- The standoff between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s federal government and the Tigray region came to a head on 4 November.
- The prospects for a de-escalation look uncertain and a full-scale conflict would have implications well beyond Tigray’s borders.
- It is increasingly uncertain whether a slide into civil war can still be avoided.
What do we know so far?
According to the prime minister’s office, the 4 November deployment of federal troops came in response to an attempt by regional security forces to steal artillery and other military equipment from the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF)’s base in Mekele, Tigray’s capital. Media reports suggested “heavy fighting” in the Tigray region on 4 November, though Mekele since appears to have been calm.
The situation may remain unclear for several days, given a media blackout and disruption to travel into Tigray regional state. The extent of the fighting, casualties and property damage still seem unclear. The Tigray administration claims that the ENDF’s Northern Command HQ in Mekele is under the control of Tigrayan special forces, which could suggest an insurrection and, at worst, a splintering of the ENDF, whose Northern Command represents one of four divisions. According to the head of Tigray administration, Debretsion Gebremichael, federal troops and units from Amhara regional state have been fighting Tigray troops, particularly in western areas. Meanwhile, Abiy claimed late on 4 November that the ENDF had “repulsed the attacks” and “has managed to control…key locations.”
A propaganda war now seems to be unfolding. The prime minister’s office has rejected the Tigray government’s claim that the Northern Command had defected to its side. Yet equally any reports of Tigrayan forces surrendering may be little more than propaganda.
Is a de-escalation possible?
Instead of quickly containing the alleged act of aggression, Addis Ababa’s troop deployment and the posturing from both sides have the potential to quickly deteriorate into conflict. Despite swift calls for a de-escalation from the UN, the US and other diplomatic partners, it is unclear whether either side can step back at this point. Some reports suggest that a military build-up was evident in Tigray days prior to the purported attack. Abiy may need to make tactical military advances quickly to avoid being dragged into a protracted conflict. Addis Ababa’s imposition of a six-month state of emergency in Tigray also points to a heavy-handed clampdown.
An agreement for political dialogue would be one way to de-escalate the explosive situation, but getting both sides to the negotiation table will be a tall order. While the once dominant TPLF elite has been progressively marginalized since Abiy assumed power in April 2018, tensions have sharpened drastically since late 2019. First, the TPLF was formally excluded from federal government after it refused to join Abiy’s merger of the ruling EPRDF coalition into a single party, the Prosperity Party (PP), in November 2019.
The standoff between Addis Ababa and Mekele has been sharpened by the TPLF’s opposition to the postponement of the 2020 national polls due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Not only did the TPLF administration decide to carry out regional elections in September in defiance of the federal government, it also considers Abiy illegitimate as his term would normally have expired on 5 October (the federal elections board now plans to hold the elections in late May or early June 2021). Tensions deepened in October, when the federal parliament decided to redirect budget transfers away from Mekele and directly to local administrations. As the crisis deepens, Addis Ababa could disrupt not only telecommunications but also Tigray’s trade, banking and power transmission.
With each administration considering the other illegitimate, preconditions for talks will be difficult to meet. The TPLF demands that all prosecuted leaders be allowed to participate; that a transitional government led by someone other than Abiy oversee national elections; and that Addis Ababa end federal control of regional security. Not only will Addis Ababa be reluctant to meet these demands, but it will also want the “illegal” Tigray election revoked and the former administration reinstated (both were dominated by the TPLF but out of principle Addis Ababa cannot legitimize the election).
Would the Tigray conflict remain localized?
The worst-case scenario, which has not yet materialized, would be if Tigray seeks secession, a right enshrined in the constitution. Addis Ababa would consider this illegal, arguing that the TPLF executive was illegally elected. A Tigray secession would also trigger resistance from Amhara nationalists who claim that Tigray annexed Amhara territories in the early 1990s. More broadly, a secession process could put at risk the larger federation at a time when demands for regional autonomy are running high (e.g. in Sidama).
If the Tigray conflict escalates and becomes entrenched, there is no guarantee that it would remain localized. For example, Eritrea could enter the fray – directly or by proxy – on the side of Abiy’s administration against its Tigrayan archenemies. Moreover, unrest and inter-communal violence in other parts of the country could intensify. One reason is that large ENDF redeployments to Tigray would further strain the security forces’ capacity elsewhere. Another factor is that Addis often blames Tigray for fueling conflict elsewhere, though such claims are difficult to verify.
For example, a massacre was reported in Wellega Zone (Oromia region) on 1 November, in which at least 54 ethnic Amhara were killed, while houses were burned and property looted. Oromia regional authorities have claimed that the attack was carried out by a militia group connected to the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), which the TPLF allegedly supports. Even if that were untrue, there have been reports that ENDF troops were withdrawn from Wellega Zone abruptly in advance of the massacre, possibly for redeployment to Tigray. This underlines the broader problem of ENDF capacity at a time when inter-communal violence and restive regions pose a major threat to Abiy’s government and the integrity of the state.