Ethiopia’s federal government has declared an “unexpected war” on its northern Tigray state, threatening the stability of one of the world’s most strategic regions, the Horn of Africa.
But the crisis in Ethiopia, one of Africa’s most populous countries, has been building for months, and “it has been like watching a train crash in slow motion”, Dino Mahtani with the International Crisis Group said this week.
Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year for sweeping political reforms, faces the sharpest consequences yet of the country’s recent shifts in power.
Abiy on Friday said the federal military operations in the north have “clear, limited and achievable objectives”, while the head of the United Nations said he was deeply alarmed.
What happened in Tigray?
Two things occurred early Wednesday morning: Communications were cut in Ethiopia’s heavily armed northern Tigray region, and Abiy announced he had ordered troops to respond to an alleged deadly attack by Tigray’s forces on a military base there.
Both sides have accused each other of initiating the fighting. And both stepped up the pressure late on Thursday.
Sporadic sounds of shelling could be heard from Aburafi town, near the Tigray-Amhara border, at 3am local time (00:00 GMT) on Friday, a humanitarian worker in the area told the Reuters news agency.
Ethiopia’s army said it was deploying troops from around the country to Tigray, and the Tigray leader alleged fighter jets had bombed parts of the regional capital. “We are ready to be martyrs,” he said. Casualties have been reported on both sides.Some experts have compared the confrontation with an inter-state war, with two large and well-trained forces showing little sign of backing down.
Ethiopia is one of Africa’s most well-armed nations, and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) dominated the country’s military and government before Abiy took office in 2018.
It has plenty of conflict experience from Ethiopia’s years-long border war with Eritrea, next door to the Tigray region, and the International Crisis Group estimates the TPLF’s paramilitary force and local militia have some 250,000 troops.
With communications still out, it is difficult to verify either side’s account of events on the ground.
How did we get here?
Ethiopia’s governing coalition appointed Abiy as prime minister in 2018 to help calm months of anti-government protests. He quickly won praise – and the Nobel – for opening political space and curbing repressive measures in the country of some 110 million people and many ethnic groups.
But the TPLF felt increasingly marginalised and withdrew last year from the governing coalition.
The TPLF objects to Ethiopia’s delayed election, blamed on the COVID-19 pandemic, and Abiy’s extended time in office.
In September, the Tigray region voted in a local election that Ethiopia’s federal government called illegal. The federal government later moved to divert funding from the TPLF executive to local governments, angering the regional leadership.
On Monday, Tigray leader Debretsion Gebremichael warned a bloody conflict could erupt.
What could happen now?
The conflict could spread to other parts of Ethiopia, where some regions have been calling for more autonomy, and deadly ethnic violence has led the federal government to restore measures including arresting critics.
Addressing those fears, Ethiopia’s deputy army chief Birhanu Jula late on Thursday said of Tigray: “The war will end there.”
Some governments and experts are urgently calling for dialogue over Tigray. A Western diplomat in the capital, Addis Ababa, said: “The message from the Ethiopians is if you talk about a dialogue you equate the two parties, but ‘this is a legitimate government, that’s a renegade group’.”
The objective as put forward by Ethiopia is to crush the TPLF, the diplomat said on condition of anonymity, and “if I say I am going to crush you, then is there really scope for any negotiation?”
The TPLF before the fighting said it is not interested in negotiating with the federal government and has sought the release of detained leaders as a precondition to talks.
An inclusive dialogue must occur, observers say, but a statement late on Thursday by a panel of former US diplomats and military experts for the United States Institute of Peace warned it will not go far “while many of the country’s most prominent political leaders remain in prison”.
What does this mean beyond Ethiopia?
Few regions are more vulnerable than the Horn of Africa. Ethiopia’s neighbours include Somalia – Ethiopian forces have reportedly begun withdrawing from that country to return home – and Sudan, facing its own huge political transition.
Neighbouring Eritrea has shown little sign of opening up after making peace with Ethiopia in 2018, and its government and the one in Tigray do not get along.
A region in which Abiy has played high-profile peacemaker is now at risk.
Observers warn a conflict could suck in these countries and others not far from the most strategic military outpost in Africa, tiny Djibouti, where several global powers including the US and China have their only bases.
The Horn of Africa is also a short water crossing away from Yemen and the rest of the Arabian Peninsula.
“The stability of Ethiopia is important for the entire Horn of Africa region. I call for an immediate de-escalation of tensions and a peaceful resolution to the dispute,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a message on Twitter on Friday.
Ethiopia already was drawing concern over a dispute with downstream Egypt over a huge dam Ethiopia is nearing completion on the Blue Nile.
While there have been worries about military action, “I would like to think Egypt is a responsible enough actor to realise that fragmentation of Ethiopia is fundamentally so damaging to regional security,” former US diplomat Payton Knopf, a senior adviser with the United States Institute of Peace, said this week.