The Ethiopian government announced last week that Eritrean forces had begun to withdraw from the Tigray region. Only a few weeks earlier, Addis Ababa admitted that Eritrean forces were involved in the civil war that has been raging in Ethiopia’s northernmost province for over five months.
It is still unclear how many Eritrean soldiers are in the area and how many of them will withdraw. For its part the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) denies that the Eritrean forces have begun to withdraw, claiming that they have merely redeployed.
The Tigray region has been under a media blackout since the civil war erupted in November. Thousands of civilians have been killed and hundreds of thousands displaced in the conflict. According to Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, UN relief agencies and other international sources, thousands of casualties resulted from the indiscriminate bombing of urban and residential areas.
For more than four months, both the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments had denied that Eritrean forces were present in Tigray. It was not until late March that Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed acknowledged their presence, also conceding there had been massacres of civilians. While he implied the massacres were committed by Eritrean soldiers, the TPLF claims that both Eritrean and Ethiopian government forces as well as allied militias are responsible for the atrocities. News agencies such as the Associated Press, Reuters and BBC have collected numerous eyewitness accounts of serious human rights violations and abuses perpetrated by Eritrean forces in Tigray.
The humanitarian situation in the region is extremely grave. By the end of the conflict’s first month, some two million people were already in need of urgent relief in and around Tigray; some one million were displaced by the fighting, according to the UN News report of 2 December 2020. The report cited the UN spokesperson in Geneva as saying that concerns were “growing by the hour, with hunger and malnutrition a real danger.”
As the UN is generally conservative in its estimates when compiling negative reports on member states, the situation is most likely even more dire.
Tens of thousands of refugees from the war in Tigray have fled into Sudan, aggravating the hardships in a country already in economic straits. In addition, Sudan has a border problem with Ethiopia that flared up into military clashes when Khartoum moved to retake territory in Al-Fashqa from Amhara militias controlling the area since the Omar Al-Bashir regime. As part of his designs to build an alliance with Ethiopia against Egypt, the ousted Sudanese leader had “ceded” portions of the fertile Al-Fashqa triangle to Ethiopian farmers, most of whom were from the Amhara region.
Khartoum is also a party in the dispute with Addis over the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project (GERD). Khartoum has lodged a complaint with the African Union (AU) over “Ethiopian intransigence” against the backdrop of Addis Ababa’s persistent refusal to sign a binding agreement in order to safeguard Sudanese and Egyptian water rights. Meanwhile, the AU-sponsored tripartite negotiations in Kinshasa continue to founder.
Although Addis had declared victory over the TPLF a few weeks after the war began, fighting has continued in many parts of the region. Some observers fear that an Eritrean troop withdrawal might cause the conflict to spiral again. Ahmed has said that the Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF) would secure the borders “immediately” after the Eritrean forces leave, but there remains a question as to how effectively ENDF and its allied Amhara militias can keep the situation in Tigray under control. After all, why was the Eritrean army called in to begin with?
After coming to power in 2018, Ahmed dismissed hundreds of Tigrayan officers, ending the Tigrayan monopoly on the army command since they led the coup against the Marxist-Leninist military junta of President Mengistu Hailemariam. Ahmed’s action weakened ENDF and, were it not for this fact, Addis would not have needed either the Amhara militias or the Eritrean troops. One is particularly struck by the irony of the latter’s presence given the enmity that had prevailed since the Eritrean–Ethiopian border conflict (1998-2000) in which an estimated quarter of a million people were killed; since then Eritrean president Isaias Afwerki has identified his country’s main enemies as the Tigray and the Ethiopian army.
The Amhara militias are organised crime gangs that came together under a political umbrella called Fano. They have fought on various fronts. In addition to the conflict in Tigray, they have fought in border skirmishes with Sudan and in the Benishangul-Gumuz Region which the British colonial authorities in Sudan annexed to the Ethiopian kingdom under Melelik II in 1902.
Prime Minister Ahmed appears to have identified with the Amhara elite when he said, on Sunday, that he is fighting on eight fronts. He did not name them. But it is well known that Amharas opposed to the federal system are fighting on several fronts. They oppose the Somalis in the south, the Afar Region to the east and the Oromo nation, the largest of Ethiopia’s ethnic groups, which makes up 34 per cent of the population according to official figures.
The Amhara claim they are a persecuted minority in all regions because of the federal system which grants each region autonomy. Amhara nationalists believe they would gain control of power, wealth and culture if the federal system were abolished. Abiy Ahmed hopes his “Amharan uncles” (his mother is Amharan) will make him absolute ruler in exchange for handing them the keys to the government and the army. But if the Amhara are to become the social and political base for his regime, they would have to do away with the federal system.
At the same time, warfare and mounting tensions on several fronts is a powerful disintegrative force. The Tigray have made no secret of the fact that the TPLF, which had governed that region until the war, has called for Tigrayan independence since the movement was founded in the 1970s to fight Mengistu. Other Ethiopian regions and peoples have militia movements of varying strengths, all demanding independence. Although fragmentation into several statelets is unlikely, it is not inconceivable, especially if the Tigray conflict flares up again after the Eritrean forces withdraw. The Tigray region would not be the only theatre of war. The conflict there might encourage other regions to resist Amhara plans to abolish the federal system which offers the only advantage of remaining within the “federation of Ethiopian peoples.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly