of external powers
With the continuation of the crisis, fears emerged that the current Ethiopian conflict could be internationalised and turned into a regional war in light of the talk about the possibility of Eritrea's involvement in the ongoing war, given the geographical proximity with Ethiopia and the Tigray region, and the ethnic overlap between the two countries, in addition to the historical enmity between Eritrea and the TPLF and the strong rapprochement between Abiy Ahmed and Afwerki since they signed the peace agreement in 2018. Unconfirmed reports indicated that the Asmara government has mobilised conscripts in the national service, deployed them on the front lines, landed Ethiopian arms at the port of Assab, and transported Ethiopian forces by air to Asmara and onward to the border with the Tigray region. In addition, manoeuvres were carried out that were described as "provocative" along the Eritrean border with Tigray. It is reported that the Eritrean forces have participated in carrying out the military strikes inside Tigrayan territories. Asmara is accused of playing inflammatory roles that would exacerbate the conflict in Ethiopia. The Eritrean embassy in Addis Ababa indicated in a tweet on Twitter that the TPLF constitutes a threat to the implementation of the agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea.
So far, the international and regional role has been limited to appeals to stop the escalation between the two sides without exerting any pressure to stop the ongoing war between them, despite the warning given by the leader of the Tigray region Debretsion Gebremichael to more than 70 international leaders of the consequences of the conflict with the federal government. António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations (UNSG), expressed his concern about the current situation in the Ethiopian interior, and called for an immediate easing of tension and a peaceful solution to the dispute. In October 2020, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (HR/VP) Josep Borrell visited Ethiopia with the aim of bridging the gap between the two parties to the conflict. On 2 November 2020, the European Union (EU) expressed its concern about the developments in Ethiopia, calling on all parties and neighbouring countries to reduce tension and refrain from deploying military forces. The US and Germany called on all parties to exercise restraint and settle the crisis peacefully, while Sudan offered to mediate without any response from the Ethiopian government.
The recent calls by the leader of the Tigray region Debretsion Gebremichael on the African Union (AU) to intervene to prevent the outbreak of a civil war in the country and his willingness to negotiate with the central government sent a message to the international community that Addis Ababa does not wish to negotiate while the military operation continued, in the hope that this would cause an embarrassment to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in front of the international powers. On the other hand, Abiy Ahmed appears determined to pursue the military operation against the TPLF, as evidenced by his failure to respond to international calls to stop the fighting, his accusation of the TPLF of preparing a massive military build-up to threaten the Ethiopian government, and his failure to heed the calls for negotiation and dialogue launched by the leader of the Tigray region, as well as his decision to change the top security and military commanders and bring in his close allies and most ardent supporters of the military operation against Tigray.
There are a number of possible scenarios about the future of the current Ethiopian conflict, the most important of which are the following three:
First scenario: the Ethiopian government manages to defeat the TPLF and curb its influence
The logic of this scenario is based on Abiy Ahmed's insistence on limiting the influence of the TPLF and preventing the secession of the region. This supports his position on pursuing the military operation launched by the Ethiopian forces against the Tigray region until achieving its objectives. This scenario is the most likely in the short term, given Abiy Ahmed's desire to weaken the military capabilities of the TPLF in light of the qualitative superiority of the Ethiopian armed forces, the mobilisation of large numbers of Ethiopian forces at the borders of the Tigray region, the federal government’s alliance with some local actors, such as the Amhara region and some regional actors, such as Eritrea, in light of the existing alliance between Abiy Ahmed and Afwerki, and exploiting Washington’s preoccupation with the presidential elections and the resulting confusion therefrom.
Abiy Ahmed's success in subjugating the TPLF and containing the region under his control would be a powerful impetus to impose his political vision and contain the opposition forces in the country, and a warning message to some other regions that are considering secession from Ethiopia, given that Abiy Ahmed did not respond to international and regional calls calling for the cessation of the conflict and a peaceful settlement of the crisis, and appointed new military leaders who were allied with and supportive of him in the decision to launch war against Tigray. The materialisation of this scenario may be hindered by the increase in the international pressure on Abiy Ahmed to stop the fighting and settle the conflict with the TPLF, the heavy losses inflicted by the Tigrayan forces on the Ethiopian forces, the occurrence of splits in the ranks of the Ethiopian army that threaten its cohesion and unity of command, and the escalation of popular rejection of the decision to wage war on the Tigray region.
