Ethiopia is on the brink of a civil war after Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced on Wednesday that he had ordered troops to counter an allegedly violent attack by armed forces in the country’s northern Tigray region.
The domestic conflict in Ethiopia comes after several smaller conflicts that have been festering for months that could now spiral and impact the Horn of Africa region at large.
Why has conflict started in Tigray?
Observers say the conflict escalated in September, when Tigray held local elections in insubordination of the Ethiopian federal government. According to a Reuters report, these elections were considered “illegal” by the federal government, further leading to conflict with Tigray authorities.
Conflict between Tigray authorities and the federal government can be traced to when Abiy Ahmed came to power in 2018. According to observers of the Horn of Africa, the Tigray region is wealthier than other parts of the country, and more importantly, has a well-trained army. The authority of the Tigray officials has considerably reduced since Abiy took office, making their waning influence a point of contention.
The structure of Ethiopia’s federal system allows the country’s ten regions significant autonomy. These regions also have their own parliaments, their own security forces, and the right to a referendum for independent rule. A Reuters report points to how Abiy had detained, fired and reduced the importance of several Tigray officials since coming to power, in what he had said was a crackdown on corruption.
But Tigray officials and their supporters had called Abiy’s moves an attempt to curb and control potential opposition. Hence, in many ways, this conflict is really the result of a battle between two different political ideologies for supremacy and control in the country.
What happened this week?
The Prime Minister’s office said on Wednesday that the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the ruling party in that region, had “tried to steal artillery and other equipment from federal forces stationed there,” according to a Reuters report. Abiy’s office released a statement saying: “The last red line has been crossed with this morning’s attacks and the federal government is therefore forced into a military confrontation.” 📣 Express Explained is now on Telegram
The TPLF had announced that one part of the federal military stationed in Tigray had defected to their organisation, but this was denied by the Prime Minister’s spokesperson, Billene Seyoum, in an interview with Reuters.
Following the start of heavy fighting, including artillery fire, as reported to Reuters by diplomatic corps stationed in Ethiopia, telephone lines were blocked and internet services were shut down. Over the past few days, there have also been reports of injured soldiers on both sides.
What domestic issues has Ethiopia been facing?
Before the coronavirus outbreak impacted the country’s public health system, Abiy had been leading a country with growing economic problems. In June, Ethiopia had witnessed widespread ethnic clashes following the killing of prominent Oromo singer Hachalu Hundessa.
Following Hundessa’s death, the federal government came down heavily, including on civilians who were protesting. Opposition leaders were also arrested and imprisoned. This crackdown on civilians, many of whom were Oromo youth, by the federal police, resulted in criticism from many in Ethiopia, including people in the diaspora.
Domestically, if the situation further deteriorates, this conflict may prompt other regions in Ethiopia, particularly Oromia and Amhara, to make louder calls for autonomy, that may cause further internal disruption in the country.
What impact will this have on the Horn of Africa?
If the conflict between the Ethiopian federal government and Tigray authorities exacerbates, it will spill over to neighbouring countries in the Horn of Africa. Eritrea may be hardest hit, due to its proximity to Tigray. According to the New York Times, “many veterans from the TPLF who participated in the Ethiopian-Eritrean war between 1998 and 2000 are now part of the Tigray region’s paramilitary forces” and there is lingering resentment between these veterans and Eritrea.
Ethiopia has also been engaged in a long-standing conflict with Egypt over the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam over the Blue Nile, with Sudan having been inadvertently drawn into this conflict over the course of the dam’s development.
If the violence and conflict spills outside Ethiopia’s borders, it may potentially destabilize the Horn of Africa region. The US and China have several strategic military bases in that region, the closest being Djibouti. If these military bases were to be impacted by the disturbances in any way, it may cause foriegn powers to get militarily involved in the region and the conflict.
Although the US elections have been the center of global attention, the situation in Ethiopia has been concerning enough for U.N. Secretary General António Guterres to remark on the developments after fighting started in Tigray.
I’m deeply alarmed over the situation in the Tigray region of Ethiopia.
The stability of Ethiopia is important for the entire Horn of Africa region.
I call for an immediate de-escalation of tensions and a peaceful resolution to the dispute.https://t.co/nWtI2JtGlu
— António Guterres (@antonioguterres) November 5, 2020
“The stability of Ethiopia is important for the entire Horn of Africa region. I call for an immediate de-escalation of tensions and a peaceful resolution to the dispute,” Guterres had said in a Twitter post.
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