Tigray CrisisDecember 13, 2020 in Ethiopia
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.