In the last two weeks, Ethiopia has been in the middle of a conflict with its own region Tigray, causing several fatalities and being labelled as the “Libya of East Africa”. The conflict began on November 4, 2020, when Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched a military campaign against the region of Tigray, in the north of Ethiopia. This action was justified by declaring that forces of Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) allegedly “attack[ed] a government defence post and tr[ied] to steal artillery and military equipment”. The animosity between the Ethiopian regime and the region of Tigray is not new in the international community and this friction, subsequently also its ethnic division, has deeply played a prominent role in the current conflict.
Therefore, it becomes important to ask what are the factors and what effect do they have in the conflict. Accordingly, the next article will analyse the animosity between the Ethiopian government and the Tigray region before the conflict, in order to understand what factors have played at the start of the conflict. Secondly, the article will explore the ongoing conflict between the two warring sides and its consequences. Additionally, it will be argued that, given their history of antagonism and ethnic division, the ongoing conflict will likely be prolonged and might involve the neighbouring countries.
ETHIOPIA AND THE TIGRAY REGION
The animosity between the current Ethiopian government and the Tigray region began in the early 1990s. After ending the military dictatorship, the TPLF took power in 1991 by leading a coalition, also called the “Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front”. The coalition allowed the Ethiopian regions to retain autonomy, although the coalition “repressed almost all political opposition”. In 2018, Abiy Ahmed became Prime Minister and immediately “members of the Tigray ethnic group were purged from positions of power and arrested in corruption and security-related crackdowns”, leading to a deep antagonism between the government and the TPLF, as they saw it as an unfair course of action. In 2019, the situation escalated, even more, when the TPLF refused to take part in Abiy’s government and held its own election in September, clashing with the government and denoting the Abiy’s government as “illegitimate”.
Another factor that played a central role in this animosity is Ethiopia’s relation with neighbouring Eritrea. Between 1998 and 2000, Ethiopia and Eritrea were at war over their territorial border that they are still sharing. Only in 2018, the two countries signed the peace treaty under Abiy’s supervision. Nevertheless, there is still antipathy between the Tigray region and Eritrea, and the TPLF accused Prime Minister Abiy of his collaboration with the Eritrean government.
After the initial military intervention launched by Abiy, it is reported that both sides have been attacking each other, causing serious disruptions and an enormous amount of fatalities.
According to refugees’ reports, “both sides are committing atrocities against civilians”. On November 10, a massacre of civilians, “who appear to have been day labourers in no way involved in the ongoing military offensive”, has been carried out in the town of Mai Kadra, in the south-western area of the region of Tigray. Although it has not been confirmed by the authorities, according to Reuters and witnesses’ reports, it seems that the forces of the Amhara region, which supports Prime Minister Abiy, attacked the population with knives and machetes. This course of action is very close to the notion of “ethnic division”, as before the conflict there was already animosity between the Tigray region and the central government. Abiy, by focusing solely on purging people from Tigray from government positions and arresting them for corruption, has caused more on ethnic divisions by concentrating on the Tigray region and penalize them. Another event took place in Humera, where a survivor claimed that “the Ethiopian army […] ‘shot people carrying weapons without any warning’ after Tigrayan forces were forced to withdraw from Humera because of food and water shortages”.
Another consequence of the conflict is the fact that, according to the UN Refugee Agency on November 15, more than 20,000 people have fled the conflict in Ethiopia to Sudan. As such, the international organization is preparing to host almost 200,000 refugees in Sudan, fearing that the conflict is going to last longer.
Another danger and consequence of the conflict lie with the neighbouring regions and countries. In fact, the Tigray region has been known for having disputes with neighbouring regions and countries and this conflict might amplify this. In fact, on November 15, the TPLF launched rockets at the airport near Eritrea’s capital Asmara, given the long feud with the neighbouring country over the disputed territorial borders and based on the claim that the Ethiopian government used it to attack the region. Another similar event happened on November 20, when the TPLF allegedly fired rockets to the city of Bahir Dar, located in the Amhara region. This event is of utter importance, as the region of Amhara has also had a long feud with the Tigray region due to the border dispute, and these attacks heightened the conflict between the two regions.
THE FUTURE OF ETHIOPIA
This conflict is crucial and plays a prominent role in the future of Ethiopia and its people.
One factor that plays a prominent role in the evolving of the conflict is the “ethnic divisions”, which was present already before the conflict when the Prime Minister Abiy targeted the Tigray people, seen as unfair by them, which eventually led to a deep chasm between the central government and the Tigray region. In addition to that, the other Ethiopian regions, particularly the Amhara region, are supporting Abiy, which fuels more this ethnic division and antagonism.
