On Nov. 4, simmering political tension turned into armed conflict in northern Ethiopia, as fighting broke out between the government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a powerful political party and armed group that controls the Tigray region in northern Ethiopia. The conflict has already claimed hundreds of lives and displaced thousands more, including more than 40,000 refugees who have fled across the Ethiopian border into eastern Sudan. The United Nations, the African Union (AU), and numerous political leaders have called for an immediate ceasefire and negotiation to resolve the conflict.
These calls have gone unheeded and, on Nov. 22, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed gave the TPLF a three-day ultimatum to surrender. Earlier in the day, a military spokesperson said that the Ethiopian army will surround Tigray’s regional capital, Mekelle, with tanks and attack the city with artillery, ominously adding that civilians should “save themselves” because there will be “no mercy” once the attack begins. Such an offensive would almost certainly violate international humanitarian law (IHL) as an indiscriminate attack and, depending on the severity of the breach of law, could amount to a war crime.
Here, I examine the conflict, its roots, and the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Tigray, as well as in neighboring Sudan. Without a coordinated effort between key States to push the parties toward a ceasefire and negotiation, a prolonged armed conflict could have serious destabilizing effects on several East African countries, as well as increase the potential for violent conflict in other parts of Ethiopia.
An Escalating Conflict
The conflict began after Abiy blamed the TPLF for an attack on a federal army base in Tigray and it escalated quickly as the government bombed Mekelle and mobilized the army to march toward the regional capital to unseat the TPLF.
Abiy—the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize recipient—has rejected calls for a ceasefire or negotiation, including proposed mediation by the AU. Instead, he has insisted that his government restore law and order before negotiations can begin. Abiy has attempted to portray the military’s activities as a law enforcement operation, although the government is clearly engaged in a military campaign, employing military aircraft and heavy artillery. The government has captured a few towns in Tigray, though far from the capital, and the TPLF claims to have captured tanks and artillery from government forces. The government also claims that the TPLF destroyed four bridges leading to Mekelle to stop its forces from advancing. All claims are difficult to verify, as the government disabled all internet and phone service in the region when the fighting began. It has since expelled International Crisis Group analyst William Davidson and issued warning letters to Reuters, the BBC, and Deutsche Welle for their coverage of the crisis.
Few analysts expect a quick or decisive military victory, particularly as government forces move into the mountainous terrain surrounding Mekelle. The TPLF, consisting of about 250,000 troops, is a well-armed and experienced force, having led the fight to oust Ethiopia’s military dictatorship in 1991, and shouldering much of the fighting in the Ethiopian-Eritrean War (1998–2000). And because much of the Ethiopian-Eritrean War occurred on the Tigray border with Eritrea, the region is home to the largest military base in Ethiopia and more than half of the federal army’s troops. It also houses four of the military’s six mechanized divisions.
The mountainous terrain should provide the TPLF an advantage, although the government’s air capabilities will help offset this edge. Government forces have used airstrikes to attack the capital while attempting to encircle the TPLF. These tactics raise serious concern for indiscriminate attacks and excessive civilian casualties, potentially constituting IHL violations. And already, both sides have accused each other of actions that could amount to war crimes, as Tigrayan leaders say federal troops have targeted civilians and civilian objects, including churches and homes, while the government says Tigrayan forces are using civilians as human shields. There has already been one large-scale killing in the conflict, a Nov. 9 massacre leaving 600 people dead that the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission investigated, stating that this “atrocious massacre” may include war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Roots of the Conflict
Although fighting began on Nov. 4, the roots of the conflict go back much further. For decades, the TPLF enjoyed political preeminence after leading the overthrow of Mengistu Haile Mariam and his military dictatorship in 1991. The TPLF then became the leader of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a political coalition consisting of four main political parties all with a pronounced ethnic and regional basis.
Meles Zenawi, a Tigrayan, led Ethiopia from 1991 until his death in 2012. During this time, Ethiopia enjoyed stability and considerable economic growth, but also endured political repression and exclusion, particularly for opposition to the four parties that dominated the EPRDF. Widespread dissatisfaction with this political model led to Abiy’s ascent to power in 2018. Once he took office, Abiy implemented a series of reforms that weakened the TPLF’s political position. Abiy dissolved the EPRDF and established the Prosperity Party, which won him popular acclaim with some and political animosity from others. Further, after becoming prime minister, Abiy removed several ethnic Tigrayans from positions of political power and arrested others on charges of corruption and other crimes. From this time forward, Tigray and the TPLF harbored resentment and suspicion toward Abiy and the federal government.
More immediately, in September, Tigray officials went ahead with parliamentary elections in direct defiance of the federal government, which had postponed general elections because of the coronavirus pandemic. Tigray leaders believed that by postponing the general elections, Abiy had lost his mandate to lead. In response, the federal government voted to cut funding to the region, which outraged Tigrayan leaders. The government and the TPLF had accused each other of plotting to use military force before the TPLF seized the federal military base on Nov. 4.
