The security situation in East Africa has greatly deteriorated in the month of November mainly due to the conflict that has flared up in the unsettled Tigray region in northern Ethiopia. After just over three weeks of fighting, the federal Ethiopian government has claimed to have seized control of the Tigray capital Mekele, thus declaring victory over the Tigray People´s Liberation Front (TPLF) at the end of November. Still, this conflict poses a substantial threat to the unity and stability of Ethiopia and the wider Horn of Africa region.
During his two and a half years as Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed has faced serious crises which have resulted in him winning a Nobel Peace Prize through striking a peace deal with Eritrea, and has overcome both an assassination and a coup attempt. The month of November presented Abiy with a different challenge; that of a potential civil war in Tigray.
The disputed region had been the only area the TPLF politically ´controlled´ since they lost the election in 2018. This loss came as a shock to the TPLF who had run the country for 27 years, therefore Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has been in a struggle with the TPLF since 2018. In a battle of egos and as a result of losing substantial power at the central government, coupled with the postponing of elections until May/June 2021 (exacerbated by COVID-19), the TPLF held their own elections in September in defiance of Abiy´s government and as a way of claiming legitimacy, which in turn Abiy ruled unlawful. Tigray´s rebuttal was that it no longer recognised Abiy’s administration.
The conflict was started when Tigrayan forces allegedly attacked an Ethiopian base in Mekele. Abiy believed this crossed the ´red line´ and forced the Ethiopian troops to confront the TPLF on the 4th of November, with a state of emergency also being declared. From this point, things escalated quickly with the Ethiopian government bombing Mekele and mobilising forces to march towards the capital to unseat the TPLF. The violence has resulted in hundreds killed and injured, and a great number more displaced. Heavy shelling by the government has also come under scrutiny by the international community.
Few analysts were expecting a quick and easy win for the Ethiopian government due to the mountainous terrains surrounding Mekele, as well as the experienced and well armed 250,000 TPLF troops, who three decades prior ousted the military dictatorship. In this conflict the TPLF used the communications blockade to their advantage and were able to run a successful PR campaign where they bluffed about their capabilities. This bluff became apparent as TPLF were not winning any significant battles in this conflict and did not last more than a little over 3 weeks when the Ethiopian government claimed victory. It was a relatively quick conflict, but the consequences will last longer.
There have also been concerns about insurgency after this conflict, but this should be taken with a grain of salt as they have not managed to prove their capacity as an effective fighting force in or out of Tigray yet.
As aforementioned, the crisis has not been contained within Ethiopia. While Eritrea and Ethiopia have had a long and troubled history, Eritrea as shown its support to the Ethiopian government in the fight against the TPLF, with this subsequently fuelling tensions and has resulted in rockets being fired from Tigray into Eritrea´s capital Asmara.
The conflict also caused many to flee the region towards neighbouring Sudan. With Tigray encompassing 6% of Ethiopia´s 100 million population, the United Nations warned that the conflict could displace up to 9 million people. By the end of November, over 40,000 refugees had arrived from Tigray to Sudan, half of these children, and with the state of emergency set to last another six months, the UN expects another 200,000 refugees to arrive in Sudan in this timeframe. While Sudan has agreed to welcome the influx of refugees, it is clear the country is not ready for this with many villages being overcome, and with food and blankets provided for refugees quickly running out. Thus, the situation in Sudan is starting to unfold as a humanitarian crisis, however, only time will tell.
With Ethiopia being the only country in the world that transitioned from an empire to a country without breaking up, it is likely we are just seeing the aftermath now. What seems clear now is that Abiy has secured his re-election through this conflict, and that the TPLF will not be registered as a political party in the 2021 elections. This is the start of a post-TPLF future in Ethiopia. Lastly, the conflict has also illustrated a more repressive side to Abiy and the Prosperity Party, and we can expect more law-and-order campaigns across the country.
As the FIFA World Cup football tournament kicks off in Brazil, security warnings have been issued for a number of African countries, including Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda. UK officials have also issued warnings for Djibouti, stating that they have credible intelligence that al-Shabaab insurgents may be planning to carry out further terrorist attacks against targets that include “Western interests.”
East African nations are currently on high alert over fears that Somalia’s al-Shabaab may launch attacks on World Cup screenings over the next month. Previous attacks throughout the region have targeted places where football matches are being viewed. Crowded areas, including hotels, restaurants and bars and transport hubs are possible targets.
