It is now a little over a year since the war between the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) started on 4 November 2020. The conflict that began as a limited operation “to enforce the rule of law” quickly turned into an all-out war using all kinds of air and land weapons.
The battlefield should have been confined within the northernmost region of Tigray but the TPLF pushed boundaries to attack any neighbouring Amhara and Afar. Many armed factions made use of the fragile security to reactivate multiple fronts in the regions of Oromia and Benishengul. In addition, violent clashes took place between Afar and Somalia regions over their complicated border situation in the complete absence of the state.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed had said at the beginning of the war that it would be a matter of weeks before the conflict was over, rushing to declare victory against the TPLF less than four weeks after the war broke out. However, the war is ongoing and it is difficult to anticipate when it will stop.
Seven months on, the government and the TPLF traded places when the front regained the Tigrayan capital Mekelle, switching from defence to offence on multiple fronts.
Despite the numerous changes that occurred in the Ethiopian war since its inception, the most significant event was the structural change that took place on 5 November with the official announcement of the formation of the United Front of Ethiopian Federalist and Confederalist Forces (UFEFCF). The UFEFCF crushed Ahmed’s attempts to depict the war as an attack against an illegal, terrorist group sheltering on the northern borders of Ethiopia.
The UFEFCF was established in an attempt to revive the experience of forming the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) during confrontations between a number of armed ethnic factions and Mengistu Hailemariam’s army at the end of the 1980s. The EPRDF arose as an expanded organisation that included the man ethnic groups of Ethiopia. In early 1989, coordination began between the TPLF and the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM).
The following year, the two movements joined the Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation (OPDO), and so the three most influential groups in Ethiopia were represented in a single entity. The front encourages unrepresented ethnic groups to establish organisations, and so the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Front (SEPDF) which went on to join the EPRDF in 1993 was formed.
The establishment of the UFEFCF is proof of the development of conflict in Ethiopia to more advanced levels. The TPLF and Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) announced the coordination of military operations between them, each in its area of activity. The TPLF Spokesperson Getachew Rada and the OLA Spokesperson Oda Tarbe announced in August that the two groups had shared intelligence and coordinated strategies with the unified goal of overthrowing Abiy Ahmed.
The establishment of the UFEFCF is crucial on the field and political levels, in light of political interactions in Ethiopia in recent decades, which have shown that major political transformations depend on the consensus between two of the three main groups: the Oromo, Amhara and Tigray, in a case similar to the transformation that preceded the resignation of Hailemariam Desalegn in February 2018, after the protest movement united in the Oromia and Amhara regions. It is important to note that the TPLF and the OLA are two of the strongest and most experienced armed factions in Ethiopia.
The UFEFCF was able to split the ranks of a number of important regions in eastern Ethiopia, chief among which were Afar and Somalia, by including the Afar Revolutionary Democratic Union Front, as well as the Somali State Resistance Movement as members in the coalition. The significance of this step is that Afar, due to its location adjacent to the Tigray region, is one of the most important battlefields in Ethiopia, and the TPLF has been trying to cut off the road linking the capital, Addis Ababa, to the ports of Djibouti.
This drove Abiy Ahmed to lead the Afar battle in person recently despite similar intensification of the battle in Amhara. This remarkable shift is likely to reduce the importance of the regional government’s support in both Afar and the Somali region for the military operation launched by the government in Tigray.
The UFEFCF also includes two minorities in Amhara, the Agaw and Kimant, through their organisations, the Agaw Democratic Movement and the Kimant Democratic Party. The move exposed the deep social and political fissures within the Amharic front and reduced its resilience to the growing military and political pressure led by the TPLF. It also drew international attention and sympathy, since Kimant constitutes the main component of the Jewish community in Ethiopia.
The opposition was able to make significant breakthroughs in the southwestern and western provinces. The formation of the Sidama group as an independent federal region in 2020 by popular referendum did not stop ongoing discontent among the groups in the southwest. That prompted the Sidama National Liberation Front to join the coalition opposing Abiy Ahmed too.
In a predictable development indicated by the steadily increasing rate of violence in the past year, the Benishangul People’s Liberation Movement joined the UFEFCF, while tensions continued between the people of the region and the Amharic settlers.
However, it is not wise to see the UFEFCF as the sole decisive factor in the future of the battle on the ground. Many factors come into play. The groups allied with the TPLF do not have much to offer on the political and military fronts, so the TPLF has had to rely on its own capabilities in the first place.
In addition, the announcement of the establishment of the UFEFCF from the US provided an opportunity for Ahmed’s government to portray the alliance as a tool of international war aimed at overthrowing the Ethiopian regime. The claim was driven by the government’s desire to restore some of its lost popularity.
The division of forces within the UFEFCF between supporters of the federation and loyalists of the confederation imposes casts doubts over the unity of their strategy and the future of the Ethiopian state in the event of a UFEFCF victory.
The Ethiopian war, in its second year, appears more complicated, especially with the failure of the legislative elections, which were held in June and September, to establish a solid base of legitimacy for Ahmed. Moreover, the humanitarian crisis is intensifying in many regions, especially in Tigray.
The position of the international community is complicating the Ethiopian matter even further, amid the vague stances adopted by international parties, and the crises taking place in Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan as well as the rising terrorist threats in Kenya and Uganda.
All these factors draw a darker picture of the future of Ethiopia.
The writer is head of the African Studies Unit at the Egyptian Centre for Strategic Studies (ECSS).
*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 December, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.