What Ethiopia’s Brewing Conflict Means for the Country—and the Region
A protracted conflict between the federal government and the Tigray region is still not inevitable, but it will require both sides to choose another path.
Violent conflict between the federal government of Ethiopia and the federal state of Tigray, in the country’s north, began November 4 and quickly escalated. USIP’s Aly Verjee and Susan Stigant discuss the crisis and identify what could be done to avoid further violent conflict in east Africa’s most populous country.
Unfortunately, violence is not new to Ethiopia; already, there are over 1.4 million conflict-affected internally displaced persons in the country. What is the broader significance of this latest violence between the federal government and the Tigray region?
Stigant: The rapidity of the escalation of violence between Tigray and Addis Ababa is concerning in itself, given the stakes for Ethiopia’s peace and stability. This conflict has the potential to quickly become more polarized and increase violence throughout Ethiopian society. Already, the Tigray region has called for the full mobilization of all citizens to fight. The federal government, led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, has also used uncompromising language to justify his government’s actions. As the allegations and incidents mount—including possible war crimes—and the number of people affected increases, it will become much harder to find a peaceful solution.
At the same time, solely focusing on what is going on today in Tigray risks obscuring broader concerns about violence, democratic backsliding, and repression elsewhere in the country. As a horrific example of the type of violence in Ethiopia that has become all too common, on November 1, ethnically targeted killings left at least 54 people dead in a schoolyard in the Wollega zone of Oromia state. Throughout western Ethiopia, communal violence has only increased since 2018. In southern Ethiopia, tensions remain high, as the consequences of the model of ethnic federalism continue to unfold.
Verjee: As I warned in April 2019, tensions between the regions have the potential to overwhelm the political management capacity of the center. The conflict in Tigray has already pulled in forces from the neighboring Amhara Regional State to fight the Tigrayans. The leadership of the Somali Regional State has also taken the side of the federal government in the dispute. In the broader context, it does not really matter who is responsible for starting the violence; all Ethiopians, no matter their ethnicity, have to find a way to live side-by-side, which will not be accomplished by jailing or killing the political and military elite of Tigray. The ruling party of Tigray, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which once led the ruling party coalition that preceded the Abiy government, are no angels. But for the federal government to risk throwing the whole country into a protracted civil conflict—with significant cross-border consequences—is also highly unfortunate.
Already, a humanitarian crisis is in the making. More than 11,000 refugees have already crossed the border with Sudan, with thousands more almost certain to follow. Drawing in Eritrea and Sudan into the conflict may easily bring in other regional and extra-regional powers, leaving the Horn of Africa in a complicated, messy crisis from which it may take many years to recover, at a cost of thousands of lives. As the USIP Red Sea Senior Study Group recently warned, “Intrastate or interstate conflict would be catastrophic for Ethiopia’s people and for the region and would pose a direct threat to international peace and security.”
The dispute between Tigray and the federal government has been festering for some time. Could violence be avoided?
Stigant: The federal government has characterized its action as a rule of law operation to uphold the constitution, and that it would act with “utmost care for the overall wellbeing, safety and security of our citizens.” The federal government has described the September 2020 elections held by the Tigray region as illegitimate and has objected to equating the federal government to the TPLF. While there are more than two sides to every story, there is little doubt that relations were strained with Tigray. That said, the paramount constitutional right of any citizen is the right to life. Before resorting to military action and the attendant deaths of Ethiopian citizens, every other possibility needed to be exhausted, even if the Tigray authorities were being uncooperative. More pragmatically, the use of force rarely works to sustain a political settlement, as the history of Ethiopia has shown on numerous occasions.
As the cornerstone of his rule, Prime Minister Abiy set out a philosophy of medemer, or coming together, to overcome the divisions of the past. Less than a year ago, in accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, Abiy mentioned the word love seven times, and the words forgiveness and reconciliation four times each. Ethiopia does not need Abiy to love Tigray, nor vice versa; but forgiveness and reconciliation cannot occur if belligerent parties do not show restraint.
Verjee: The federal government has already suspended fiscal transfers to Tigray and cut off communications and cross-border trade. Even if the allegation that the TPLF posed an imminent threat by its purported seizure of weapons and a military base is entirely accurate, a proportionate, limited response was the most that could be justified. Although the federal government has said that its operations will be time limited, Abiy has also said that he will not rest until the “the criminal junta is disarmed, legitimate administration in the region restored, and fugitives apprehended and brought to justice,” which are objectives that could take months, if not years, to achieve. Although the warning signs have been there for some time, a protracted violent conflict is still not inevitable, but it will require both sides to choose another path.
Abiy should also consider that his own position as head of the government comes in the context of an ongoing debate about the future of the constitutional order of Ethiopia. Were it not for COVID-19, Ethiopia should have held elections this year, in which Abiy would have had the opportunity to obtain a democratic mandate. Abiy may be prime minister and enjoy the powers of that office but should consider his administration bound by norms that limit the actions of an unelected official.
To date, the federal government has rejected mediation of this crisis. Going forward, what role should national and international actors play to try and de-escalate the situation?
Stigant: For years, Ethiopia has been at the heart of establishing regional and continental mechanisms for addressing violent conflict. These include the Conflict Early Warning and Response Mechanism of the regional intergovernmental organization IGAD, which Ethiopia chaired for years, and the Peace and Security Council and the Panel of the Wise of the African Union (AU). As the AU’s host nation, there is arguably a special responsibility on Ethiopia to call on these indigenous African institutions not as an intrusion on sovereignty, but to model exemplary behavior for all African states.
Domestically, there have been multiple calls for a national dialogue to forge a political agreement regarding the conduct of elections and then on the constitutional order following the elections. As violence escalates in the country, it becomes both more urgent and more challenging to move a dialogue process forward. While the federal government has already announced such an effort, any initiative will need to be revisited in light of the changing circumstances. Ultimately, the credibility of any dialogue will be judged on the extent to which it includes key groups, reaches agreement on preparatory steps and confidence-building measures, and demonstrates that people can have genuine, safe, and frank conversations.
Verjee: The United States, the European Union, and the United Kingdom, all leading humanitarian donors, should urgently articulate the acute priority of preserving and enhancing humanitarian access to Tigray on the ground, to internally displaced persons moving to other states of Ethiopia, and to the refugees in Sudan. There is no acceptable reason for impeding this kind of access.
More broadly, as USIP’s Payton Knopf has written, international inertia on Ethiopia cannot be justified by imperfect or incomplete information. While American leverage on Ethiopia has been damaged by President Trump’s remarks on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, Ethiopia remains a vital strategic partner for the United States in matters of regional security, counterterrorism, migration, and peacekeeping. China is also massively invested in Ethiopia, in many deals that were reached in the days of the rule of the TPLF. Therefore, the United States, China, and others have a mutual interest in seeing a quick end to hostilities, creating the space for other forms of dialogue and discussion. While a formal international mediation process may not be necessary, honest international brokers should urgently convey to both sides, in unequivocal terms, their expectation and hope that hostilities should be halted without further delay.