Deteriorating Humanitarian Situation
Already challenging, the humanitarian situation in Tigray is getting worse daily. Before this conflict began, Tigray was home to about 100,000 Eritrean refugees. Hunger and food insecurity are daily issues for many living in Tigray, but the Ethiopian government has exacerbated this situation by cutting off aid, blocking roads, and closing airports. Journalists reported trucks filled with food, fuel, and medical supplies sitting idle near the border of the Tigray region. Humanitarian agencies are also contending with the internet blackout and blocked phone services, making the effective coordination of relief efforts all but impossible.
To compound these challenges, locust swarms have devastated East Africa in 2020, destroying crops and threatening food security in several countries. Ethiopia is experiencing its worst locust outbreak in 25 years and more than 200,000 hectares of cropland have been damaged or destroyed since January. Even before the conflict began, at least 600,000 Tigrayans faced significant food insecurity and required humanitarian assistance.
The U.N., AU, and numerous states have asked the Ethiopian government to establish humanitarian corridors, as civilians have been cut off from external aid for more than two weeks. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called for humanitarian workers to be given safe passage and for the immediate restoration of communication services in Tigray. Abiy has rejected these calls and insists that the government must first restore law and order.
The U.N. warned that the conflict could displace as many as 9 million people. In addition to the humanitarian crisis within Ethiopia, refugees fleeing to Sudan risk a wider regional crisis. More than 40,000 refugees have already crossed into Sudan, with almost half of them children, and U.N. agencies estimate that as many as 200,000 refugees could arrive in the next six months. Refugee camps within Sudan already report food shortages as thousands of refugees continue to arrive daily.
Destabilizing Regional Effect
Unless there is an unexpectedly quick resolution to this conflict, it will likely have a destabilizing effect throughout East Africa, a volatile region already facing numerous security concerns, including the protracted struggle against al Shabaab in Somalia, a fragile transition to democracy in Sudan, and a precarious peace agreement with continued fighting in South Sudan.
Ethiopia already announced that it would withdraw and redeploy about 3,000 soldiers from Somalia to join the Tigray offensive. These soldiers, members of Ethiopia’s National Defense Force, provide direct assistance to the Somali government through a bilateral agreement and do not form part of ANISOM, the AU peacekeeping mission that is also operating within the country. Ethiopia also contributes soldiers to this force, but for now, these troops will remain in Somalia as part of the peacekeeping mission.
Ethiopia’s announcement came within a day of the New York Times reporting that outgoing President Donald Trump would order the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia before his term expires in January. Somali officials warned of disastrous consequences should U.S. forces leave the country before a critical parliamentary election in late December and a presidential election scheduled for February 2021. (U.S. forces based in Kenya and Djibouti would remain, meaning that U.S. drone strikes in Somalia likely would continue.) While the withdrawal of U.S. forces would be the most significant military development, and will likely embolden al Shabaab, the withdrawal of Ethiopian forces is also important. Ethiopia shares a long and often unsecure border with Somalia and many ethnic Somalis live in Ethiopia. Al Shabaab is actively plotting attacks in Ethiopia and may again look to exert influence in the country should Ethiopia’s military and intelligence services become focused solely on Tigray.
Ethiopia’s northern neighbor, Eritrea, is already involved in the Tigray conflict. TPLF Chair and Tigray Regional President Debretsion Gebremichael claims that Eritrean forces crossed into Ethiopia to attack the TPLF. The Eritrean government denies this claim, but Tigray forces remain convinced that Eritrea is providing support to the Ethiopian government. In response, the TPLF fired at least three missiles into the Eritrean capital Asmara on Nov. 14. Eritrea is clearly aligned with the Ethiopian government, as Abiy and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki have developed a close relationship, in part because both leaders consider the TPLF a threat. Afwerki has ruled Eritrea since 1993, presiding over one of the most authoritarian and closed countries in Africa. Many TPLF members also fought against Eritrea in the Ethiopian-Eritrea War, furthering cross-border tension.
Sudan is clearly feeling the effects of this conflict, with thousands of refugees streaming across its border. Following its successful 2018–2019 revolution, Sudan’s hybrid civilian-military government continues to lead the country’s transition toward a democratic State, but the country’s poor economic performance threatens this result and a large influx of refugees could further hamper economic growth. The Sudanese-Ethiopian relationship is generally solid, but there is tension over an unresolved border dispute and growing resentment toward Ethiopia’s Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), a massive infrastructure project that could threaten Sudan and Egypt’s freshwater supply.
