August 11, 2021


ETHIOPIA: Towards total war?

BY Anne Frühauf

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( 4 mins)
  • Following a brief interlude in late June, the Tigray conflict has escalated and broadened, spilling across domestic borders and sucking in combatants from other Ethiopian regions.
  • This intensifies the risk of worst-case scenarios – a spiraling humanitarian crisis, ethnic cleansing and even genocide, potential state collapse, as well as the likelihood of deepening Western sanctions.

Decisive turn in conflict

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government has called on “all capable Ethiopians” to join the national military (ENDF), special regional security forces and even militias in the fight against the rebel Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF).

The conflict has taken a sharp turn since the end of June, when Abiy declared an immediate unilateral ceasefire for “humanitarian” reasons (even if it was intended to downplay major military defeats). The withdrawal of ENDF divisions and even Eritrean forces from key Tigrayan territory had raised tentative hopes, if not of a speedy resolution to the conflict, but perhaps of a stalemate of sorts and the possibility of unimpeded humanitarian access. This might have been the best possible outcome of the’unwinnable’ war between Abiy’s central government in Addis Ababa and the TPLF’s leadership in Mekelle. It would also have reduced sanctions risks.

Instead, the conflict has quickly spilled over into the Afar and Amhara regions. The TPLF’s stated aim is supposedly to secure its pre-war territory and force the central government to lift its effective blockade of Tigray, but the conflict has quickly taken on an existential character in which any concessions towards a ceasefire are perceived as surrendering to slaughter by Addis Ababa’s “genocidal campaign.”

Addis Ababa’s response of the broad public mobilization is particularly worrying. Prior to Abiy’s call, regional governments – particularly Amhara’s hardline ethnic nationalist administration – had already called on civilians to fight against the TPLF in any manner, raising the specter of total war involving unrestricted combatants, weapons and resources. While Abiy probably has no choice other than to rely on regional forces and militias to bridge ENDF losses, the participation of irregular combatants guided by hardline regional administrations is deeply worrying, given their questionable chains of command, allegiance, legality and accountability. The more the conflict empowers irregular and less centrally controlled players, the more the risks of ethnic cleansing and war crimes will escalate. It will also become even more difficult to broker any kind of ceasefire or peace deal.

The fact that Abiy’s mobilization call referred not only to the “terrorist TPLF” but also “the machinations of foreign hands” underscores the simultaneous threat of worsening tensions and a possible border conflict with Sudan, which has recalled its ambassador to Addis Ababa.

The risk of broader sanctions?

In the current climate, Western demands – including a ceasefire, full humanitarian access and political talks – are increasingly being ignored by both sides. Most recently, the US and other Western players have called for immediate talks to reach a negotiated ceasefire. As a precondition, the US State Department has demanded that TPLF forces withdraw from Amhara and Afar territory, while calling on Amhara forces to withdraw from Western Tigray. While Abiy’s administration faces growing risks of targeted sanctions against key players in the conflict, as well as broader military and some financial sanctions, it will hope to be able to deflect a larger portion of blame onto the TPLF, particularly considering its forays into Amhara and Afar.

An all-out war would heighten the risk of Ethiopia sliding into a dysfunctional war economy. Abiy seems to be ploughing ahead with his policy agenda regardless. In pursuit of foreign direct investment, the administration is aggressively pushing ahead with its liberalization of the telecoms market, despite the first signs that future bidders are beginning to view war risks as outweighing the opportunities of Ethiopia’s large untapped market.

In terms of financial investors, the government is still trying to shield bondholders from its debt treatment exercise under the G20’s Common Framework for Debt Treatments beyond the Debt Service Suspension Initiative (DSSI) despite the scheme’s principle of “comparable treatment” of private and official lenders. The Paris Club and IMF have urged the formation of a creditor committee, but one creditor, speculated to be China, has yet to come to the table. This could complicate remaining disbursements under Ethiopia’s current IMF deal, which expires in September, as well as undermine the Common Framework process even before it properly gets off the ground.

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