Violence is escalating in Ethiopia, where a leader once lauded internationally for his reform agenda and for forging peace with neighboring Eritrea now faces the specter of civil war.
This month, long-simmering tensions between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government in Addis Ababa and leaders from the country’s northern Tigray region have spilled into the open. Tigrayan forces and the national military have clashed, and Amnesty International recorded evidence of an alleged massacre of civilians. Hundreds of people have been reported dead. Tens of thousands have fled as refugees to neighboring Sudan.
The United Nations human rights office has warned the situation “risks spiraling out of control.”
– What set off the conflict?
In early November, Abiy said that Tigrayans had attacked a national military base. He responded by sending troops to the region, which is governed by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) – a political party that once held major influence across the country. In a televised broadcast days later, Abiy announced that the Ethiopian military had bombed Tigray, destroying weaponry near the regional capital of Mekele.
Several days later, hundreds of people may have been killed in a knife-and-machete attack in the town of Mai-Kadra, according to Amnesty International. It was not immediately clear who was responsible for the attack.
“We have confirmed the massacre of a very large number of civilians, who appear to have been day laborers in no way involved in the ongoing military offensive,” Deprose Muchena, the human rights watchdog’s East and Southern Africa director, said in a statement.
The group demanded both sides prioritize civilian safety and called on the government to restore communication to the region, which was reportedly cut off in early November.
Last Saturday, Tigrayan forces fired missiles at targets in Eritrea.
Tigrayan regional president Debretsion Gebremichael has alleged that Eritrea sent troops and tanks over the border into Tigray to support the Ethiopian government, telling Reuters the rockets were retaliation. Reuters reported that he did not provide evidence to back up his allegations.
The escalation in hostilities has spurred a mass exodus from parts of the region, with tens of thousands of people fleeing over the border into Sudan.
Abiy wrote on social media Monday that the Ethiopian government is prepared to “to receive and reintegrate our fellow Ethiopians fleeing to neighboring countries.” He vowed to guarantee their safety. The next day, he said Ethiopian forces will move ahead with what he described as “the final and crucial” phase of their military operation.
– Why is this happening now?
Tensions had long been brewing between Abiy and leaders from the TPLF, which has seen its national authority dwindle since Abiy took office in 2018.
As prime minister, Abiy dismantled the long-standing ruling coalition, led for years by the TPLF, and created the new Prosperity Party.
Jason Mosley, a research associate at Oxford University’s African Studies Center, said the move essentially “created a situation where [the TPLF] either had to join the Prosperity Party and submit to his program, or not, in which case they were out.”
They opted not to join.
Abiy won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize in large part as recognition of his efforts to normalize relations with Eritrea, which shares a border with Tigray.
Eritrea – an extremely closed-off country led by President Isaias Afwerki – was once a part of Ethiopia but gained independence in 1993 after a 30-year struggle. From 1998 to 2000, Ethiopia and Eritrea fought in a war that left tens of thousands dead. The two countries remained enemies for the next 18 years.
When Abiy’s government postponed this year’s elections, citing concerns over coronavirus transmission, Tigrayan officials opposed the move and held their election anyway. Abiy refuse to recognize results from the September vote, adding to hostilities. The postponement gave both sides grounds to discount the other. “They can both declare each other illegitimate,” said Payton Knopf, a senior adviser at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
In October, lawmakers approved a plan to withhold federal funding for the region, further inflaming the tensions. The next month, Abiy sent in troops, saying they had attacked the Ethiopian base.
– What does this mean for regional security?
If conflict escalates further, which there are reasons to fear it might, it could destabilize the region and lead to mass displacement in the country of around 110 million people, Knopf said. “Given what we’ve already seen in terms of refugee outflows, there’s every reason for folks to be pretty concerned,” he said.
Neighboring Sudan, where more than 25,000 people have already fled, is going through a fragile transition and is submerged in an economic crisis. In a worst-case scenario, Ethiopia could now experience “what could be one of the largest refugee exoduses we’ve ever seen,” Knopf said. “No matter who is responsible for the initial provocations or escalation, clearly it’s a threat to international peace and security.”
The Tigrayans’ decision to launch missiles at Eritrea also added an international element to the conflict.
Mosley said he doesn’t believe the Eritrean government will want to enter the conflict directly. “But if the Eritrean military gets involved,” he said, “it’s really bad for Abiy because it makes him look like he needs the Eritreans to control his own territory.”
Around 96,000 Eritrean refugees live in Tigray, sparking fears they could be displaced again.
– How is the international community responding?
This week, Babar Baloch, a spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said the agency now views the situation as a “full-scale humanitarian crisis.”
“People are coming out of Ethiopia really scared, afraid, with stories saying they have been fleeing heavy fighting, and there’s no sign of the fighting stopping,” he told a Geneva news conference.
Tibor Nagy, the U.S. assistant secretary of state on African affairs, tweeted Sunday that Washington “strongly condemns the TPLF’s unjustifiable attacks against Eritrea on November 14 and its efforts to internationalize the conflict in Tigray.”
“We continue to urge immediate action to protect civilians, deescalate tensions, and restore peace,” he wrote.
Foreign countries are pushing Abiy to pursue peace talks, Reuters reported Monday.
Officials in neighboring countries, including Uganda and Kenya, continue to call for dialogue to resolve the conflict.