Portrait of a Nation at War with Itself

It has been like watching a train crash in slow motion."

-Dino Mahtani, International Crisis Group, commenting upon the Ethiopian crisis

Ethiopia’s Federal Army is waging a war against the Tigray forces or more specifically the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF). The grounds for this war lie in the accusation that the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed “has been trying to sideline.... and even criminalise” the TPLF. At the core of this predicament lies the nation of Eritrea, Ethiopia's northern neighbour sharing its border with the Tigray region. The Ethiopian Federal government has declared this unexpected war upon its Northern state which puts the stability of one of the world's most strategically important regions, Horn of Africa. This confrontation has prompted thousands of Ethiopians, who are no strangers to humanitarian disasters, to flee to Sudan in thousands. Axel Bisschop, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) representative in Sudan has estimated the figure to be at over 20,000 people, more than half of them constitute children. This might result in resource wars between the already existing refugees in Sudan and the newcomers. The ethnic groups are caught in the midst of a crossfire between the federal government aiming to secure a united Ethiopia and the Tigray rebels guarding their individual sovereignty. However, the culmination of the issues which has reached a tipping point is the outcome of a process and not a knee jerk reaction by the two ends of the spectrum. The roots of the present fragility are important to understand the reasons for the severity of the crisis.

Long Story Short

The national governments of Ethiopia and Eritrea have been at loggerheads for decades. The fallouts included the Eritrean and Ethiopian War which began in May 1998 and ended in June 2000. The current Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmad won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for successfully implementing the peace treaty between the two nations. The cause for the war may be understood as Eritrea breaking the international law and invading Eritrea and holding all the disputed territory and advancing into Eritrea. At the end of the war, the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission, a UN body declared Badme, the disputed territory to Eritrean land. The internal dispute between the Federal government and the Tigrays which has pushed Africa's second most populous nation into the brink of a civil war too has its origins in the 1970’s. Tigray is located in the northernmost region of Ethiopia. Their total population is estimated to be at 110 million, constituting 6% of the Ethiopian population. They have been at the forefront of the struggle against the military dictatorship that ruled Ethiopia in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. The TPLF established itself as the leader of the coalition named as the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) grasped power in the nation in 1991. A Tigrayan, Meles Zenawi, led Ethiopia in the years between 1991 and 2012. This period was marked by economic stability and regional prosperity in Northern Africa, albeit with a generous dose of repressing all political opposition. Abiy Ahmad, of the Oromo ethnicity, came to power riding on the tide of anti-government protests in 2018. Worst was yet to befall upon this community. Scores of Tigray’s were arrested in connection to corruption and security related crackdowns, removed from the positions of political authority. One of them was Getachew Asefa, who had evaded arrest and fled to Tigray, he continues to be a fugitive. This widened the gulf between the inhabitants of the Tigray region governed by TPLF and the federal government. This came after Abiy's proclamation that he aims at uniting the country by reducing the autonomy of the regional governments. It didn't sit well with the Tigray’s and invited resistance to this centralisation scheme.

The Current Military Offensive

Abiy Ahmad dissolved the ruling coalition to form his new political party and has postponed the national elections which had been scheduled for August 2020 under the pretext of the coronavirus pandemic. However, in violation of the orders from Addis Ababa, Tigray held elections. This led to rapid deterioration of the status quo. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmad announced a military offensive after accusing the Tigrayan forces of attacking and seizing a military base in the regional capital of Mekelle on November 4, 2020. The Tigrayans have completely denied the accusation. Both governments now perceive each other as “illegitimate and unconstitutional”. In the first week of October, the Ethiopian federal government decided to sever ties with the Tigray region. The Upper house of Parliament voted to suspend budget aid to this region. The TPLF returned the “favour” by citing an article in the federal constitution that ensured “unconditional right to self-determination, including the right to secession”. The TPLF also resented the Prime Minister's “unprincipled” friendship with the Eritrean President Isais Afwerki as well as the 2018 peace agreement. It is no longer a domestic turmoil within the confines of Ethiopia as the current status of Badme remains unresolved, which is an improbability without the Ethiopian government’s cooperation in Tigray. The telecommunication network in Tigray has been cut, and airstrikes and ground offensives precede the involvement of constituencies of the neighbouring Amhara region. This raging battle involves the TPLF, who are often regarded as one of the best-armed forces led by experienced generals and hold the capacity to deflect equipment from the grip of the Northern Command. The paramilitary and a local militia are estimated to consist of about 250,000 troops. Abiy had plainly accused the Tigrayan leaders of committing “criminal hubris and intransigence”.

Is There a Civil War in Sight?

The latest update to spill out of the borders is that Abiy Ahmed had proclaimed on November 15, 2020, that his federal forces had captured another town in the northern Tigray region. This comes after two weeks of fighting. Alberta lies in the control of the federal government. The end of this bloody civil war, many observers predict, may result in the secession of a united Ethiopia. Considering that both sides are evenly matched, the increase in the involvement of  Ethiopia’s neighbours, regional partners, and international actors- an escalation would not be a surprise. Though the Eritrean Foreign Minister, Osman Saleh Mohammed had rejected claims of Eritrean involvement, terming the issue as an internal conflict. Concerns remain about the refugee influx into Sudan. The humanitarian concern can be justified when one studies the impact of the war upon the regional capital Mekelle, which houses half a million people. Power and water have been cut. 150,000 soldiers have been forcefully taken over or defected to the Tigrayan side. War crimes include the gruesome killing of hundreds of citizens- slashed by machetes in the town of Mai-Kendra on November 9, 2020. Sudan too has its own skeletons in the cupboard. The Sudanese government was responsible for the Darfur genocide in 2003, which in turn led to a forced displacement of 2.4 million Sudanese. Sudan too can be a perilous nation for the refugees.

Economic hardships are on the rise, furthered by COVID-19. Banking services have halted thereby resulting in a lack of cash. A refugee from war-torn Ethiopia, with an uncertain future, has perhaps best articulated the tale of a nation at war with itself- “We are in need of everything- food, fresh water, masks. Everything.

The man who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize a year before now stands at the risk of being remembered as a man who slashed civilians in his ardour to relinquish the ethnic dissenters. Irony much?


Oyeshi Ganguly

An undergraduate student of International Relations at Jadavpur University. Interests range from the Beatles to Manto and everything in between. Travel enthusiast. A philatelist. Harbours an unquenchable curiosity towards everything under the sun.

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