Nov 5, 2020 - World

Ethiopia clashes raise risk of civil war

Standing guard during the Tigray regional elections, which the national government declared illegal. Photo: Eduardo Soteras/AFP via Getty

While the world was watching votes roll in from the U.S. election early Wednesday morning, Ethiopia was sliding into what could be a devastating civil war.

The big picture: The conflict is between Ethiopia's federal government, led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, and leaders in the northern Tigray region. It's part of a broader struggle over who really holds power in Ethiopia.

Driving the news: Abiy accused Tigrayan leaders of crossing “the last red line” by allegedly attacking a military post to steal weapons. “The federal government is therefore forced into a military confrontation," he said.

The latest: The fighting appeared to intensify today. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which runs the region, reported airstrikes near the regional capital, Mekelle.

  • “Our country has entered into a war it didn’t anticipate,” Gen. Birhanu Jula, Ethiopia's deputy military chief, said in televised remarks tonight.
  • In reality, both sides have been preparing for a fight for weeks.

The big picture: Despite Tigray only accounting for 6% of Ethiopia's population, the TPLF was the most powerful faction of the Ethiopian government until 2018, when Abiy took office and began to shift power toward the center.

  • The regions fought back — Tigray in particular. Tensions have been particularly acute since Abiy postponed national elections earlier this year, citing the pandemic.
  • The TPLF claimed Abiy was illegitimately clinging to power, and the group spurned the federal government by proceeding with regional elections in September. Abiy responded by cutting off funding.
  • Last week, Tigray refused to allow an army commander deployed from the capital to take up his post in the region.
  • On Tuesday, the federal parliament moved to declare the TPLF a terrorist organization. By then, the TPLF was preparing for war.

Where things stand: “A war that many Ethiopians feared was possible but hoped would never happen appears to be under way,” the International Crisis Group warns.

  • William Davison, a Crisis Group analyst in Ethiopia, says only limited information is available about the current state of the fighting, in part because the federal government cut off telephone and internet access in Tigray.

Abiy aims to remove the regional leadership and install a more compliant government.

  • But Tigray’s leaders command a large and well-armed paramilitary force and appear to have the support of the population, Davison says. 
  • More than half of Ethiopia's troops are based in Tigray, but many of the officers are Tigrayan, and the TPLF claims many will switch sides or refuse to fight.
  • A prolonged conflict is more likely than a quick victory.

What to watch: If the fighting persists, it could prove impossible to contain, particularly with ethnic and regional tensions already enflamed around the country.

  • "Such a war could lead to the balkanisation of Africa’s second-most-populous country (with 110m people). It could also spread instability into neighbouring countries," The Economist notes.
  • That war could be fought on two fronts: Eritrea is just across the border from Tigray and might jump at the chance to take on the TPLF, which dominated Ethiopia's government during the Eritrean–Ethiopian War (1998-2000).

The bottom line: Abiy won the Nobel Peace Prize last year for officially bringing that war to a close. He may have just started a new one.

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