Ethiopia: New Conflict Balances

EPC | 17 Aug 2021

After an eight-month takeover of the Tigray region, the Ethiopian army withdrew from the northernmost regional state after a unilateral federal government ceasefire decision. The move seemed to signal a radical shift in the conflict in Ethiopia. The Tigray Defense Forces (TDF) - the military arm of the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) - shifted from defense to offense, creating new balances that put the conflict in Ethiopia on new paths that were not expected in its initial stage.

This paper reviews and analyzes the latest developments in the Ethiopian conflict, and potential trajectories.

Status Quo: Multiple Battlegrounds

A unilateral ceasefire by the Ethiopian government and the withdrawal of government forces from the city of Mek'ele imposed new balances in the battlegrounds in the country. They can summarized as follows:

1. Tigray and Amhara Regions

On June 21, 2021, the day set for the federal and regional elections in Ethiopia, the TDF launched a fresh military campaign dubbed "Operation Alula Aba Nega". The operation resulted in the TDF being able to regain control of Mek'ele, the regional capital, before the federal government declared a unilateral ceasefire and withdrew its forces from the city.[1]

This progress made by the TPLF on the ground made it unwilling to stop the fighting, especially after the front’s government was re-installed in the capital of the region. A month later, the TPLF managed to regain the entire southern part of its territory, but the areas west of the territory on the border with Amhara are still under the control of the Eritrean government forces and the Amharic Special Forces, which cling to their positions to prevent the TDF from reaching the Sudanese border. The TDF are linking their continued incursion into Amhara and the evacuation of the western region of Tigray as a precondition for any possible ceasefire. But the withdrawal of the Amharic forces may not be possible at the present moment as a result of a long historical struggle between the Amhara and the Tigray over supremacy in these areas[2].

2. Afar and Somali regions

One of the most intense and violent conflicts in Ethiopia is the conflict between the Somali and Afar regions. The two regions dispute sovereignty over three regions: Garbaiisa, Undufo, and Adaytu. In 2014, the Ethiopian federal government sponsored an agreement between the two regions, according to which the Somali region handed over the three regions to the Afar region, before the Somali region unilaterally announced in 2019 its withdrawal from this agreement, given that it does not find any basis in the Ethiopian constitution. This sparked a new crisis last April when the National Elections Board began preparing for the federal elections, including the three districts in the electoral districts of the Afar region, which angered the Somali region and led to an armed onslaught in April that brought down 100 Afars in the disputed region. After the raging battles in the Tigray region spread to the Afar region in July, armed Afar factions took advantage of this new situation to launch a counterattack on Garbaiisa, leaving many dead and wounded and displacing thousands of Somalis.[3]

What escalated tensions on the Afar front was an attempt by the TPLF to advance eastward to control the road and the railway line linking the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, and the ports of Djibouti, which constitutes a corridor for more than 95% of Ethiopia's inbound and outbound foreign trade. Although the TPLF forces halted their advance to the east after official and popular circles in Afra rejected them, protesters in the Somali region unilaterally cut the railway linking Addis Ababa and Djibouti, in protest against the violence perpetrated against Somalis in Garbaiisa.[4]

3. Oromia Zone and Benishangul-Gumuz region

In April 2021, violent clashes erupted in the [5]Oromia Zone, the westernmost part of the Amhara region, which is home to a predominantly Oromo population. These developments prompted the federal authorities to declare a state of emergency in this region and two neighboring regions after clashes between the Oromo and the Amhara resulted in dozens of deaths and the displacement of ten thousand civilians.[6]

These tensions come to add more troubles to the Oromia region, which has witnessed violence of varying intensity since the signing of a peace agreement between the government and the Oromo Liberation Front in 2018. The most extremist armed faction, Shene, which the Front claims to have broken from its ranks, launched an armed rebellion in the western parts of the region, which resulted in its takeover of a number of villages.[7] Several armed organizations are also active in the neighboring Benishangul-Gumuz region, primarily targeting the administration of the region and its Amhara population.[8] While there is no confirmed evidence of an alliance between the armed elements in Oromia and their counterparts in Benishangul-Gumuz, the geographical proximity of the two sides' theaters of operations against the Ethiopian government forces may suggest the emergence of a tactical rapprochement between them in the future.