There is currently a high threat from terrorism throughout Ethiopia. Attacks could be indiscriminate and can occur at any moment, including in places that are frequented by foreigners. Previous terrorist attacks in the region have targeted places where football matches are being viewed.
There is a high threat from terrorism in Kenya, mainly from al-Shabaab. The militant group has issued public threats against Kenya, due to the country’s military intervention in Somalia, and has recently stated that they are shifting the war and will now focus on Kenya. There have been a number of small-scale grenade, bomb and armed attacks in Nairobi, especially in the Eastleigh district, Mombasa and Northern Eastern Province. Methods of attacks have included shootings and bombings, including car bombings, as well as the use of grenades.
Kenyan police chief David Kimaiyo has promised “sufficient security measures” to ensure the safety of fans, however he has noted that bar owners must take their own precautions, stating, “owners of such social places must ensure that every person is thoroughly screened before entering their premises.” Attacks could be indiscriminate and will likely occur in places that are frequented by foreigners, including bars, sports bars, restaurants, hotels, nightclubs, sporting events, supermarkets, shopping centres, beaches, buses, trains and transport hubs.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, whose country is a key contributor to African Union (AU) forces fighting al-Shabaab in Somalia, has cautioned fans “to be alert as they enjoy football, bearing in mind that the country is threatened.” A statement issued by Ugandan security forces has urged that people are screened prior to viewing soccer tournaments. The move is being enforced in a bid to avoid a repeat of attacks that occurred four years ago during the World Cup final, when al-Shabaab militants bombed two restaurants in the Ugandan capital, killing at least seventy-six people.
Officials in Britain warned earlier this week that al-Shabaab insurgents are planning further attacks in Djibouti, after last month’s suicide bomb attack on a crowded restaurant. According to a statement released by the UK Foreign Office, “there are credible reports that al-Shabaab plan, and have the capability, to attack targets in Djibouti, including western interests,” adding “there is a high threat from terrorism” in the port city. The statement further notes “Djibouti and Western interests within Djibouti may be seen as a legitimate target by al-Shabaab because of its support to the Somali government and its participation in the African Union peacekeeping mission.”
Djibouti has troops deployed in Somalia, as part of the African Union force that is battling the militant group, however the Horn of Africa nation’s port also serves as a key base for ships taking part in international anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia. Last month, at least one person was killed and several others wounded when two suicide bombers blew themselves up in a restaurant, the first attack in Djibouti to be claimed by al-Shabaab since the country joined the AU force in 2011. Days after the attack, al-Shabaab claimed responsibility and indicated that the attack was carried out in retaliation for Djibouti’s hosting of the United States’ largest military base in Africa, which is used for operations across the region, including drone strikes against Islamists in Somalia. France also has a base in Djibouti.
Nigerian officials have taken additional steps in order to prevent any World Cup related terrorist attacks from occurring. Soldiers in the capital of Yola, Adamawa state, have shut down all venues preparing to screen live World Cup matches in the hopes to stave off attacks. The Nigerian government has also advised resident of the capital city, Abuja, to avoid public viewing centres. Minister Bela Mohamed has issued a directive for Abuja, ordering high vigilance in places such as motor parks, restaurants, markets, supermarkets, shopping malls, banks, churches, mosques, hotels, viewing centres and hospital.
While over the past five years, the states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa have seen a number of deadly terrorist attacks, in recent months, Boko Haram militants have carried out an increasingly bold series of assaults, which has included the kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls in April. Since then, the militants have carried out a number of attacks on villages, including a recent car bomb that was set of at a centre in the settlement of Gavan, in the north-eastern state of Adamawa. O June 1, at least eighteen people watching a game on television were killed. A week before that incident, a suicide bomber set out for an open-air screening of a match in Nigeria’s central city of Jos. His car blew upon the way, killing three people. Such assaults on television viewing centres across Africa have raised fears that militant groups will target supporters gathering to cheer on the global football contest.
Ethiopia’s plan to divert a stretch of the Blue Nile for a hydroelectric dam has caused outrage in Egypt. The Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is part of a major investment project to boost power exports. The dam will have a capacity equivalent to six nuclear power plants.
