6 Things You Need To Know About The Escalating War In Ethiopia
A local war within the country is steadily expanding, threatening the entire nation and it's hardly receiving widespread media attention.
July 29, 2021 at 9:49 pm
Nearly nine months after armed conflict broke out in Ethiopia between the country’s national government and the ruling party of the country’s northern Tigray region, the crisis in the country continues to grow.
The conflict came about as tensions lingered between Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the political party that dominated Ethiopian politics prior to Abiy coming to power in 2018 and continued to control Tigray. As Blavity previously reported, Abiy launched an invasion of Tigray to oust the TPLF last November, billing the move as “law enforcement operations” which were intended to prevent the TPLF from launching an armed rebellion against the country.
Now, the war is spreading to other parts of Ethiopia, creating a massive humanitarian crisis and risking to break apart Ethiopia while destabilizing other countries in the region as well. Here are six things to know about the evolving situation in Ethiopia.
1. Early reports of a quick government victory have proven false
In late November, only weeks after launching the initial military action in Tigray, Prime Minister Abiy announced that the operation had been a success. The TPLF was removed from power and its leaders retreated into hiding in the mountainous hinterlands of Tigray, while forces loyal to Abiy were put in charge of the region. In June, however, a sudden TPLF resurgence killed or captured thousands of federal troops and sent the rest of them into retreat. While Abiy labeled his military’s withdrawal as a “unilateral ceasefire,” it became clear that Tigrayan forces had pushed out the federal troops and retaken most of Tigray for the TPLF.
Now, the fighting is expanding beyond Tigray to other regions such as Amhara and Afar; Al Jazeera reports that regional ethnic militia are being mobilized to fight alongside federal troops or, in the case of the Amhara, to occupy land in Tigray that they believe rightfully belongs to the Amhara people instead. The TPLF, in turn, has launched strikes into both Amhara and Afar regions in recent weeks.
2. The war has taken thousands of Ethiopian lives
Since fighting broke out in November, thousands of people have been killed on both sides of the conflict. Tens of thousands of people have fled the fighting as refugees, and the numbers continue to multiply as the fighting spreads to other regions as well. As Blavity previously reported, the conflict has been characterized by widespread human rights abuses, including civilian massacres. Sources such as Voice of America also report rampant sexual assaults committed against civilians. Furthermore, federal troops have cut off Tigray from most communications and from relief aid, and the region is slipping into a famine that could endanger hundreds of thousands of people.
Additionally, the conflict is exacerbating ethnic tensions throughout the country. In addition to the fighting in Tigray, ethnic militias continue to clash along various regional borders, such as the boundary between the Amhara and the Oromo, the two largest ethnic groups in Ethiopia, as well as between the Afar and ethnic Somalis in the east of the country. The cost of the war has already reached billions of dollars, according to Abiy's own government, and researchers say the nation could take decades to financially repair itself.
3. The war has already drawn in several other nations
Ethiopian federal forces were joined in their initial incursion into Tigray by troops from Eritrea, Ethiopia’s neighbor to the North. Two decades ago, Ethiopia and Eritrea fought a bloody border war, and Abiy won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for finally negotiating a peace agreement with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki. This agreement, in retrospect, largely turned out to be an alliance against the TPLF, which had been in charge of Ethiopia when the two countries fought. Abiy and Isaias – who has been in power since Eritrea became an independent country in 1993 – saw the TPLF as mutual foes.
Eritrea initially denied involvement in the current war, but Abiy eventually admitted that Eritrean forces had participated. Meanwhile, Somalia’s President Mohamed Abdullahi recently formed an alliance with both Abiy and Isaias, and Somali troops who were training in Eritrea were also allegedly sent to fight against the TPLF. Though unconfirmed, some reports have stated that the initial invasion of Tigray was supported by drone strikes from the United Arab Emirates, an ally of Eritrea.
4. Abiy’s allies may now be in trouble as well
Eritrea is ruled as an oppressive military state, in which all citizens are forced into mandatory government service, which usually means serving in the military.
Such policies keep Eritrean citizens under control but breed discontent in the population. Eritrean forces seem to have suffered heavy losses in Tigray, with many of their fighters captured or killed and some reportedly defecting to the TPLF. In interviews with the New York Times, TPLF leaders have expressed the possibility of invading Eritrea and possibly deposing Isaias.
Meanwhile, in Somalia, President Abdullahi’s grip on power remains tenuous, and he has delayed overdue elections in the country several times per VOA News. Abdullahi already faces significant and often violent opposition in Somalia, both from a brutal insurgency by the al-Qaeda linked terrorist group al-Shabaab and from rival political factions who have in the past taken up arms against the government. He is now additionally facing anger from politicians and the families of soldiers who have been sent to fight and, in some cases, die in Ethiopia, adding to the groups who are unhappy with his rule.
5. Ethiopia faces a second potential major conflict
Separate from the war in Tigray, Abiy’s government has been in a standoff with the leaders of Sudan and Egypt over access to the Nile River. For the past decade, Ethiopia has been constructing the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), a major hydroelectric project that is meant to provide electricity for the country’s growing population and economy by harnessing the power of the Nile River. Downriver countries such as Sudan and Egypt, however, worry that the dam could restrict the flow of the Nile, which would be devastating for their environments and economies.
So far, Abiy has resisted calls to enter into a joint agreement with Sudan and Egypt for control of the GERD, considering it a purely domestic issue. Sudan and Egypt, meanwhile, have entered into a military alliance over the issue and hinted that they would be willing to use military force if necessary to prevent the interruption of the Nile’s flow into their countries. The fallout over the Tigray war is only exacerbating the tensions between Ethiopia and Sudan that exist over the GERD dispute.
6. The international community has attempted to influence Ethiopia’s conflicts
Early in the Tigray conflict, the African Union sent a delegation of respected former African presidents to help mediate between the Abiy government and the TPLF, but the prime minister rejected this offer. The AU has also offered to help negotiate a settlement to the GERD standoff. Recently, the United Nations Security Council has looked into both conflicts, including offering its support to the AU’s proposed negotiations over the Nile River dam.
The United States, a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a major donor to Ethiopia, has also taken some interest in the Ethiopian conflict. Top U.S. officials have criticized Ethiopian forces for their human rights abuses and for restricted aid from reaching Tigray. The United States also cut some military aid to Ethiopia and sanctioned leaders implicated in these abuses. So far, however, the Biden administration has paid only limited attention to the growing conflicts in Ethiopia.
As the armed conflict within Ethiopia expands and international tensions build over the Nile River, none of the sides involved in these standoffs appear to be backing down. Unless radical action happens soon to either shift power in favor of one side or another in these conflicts, or major breakthroughs happen in negotiating settlements to these disputes, the crises in Ethiopia threaten to grow out of control. This could have devastating consequences for the 120 million people who live in the country and for the region as a whole.