Furthermore, the region of Amhara, which governed before the TPLF, is fueled by ethnic nationalism and may take revenge on the Tigray region. Because of that, one ethnic massacre of Tigray people has already taken place in Mai Kadra, possibly executed by Amhara forces. In addition to that, according to witnesses’ reports, the forces of the central government have allegedly killed Tigrayan people without any warning in the city of Humera. Given their past in ethnic antagonism and division and given the recent events in the conflict, there is a high chance that other ethnic massacres may take place in the Tigray region, possibly executed by the central government and/or the Amhara region. Moreover, the fact that there are ethnic divisions taking place in the north of Ethiopia may lead to other ethnic groups across the country to gain more influence and/or fight other ethnicities or minorities.
Another worrying consequence is the growing size of Ethiopian refugees fleeing the country. Currently, organizations dealing with refugees are struggling to supply services and housing for the refugees. As the conflict continues, more people, especially from the Tigray region, may seek refuge in Sudan. Given the low rations and supply that the refugees receive, the refugee camps will likely become overcrowded in a short time, if more refugees will flee Ethiopia and seek refuge in Sudan.
In addition to that, the conflict itself, given that many factors are playing a serious role in it, seems to not end soon. In fact, experts are warning that this conflict will likely be prolonged for various factors.
Firstly, given the feeling of nationalism of the Tigrayan people to fight the injustice, they are fighting back against the government. Even though the government has declared they have secured several towns in the region of Tigray, “paramilitaries and militia deployed by the army are still struggling to clear and secure territory”. This is also seen in the latest news report, as Abiy has given a 72-hour ultimatum to the TPLF before launching an attack to Tigray’s capital Mekelle. Following the announcement, the TPLF replied that they “are ‘ready to die’ in defence of their land”. In addition to that, experts warn that even if the Ethiopian government will conquer Tigray’s capital Mekelle, the TPLF can move to the eastern side of the region, where it is easier to defend, “chang[ing] the dimension of the conflict from one of rapid movement into one of attrition”.
Another dimension of the conflict could also involve neighbouring countries. In fact, based on past conflicts and recent events like the launching of rockets by the TPLF, Eritrea may get involved in the conflict. The Eritrean President Afeworki “wants to see the end of TPLF as a political movement” and “sees this as an opportunity for a more favourable settlement in the Ethiopia-Eritrea rapprochement and as payback time for the defeat TPLF leaders inflicted on him in the battlefield and diplomatically”. Another country affected by the conflict in Sudan, as it has already received thousands of refugees and has placed soldiers on the border with Ethiopia.
WHAT CAN BE EXPECTED?
This conflict, which started on November 4, 2020, has made a huge impact on the current status quo of Ethiopia and has caused a major regional, national, and international instability. The central factor that plays one of the most influential and prominent roles in the conflict is “ethnic division”.
Already before there was growing tension between the Tigray region and the central government, which got deeper with Abiy as Prime Minister, as he targeted Tigrayans, fuelling this antagonism between the two sides and deepening ethnic divisions. Following an attack to one of the government’s defence posts, Abiy launched a military offensive, which started the conflict. As of now, the central government has secured many cities in the warring region and is soon launching an attack to the capital Mekkele, but is met with heavy resistance of the TPLF. As such, the conflict is not expected to be a swift one, but will likely become a war of attrition, as the TPLF keeps resisting and fighting.
Aside from the fighting itself, there have been reports of ethnic killings and massacre in the Tigray region, although the culprits cannot be identified officially. Nevertheless, there is a high risk that the government or the pro-government neighbouring region of Amhara, which allegedly executed the massacre in Mai Kadra, may execute other killings of innocent civilians. In addition to that, other ethnic groups and minorities might get caught up in the conflict and fight. With this in mind, thousands of Ethiopians are expected to seek refuge in Sudan, away from the conflict, but a humanitarian crisis is to be expected, as refugees camps are not able to provide services as it keeps getting overcrowded.
Lastly, there is a long history of disputes about territorial borders between Eritrea, the region of Amhara and Tigray. Given the nationalism and ethnic diversity between the two regions and the launching of rockets by the TPLF and the massacre in Mai Kadra allegedly by the Amhara forces, it is expected more confrontations between the two sides. On an international level, given the past history with Eritrea, their mutual antagonism, there is reason to think that confrontation between the two forces is possible.
This conflict was inevitable given the past antagonism and tension between the two warring sides and quite possibly only the intervention of the international community might put the conflict to an end diplomatically and attempt to solve the issues.
Written by Stefania Rinaldi
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