Ethiopia on the edge as conflict breaks out in Tigray

In the early hours of Wednesday a Facebook post by the Office of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed seemed to indicate that several months of growing tension between the federal government and the country’s northern Tigray regional state had reached a tipping point.

The Facebook post accused the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) of an unprovoked attack on the Ethiopian army’s northern command of trying to loot its weapons. In response, the prime minister said he had ordered military operations against what it called “a treacherous” group.

The TPLF, meanwhile, has accused Abiy’s administration of trying to destroy Tigray’s right to self-determination and conspiring with Ethiopia’s northern neighbour Eritrea to stage a military attack.

On Thursday, Tigray regional president Debretsion Gebremichael said the region has gained control of all the heavy weaponry of the northern command and that the division’s leadership and rank and file had decided to side with Tigray, an allegation denied by the federal government.Martin Plaut, a former BBC Africa editor and a longtime observer of politics in the Horn of Africa said despite long-standing tensions between the two sides, there were two main reasons why a conflict broke out this week.“Secondly, PM Abiy mended fences with Eritrea, Ethiopia’s northern neighbour which borders directly on Tigray. Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki has a long-standing animosity towards the TPLF. The Tigrayans were threatened with a pincer movement from south and north and have effectively seized control of their region.”Kjetil Tronvoll, a professor of peace and conflict studies at Bjorknes College in Norway and a keen observer of Ethiopian politics for 30 years, says the establishment of PP from the ashes of the ruling coalition Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and TPLF’s refusal to enter a centralised party system had fed mutual animosity, on top of tensions that had been festering since Abiy came to power in April 2018.This mutual animosity deepened when the PP-dominated federal legislature postponed national elections slated for last August citing the risks from COVID-19, while the Tigray regional administration, which opposed the move, held its own election in defiance of federal government warnings.

 

‘Civil war in the making?’

Although the scant information coming out of the “front lines” around Tigray suggest the military skirmishes have been limited, many Ethiopians are worried the country could be entering into a phase of destructive civil war reminiscent of the 1970s and 1980s.

Plaut, while not discounting this possibility, says a full-fledged civil war is not inevitable.

“This could be the start of a civil war, but that is not certain,” he said. “The situation in Tigray is one of many crises in the country, but could intensify, drawing in other Ethiopian regions, while also threatening neighbouring Sudan and Eritrea.”

While Lemma agrees a full-fledged civil war is not inevitable, she says it is a “real possibility” and one that could endanger the very territorial integrity of Ethiopia.

“To assert it could be the beginning of a civil war depends on whether or not both parties heed the growing international calls to de-escalate the current standoff and tension,” she said. “But I can say both have passed the phase of mutual brinkmanship – and that should worry us all.

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