The Ethiopian Crisis: A Civil War in the making?

Ethiopia is in crisis. And that means the Horn of Africa is in crisis. While the world was looking on nervously at the US election, violence between the Ethiopian army and forces in the northern region of Tigray, escalated. So how did this conflict start and what can be done about it?


Ethiopia is a deeply multi-ethnic society, with over 80 different ethnic groups. This has caused some problems in how to represent everybody in government. The Ethiopian government had been running as a coalition of ethnically-based parties until 2019. This was when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed merged the parties together into one single party, called the Prosperity Party, which currently rules the country. This angered the leaders of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), who refused to join the party. The TPLF had been the major player in Ethiopian politics and is anxious to maintain its power, rather than join the Prosperity Party.


The conflict became deadly serious after Abiy Ahmed ordered a full-scale military response, alleging that Tigrayan forces had attacked a military camp. Allegations have been made on both sides, but it’s impossible to verify these claims, as there’s a communications blackout imposed by the Ethiopian government on the region. What is clear, however, is that hundreds have died, and thousands have fled into neighbouring country Sudan.


This conflict could potentially destabilise the Horn of Africa. Eritrea could also descend into war, given its enmity with the TPLF and its support for Abiy. It could also lead to fighting in eastern Sudan, between forces sympathetic to each side. Also, a lot of Ethiopian forces are fighting the al-Shabab jihadists in Somalia and could be brought back home, further weakening Somalia. So it’s not just Ethiopia that will be affected by a civil war. This threatens the lives of millions.


The obvious solution to the conflict is dialogue between the Ethiopian government and the TPLF. But that will be near impossible if this conflict is left to Ethiopia to deal with on its own. Ahmed has already rejected peace talks, while the Ethiopian parliament has proposed labeling the TPLF as a terrorist organisation.


The truth is that both sides are to blame for this conflict and international pressure is needed to bring the two sides to negotiate. While the TPLF has been known to exercise violence, the government has also responded in a tit-for-tat fashion, with ground offensives, air strikes and the communications blackout. This has alienated civilians; reports of unlawful detentions and civilian massacres have drawn the neighbouring Amhara region into the conflict. There’s a real chance of fighting spreading to the other regions of Ethiopia as well. Neither side can ‘win’ from here.


As I mentioned before, international pressure is needed. This can include the African Union, the UN, the US and China for example. All of these entities have interests in the Horn of Africa. So what should a settlement between the two sides include?


Firstly, the fighting must stop from both sides. The transition to peace in the long-term must include a significant demilitarisation of the Tigray region, particularly of the TPLF. They have some of the best armed forces in Ethiopia, which poses a threat to long-term stability. At the same time, the government must agree to independent oversight of the situation to avert future conflicts. This means no communications blackouts and careful supervision from aid organisations and the UN.


The second issue is very problematic: solving Ethiopia’s federal system. It’s a system that clearly has its faults. Every party in the coalition had equal power, despite controlling areas of different amounts of the population. This allowed the TPLF to exert power much beyond the size of the Tigrayan population: this is obviously unfair. A system where parties are formed based on ethnic divides is always likely to fuel populist messages, where one party suggests that another is threatening their culture (as the TPLF have claimed Abiy Ahmed is doing). However, Abiy’s solution of merging together the regional parties has left many people feeling disillusioned, as they feel that their ethnicity isn’t fairly represented in the government. The problem is that any change to the current system will create winners and losers, as some groups benefit from the current arrangement and others want to change it. What will be needed is a scaling down of expectations on both sides. The TPLF can’t expect to be dominant in Ethiopian politics as it once was, given that it only contains a small part of the population. At the same time, Abiy Ahmed can’t expect to successfully push through reforms unilaterally. Regional parties that don’t want to join his Prosperity Party shouldn’t be met with clampdown and arrests.


We can’t look away from Ethiopia. It’s a humanitarian crisis that will have a hugely damaging impact on Africa. If the international order doesn’t intervene, fighting will simply continue until they run out of financial resources. This is a situation that is spiralling out of control by the day; it desperately requires immediate intervention. The key thing is, no one wins in this war. So when both sides finally agree to negotiate, the focus should be on establishing long-term peace, not fulfilling political agendas.



Image Source: Office of the Prime Minister, Ethiopia


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