Ethiopia cannot risk a civil war

Recent tensions show few signs of abating, but there is too much at stake

TOPSHOT - Amhara militia men, that combat alongside federal and regional forces against northern region of Tigray, receive training in the outskirts of the village of Addis Zemen, north of Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, on November 10, 2020. / AFP / EDUARDO SOTERAS
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On November 5, the Ethiopian military declared war with separatists in the Tigray region of Ethiopia. The world now faces the prospect of another country descending into conflict.

The implications of full-blown war in Ethiopia would be of huge significance. It would have the potential to displace 9 million people, according to reports. This would be a figure even greater than the number of people displaced in Syria’s ongoing civil war.

The chief victims, of course, would be Ethiopians, who last suffered the tragedy of war 20 years ago. But risks also extend to the wider Horn of Africa, a region with huge potential that could be rocked by instability.

Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed makes a statement on his official Facebook page, in  Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, November 8, 2020, in this still image taken from a social media video. Office of the Prime Minister- Press Secretariat/via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES
Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has won a Nobel Peace Prize. Reuters

The "great man theory" of history, coined by the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle, argues that individuals have the ability to alter the course of major events. This, many hope, is true for Ethiopia's Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed. Even with his impressive political career – he has won the Nobel Peace Prize and the UAE Order of Zayed, and is credited with impressive economic and environmental achievements in his country – his task ahead will require the leadership and compassion of a great statesman.

Tribal and ethnic divisions have long existed in Ethiopia. For many years, politics in the country was dominated by former prime minister Meles Zenawi. Mr Meles was from the semi-autonomous Tigray region, homeland of the Tigrayan ethnic group, who comprise six per cent of Ethiopia’s population of 110 million.

After Mr Abiy – who is a member of the Oromo, one of the largest ethnic groups in the country – rose to power, Tigrayan leaders claimed he was launching a campaign to reduce their influence in the country.

Tensions in Tigray boiled over when, ostensibly due to the pandemic, Mr Abiy postponed national elections. This prompted the TPLF, the ruling party in Tigray, to hold its own elections, which the national government deemed illegal.

Since then, fighting has broken out, putting at risk the end of the country's fragile peace. Illustrating the seriousness of the situation, The National reported last Saturday that Mr Abiy had told civilians in Tigray to stay indoors to avoid "collateral damage" from government airstrikes.

The UN and many in the international community have called for de-escalation. But with news yesterday of Ethiopian forces seizing a Tigrayan airport and reports of refugees fleeing to neighbouring Sudan, many worry the situation is worsening.

There are also concerns that ethnic factions in the Ethiopian military could splinter, endangering internal security. A potential conflict threatens to reverse recent economic achievements and reforms. Last year, investment in Ethiopia reached 38 per cent of GDP.

Ethiopia bears the unique distinction in Africa of having retained its independence throughout the colonial era. It also possesses an ancient heritage tied to each of the three great Abrahamic faiths. Despite its challenges, there has been a historic coherence and continuity to Ethiopian identity that provides a model for strength in diversity.

The prospect of war must not jeopardise the wellbeing of one of Africa’s great nations and turn a success story into a tragedy. Mr Abiy, with the support of the international community, must guide his country through this difficult episode. The future of Ethiopia and its people rests on it.