Ethiopia in the balance

Haitham Nouri , Monday 5 Sep 2022

Renewed fighting between the government and Tigray is one of many reasons Ethiopia is in a critical state.

Ethiopia in the balance
A woman carrying crops walks next to an abandoned tank belonging to Tigrayan forces south of the town of Mehoni, Ethiopia. (photo: AFP)


Fighting broke out again last week between the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) following months of ceasefire that had revived hopes of peace talks putting an end to the ongoing, two-year conflict.

The two warring parties traded accusations of breaching the truce. The government said the TPLF fired the first shot and “destroyed the ceasefire”, while the TPLF said government forces and their “allies” attacked a TPLF base in the south on 24 August.

In the last few weeks the battle expanded to the Amhara and Afar regions.

The TPLF is stationed in the northernmost part of Ethiopia, on the borders with Eritrea and Sudan. Amhara and Afar lie south of Tigray. The three ethnicities have been engaged in fighting for at least a year. The Ethiopian government and the TPLF signed a ceasefire agreement in March. The battles stopped, but minor military skirmishes continued.

Last week, according to the TPLF, the government shelled Tigrayan cities using Turkish drones, killing civilians and children when the missiles targeted a kindergarten in Mekelle, Tigray’s capital.

The attack targeted a hotel, a mall, and residential buildings, killing 17, including three children, according to the local, TPLF-affiliated television. The government’s communication office in Addis Ababa said the Ethiopian air force “brought down a plane loaded with weapons” belonging to the TPLF. The latter said this was “an outrageous lie.”

There were conflicting news reports about the Tigray’s control over Kobo, a city on the border with the Amhara region. No independent body confirmed or denied the reports.

In a heartfelt statement, the Director of the World Health Organisation Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, himself an Ethiopian from Tigray, announced that he could not send financial assistance to his relatives. “I have many relatives there. I want to send them money. I cannot send them money,” he said in a press conference. “I don’t know even who is dead or who is alive.”

Since the war broke out 21 months ago, the government has isolated the mountainous Tigray region from the rest of the world. It has become very difficult to receive accurate news from the northern zone.

According to UN agencies operating in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa, during the blockade, Tigray, home to eight million people, has been threatened with famine. According to UN reports, the Horn of Africa, which includes Somalia, Djibouti, Kenya, Sudan, Eritrea, and Ethiopia, is facing food security issues that will threaten many millions of people.

The UN, US, and European countries have called for a ceasefire and invited the warring parties to begin negotiations to establish sustainable peace, and to open routes to deliver humanitarian aid to millions of affected people.

With the start of the conflict between Tigray and the authorities in Addis Ababa, currently controlled by the Amhara, old wounds were renewed in several regions.

Both Benishangul and Gomez, on the border with Sudan, took up arms against the government, and so did the Gambella region, adjacent to South Sudan, and the southern Ogaden region, inhabited by a Somali majority.

The Oromo region at the centre of Ethiopia, which includes one third of the population, is the  region of the capital, Addis Ababa. It is witnessing tensions after the region’s leaders disagreed with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, whose father is Oromo and mother Amhara.

Even the Afars, whose Tigray militias are fighting alongside Ahmed’s forces, are seeing internal rifts, causing an “armed rebellion” against Addis Ababa.

Ethiopia’s neighbours fear renewed fighting in Ethiopia, which will weaken the capabilities of the Horn of Africa to confront droughts, displacements, arms smuggling, and efforts to establish peace and stability in its volatile countries.

Following the outbreak of fighting, tens of thousands of Tigrayan refugees fled to Sudan, worsening an already deteriorating economic situation.

The fights also contributed to igniting an armed border conflict between Sudan and Ethiopia over the agricultural region of Fashqa, an area reclaimed by Sudanese forces last year.

In Somalia, nationalist demands to retrieve Ogaden from Ethiopia are intertwined with the terrorism of the Somali Al-Shabaab group, who last month carried out a terrorist operation in Ethiopia involving 500 armed members, according to local and Western media. Although Al-Shabaab suffered great losses, it vowed to stage other attacks against the Ethiopian government.

However, Al-Shabaab attacks did not prevent the new Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mahmoud, from continuing with his negative stance on Ethiopia, as in his previous term, Somali journalist Ali Al-Sheikh told Al-Ahram Weekly.

In the north, Eritrea intervened in the early months of the conflict between Tigray and the government. Many observers believe that Asmara will not be reassured about the future of its political system without eliminating the power of Tigray, according to the Al-Sheikh.

“Throughout the border war between Ethiopia and Asmara, Addis Ababa said it was the Tigray against Ethiopia,” Al-Sheikh said, “the evidence being that Asmara forgot its dispute with Addis Ababa when the fighting broke out between the Tigray and Amhara,” he added.

South Sudan is also suffering from a Civil War that killed 400,000 people and put the country, which gained independence in July 2011, on the brink of famine – along with northern Ethiopia, Somalia, Yemen and northern Nigeria.

“Kenya is also seeing sharp ethnic divisions over the results of the presidential elections. The rifts could get worse as was the case in 2008-09,” Al-Sheikh noted.

For three decades, the TPLF had controlled the state, society and the army in Ethiopia, due to its leadership of the armed struggle against the regime of Mengistu Hailemariam (1974-1991), overthrowing him after years of famine and Civil War.

In the past, some 36 per cent of army and security officers were Tigrayans, although they make up only seven per cent of the population. They also controlled civil bureaucracy offices, the local trade network, and international aid.

This, in turn, contributed to the collapse of the army when Ahmed tried to marginalise the Tigrayans when he took power in 2018, which prompted the government to use the Amhara and Afar militias to confront Tigray and their trained forces.

Against this background, the Tigray cannot accept being on an equal footing with the rest of the ethnicities, and the facts on the ground indicate they can’t rule other groups as they did in the past.

Ethiopian groups will not accept the rule of the Amhara either, especially with the absence of promises of equality.

These are some of the reasons why Ethiopia is on the verge of a critical stage of uncertainty, Al-Sheikh said.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 September, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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