The reasons behind the radical shifts in the Ethiopian arena

The radical transformations in the Ethiopian battlefields did not come suddenly. Since last November, many factors have been accumulating until eventually the federal government was forced to end its presence in Tigray, despite all the turmoil this decision has caused. These reasons include:

1. The failure of the federal government to establish control over the Tigray region

With the federal government declaring victory in the Tigray region in November 2020, it began taking accelerated measures to establish control over the region. At the end of December, the interim administration of the Tigray region, formed by the federal parliament, announced the formation of an interim government for the region, comprising eleven members, in order to restore normalcy in the region.[9]

Six months after the appointment of the interim regional government headed by Mulu Nega, and as a result of its failure to bring about stability in the cities of the region or to penetrate the popular bases supporting the TPLF, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed appointed, in May 2021, Abraham Belay, who had been serving as the minister of innovation and technology in the federal government, as the new head of the Tigray interim administration, giving him broad powers.[10]

At a time when the Belay government was expected to announce the tightening of its control over the cities of the Tigray region and calm the situation by providing citizens with basic services, the course of the battles resulted in the interim government at the end of June submitting to the federal government a request to declare an immediate ceasefire in the region. This came after the TDF were able to launch an offensive that resulted in regaining control over the city of Mek'ele, the regional capital, and large sectors of the region.

2. Problems related to the Ethiopian army

The conflict in the Tigray region began after the TDF took control of the northern military command of the Ethiopian Armed Forces in Mek'ele. This was a clear indication of the superiority of the TDF in terms of personnel, training, or military equipment. This eventually caused a very complicated crisis for Abiy Ahmed, which revealed that his government needs, since the first day of the conflict, military support from other parties that are not under his command, especially the Eritrean forces, the special forces of the Amhara region, and a number of paramilitary Amharic militias. To the extent that this military alliance contributed to resolving the first phase of the conflict in favor of the federal government, it has perpetuated the decline of the Ethiopian armed forces, the effects of which have been exacerbated by a steady increase in the number of fighters joining the special forces of all Ethiopian regions in recent years. The heavy reliance on the Eritrean forces caused an internal crisis in the Ethiopian armed forces, which did not surface quickly due to the succession of battles, but it caused a clear drop in morale at the leadership and grassroots levels alike.[11]

On the other hand, the course of the war in the Tigray region posed additional and special challenges, most notably the failure of the Ethiopian military commanders to control the violence and violations committed by soldiers, especially Eritreans and Amhara, against civilians in Tigray region. This has put the Ethiopian armed forces in the crosshairs of international accusations of systematic violations of human rights. Under the pressure of this mounting international condemnation, the Ethiopian authorities were forced to respond. The Ethiopian Public Prosecutor issued a report on human rights violations in the Tigray region, which resulted in the referral of 28 Ethiopian army soldiers to court martial. It goes without saying that these condemnations were an additional factor in demoralizing the forces fighting in Tigray.[12]

3. The regime’s failure to renew its legitimacy through elections

The move by the Tigray regional government to hold regional elections unilaterally in September of 2020 was one of the main reasons for the outbreak of the conflict nearly two months later. While the June 2021 elections were supposed to contribute to bringing calm and addressing a problematic situation for the federal government in Addis Ababa, the elections led to exacerbating existing problems and creating new ones. It was announced early that the Tigray region would not be included in any elections as a result of being subject to a state of emergency, which denied the political process in the region any progress.

The elections also triggered the border dispute between the Somali region and the Afar region, which ignited a series of problems that eventually led to the exclusion of the entire Somali region from the elections and the announcement of a subsequent round that includes the region in September. This is in addition to dozens of constituencies in Amhara, Oromia and Benishangul-Gumuz provinces, in which security tensions prevented the electoral process from taking place.

