The Ethiopian army’s campaign to suppress the rebellion in the Tigray region, home to six per cent of the Ethiopian population, may have numerous local and regional repercussions, not least on the negotiations between Addis Ababa, Cairo, and Khartoum over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).
Some analysts believe that the conflict will weaken the Abiy Ahmed government in Ethiopia enough to force it to soften its negotiating position, thereby facilitating a binding agreement that will safeguard the welfare of all three parties while preserving Egypt’s acquired rights to Nile water. However, there are signs that the situation could propel that government in the opposite direction.
The crisis presents a major challenge to the Ethiopian prime minister. If he is unable to resolve it quickly and wisely, it could inspire others among Ethiopia’s 80 ethnic groups to follow the Tigrayan lead. Therefore, Ahmed has little time to show greater flexibility on the GERD, especially given the forthcoming elections in Ethiopia that have been deferred to May or June next year.
Ahmed cannot afford a further decline in his popularity among a population that has been nurtured on such slogans as “It’s our water. It’s our dam. And it’s our money that built it,” which have instilled the belief that Ethiopia is entitled to monopolise the decision-making on a transnational watercourse. In order to keep his popularity from sliding further against the backdrop of the military operation against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in Ethiopia, Ahmed will most likely toughen his stance on the GERD, the one issue on which all Ethiopians are virtually united.
Some might counter that the confrontation with the TPLF and the potential conflicts with other ethnic groups in Ethiopia that have long complained of a disregard for their political, economic, and social rights will tax the Ethiopian economy to the extent that it will be unable to complete the construction of the dam. The greater likelihood, however, is that the Ahmed government, keen to avert the impression that it is unable to pay for the country’s high-profile national mega-project, will come up with the money no matter what, even if this entails diverting funds from other development projects and essential infrastructure work.
The US’ suspension of a portion of the approximately $1 billion of aid pledged to Ethiopia in 2018 had raised hopes that this would persuade Addis Ababa to stop its intransigence. When Washington announced early this year that it would withhold $100 million in aid, a number of Ethiopian MPs appealed to the government to avert further cuts and to make the compromises necessary to reach a mutually satisfactory agreement with Egypt and Sudan.
The recent electoral defeat of US president Donald Trump, who had vowed that his government would not release further aid to Addis Ababa until it commits to concluding such an agreement, will have come as a great relief to the Ethiopian government, which must now be looking forward to the prospect of a resumption in the flow of aid or, at least, of no further cutbacks after US President-elect Joe Biden assumes office on 20 January.
Undoubtedly, Addis Ababa will lobby intensively to convince the new Democratic administration in the US to reward Ethiopia for its cooperation in the fight against terrorism and in efforts to preserve security and stability in the Horn of Africa.
Another potential repercussion of the Ahmed government’s military operation against the Tigray region, which is bristling with well-trained and well-armed militias and special forces, is increased tensions along the border with the Amhara region, the second most-populous Ethiopian region after Oromia. As Amhara fighters are among the ranks of the federal forces engaged in suppressing the TPLF rebellion, it is feared that this could give rise to tit-for-tat skirmishes between the Tigrayan and Amhara peoples, forcing federal forces to intervene.
With every death in the military campaign, the degree of anger rises, along with the thirst for revenge against the country’s rulers in Addis Ababa and their supporters in the Amhara region and in Ethiopia’s nine other regions.
There is also the likelihood that the military campaign in Tigray, the dismissal of the Tigrayan government, and adverse propaganda against Tigrayan leaders could drive the TPLF underground, where it might be joined by other discontented elements in carrying out guerrilla-style operations in the capital or other parts of the country. This type of asymmetrical warfare could wreak further attrition on the army, as well as on budgetary allocations to development efforts. It is important to recall here that the campaign to topple the former leftist regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam in Ethiopia was spearheaded from the Tigray region in collaboration with the Eritrean Liberation Front which was fighting for the independence of Eritrea.
This brings us to another possible repercussion, which is that the TPLF might turn its guns against Eritrea, which Tigray leaders have accused of aiding the Ethiopian military by allowing Ethiopian troops to cross into Eritrea in pursuit of TPLF fighters. There already exists a desire to take back Badme, the border town that had been the locus of the Ethiopian-Eritrean border war that erupted in 1998, claiming the lives of more than 70,000 people from both sides. The Ahmed government had conceded the town to Eritrea in 2018, resolving the long-standing conflict, but the move rankled with Tigrayans who see Badme as part of Tigray territory.
Any renewed tension or, worse, skirmishes along the border with Eritrea would force the Ethiopian army to intervene to protect the border which, in turn, could precipitate heightened tensions regionally.
International humanitarian organisations have already voiced their fears regarding another major repercussion of the military escalation, namely the displacement of large numbers of people from the Tigray, Amhara, and Oromia regions internally or across the borders into Sudan, Eritrea, South Sudan, Somalia, and Kenya. The warfare and displacement could also precipitate widespread hunger, deprivation, and disease, not to mention expanding cycles of violence arising from competition over scarce resources in countries that also suffer from civil strife.
An estimated 2.5 million Ethiopians have fled their homes during the past three years as a consequence of ethnic violence involving such groups as the Oromo, Amhara, Sidama, Gumuz, and Somalis.
In the light of the possible multi-faceted fallout from the military confrontation in Ethiopia’s northernmost region, Ahmed must do all he can to conceive rapid and innovative solutions to defuse the tensions with the Tigray region and reach an accommodation with the TPFL before it is driven underground. As a first and major step towards this end, the Ethiopian government needs to relinquish its plans to strengthen the central government’s powers at the expense of the constitutionally stipulated authority of the regional governments. It was this ambition that sparked the dispute between the central government and the Tigray leaders, who had just been replaced by a centrally imposed administration.
The Ethiopian government should also act simultaneously to forestall escalating tensions and possible violence in other regions of the country by addressing their long-standing grievances concerning political and economic discrimination and marginalisation. Rapidly implementing development projects in these regions would go a long way to absorbing popular anger.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly