On Friday, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered military attacks against targets in the northern Tigray region. The region, which is autonomous to all intents and purposes, has been at odds with the prime minister since he came to power in 2018.
For more than two decades the Tigray dominated the ruling regime in Addis Ababa. Based in the north of the country, Tigrayans constitute a much smaller group than the Oromos or Amharas, but enjoyed a lot more power. This year Tigrayan leaders decided to contest the authority of Abiy Ahmed by holding elections in September, weeks after Ahmed cancelled the poll, scheduled for August, citing the Covid-19 pandemic as the reason.
On Monday, three days into the military confrontation, the Tigray’s People Liberation Front (TPLF) said that the federal Ethiopian army had launched more than 10 heavy air strikes against TPLF targets.
On Tuesday, the conflict looked more likely to escalate than stop. Ahmed, who has denied Ethiopia is falling into civil war, enforced a swift reshuffle, removing his chief-of-staff, foreign minister and federal police commissioner. He has so far declined all offers of mediation, rebuffing UN Secretary-General António Guterres and EU Foreign Minister Josep Borrell. Instead, he appears intent on increasing military attacks despite TPLF leaders indicating their willingness to negotiate.
Informed diplomatic sources say an end to hostilities is unlikely to be round the corner and warn that any opportunity to halt the conflict could easily be missed if Ahmed takes his military offensive too far or, worse still, the federal army splits along ethnic lines. Concerns have also been raised of a possible spillover in the Horn of Africa, especially Eritrea and Somalia, and possibly Djibuoti.
“It is a very fluid situation that opens the door to instability,” says Hani Raslan, an expert on African affairs at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
Raslan sees the recent reshuffles imposed by Ahmed as a possible sign that Ethiopia’s prime minister is seeking to head off any splits in the federal army.
Media outlets with correspondents in Ethiopia have reported that hundreds of Ethiopian civilians and soldiers have been fleeing to the border with Sudan. On Monday Khartoum announced it would close its border with Ethiopia to avoid any spillover of the conflict.
Sudan has traditionally been close to the TPLF. Diplomats say that the military component of Khartoum’s transitional government still favours the TPLF but is unlikely to risk taking sides given the fragile situation in Sudan itself, and the fact that Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok has good ties with Ahmed.
The country most likely to get caught up in the conflict is Eritrea. It only ended its own war with Ethiopia in the summer of 2018.
Isaias Afwerki, the president of Eritrea, is as keen as Ahmed to pull the rug from beneath the Tigrayans. Informed diplomatic sources say Afwerki has offered Ahmed the use of Eritrean territory to attack Tigrayan military targets, as well as Eritrean troops.
The prime minister of Ethiopia accepted the first offer but has so far declined the second.
Ethnic Tigrayans span the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea and, according to Raslan, there is no telling how things might develop on the ground if Tigrayans in Eritrea decide to show solidarity with their kin across the border.
Raslan is also concerned that if the conflict in the Tigray area does not end soon it could bring other lingering ethnic tensions in Ethiopia to the surface.
The Dire Dawa region in the east of Ethiopia, close to the Somalia border, is one spot he worries about. “In the Ogaden region [in which Dire Dawa is situated], which for years has been disputed between Somalia and Ethiopia, most people consider themselves Somalis under occupation. No one knows what might happen there if the current conflict festers and spreads.”
Mona Omar, Egypt’s former assistant foreign minister for African affairs, is also worried about how the current situation might inflame Ethiopia’s already restive Oromo people. The assassination of ethnic Oromo singer Hachalu Hundessa in the summer, and the subsequent arrest of Oromo leader Jawar Mohamed, have left this segment of the Ethiopian population in a state of unrest, she says.
“The whole situation is really tense and it looks like there will be more escalation before any de-escalation. The dilemma is no one can predict where it will lead if the conflict spreads. We may well be left trying to make sense of a very confusing civil war, and in a country that is only now trying to pick up the pieces after years of unrest.”
“Nor,” argues Omar, “should regional extensions of the conflict be discounted.”
The African Union, which is headquartered in Addis Ababa, and the various sub-regional African groupings of which Ethiopia is a member have so far remained silent on the situation.
Sudanese Prime Minister Hamdok, in his capacity as the current chair of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), made a subtle offer of mediation but it has been ignored by Ahmed who diplomatic sources say is convinced he can apply more pressure on the Tigrayans.
Meanwhile, Cairo has refrained from taking a position on the conflict.
“Our situation is very sensitive and Ahmed has a habit of blaming Egypt for any internal problem his country faces. He did so at the start of the Oromo uprising, and there is no reason why he will not try and do it again,” said a government official who declined to be identified.
According to the official, Cairo has instructed members of its diplomatic mission in Ethiopia to be extra cautious of their own safety.
“It is a worrying situation. Ethiopia is central to the Horn of Africa, and if we are talking about an extended conflict it will inevitably include Eritrea which overlooks one of the most strategic points in the Red Sea.”
But what of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), the subject of so much contention between Cairo and Addis Ababa? Might the conflict move to the area of the Blue Nile?
“We have no worries that the structure of the dam will suffer harm due to the ongoing conflict,” says the official. “The dam is something all Ethiopians take pride in.” The biggest worry for now, he adds, is that the current conflict will make “the already complex GERD negotiations even more complicated”.
The last round of on-again/off-again negotiations sponsored by South Africa in its capacity as the current chair of the AU ended without progress and no clear pathway to further rounds of talks.
“We will not secure an agreement before the end of South Africa’s presidency of the AU,” says another government official. “And if the conflict in Ethiopia is ongoing, then we should have few expectations that Ahmed will negotiate with the intention of cutting a deal that will require concessions.”
Cairo officials agree that there is a possibility that a prolonged conflict in Ethiopia could delay the completion of work on GERD necessary before any second filling of the reservoir, though the likelihood of construction delays are slim given that the dam is the one thing Ahmed has to his credit as far as his domestic audience is concerned and he will fight tooth and nail not to jeopardise it.
Cairo, they say, wants nothing to derail negotiations leading to a deal on GERD, and is appalled by the thought of prolonged conflict and concomitant humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly