Ethiopia’s little wars

Haitham Nouri , Tuesday 9 Aug 2022

While the world is distracted from Africa by the war in Ukraine, Ethiopia’s conflicts continue to seethe, reports Haitham Nouri

Ethiopia s little wars
An internally displaced woman washes the face of a child in the makeshift camp where they are sheltered in the village of Erebti, Ethiopia (photos: AFP)


Ethiopia’s Civil War has been raging for almost two years with no end in sight. Even worse, a looming famine of which the UN has warned threatens the Horn of Africa and the whole of East Africa.

But famine is not the only cause for concern horror in Africa’s second populous country – after Nigeria – with its over 80 ethnic groups. Little wars have erupted in several other regions, such Gambela, a region bordering South Sudan that saw a major conflict earlier in the year. Gambela is inhabited by the Dinka ethnicity that controls Juba and its army.

Close to Sudan, fighting broke out between the Arab tribes of Benishangul People’s Liberation Movement and the Addis Ababa government, while in Afar, where many side with the forces of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in his war against the Tigray, civil war is the order of the day.

However, the war between Ahmed and the Tigray in the north remains the fiercest battle in Ethiopia. The Tigray forces include thousands of trained officers who were in the army during the era of late leader Meles Zenawi (1991-2012).

Until 3 November 2020, over 500,000 people had already been killed in that war, according to Belgium’s Ghent University, including 50,000-100,000 people who died in the conflict, 150,000-200,000 who died due to famine, and more than 100,000 who lost their lives as a result of lack of medical care.

The Tigray famine is “man-made”, according to Alex de Waal, a UK expert on the Horn of Africa, in the BBC and the London Review of Books.

A large number of international human rights organisations are fearful of the ethnic cleansing taking place in Tigray. Undoubtedly, both sides have committed atrocities and war crimes, but it was the government forces that had the largest share of those, especially when it comes to the victims of famine and medical neglect.

Over the last 19 months both sides have repeatedly claimed they were ready to negotiate, but showed no real flexibility to that end.

The geographic location and mountainous nature of the Tigray region has helped the group to endure conflicts, while Ahmed’s forces have been supplied with Turkish drones which they used to shell Tigrayan cities and markets, resulting in the death of hundreds of civilians, including children.

Meanwhile, Tigrayans are demanding more self-rule and those who committed crimes against civilians be held to account. Ahmed and his government, at the other end, are calling for the removal of Tigray’s arms and an acceptance of the legitimacy of the Addis Ababa authorities.

Ahmed’s government is now engaged in a battle against the Director of the World Health Organisation Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, a Tigrayan, after he said that “nowhere on earth are people more at risk than Tigray.”

Despite the fierce campaign waged by the Ahmed’s government against Ghebreyesus to tarnish his reputation, multiple international reports support his statement that Tigray is on the brink of a major humanitarian catastrophe.

“It’s more likely things will get worse in Ethiopia,” said Khaled Mahmoud, a researcher on Horn of Africa affairs. “If the Addis Ababa government and the Tigray face international pressure, they will not sit together to negotiate.”

Mahmoud is not hopeful that “any tangible results” will be reached through the mediation of the African Union, which he said can’t condemn the country that hosts its commission and secretariat.

But the crisis in Ethiopia has not been in the international limelight because of the Russia-Ukraine war. According to Mahmoud, Russia and Ukraine “have the attention of major powers in the US and western Europe. No one cares about Ethiopia, northern Nigeria, or South Sudan as long as Europe is facing a complicated crisis,” he added.

The clash in Tigray is complicated further by a number of countries siding with Ahmed. Eritrea, whose soldiers were accused of committing atrocities against the Tigray in late 2020 and early 2020, is one. Turkey, which gave the Addis Ababa military equipment that helped it fend off the Tigray’s advance towards the Ethiopian capital last year, is another.

“Without eliminating the Tigray, the rule of Isaias Afwerki will not stabilise. That is why he is ferociously standing alongside Ahmed,” Mahmoud says.

Between 1998 and 2000 Eritrea and Ethiopia engaged in a bloody war that resulted in more than 100,000 deaths. At that time, it was said that the Tigray, under the leadership of Zenawi, were in battle with Eritrea.

“Many observers claim that Afwerki wants to eliminate the Tigray and disband the Ethiopian army. It is possible the Tigray will establish their own state in the north, which will mean their affiliated group in Eritrea will join them and Eritrea will be divided,” he added.

“A US-European-Russian intervention is needed to pressure the concerned parties to accept a political compromise. But this is highly unlikely to take place due to the ongoing Ukraine crisis,” Mahmoud noted.

The lingering war in Tigray is encouraging other Ethiopian ethnicities to wage conflicts. Furthermore, the anticipated famine and interference in Ethiopian affairs, together with the world’s undivided attention to the Ukraine war, indicate that peace is farther than ever.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 August, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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