Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 187, 12 November 2020

Ethiopia inches towards a civil war, as tensions in Tigray increase
Apoorva Sudhakar

In the news
On 10 November, the African Union called for a ceasefire in Ethiopia's northern Tigray region after tensions between the Ethiopian government and the regional Tigray government escalated last week. 

On 4 November, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched a military offensive on Mekelle, Tigray's capital, in response to alleged attacks on the Ethiopian National Defence Forces by the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF). Further, the PM also declared a six-month emergency and imposed a communication blackout in the Tigray region. According to officials in Tigray, Ethiopia has carried out more than 10 airstrikes since 9 November. 

The current escalation was triggered after the Ethiopian Parliament's upper house insisted the budgetary allocation, due to Tigray, be transferred to local administrations in Tigray bypassing the regional government. The Parliamentarians' suggestions were a response to the elections held by Tigray in September without the Ethiopian government's approval. 

Issues at large
First, a brief background. Ethiopia follows an ethnic federal structure; the country comprises 10 semi-autonomous federal states divided based on ethnicity. The largest ethnic group - to which the PM Ahmed belongs - the Oromo group constitutes 34 per cent of the population live in the Oromia state, followed by the Amhara group (27 per cent of the population). Other ethnic groups include Sidama, Wolayta, Somali etc. Tigrayans who constitute 6 per cent of the population dominated the ruling coalition - Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front - through the TPLF until Ahmed came to power in 2018. In 2019, Ahmed attempted to dilute the ethnic federal structure by forming a new coalition of ethnic parties, the Prosperity Party. However, the TPLF refused to join the coalition, thus becoming the main opposition in Ethiopia. 

Second, the lack of dialogue between Ethiopia and the TPLF. Since Ahmed came to power in 2018, the TPLF has been complaining about lack of representation as Ahmed forced several Tigray leaders to step down from the Ethiopian government. Further, the TPLF has accused Ahmed and the Oromo group of targeting Tigray. However, Ahmed has blamed the TPLF for clinging on to the power it held till 2018. Currently, the two sides have displayed an unwillingness to engage in a dialogue.

Third, the fault lines in Ethiopia's ethnic federal system. It calls for regional autonomy and grants greater freedom to the 10 federal states; however, it also reinstates ethnic divisions. The ethnic groups with larger populations have a geographically larger area and are better developed. Further, minority groups in regions like Oromo and Amhara have complained of discrimination; some ethnic zones, especially in the southern regions, are demanding for separate statehood. 

Fourth, the mounting criticism against Ahmed. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for ending the longstanding war with neighbouring Eritrea, is under scrutiny for his mishandling of domestic tensions. Though he was initially seen as a reformist and an inclusive leader, his governance is becoming authoritarian. For example, in June, when a popular Oromo singer was assassinated, subsequent violence resulted in the death of 167 people. Ahmed launched a crackdown, and arrested opposition leaders amid communication blackouts. This fueled resentment internally as well as drew criticism from outside.

In perspective 
On the domestic front, the response of the remaining nine states needs to be tracked. For example, Tigray and its neighbouring region Amhara, have a longstanding territorial dispute. Currently, Amhara which fights for the Ethiopian troops. Any escalation between Ethiopia and Tigray could pose as a reason for Amhara to carry out its parallel conflict with Tigray. 

International actors have called for a de-escalation of violence fearing a spillover into the Horn of Africa. The UN has warned that any escalation could risk a displacement of nine million people. On 10 November, at least 6000 people, including Ethiopian soldiers, were reported to have fled to Sudan. Further, Eritrea, which shares a border with Tigray and was at war with Ethiopia when the TPLF was in power, also has a stake in the conflict. Despite the 2018 peace accords, Ethiopia has not surrendered territory within the Tigray region, to which Eritrea also has claims. A spillover of conflict or influx of refugees could reignite the conflict between the TPLF and Eritrea.

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