 After a long delay, the results of the elections were announced, adding to the problems that Ethiopia is already suffering from. It was announced that the Prosperity Party won more than 97% of parliament seats, which caused widespread frustration among the parties that accepted to participate in the vote and supported the arguments made by the parties that boycotted the elections.[13]

4. The war in Tigray becoming a source of mounting international pressure

Abiy Ahmed came to power with a clear regional agenda through which he sought to restore Ethiopia's status as a regional leader for the Horn of Africa. To this end, he took the exceptional step of signing a peace agreement that ended a two-decade war with Eritrea. He also sought to build a tripartite regional alliance led by Ethiopia, bringing it together with Eritrea and Somalia. Moreover, the man played an active role in the power-sharing agreement between the civilian and military components in Sudan. However, the conflict with the TPLF may drain Ethiopia's regional and international capital.

With the arrival of Democrat Joe Biden to the White House in January 2021, direct US criticism of the Ethiopian federal government's role in the conflict in the Tigray region began to escalate from denouncing the deteriorating humanitarian conditions in the region, to pressing for the removal of the Eritrean and Amharic forces from it. After that, the US criticism became more severe with the US administration's move to impose gradual sanctions on the Ethiopian government. The Ethiopian Foreign Ministry also got embroiled in a diplomatic crisis with the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights, which announced that it had started conducting field investigations in the Tigray region. In response, the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry announced its categorical rejection of this step and accused the African Union body of transgressing Ethiopia's sovereignty.[14]

5. The failure to enforce the ceasefire

Since the early stages of the conflict, the TPLF has been adopting a logic of procrastination in its handling of the ceasefire. So far, the Front has issued only two statements regarding its conditions for accepting a ceasefire, on the 4th and then on the 27th of July. But on August 1, Tsadkan Gebretensae, one of the front's most prominent military commanders, gave audio statements to the BBC that included additional references to the front's conditions for a ceasefire. These conditions include a set of impossible clauses that make their approval an existential threat to the survival of the Ethiopian government.

The list included military conditions requiring the withdrawal of all forces from the Tigray region, including the areas of western Tigray, which the Amhara region declared "recaptured" in the midst of the battles. There are also political conditions that call for launching a transitional phase without the participation of Abiy Ahmed or his deputy, Demeke Mekonnen, and all the military and security leaders who participated in the offensive on the Tigray region. This is in addition to other conditions that include ending the siege imposed on the Tigray region, allowing the regional government to manage the border crossings with Sudan, as well as launching a legal accountability process against all political and military leaders who participated in the attack[15].

All these conditions were behind the statements of the military commander Gebretensae that the front would retain control of areas within the Afar and Amhara regions until the "complete withdrawal" and "lifting of the siege" imposed on the Tigray region were achieved. These two conditions may lead to conflicts within the front supporting the prime minister, who may find himself in an open confrontation with the Amharic elite that has supported him since he came to power and who will not accept any of the Tigray conditions.[16]

Possible Scenarios

The fluid situation in Ethiopia is open to four main scenarios, three of which assume that global powers will continue to adopt cautious positions that monitor the course of the battles on the ground before any decisive intervention, while the last is based on a shift in the positions of these external actors pushing towards immediate decisive intervention, as follows:

First Scenario: The first scenario assumes that the federal government succeeds in re-establishing control by confronting the TPLF's attack on the Amhara region and continuing to besiege the Tigrayans in the narrowest possible space while continuing to deprive them of any international border outlet. Developments on the ground do not support this scenario to a large extent given the continued success of the TDF in advancing on multiple fronts, and in light of the fact that it is difficult for the federal government to regain control of the entire Ethiopian territory, including the battlefields between the Somalis and Afars, and between Oromos and Amharas.

