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November 20, 2020


ETHIOPIA: Endgame unclear

BY Anne Frühauf

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( 5 mins)
  • Despite Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s repeated assurances that the military campaign in Tigray will end soon, little indicates that an end to hostilities is imminent.
  • The two-week-old conflict between Addis Ababa and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) is spilling across internal regional boundaries and Ethiopia’s external frontiers.
  • A worst-case scenario of a protracted war engulfing neighboring states seems increasingly plausible, with potentially grave implications for Abiy’s own tenure and the integrity of Ethiopia’s federation.

The toll to date

Despite a communications blackout, the extent of the fighting and the fast-escalating humanitarian crisis are becoming apparent. The TPLF has fired missiles at Eritrea’s capital, Asmara, as well as Bahir Dar and Gondar in the neighboring Amhara region. The Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) has carried out ground offensives along strategic routes and air strikes targeting Tigray’s capital, Mekele. They have apparently taken the towns of Shire and Axum, and claim they are closing in on Mekele after a three-day deadline to surrender to the TPLF had expired on Tuesday, 17 November.

The risk of a deepening ethnic conflict is highlighted by the first reports of massacres in Mai Kadra, where hundreds of civilians, mainly from the Amhara community, have been killed. With poorly trained militias from both the Tigrayan and Amhara sides joining the conflict, the risk of war crimes and ethnically motivated killings is clearly escalating. Beyond Tigray, there are reports that ethnic Tigrayans are being identified and investigated; the police have arrested 76 army officers for “conspiring” with the TPLF and “committing treason.” The Abiy administration has denied that they are being persecuted for their ethnicity. Still, the claim that they have been detained for membership in criminal networks will likely fall on deaf ears, particularly in Tigray. Also telling is that the ENDF has accused World Health Organization (WHO) chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who hails from Tigray, of lobbying for diplomatic and even military support for the TPLF.

Ethnic conflict

The risk of an ethnic conflict spiraling out of Addis Ababa’s control is further increased by the withdrawal of ENDF troops from other regions. This risks creating dangerous security vacuums within the federation when communal violence and demands for self-determination are rising.

Especially if the ENDF were to splinter along ethnic lines, an all-engulfing civil war would quickly become a real prospect. According to a Foreign Policy report, the ENDF’s Northern Command in Tigray (where five out of eight Northern Command divisions are based) has roughly split into three groups: about half are said to have aligned themselves with the TPLF; a quarter—Abiy loyalists and mostly ethnic Amhara officers—fled into Eritrea, and the remainder refused to fight against the ENDF and are being detained in barracks. As a result, Tigray’s special forces (numbering some 250,000 military-trained militia and armed farmers) are estimated to have gained about 15,000 soldiers from the Northern Command. However, the real turning point for Tigray’s capabilities was probably the seizure of ENDF military hardware.

A regional conflict in the making?

The missile attacks on Eritrea provide clear evidence of how readily the Tigray crisis could spiral into a transnational conflict. TPLF claims that Eritrean military divisions are fighting alongside ENDF troops have not been verified but highlight the acute risk of the rapid internationalization of the conflict. Eritrea does appear to be providing logistical, and some artillery support to Addis Ababa: those Northern Command troops that remain loyal to the ENDF are using Eritrean territory as a staging point for offensives into northern Tigray. Eritrea has reason to support its peace deal partner Abiy, given that its enmity with the TPLF dates back to the fiercely fought 1998-2000 border war.

This leaves Tigray largely encircled by hostile terrain. Sudan has largely closed this border, except for an estimated 30,000 refugees. Nevertheless, its stance in the conflict, which could be driven by its interests in recovering disputed territory in the Fashqa triangle from Ethiopia (which the Amhara region would certainly resist) and extracting concessions from Abiy regarding the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), could have crucial implications on the eventual outcome and the longevity of the conflict. Joint Sudanese-Egyptian military exercises in early November already irked Addis Ababa. Even if various sides avoid becoming entangled in direct conflict, the region has a long history of proxy wars of sponsoring insurgent groups against rival capitals.

Endgame uncertain

Even if Abiy can take Mekele and detain top TPLF leaders, the endgame is unclear. Decapitating the TPLF may not be enough, particularly if ethnic killings intensify across Ethiopia. Hence, even if Abiy were to score quick military wins, a prolonged low-level insurgency, divided control over Tigray, incidents of terrorism, assassinations, or coup attempts are all plausible consequences. This could threaten Addis Ababa and Abiy, whose exposure to a coup attempt can only increase as the conflict unfolds. After all, peaceful transfers of power are the exception in Ethiopia, not the rule.

On the international front, calls are growing louder for an immediate ceasefire and comprehensive talks between the Abiy administration and the TPLF. While Abiy’s ‘blitzkrieg’ strategy is probably intended to present the TPLF with overwhelming facts on the ground, entrenched positions and demands bode ill for getting the two sides to the negotiating table, let alone to sign an eventual peace accord.

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