When Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s prime minister, launched an attack on the restive region of Tigray in his country’s north last November, he promised it would be a swift victory for his forces. The goal, Abiy said, was to punish leaders of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) for an attack on a federal military installation.
A year later, the Prime Minister’s confidence in his troops looks misplaced. It is still ongoing and no resolution is in sight. After initially being beaten to the hills, the TPLF has made a spectacular comeback and taken control of key cities such as Mekelle, which is the regional capital.
The rebels are now focusing their efforts on Addis Ababa. This is the capital of Ethiopia, home to five million people and headquarters for the African Union. The TPLF and allies threaten to block the roads and shut down road and rail networks connecting Ethiopia, a nation that is landlocked, with Djibouti.
Although Abiy’s government has refused to officially acknowledge the TPLF’s advance, it declared a six-month state of emergency on Nov.2, granting security services sweeping powers to arrest anyone deemed to be in support of the rebels. Police have arrested 16 individuals working for the United Nations, including two families from Tigrayan origin.
It can get worse
So what started as a regional conflict is on the brink of turning into a full-blown civil War that has engulfed the capital. Many people are fleeing this city. Britain has called on its citizens to flee the city, as has America. Zambia was the first African country to start airlifting citizens from Ethiopia this week.
Abiy, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, now speaks in tones threatening ethnic cleansing — promising, for example, to “bury” his opponents, in a post censored by Facebook. The TPLF on its part claims it is certain of victory and does not intend to engage in dialogue.
Although there are reports that several thousand have been killed in the Tigray conflict, communications problems mean it is impossible to know how many. A U.N. report published early in November said both sides have committed abuses marked by “extreme brutality” that could amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. However, things could get more dire if Addis ababa is used as a battlefield.
For the world to stop further violence, it is essential that both sides come to an agreement. This is not an easy task. The visions of both sides for Ethiopia’s future are fundamentally divergent. There is more than 80 ethnicities and 10 regional government, where there have always been divisions.
The TPLF, who were the dominant political force in the country from 1992 until 2018 before a popular uprising forced them out (and led to Abiy’s ascension), want to keep the system of ethnic federalism that has allowed the many ethnic groups in the country a degree of self-autonomy over their affairs. Abiy’s government, however, wants more power to be concentrated in the center.
After frantic attempts to persuade the parties, negotiations are underway. Olusegun Obasanjo (ex-president of Nigeria), is the African Union’s envoy to the Horn of Africa. He says that there are still opportunities for negotiation. Jeffrey Feltman, his American counterpart, has also reached this conclusion.
However, time is running out quickly and there are significant obstacles that must be overcome in order to achieve a ceasefire. According to Western diplomats, the TPLF demands that the government lift the blockade that prevents food and medicine from reaching the affected areas. Their demands include the end of Tigray’s occupation by Amhara militias, which are allies to the federal government. Abiy’s government says it wants the rebels to withdraw from territory it has captured in the regions of Amhara and Afar before it opens any talks.
What must the West do?
The international community will have to work with those in power if it is going to close the gap between the warring factions. It’s unclear how much of it the A.U. has on Ethiopia — it is unlikely to push too hard by, say, suspending the membership of the country where its headquarters are based.
U.S., and other Western countries have more power and they should be used. The brief lull in the conflict in June was partly a result of U.S. threats on Ethiopia’s international financing at the World Bank and IMF. The U.S. already plans to block Ethiopia’s duty-free access from American markets beginning January 1. The U.S. is considering sanctions against Abiy’s government, the TPLF, and the Eritrean army supporting Abiy; a variety of Eritrean organizations and individuals were also sanctioned Nov.12 in response to their contribution to the crisis.
China is a significant investor in Ethiopia. However, it has also leveraged its position but so far has preferred to remain low-profile, opposing U.S. threats and stating that Ethiopia can solve its own problems without interference from foreign countries.
Diplomats who are aware of the situation admit that dialogue is impossible, despite public statements that there is space for it. Abiy is particularly dissatisfied by the lack of international support, such as from the U.S. or the E.U. According to diplomats, Abiy has been unable to see the conflict as a matter of light or darkness. He is trying to get rid of any malign influences. His recalcitrant attitude is hindering mediation efforts.
A war that began as a “policing operation” now threatens Abiy’s premiership. The TPLF recently joined eight groups to form an alliance and is now determined to oust Abiy as prime minister. This could be either by a diplomatic workaround or a military force.
While time is running out, the international community needs to ensure that this situation doesn’t get worse. The fate of Ethiopia, Africa’s second-most populous nation and once a symbol of stability in the volatile Horn of Africa region, rests on it.