Second Scenario: This scenario is based on the premise that the Tigrayans will prevail and they will be able to bring down the federal government, which is the goal asserted by Getachew Reda, the official spokesman of the TPLF. With the Tigrayans able to overthrow the government of Abiy Ahmed, chaos will continue in Ethiopia due to the expected preoccupation of the Tigrayans with settling scores with the Amhara in particular. This is in addition to the Tigrayans' reliance on their own project of their national identity after protests between 2015 and 2018 dropped any claims of an opportunity for other Ethiopian populations to enjoy their rights under Tigrayan rule.

Third Scenario: This scenario assumes that the spiral of conflict will expand to include the southern regions and additional areas of northern and central Oromia, turning Ethiopia into an open arena for multi-front battles waged by special forces and militias affiliated with all ethnic groups. This scenario portends that the conflict will spread quickly to all neighboring countries as a result of the large population interaction between the Ethiopian ethnic groups and other groups in the Horn of Africa in general.

Fourth Scenario: The last scenario is based on the premise of an international intervention that imposes a comprehensive ceasefire and a power-sharing initiative that guarantees the unity of the Ethiopian state and the representation of the Tigrayans in a federal government. However, contradictory international positions and the fact that the conflict has turned into a deep dispute revolving around ethnic identities stand in the way of this scenario, especially after the violations committed by the federal and Amharic forces in the Tigray region.

In light of the failure of either party to the conflict to resolve it on the ground and as a result of military and economic exhaustion on both sides, the fourth scenario is more likely in the short term. That is, escalating international pressures will lead to a temporary cease-fire, with each party retaining its positions. This is what the TPLF alluded to by declaring the end of Operation "Tigray Mothers" after it said that it had achieved its goals on all fronts. Such a measure would pave the way for more calm on the ground through international mediation aimed at disengaging the warring parties and allowing prisoners swap. Nevertheless, this fragile truce remains unsustainable unless a comprehensive political solution is found. This will be a fundamental challenge due to the sharp differences between the various political projects on the one hand, and the presence of other political parties in Ethiopia that have their own demands on the other hand, which may trigger a new cycle of conflict.

Conclusions

  • After an eight-month takeover of the Tigray region, the Ethiopian army withdrew from the northernmost regional state after the federal government's unilateral ceasefire decision. This withdrawal turned the tide of the conflict in Ethiopia, shifting the Tigray Defense Forces from defense to offense.
  • The conflict in Ethiopia is currently raging in several regions, most notably the western Tigray region, which is still under the control of the federal government and the Amhara militias, and the northern and central parts of the Amhara region, which are witnessing a military expansion by the Tigrayans. This is in addition to the border area between the Somali and the Afar regions, some western and southern parts of the Oromia region, and the northern part of the Benishangul-Gumuz region.
  • As a result of the failure of either party to the Ethiopian conflict to resolve it on the ground, it is likely that increasing international pressure will lead to a temporary ceasefire with each side retaining its positions. Such a measure would pave the way for more calm on the ground through international mediation aimed at disengaging the warring parties and allowing prisoners swap. But this de-escalation will remain fragile, which will be a fundamental challenge and may result in a new cycle of conflict.

Endnotes

[1] Vivienne Nunis, Ethiopia's Tigray crisis: Rebel resurgence raises questions for Abiy Ahmed, BBC News, July 3, 2021. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-57693784

[2] Aggrey Mutambo and Tesfa-Alem Tekle, TPLF gives five conditions for ceasefire, wants transition process, the East African, July 31, 2021. https://www.theeastafrican.co.ke/tea/rest-of-africa/tplf-gives-five-conditions-for-ceasefire-wants-transition-3493224

[3] Somali Regional Gov’t Blames Afar Forces For Violence, Demands Swift Response From Fed. Gov’t; Afar Regional Gov’t Dismisses Claims As Propaganda, Addis Standard, July 27, 2021. https://addisstandard.com/news-somali-regional-govt-blames-afar-forces-for-violence-demands-swift-response-from-fed-govt-afar-regional-govt-dismisses-claims-as-propaganda/; Somali Region Unilaterally Withdraws From 2014 Agreement Transfering Three Kebeles To Afar Region, Beefs Up Security, Addis Standard, May 4, 2019. https://addisstandard.com/news-somali-region-unilaterally-withdraws-from-2014-agreement-transfering-three-kebeles-to-afar-region-beefs-up-security/