Egypt, even more than Sudan, is threatened by the dam and resulting water scarcity, as it relies on the Nile for 90 percent of its water needs. Ethiopia began constructing the dam in 2011 and finally began filling the dam’s reservoir in July. Years of negotiation have yet to resolve key differences. Recently, the Egyptian and Sudanese governments pressed Ethiopia for a treaty that would control Ethiopia’s water use, especially during droughts, but Ethiopia has rejected this plan. Egypt and Sudan scheduled joint military exercises before the Tigray crisis began, intending to present a unified front to Ethiopia on this issue. Negotiations resumed on Nov. 21, although Sudan boycotted this round of discussion, showing that Ethiopia may have weakened its negotiating position, as fighting near the GERD and delays in construction will allow Egyptian and Sudanese officials to portray the project as unreliable and too risky.
Increased Conflict Within Ethiopia
In addition to destabilizing the region, increased conflict within Ethiopia is also possible, as armed groups in other parts of the country may see the Tigray conflict as an opportunity to act, especially if ethnic tension continues to rise. Popular protests surged across Ethiopia between 2015 and 2018, but occurred with the greatest frequency in Amhara and Oromia. These regions—the two largest in Ethiopia—feature their own militias and groups ready to take up arms. For example, the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) stands accused of killing at least 54 people in a gruesome incident on Nov. 3. The OLA broke from the Oromo Liberation Front, an opposition party that returned to government after years of exile when Abiy became prime minister. The attack targeted ethnic Amharas, showing the potential for increased conflict largely along politicized ethnic lines.
Refugees fleeing the conflict have said both the government and TPLF have targeted and killed civilians, including a Nov. 9 massacre where at least 600 civilians, mostly day laborers, were killed by attackers wielding knives, axes, and machetes. Amnesty International investigated this incident, and while it could not confirm the identities of the attackers, it did speak to witnesses that said forces loyal to the TPLF were responsible. (The TPLF denies involvement.) The TPLF also fired rockets at the airport in Bahir Dar, a key city in the Amhara region that borders Tigray, after accusing Amhara militia of siding with the federal government.
These and similar incidents could inspire retribution. Ethnic Tigrayans living outside of Tigray already have reported incidents of marginalization and retaliation, including dismissal and suspension from government positions, as well as some politically motivated arrests. Within Amhara, Ethiopian federal police are identifying ethnic Tigrayans working at government agencies and NGOs. The Ethiopian Human Rights Committee reported visiting 43 Tigrayans in police custody, and while noting that these arrests largely followed appropriate legal processes, some of those arrested claimed that ethnicity was the only basis of their arrest. The conflict has also seen the use of manipulated images on social media and the government has made reporting from Tigray nearly impossible, as it has banned travel to the region and arrested several journalists attempting to cover the conflict.
Going It Alone and What’s to Come
Abiy has refused calls for a ceasefire or to enter negotiations with Tigrayan leaders, suggesting that doing so would reward the treasonous acts of a separatist group. As Redwan Hussein, a senior government official put it, “Mediation at this point will only incentivize impunity.” Here, it is worth remembering that with Abiy’s Peace Prize and reformist image also comes the fact that he rose to prominence through Ethiopia’s military and repressive security apparatus, including leading Ethiopia’s National Intelligence and Security Service before leaving the military to enter political life. With this in mind, his forceful response is less surprising.
Regional leaders, such as Sudanese Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni disagree with this approach, and seeing the possibility of wider destabilization, publicly have called for Abiy to begin negotiations with Tigray leaders. Outside the region, the United States and the European Union have led the call for immediate de-escalation. Assistant Secretary of State Tibor Nagy, whose past assignments include serving as ambassador to Ethiopia, has urged de-escalation, cessation of hostilities, and a return to peace. Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also called for an immediate ceasefire and for both sides to pursue peaceful resolution through dialogue. Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) spoke to Abiy on Nov. 23, emphasizing the need for civilian protection and humanitarian assistance. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates could also help move Abiy toward negotiation. As two of Abiy’s largest financial donors, they have the economic clout to push him to peace talks. China too could help in this regard, having provided Ethiopia billions in funding in loans and infrastructure projects.
Only through such a coordinated approach, combining political and economic pressure, will Abiy feel compelled to negotiate for a peaceful resolution of the conflict. Even then, the last 60 years in Ethiopia, many of them marked by instability and political violence, suggest that such an outcome may not occur. Nonetheless, both sides should be reminded of their legal responsibilities under IHL, including the protection of civilians and allowing for impartial humanitarian relief to civilians in need. Indeed, given the likelihood of prolonged armed conflict, the second-best option is to prepare for the worsening humanitarian situation to come, particularly the refugee crisis emerging in Sudan. And while political leaders should do all that they can to convince both sides to end this conflict, they also need to plan to contain its destabilizing effects by providing as much humanitarian assistance as possible.
Image: Ethiopian refugees who fled fighting in the Tigray Region gather to receive snacks at the Village 8 border reception center in Sudan’s eastern Gedaref State, on November 20, 2020. Photo by ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP via Getty Images