Weeks after the federal government of Ethiopia engaged in a war in the country’s northern region of Tigray, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed still thought of it as a walk in the park and only a matter of time before the demise of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
The quick takeover of Mekelle, the capital of the northern region, sent a wrong signal, even to Ethiopia’s Western allies, that the federal government was in control and that the TPLF had become something from the past.
However, the now heavy cost of over a billion dollars from the coffers of an already battered economy has pushed the Ahmed government to pull out its forces from the region, allowing the Tigray Defence Force (TDF), militias affiliated to the TPLF, to take matters into their own hands and start an offensive against federal troops in the neighbouring regions of Amhara and Afar.
To the detriment of the federal government, the TPLF has allied itself with one of the incumbent Ethiopian government’s worst enemies: the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA). The OLA is widely believed to be the military wing of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), though it split from the group in protest in 2018 over a peace agreement between the latter and the federal government. It remains militarily active in western and southern parts of Oromia.
This TPLF-OLA alliance, based on an official announcement, seeks to “topple” the Ahmed government by force in a replay of the guerrilla warfare that terminated the communist Mengistu government of Ethiopia in 1991 and brought a multi-ethnic coalition to the fore until 2018 when Ahmed was sworn in as the country’s prime minister.
The coalition of the two organisations, officially labelled as “terrorist,” will exhaust the already drained resources of the Ethiopian government. The TPLF has taken control of the Christian holy site of Lalibila in Amhara, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it has expanded its territorial gains in “strategic” locations in the country.
Moreover, the Tigrayan forces have entered the Afar region, a lifeline for the Ethiopian economy since the main roads and railways connecting landlocked Ethiopia to the sea port of Djibouti run through the region. As Getachew Reda, a former federal government minister and now spokesman of the TPLF, put it, the aim is to “degrade enemy fighting capabilities,” a reference to troops loyal to the federal government.
Apparently, both the TPLF and the OLA have set “primary” goals for secession, though it seems that the TPLF may have another goal: to seize control of “key” cities one after another and then launch a decisive operation against the government in Addis Ababa and topple it. This time round, the TPLF may honour a promise that another Tigrayan, the late Ethiopian prime minister Meles Zenawi, disavowed some 30 years ago: an independent Oromia in return for assistance by the OLA against the Addis Ababa-based government.
Apart from the military tactics that the TPLF and the OLA may have in mind, Ethiopia’s losses, financial and economic, have been countless. The local currency, the Birr, has been hitting a new low every other day, and today one US dollar stands at 67 Birr, versus 35 a year ago. Some foreign investors that warmly received news of the “bold” steps taken by the incumbent government to “liberalise” key sectors of the economy such as telecommunications are now declining to engage in business in the country because of the political uncertainty.
The Ethiopian economy that once boasted double-digit growth of more than 11 per cent a year has now reached a record low. Based on statistics from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the growth rate has dropped to two per cent this year against the backdrop of serious challenges including the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Tigray. Ethiopia’s foreign debt has reached $60 billion, in other words 70 per cent of the country’s GDP.
Alarmingly, Ethiopia may also be denied access to the “immense” opportunities provided to African nations by the US African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). This initiative aims at eliminating trade barriers between the US and African countries, and Ethiopia is a beneficiary. But US trade representative Katharine Tai recently fired a shot across the bows by saying that the continued war and human-rights violations in Tigray could “affect” Ethiopia’s eligibility to access the benefits of the act.
The issue of internally displaced people is also taking its toll on the Ethiopian economy and the country’s image worldwide. While the federal government and the TPLF have traded accusations on the party blocking access to humanitarian assistance to 5.2 million people in Tigray and neighbouring regions, the ultimate outcome is that the country is witnessing a severe humanitarian crisis.
This has given new life to the image of the country that the former Zenawi government worked its fingers to the bone to change: the correlation between Ethiopia’s name and poverty as well as wars and conflicts. Ten months of the conflict in Tigray since November last year have dealt a blow to Ethiopia’s hard-won gains over the last three decades.
Even so, a political settlement to the conflict still looks like a daydream because neither the Ethiopian government nor the TPLF is willing to engage in talks to that end. Both are working on mobilising resources to achieve gains on the ground before any talks can take place.
A disintegrated Ethiopia is not in the best interests of the region or the world as a whole. Ethiopia remains a force to reckon with in the troubled Horn of Africa region, and there is a crying need for the Ethiopian government to trigger a political process, inclusive of all the parties to the conflict, to bring the war in Tigray to an end and to “manage” its differences with the TPLF.
In the worst-case scenario, if the TPLF works towards secession, the federal government will need to take this issue on board and may reach a “win-win” recipe for future relations with the Tigrayans. For the moment, however, the war is derailing an entire country and leaving its mark on the livelihoods of 110 million people.
* The writer is a former press attaché in Ethiopia and an expert on African and international affairs.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.