[4] Giulia Paravicini, Maggie Fick Protesters close road, rail links between Djibouti, Addis Ababa – official, Reuters, July 28, 2021. https://www.reuters.com/world/africa/road-railway-linking-djibouti-addis-ababa-is-blocked-ethiopian-official-2021-07-28/

[5] The Oromia zone differs from the Oromia Federal Region, as the former is part of the Amhara Region.

[6] Authorities declare state of emergency in southern part of Amhara region in response to mid-April communal violence, Crisis 24, April 20, 2021. https://www.garda.com/crisis24/news-alerts/469476/ethiopia-authorities-declare-state-of-emergency-in-southern-part-of-amhara-region-in-response-to-mid-april-communal-violence

[7] Attackers kill at least 20 in attack in Ethiopia's Oromiya region, says official, Reuters, April 29, 2021. https://www.reuters.com/world/africa/attackers-kill-least-20-attack-ethiopias-oromiya-region-says-official-2021-04-29/

[8] Mehdi Labzaé, Benishangul conflict spurred by investment, land titling, rumors, Ethiopia Insight, March 8, 2019. https://www.ethiopia-insight.com/2019/03/08/benishangul-conflict-spurred-by-investment-land-titling-rumors/

[9] Michael Horton, Tigray Defense Forces Resist Ethiopian Army Offensive as Sudan, Eritrea, and Ethnic Militias Enter the Fray, The Jamestown Foundation: Global Research & Analysis, May 24, 2021. https://jamestown.org/program/tigray-defense-forces-resist-ethiopian-army-offensive-as-sudan-eritrea-and-ethnic-militias-enter-the-fray/

[10] Ethiopia removes Tigray regional government leader, DW, May 5, 2021. https://www.dw.com/en/ethiopia-removes-tigray-regional-government-leader/a-57440830

[11] In January 2021, a video clip was circulated of Major General Belay Seyoum, the head of the Ethiopian army's northern division, denouncing the introduction of Eritrean forces, stressing that the Ethiopian army had not invited them and that they were the ones who stormed the northern border of Ethiopia. See: Ethiopian General Says Eritrean Troops Entered ‘Tigray’ Uninvited, Tesfa News, January 8, 2021. https://tesfanews.net/ethiopian-general-says-eritrean-troops-entered-tigray-uninvited/; https://cn.reuters.com/article/uk-ethiopia-conflict/ethiopian-general-says-eritrean-troops-entered-tigray-video-clip-idUKKBN29C2L4

[12] Ethiopia Convicts 3 Troops of Rape, Charges 28 for Killings, U.S News, May 21, 2021. https://www.usnews.com/news/world/articles/2021-05-21/ethiopia-charges-28-soldiers-with-killings-in-tigray-region

[13] Ahmed Soliman, Imperfect elections do not fortify Ethiopia’s transition, Chatham House, June 17, 2021. https://www.chathamhouse.org/2021/06/imperfect-elections-do-not-fortify-ethiopias-transition; Ayenta Mersi, Ethiopians vote as opposition alleges some irregularities, Reuters, June 22, 2021. https://www.reuters.com/world/africa/ethiopians-vote-what-government-bills-first-free-election-2021-06-20/

[14] Ethiopia rejects a "unilateral" African investigation into the Tigray region - Al-Ain News, June 17, 2021. (Arabic) https://al-ain.com/article/ethiopia-au-5

[15] Current and Previous Tigray Preconditions for Negotiated Ceasefire, TGHAT, July 29, 2021. https://www.tghat.com/2021/07/29/current-and-previous-tigray-preconditions-for-negotiated-ceasefire/

[16] Ethiopia's Tigray crisis: Rebels vow to fight on until blockade ends, BBC News, Aug 2, 2021. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-58056588

 

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