Ethiopia's Tigray conflict poses wider risks to regional peace

Ethnic rivalries have long been a source of division and violence in the country

TOPSHOT - Ehiopians, who fled the Ethiopia's Tigray conflict as refugees, wait for food distribution in front of a warehouse at Um Raquba refugee camp in Gedaref, eastern Sudan, on December 1, 2020.  More than 45,000 people have escaped from northern Ethiopia since November 4, after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered military operations against leaders of Tigray's ruling party in response to its alleged attacks on federal army camps. / AFP / Yasuyoshi CHIBA

The conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region has served as a grim reminder of the centuries-old ethnic rivalries that have long bedevilled the Horn of Africa nation, often plunging it into civil strife and poverty over the decades.

Those rivalries are again threatening the cohesion of the country of 110 million people, at a time when, ironically, Ethiopia has a reformist Prime Minister at the helm. Abiy Ahmed’s zealous quest for national unity and his ambitious reforms, however, appear to have reopened old wounds, reviving domestic enmities that could easily morph into armed conflict.

The world, Mr Abiy proudly told the BBC in December last year, should look to Ethiopia “to see how people can live together in peace.” His words took on added weight coming just two months after he won the Nobel Peace Prize for signing a peace treaty with neighbouring Eritrea, his country’s adversary in a ruinous 1998-2000 border war.

A year on, however, those words ring hollow and mention of his Nobel Peace prize can only raise eyebrows.

“It is difficult to contain ethnic unrest in a country like Ethiopia because their rivalries are rooted in centuries past. They cannot be settled by partial solutions,” said Hany Raslan, an expert on African affairs at Egypt’s Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. “These conflicts are associated with history, negative collective memories and a desire to settle old scores.”

Recent examples of how Ethiopia’s ethnic divisions can play out into bouts of bloodletting are many. Scores died in riots that followed the June killing of a music icon from the region of Oromia, Hachalu Hundessa, whose songs dealt with the rights of his people and became anthems in the protests that led to the downfall of Mr Abiy’s predecessor in 2018.

Also in June this year, Mr Abiy’s army chief of staff and close ally was murdered in an alleged attempted coup in the Amhara region. The head of the northern region was also killed in a separate but related incident.

Ethiopia is a key African nation and instability there can only be bad news for its immediate neighbourhood and beyond.

An all-out civil war in Ethiopia would risk a repeat of the East Africa refugee crisis of the 1970s and 1980s, when hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians fled conflict to take refuge in neighbouring countries, particularly Sudan. Chaos in Ethiopia could also revive old territorial disputes in the Horn of Africa and threaten to drag other nations into the conflict.

Ethiopia’s highlands are the source of the Blue Nile, which accounts for 85 per cent of the Nile river waters reaching downstream nations Sudan and Egypt. The massive hydroelectric dam it has almost finished building on the Blue Nile has caused a great deal of tension with Cairo and Khartoum. The three nations have been engaged in decade-long negotiations, but to no avail, with Addis Ababa resisting suggestions for co-operation on the operation of the dam and a mechanism for resolving future disputes.

Already, Sudan has been affected by the conflict in Tigray, with its eastern region now home to more than 40,000 Tigrayans who fled the fighting and alleged sectarian-inspired atrocities. The figure, according to analysts, is likely to rise to 200,000.

Addis Ababa is also the headquarters of the African Union, a fact that gives Ethiopia considerable weight on the continent. It is also a major contributor to peacekeeping forces in Africa’s hotspots and elsewhere.

Like most of parts of Africa, ethnic diversity has been the scourge of Ethiopia. Its people belong to at least 75 ethnic groups, speak some 80 different languages and converse in 200 dialects.

The country’s largest ethnic group are the Oromo, who account for up to 40 per cent of the population. After that come the Amhara, who make up about 25 per cent of Ethiopians; followed by Tigrayans, a tiny minority that dominated the country for nearly 30 years before Mr Abiy took office in 2018.

At present, there are more than two million internally displaced people in Ethiopia, an unflattering testimony to how thinly stretched the social and ethnic fabric is in one of Sub-Saharan Africa’s most powerful nations.

Mr Abiy, a Christian born in 1976 to a Muslim father and a Christian mother, has made uniting Ethiopia the defining feature of his rule. But he may have inadvertently stoked ethnic rivalries held in check by the iron grip of his predecessors when he started pursuing unity.

His replacement of a coalition made up of four ethnically-based parties by a national party soon after he took office has upset a delicate political system that, while far from ideal, kept the country glued together for many years. Feeling robbed of the privileges it enjoyed for decades, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, TPLF, took the lead in dissent against Mr Abiy. It refused to join, becoming the main challenger to the prime minister’s plans.

Ethiopia’s federal forces captured Tigray’s regional capital Mekelle last weekend, but that is unlikely to be the end of the conflict. TPLF leaders have taken refuge in the region’s highlands and are vowing a fight for self-determination. Addis Ababa says the offensive in Tigray followed attacks on federal forces stationed there. Tigray says the attacks were pre-emptive.

Mr Abiy’s cancellation of elections that were scheduled for August added insult to injury in Tigray, which responded with a regional election of its own in September that the TPLF won by a landslide. The central government retaliated by cutting off Tigray from the national budget amid charges that the vote breached the constitution.

“There was hope that the country’s ethnic-based federal system could resolve the country’s rivalries, but Mr Abiy’s political plan appears to be founded on the demotion and exclusion of Tigray,” said Amani El Taweel, an expert on African affairs from Egypt’s Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. “That plan runs against Tigray’s dream of statehood.”

The TPLF is not an enemy to be taken lightly.

The group played an outsize role in the three decades of civil war against the Marxist regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam. Many Tigrayans who dream of a nation of their own look to the TPLF, which continues to be heavily armed to this day, to realise that vision.

“The Tigrayans are a powerful and a dangerous minority,” said Rasha Awad, a Khartoum-based Sudanese analyst. “They don’t accept their new place under Abiy Ahmed. They believe they are entitled to domination.”

During the civil war in the 1970s and 1980s, the enmity between the TPLF and Eritreans, fighting their own war against the Addis Ababa regime at the time, grew deeper and more dangerous.

The TPLF’s suspicions of Mr Abiy’s intentions first began when he signed the 2018 peace deal with Eritrea, which won independence from Ethiopia in 1990. That enmity deepened during the latest fighting in Tigray, when the TPLF claimed that Eritrean troops fought on the side of the Ethiopian federal forces and raided refugee camps housing Eritreans who had fled their country’s authoritarian regime.

The TPLF said on November 14 that it fired rockets at Asmara, Eritrea’s capital. The US State Department said Asmara was hit by six explosions last weekend. It did not mention the cause or location of the blasts, but regional diplomats told the Reuters news agency that they were either rockets or missiles. The government in Eritrea, whose secretive ways have earned it the unflattering title of “Africa’s North Korea,” had no comment.

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