The US dispatched its special envoy for the Horn of Africa region, Mike Hammer, to Ethiopia in response to the renewed fighting between the central government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and condemned Eritrea’s re-entry into the conflict.
This relatively rapid reaction is a sign of the grave concern that Washington, other Western countries, and countries in the region share with regard to the Civil War in Ethiopia, the second-most populous country in Africa after Nigeria.
Eritrea withdrew its forces from the Tigray region in April 2021 under international pressure after triggering an outcry over human rights abuses against Tigrayan civilians. It began to intervene on the side of the central government in Ethiopia and against its historic foe, the TPLF, as soon as the war erupted 22 months ago.
Both Addis Ababa and Asmara have repeatedly denied the involvement of Eritrean forces in the period before they withdrew.
Eritrea and Ethiopia fought a bitter war from 1998 to 2000 and have remained wary of each other ever since. However, after assuming power in 2018, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed concluded a peace settlement with Asmara for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019.
But trade relations between the two countries have not improved, and Ethiopia has not yet returned the border territories it seized control of during the war, according to the Eritrean Ministry of Information website.
The resumption of the Civil War in Ethiopia on 24 August spoiled the cautious hopes for peace that had been inspired by the truce the two sides signed in March this year and subsequent preparations for negotiations between Addis Ababa and the TPLF.
Throughout the war, the Ethiopian central government has imposed a blockade on the Tigray region, cutting it off from the outside world and preventing the arrival of essential foodstuffs and commodities in a way that threatens to bring famine to most of that mountainous region’s inhabitants.
UN humanitarian and relief agencies have warned that millions could die of hunger in Tigray, along with tens of millions elsewhere in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa region, where large areas are afflicted by drought, poverty, and famine.
The conflict between Addis Ababa and the Tigray is not the only cause of hostilities and tensions in this multi-ethnic country that is home to more than 80 ethnic groups, most of which have their own liberation front and are demanding more autonomy, if not independence.
According to the Ahmed government, a number of Amhara farmers have suffered repeated attacks by the Oromo Liberation Front, for example. The Oromo is the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, accounting for 34 per cent of the population. The Amhara are the second largest at 27 per cent, followed by the Tigray and the Somali people at six to seven per cent of Ethiopia’s population of 110 million.
Addis Ababa itself is located in the Oromo region, which has seen recurrent clashes between the Oromo and Amhara communities. Ahmed is the son of an Oromo father and an Amhara mother. Politically and culturally, he is inclined to the Amhara, triggering rancour and tensions among the Oromo.
Despite their relatively smaller number, the Tigray people have long played a central role in Ethiopian history. Two centuries of cultural, religious, and social unity between the Amhara and Tigray peoples since the end of the 18th century forged the modern state of Ethiopia.
Early manifestations of the alliance can be found in the modernisation process launched by Tewodros II in 1855 and crowned by emperor Menelik II with the establishment of the multi-national Ethiopian Empire in 1933.
The Tigray reached a peak of glory with their defeat of Italian forces in 1898 at the Battle of Adowa, which is situated in the Tigray region. They then played a key role in freeing the country from Italian colonial control in the 1930s when the dictator Mussolini and his fascist party ruled Italy.
Perhaps because of their central historical role, the Tigray have long felt unjustly treated in the modern state of Ethiopia, in which the Amhara have controlled the state, and Amharic is the official language.
Because of their greater numbers, the Amhara have controlled the Ethiopian Church, the army, the government bureaucracy, and the treasury. Tigrayan discontent has erupted in several large-scale uprisings, once against the country’s last emperor, Haile Selassie, then against the socialist military rule of Mengistu Hailemariam, and today against Addis Ababa in order to throw off the control of the Amhara.
The Ahmed government and the Amhara militias allied with it have been unable to defeat the TPLF in more than 18 months of fighting. In late 2021, the Tigrayan forces shifted to the offensive and began to march towards the capital, coming to within 100 miles of it and triggering panic among residents.
Since the war began, the Tigray have allied with other militant regional fronts, such as the Oromo Front (based in central Ethiopia), the Gambela Forces (from the Gambela region near the border with South Sudan), and the Benishangul forces (based near the border with Sudan in the Benishangul-Gamuz region).
Nevertheless, many doubt the Tigray can overthrow the Ahmed government. The situation in Addis Ababa today cannot be compared to the late Mengistu Hailemariam period as Ahmed is still popular among the Amhara as well as among some Oromo, while Mengistu had lost his legitimacy and become highly unpopular towards the end of his rule.
Moreover, while the Tigray have struck up alliances with other national groups, each has its own agenda. They are not fighting in the framework of a unified state, but rather to break away and establish their own independent states, making these fragile alliances.
The conflict is also a source of anxiety for the international community. Ethiopia is surrounded by six other countries, two of which are embroiled in civil wars. In Somalia, the central state collapsed three decades ago, and South Sudan, the youngest state in the world, has only experienced a brief interlude of relative stability and calm (in 2011 to 2013) since its independence.
According to UN agencies, these six countries could be headed for a major famine by the end of this year in which untold millions would suffer.
Eritrea has also largely cut itself off from the rest of the world, and it has been called the “African North Korea” in the Western press. It opened up a little when Ahmed initiated a rapprochement upon coming to power in 2018.
Sudan is gripped by a host of difficulties, among them the political power struggle since the coup of 25 October last year, ongoing civil wars in the Blue Nile region to the south and Darfur to the west, and massive floods that have affected thousands of people in central, eastern, and northern parts of the country.
In Kenya, Ethiopia’s southern neighbour, nerves are fraught against the backdrop of discord over the results of the recent presidential elections. Some fear the tensions could erupt into inter-communal violence and spiral out of control.
Ethiopia’s neighbours are worried that the unrest in the country could drive refugees to their borders, adding further troubles to these states. Sudan has already received tens of thousands of refugees from Tigray and Benishangul due to the Civil War, straining already overburdened Sudanese government agencies and their resources.
But the most alarming scenario is if Ethiopia itself implodes, since the repercussions of this would inevitably spill over the country’s borders, possibly threatening the unity of some of its neighbours.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 15 September, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.