Ethiopia, which is the source of the Blue Nile, believes that it could wean itself off of food aid by irrigating the river, however some experts say that the reserve could cause nearly 20% reduction of the water supply to Egypt and Sudan. A colonial agreement gives Egypt and Sudan the right to use up to 90% of the Nile’s water. In 2010, six countries attempted to create a new arrangement for redistribution of Nile waters, but Egypt and Sudan refused to enter any agreement that affected their share of the water supply.
Egyptians see the building of the dam as a threat to national survival. As a desert nation with very little rainfall, the growing population is increasingly dependent on the water supply. The nation relies on the Nile for 98 per cent of its irrigation, and estimates show that Egypt will require an additional 21 billion cubic metres of water per year by 2050 to meet the needs of a projected population of 150 million. Supporters of the dam say Egypt could solve the crisis by being more efficient with water usage; opponents argue that Egypt already recycles up to 15 billion cubic metres of water.
In a surprise move in late May, Ethiopia decided to proceed with the project days after a state visit by Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi. The Ethiopian government says a scientific report ensures that the dam will do “no appreciable harm” to Sudan and Egypt downstream. The report, which was to be released in early June, is still shrouded in secrecy.
The Egyptian Parliament denounced Prime Minister Hashim Kandil for failing to prevent the construction. One MP shouted, “Egypt will turn to a graveyard… We have to stop the construction of this dam first before entering negotiations.” Egypt’s Foreign Minister is planning a visit to Addis Ababa on 16 June to continue discussions.
In early June, senior Egyptian politicians were unknowingly caught on live television discussion options with President Morsi. Ayman Nour, head of Egypt’s Ghad party, suggested leaking false reports that Egypt was building up its air power. Younis Makhyoun, leader of the al-Nour party, suggested supporting Ethiopian rebels, or as a last resort, destroying the dam. The “secret” meeting triggered heavy backlash. Egypt has not issued an official apology for the broadcast; one member tweeted she was sorry members of the meeting were unknowingly broadcast. Opposition leader Mohamed El Baradei was invited but did not attend the meeting. He tweeted sincere apologies to the people and governments of Ethiopia and Sudan.
Egypt’s ambassador to Ethiopia has been summoned to explain the hostile remarks.
Meanwhile, President Morsi gave a speech to supporters on 10 June, in which he announced that “all options are open” in dealing with the situation. Morsi said to a cheering crowd, “We are not calling for war, but we will never permit our water security to be threatened.” Morsi received a standing ovation after quoting from an old Egyptian song, “If it diminishes by one drop, our blood is the alternative.”
A spokesman for the Ethiopian prime minister called Morsi’s speech irresponsible, and promised that the project would proceed. “Of course we are going to go ahead with the project, because we believe we are justified.”
Nile Basin Nations Water Relations
Disputes over the Nile’s water supply span over a century. Colonial treaties promised Egypt a vast majority of the water supply, and an agreement following Sudan’s independence in 1956 allocated 55.5 billion cubic metres of the Nile to Egypt, and 18.5 billion to Sudan, totalling 87 per cent of the Nile flow. However, the treaties provided nothing to nations further upstream.
Ethiopia and other nations believe the colonial treaties are antiquated. Ethiopian Foreign Minister Tedros Adhanom said, “Ethiopia cannot remain poor. It must utilise its resources to lift its people out of poverty.”
The Nile Basin Initiative was created in 1998 to bring together all ten states that border on the Nile to discuss the issue, but have failed to reach an agreement as the Cairo government guards historic treaties. The failure to agree on water redistribution has created deep bitterness among other Nile nations. In March 2011, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, Burundi and Tanzania signed a new agreement to overturn the colonial-era treaties and replace them with a more equitable utilisation of the river.
Many in Ethiopia believe that Egypt is the source of many of its troubles. In 1959, Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser excluded Ethiopia from the planning of the Aswan Dam. In response, Ethiopian
Emperor Haile Selassie caused the separation of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church from its sister church in Alexandria, ending a 1,600 year relationship.
In response to the Emperor’s actions, Nasser backed the Eritrean revolt against Ethiopia, and encouraged Somali Muslims to fight for Ethiopia’s Ogaden region. Eritrea’s eventual independence caused Ethiopia to become a landlocked nation, a source of great anger. Eritrea backs the Egyptian position over the Nile.
Meanwhile, Ethiopia continues with the project, with a $1 billion loan from China. The project, according to the Ethiopian government, began in May and is 21 percent complete.