- The conflict between Addis Ababa and the Tigray region has escalated dramatically since fighting erupted on 4 November.
- Addis Ababa probably wants to quickly gain a tactical advantage to avoid becoming bogged down in a protracted conflict, and fend off mounting international opprobrium.
- But this could be a big miscalculation: the prospects for a quick end to hostilities, let alone a substantive political dialogue with Tigray, appear highly uncertain at best.
The impasse between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s federal administration and the Tigray administration has long been in the making but has intensified since the Tigrayan authorities in September held elections in defiance of Addis Ababa’s postponement of the national polls. The standoff escalated dramatically last week when Addis Ababa claimed that Tigrayan fighters had attacked Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) sites in the region. Airstrikes commenced on 6 November, and clashes between federal troops and local fighters have now been reported in eight locations across Tigray. Fighting appears to have concentrated in areas bordering Amhara regional state and border areas with Sudan and Eritrea. Abiy has claimed that ENDF troops have seized control of Dansha in western Tigray, but it is impossible to assess how the military operation is evolving and if the central government is gaining the upper hand.
Well aware of mounting international criticism and concerns over a potential humanitarian crisis and mass displacement affecting up to 9mn people, Abiy has promised that the military offensive will wrap up soon. However, this could turn out to be a massive miscalculation on Abiy’s part. The conflict could well turn out to be protracted given the size of Tigrayan paramilitary and local militia forces, which Crisis Group estimates at 250,000. Moreover, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) enjoys strong public support, probably all the more so amid fears of a backlash against ethnic Tigrayans.
The biggest risk is the outright breakup of the ENDF, which comprises around 135,000 active members plus 3,000 air force personnel. The Northern Command, one of four ENDF divisions, is headquartered in the Tigrayan capital Mekele. According to Crisis Group estimates, it accounts for more than half of the ENDF’s personnel and mechanized divisions. While Tigrayan officials have largely been purged from the highest ranks of the security forces since Abiy came to power in 2018, Tigrayans still make up a significant proportion of the ENDF, particularly at the mid-ranking level.
Abiy’s latest reshuffle of some of the highest-ranking officials suggests how deep distrust runs within Abiy’s security apparatus and administration. On 8 November, it was reported that Abiy had replaced ENDF chief Gen. Adem Mohammed (with his deputy Gen. Berhanu Jula), intelligence chief Demelash Gebremichael (with Amhara state head Temesgen Tiruneh), and foreign minister Gedu Andargachew (whose role will be assumed by Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekonen).
As discussed previously, a quick de-escalation and political negotiations will be difficult to broker. The first hurdle of agreeing to a political dialogue will be even more difficult to overcome now that Addis Ababa has approved the creation of an interim government for Tigray and amid threats to designate the TPLF a terrorist organization.
At the same time, diplomatic efforts to broker a ceasefire and negotiations will intensify. The UN and the African Union (AU), headquartered in Addis Ababa and currently chaired by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, may struggle to make breakthroughs. Diplomatic partners like the US Trump administration enjoy little goodwill from Addis Ababa, particularly amid Ethiopia’s grievances of the US’ positioning on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). However, this increases the risk of further threats of aid withdrawals from the US. There is already speculation that Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict could endanger World Bank funding, with USD 2.2bn to be disbursed between 2021 and 2023. Given Ethiopia’s precarious debt and liquidity position, a deterioration in relations with donors and international financial institutions is the last thing the Abiy administration needs.