On the face of it, Ethiopia’s capture of the separatist Tigray region’s capital over the weekend was a success. As international concern over the crisis grew, a swift victory was what Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was hoping for.
But the jubilation stemming from battlefield triumph –the capture of Mekelle -- is likely to be short-lived, according to regional analysts.
They believe Saturday’s victory is unlikely to bring Mr Abiy the results he sought, in part because of lingering ethnic divisions and fragile economic growth following the Covid-19 crisis.
While Mr Abiy’s economic policy has spurred impressive macro-level growth, the government has failed to provide inclusive opportunities for a diverse population.
These are issues, the analysts say, that have no military solution and there is a risk that Tigrayans could mount a bloody insurgency.
Unrest could even spread, sparking a drawn-out conflict among the country’s mosaic of ethnic groups, leading to a Yugoslavia-style breakup of the country.
The current conflict has involved the re-opening of old wounds. Tigrayan forces control a region which successfully fought in the 1980s against the Marxist government of dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam.
“It’s clear that Tigrayan forces chose not to fight in Mekelle and instead headed to the highlands in the area. We are most likely looking at a guerrilla war,” said Hany Raslan, a leading expert on African affairs from Egypt’s Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
“What is making things worse is that there is that deep suspicion that the military offensive was in reality targeting Tigray as an ethnic group and not just the Tigrayan government.”
Mr Raslan’s prediction of a civil war is borne out by comments made Saturday by Tigrayan leader Debretsion Gebremichael in a series of text messages sent to the Reuters news agency.
“Their brutality can only add (to) our resolve to fight these invaders to the last,” he said. Asked if that meant his forces would continue fighting, he replied: “Certainly. This is about defending our right to self-determination.”
If the Tigray conflict spreads to other parts of Ethiopia, it could have a destabilising effect on the Horn of Africa at a time when Addis Ababa has been rapidly gaining influence over the strategic region. The offensive against the Tigrayans has already raised questions as to whether Mr Abiy can hold the fractious country, Africa’s second most populous, together.
The fallout from a continuing conflict in Tigray would be felt in neighboring Sudan, where tens of thousands of Tigrayans have found refuge from the latest fighting, burdening the Khartoum government and UN relief agencies with providing them with food and water.
An ethnic patchwork
Mr Raslan, like other analysts, sees the conflict in the northern region in the context of Ethiopia’s perennial ethnic rivalries.
Many of the ethnic groups in the country of more than 100 million people have for decades been locked in a contest of political jockeying to gain more autonomy or wield influence over the central government. Under Mr Abiy, Addis Ababa has sought to roll back some of their self-rule privileges.
Tigray is possibly the most potent example of these rivalries and aspirations.
Tigrayans account for just six percent of the population, but they played a disproportionately large role in the war against Mengistu’s government, something that gave them a sense of entitlement that belied their modest number. For decades, Tigrayans dominated the central government, but that ended when Mr Abiy took office in 2018.
“It’s a powerful and dangerous minority,” said Sudanese analyst Rasha Awad. “For years, Tigrayans have acted like a deep state, controlling much of the economy, the military and security agencies,” she said.
The Tigrayan leadership, she explained, was convinced that they were entitled to that domination and may have been spoiling for conflict to force the government to come to the negotiating table.
“But Mr Abiy was able to unite many Ethiopians behind his offensive and the chances of negotiations with the Tigrayans have now diminished. Even if they do negotiate, the Tigrayans will not win back many of their past privileges.”