Second scenario: agreement between the federal government and the administration of the Tigray region to settle the conflict between them peacefully as a result of the increasing external pressures on them
This scenario would materialise in the event of increased international and Western support for the peace initiatives aimed at reaching a peaceful solution to the conflict, and the emphasis on rejecting any separatist attempts by force that would change the country's constitutional order or its political borders, and in light of the international and regional fear of the repercussions of the unrest in the Horn of Africa region, and the pressure exercised to prevent the internationalisation of the conflict and the intervention of regional parties, especially Eritrea, in a way that would aggravate the existing conflict.
This scenario may be difficult to materialise due to Abiy Ahmed's feeling that he has not been able to achieve his goals from his attack on the Tigray region in case he responds to international pressures and appeals for cessation of the fighting, thus leading him to show hardened rejection of those pressures and the possibility of striking deals between him and some international powers to release his hand to get rid of the TPLF and consolidate his rule in the country.
Third scenario: Tigray declares secession from Ethiopia unilaterally
Under this scenario, the Tigray region may adopt the option of seceding from Ethiopia based on Article 39 of the Ethiopian Federal Constitution. This scenario is the least likely, given that secession would be fraught with risks and difficulties locally, regionally and internationally. It would also be strongly rejected by the Ethiopian government, considering that it threatens the cohesion and unity of the Ethiopian state. In addition, international and regional powers and organisations would resist any separatist tendencies that would divide the nation-states. Besides, there is increasing international fear of the consequences of the outbreak of a large-scale civil war in Ethiopia that would lead to its disintegration.
What makes this scenario more difficult to materialise is the awareness by the two parties to the conflict of the heavy losses that they would incur, which would drive them to stop the war and reach a peaceful settlement through dialogue and negotiation, the success of international and regional pressures in dissuading the two parties from escalating their differences, and Eritrea's exit from the current conflict equation. This scenario would be even more difficult to materialise considering that the majority of the Tigrayans apparently continue to believe in Ethiopia and reject the option of separation that constitutes the desire of a small number of Tigrayans, considering that separation is not a viable option and would not be an ideal way to overcome the current challenges.
 Anwar Ibrahim Ahmed, “Elections in the Tigray region: will they open the door to a dispute that may involve the government in a confrontation with the regions?”, Salamhorn newspaper, 21 September 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/2Ua4Ddj
 Aggrey Mutambo, Ethiopia launches crackdown on TPLF fighters, Nation, Kenya, 6 November 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/3p7PrvC
 Martin Plaut, Meltdown: Threats facing the Horn of Africa, Eritrea Hub, 1 November 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/3eAvRTQ
 Tesfa-Alem Tekle, Ethiopian Parliament hardens stance on Tigray region, Nation, Kenya, 16 October 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/38ml3aY
 Martin Plaut, Abiy Ahmed won a Nobel peace prize. Now Ethiopia is on the brink of civil war, 4 November 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/3laywpJ
 Ethiopian Air Strikes in Tigray will Continue, says PM Abiy, as Civil War Risk Grows, Somaliland Sun, 7 November 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/36i1DRV
 Martin Plaut, Abiy Ahmed won a Nobel peace prize, Ibid.
 Martin Plaut, Meltdown: Threats facing the Horn of Africa, Ibid.
 Martin Plaut, Abiy Ahmed won a Nobel peace prize. Ibid.
 Aggrey Mutambo, Ethiopian tension ropes in neighbours concerned with another war, Nation, Kenya, 5 November 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/3k9fiQf
 Abdi Latif Dahir and Declan Walsh, Why Did Ethiopia’s Leader Just Launch Airstrikes on the Tigray region?, The New York Times, 5 November 2020. Available at: https://nyti.ms/3n2wlVO
 Reports: Tigray forces Commander of Ethiopia’s northern division to return to Addis, Eritrea Hub, 29 October 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/38smnct
 Martin Plaut, Abiy Ahmed won a Nobel peace prize. Ibid.
 Aggrey Mutambo, Ethiopian tension ropes…., Ibid.
 Martin Plaut, Meltdown: Threats facing the Horn of Africa, Ibid.
 European Union Covertly Mediating PM Abiy and Ethiopia’s Tigray region Reconciliation Tigray, Somaliland Sun, 3 November 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/2Idzza8
 Abiy says 'clear, limited' aims to Ethiopia military operation, Nation, Kenya, 6 November 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/38lqzKJ
 Ethiopia's army chief sacked as Tigray fighting continues, BBC News, 9 November 2020. Available at: https://bbc.in/32pRW2t
 Cara Anna, Ethiopia reshuffles top officials as Tigray conflict grows, AP News, 9 November 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/3l70uCO
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