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Thursday, December 02, 2021

Explained: Escalation of Ethiopia’s Tigray crisis and its implications

The conflict in Ethiopia had started in November last year, when Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered a military offensive against rebel forces in the northern region of Tigray.

Written by Neha Banka , Edited by Explained Desk | Kolkata |
Updated: November 11, 2021 6:46:24 pm
EthiopiaPeople dressed in the colors of the national flag gather at a rally organized by local authorities to show support for the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF), at Meskel square in downtown Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (AP)

The fighting that broke out last year between the Ethiopian government and rebel Tigray forces could escalate rapidly, observers have stated. This week, the UN warned that Ethiopia is at a risk of descending into a widening civil war if the fighting in the country’s northern region does not stop.

According to a BBC report, a UN official had said no aid trucks had reached Mekelle, Tigray’s capital, since mid-October, despite at least seven million people being in urgent need of food aid.

The conflict in Ethiopia had started in November last year, when Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered a military offensive against rebel forces in the northern region of Tigray. The conflict was a result of months of disagreements between the Abiy government and political leaders in Tigray, who were opposing reforms pursued by the Abiy’s federal government.

What had remained a domestic political crisis, developed into full-blown violence in the country that later began spreading outside the country’s borders due to countless people who were displaced. In addition, there were also reports of women and girls being subjected to sexual and physical violence in the conflict. A Guardian report in May 2021 said that eyewitnesses had reported that thousands of women and girls were “being targeted by the deliberate tactic of using rape as a weapon in the civil war…”

Global context

To understand the ongoing conflict in Ethiopia, the country’s history and foreign policy cannot be ignored, says Prof. Ajay Kumar Dubey at JNU’s Centre for African Studies. Since the 1990s, during the government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia has gradually forged close relations with China, that was a result of its diplomatic, ideological and strategic choices, to serve political and economic ambitions domestically, writes Jean-Pierre  Cabestan in his paper, ‘China and Ethiopia: Authoritarian affinities and economic cooperation’.

“Ethiopia had been distancing itself from the west. They had been growing fast, they had been managing (internal affairs) well and they had been very active in Africa, moving towards China and India,” explains Prof. Dubey. “The kind of support that the west gives is always conditional. They want immediate return and the returns are negligible compared to what they give. But the Chinese raised the bar.”

Addis Ababa’s gradual tilt towards Beijing was not well-received by the western powers, in part due to the group’s own interests, both diplomatic and economic in Ethiopia and Africa at large. More importantly, Ethiopia has been an important player in the African continent, explains Prof. Dubey. “Ethiopia is a nodal country for the African Union. With regard to everything that is decided in the African Union, Ethiopia, of course, as host, has an overwhelming presence if not dominance.”

Ethiopia’s tilt towards China as well as Russia was interpreted as a deliberate marginalisation of the west, which was not acceptable to western powers. Prof. Dubey points to the US’s recent decision to suspend Ethiopia along with a group of other African nations from a free-trade deal citing examples of these countries’ failure to defend human rights.

In a statement released on Tuesday, US President Joe Biden said in a statement to Congress that these nations were no longer in compliance with the eligibility requirements for the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). “They were aggressive in their administration, which gives the west space to say that a country is not democratic, which was partially true (in the case of Ethiopia,” explains Prof. Dubey.

Ethiopia’s political set-up

Ethiopia’s political structure is important in understanding how the conflict has evolved. The country is structured in a framework of a federal parliamentary republic, where the prime minister is the head of government. “It is a configuration of ten different states with ethnic federalism. Ethnicity is embedded to the extent that these ethnic groups have the right within the constitution to cede. If this constitution is to be maintained and diversity is to be respected, then one needs to be heavy-handed to maintain unity at the federal level,” explains Prof. Dubey in the context of the conflict that broke out last year.

“Ethiopia was worried that the situation that happened in the early 1990s, where one of its provinces, Eritrea, got independence with full western support, essentially American support, should not be repeated in the case of Tigray,” explains Prof. Dubey.  From a domestic perspective, Abiy’s focus has been the political reforms that are at the centre of the conflict. For nearly 30 years, the Tigrayans had enjoyed power as the dominant ethnic group in Ethiopia’s politics. That changed when PM Abiy initiated reforms and began democratising the country.

“That was not acceptable for a very entrenched powerful, dedicated, ethnically mobilised group. The Tigrayans wanted to retain these powers. They were not asking for cessation; they wanted to remove the prime minister and establish the federal regime in a way that their monopoly is re-established,” explains Prof. Dubey.

But the politics at play became more complicated when PM Abiy began making it to be a case of a cessationist war where a provincial unit was challenging the federal government and the army, he adds. “It is being projected by the federal government as such because that is the only way you can mobilise support.”

It is unlikely that the fighting is going to stop, says Prof. Dubey. In his decades of observing the African continent and conflicts that broke out in Ethiopia’s neighbouring nations, there is simply too much at stake here, not only for powers within Ethiopia’s but also foreign powers, specifically the west, in the Horn of Africa region, and the continent at large.

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India’s interests in Ethiopia

India’s diplomatic and economic relations with Ethiopia don’t often get attention, but they may be of more importance than it may appear on the surface. “India is one of the biggest investors in the non-hydro carbon sector in Ethiopia. Instability domestically will have its repercussions on this, but it will also depend on how India plays its cards during the conflict. In my opinion, India should wait and watch and it should not be seen as taking sides. Because the replacement of Prime Minister Abiy might not be in the realm of impossibility,” says Prof. Dubey.

But to say that the conflict is very concerning for India may be a stretch. “Whoever comes in power, India has a very strong goodwill in Ethiopia and in other African countries. Even the west and Russia will not be opposed to India there. India stands on its own feet in Ethiopia and we should maintain that,” he adds.

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