Two weeks of conflict have so far transpired between Ethiopia’s federal government and Tigrayan rebels, with federal forces positioned to advance on the regional capital Mek’ele.
The past week has seen aggression graduate beyond the confines of Tigray as the rebels have fired missiles at the city of Bahir Dar in the Amhara region and at Eritrea’s capital of Asmara.
Ongoing violence is nested within a political crisis, whereby the Tigrayans held regional elections in defiance of federal government directives to postpone the vote.
Travel to Ethiopia is presently fraught with an elevated safety and security risk and any essential travel to the country should completely avoid the vicinity of the Tigray region.
Financial fallout is certain to accompany the conflict, with erosions in investor confidence coming at a time when the federal government is attempting to attract foreign capital through privatisation.
The Tigrayan conflict will force Ethiopian negotiators to remain unilaterally disposed in talks surrounding the GERD as the project is one of the few initiatives that all Ethiopians support regardless of ethnicity.
Two weeks of conflict has thus far befallen Ethiopia’s restive Tigray region, waged between forces of Ethiopia’s federal government and the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), with the violence threatening the unity of the ethnically plural nation. On 4 November, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed accused the TPLF of attacking government forces stationed in Tigray and subsequently deployed an offensive against the group, with hundreds and potentially thousands killed in the ensuing bloodshed so far. The government has since warned the Ethiopian military is poised to launch an assault on the Tigrayan capital of Mek’ele after Abiy announced the expiration of a three-day deadline for TPLF forces to surrender on 17 November. On the same day, an announcement was made by the government’s task force that federal troops have taken control of several key locations on the western and eastern fronts. This dual pronged march towards Mek’ele has been accompanied by pre-emptive shelling of the regional capital as stated by TPLF chief Debretsion Gebremichael on 19 November, though he added that the advance of federal forces is being stifled owing to the two sides fighting for strategically important towns.
Over the past week aggression has graduated beyond the confines of Tigray. On 20 November, Tigrayan forces fired rockets at the city of Bahir Dar in the Amhara region. The strike follows an earlier attack on 13 November when the rebels fired rockets targeting two Amharan airports. TPLF leaders have justified the aggression by citing alleged involvement of Amharan militias fighting on the side of the federal government. Internationalisation of the conflict transpired on 14 November, with Gebremichael declaring that Tigrayan forces had launched missiles targeting an airport located in Eritrea’s capital of Asmara. The TPLF leader similarly justified the strike by asserting that Eritrea has been supporting Ethiopia’s federal forces in their offensive against the Tigrayans through provision of troops and permitting Ethiopian soldiers to use Eritrean facilities. Gebremichael’s allegations of Eritrean involvement have been implicitly rebuffed by Abiy, who on 15 November proclaimed that “Ethiopia is more than capable of attaining the objectives of the operation by itself”. Eritrean involvement in the conflict in support of the Ethiopian federal government whilst simultaneously positioning against the TPLF would be consistent with contemporary international relations between the two states. Eritrea made peace with Ethiopia’s federal government in 2018 thereby bringing about the conclusion of a longstanding border despite, though remains antagonistically disposed to the Tigrayans who played a leading role in the 1998-2000 Eritrean-Ethiopian War and whose leaders opposed ceding territory to Eritrea as mandated by the 2018 accord.
The conflict between Ethiopia’s federal government and the TPLF is nested within a political crisis. The Tigrayans had long enjoyed a prominent role in the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition, despite comprising just 6% of Ethiopia’s ethnically diverse population. After taking office in 2018 Abiy moved to disband the EPRDF to launch the Prosperity Party in late 2019, with this political reconfiguration firmly rejected by TPLF leaders. On 11 September of this year, Tigrayans held regional elections in defiance of federal government policy that stipulated postponing all regional and national elections until 2021, ostensibly to prevent aggravating the spread of COVID-19. The TPLF heralded a comfortable victory, though upon announcement the result was immediately declared unconstitutional and void by Abiy’s government due to being at odds with federal directives. Such political circumstances combined with the TPLF bearing considerable military capacity and strong local support meant that the requisite circumstances for conflict had therefore materialised.
Travel to Ethiopia is presently fraught with an elevated safety and security risk amidst the ongoing conflict. Visits to and transit in the vicinity of the Tigray region should be strictly avoided, whilst plans to travel to other locations in the country should be reassessed for their necessity. Journeys to Eritrea should similarly be made with respective itineraries accounting for the risk of Eritrea becoming further embroiled in the conflict and subject to additional Tigrayan attacks. Communications blackouts, roadblocks, cuts to essential services and a mass exodus of refugees are all presently transpiring in Tigray, posing an assortment of critical logistical difficulties in addition to the threat of suffering violence. Furthermore, the Tigrayan conflict has raised the countrywide risk of political violence in Ethiopia as TPLF fighters could move to attack federal government targets in the capital Addis Ababa and other cities to raise the profile of their grievance. This risk will continue to persist even in the event that federal forces produce a victory on the battlefield and move to replace the Tigrayan leadership. Under such circumstances, the well-equipped TPLF could be driven underground and align itself with other dissident groups to wage a guerrilla-centric asymmetric warfare campaign against the federal government, an approach the TPLF utilised to successfully oust Mengistu Haile Mariam’s communist government in 1991. Risk of political violence in Ethiopia presently also derives from how Ethiopia’s other sub-state ethno-nationalistic factions could calculate that the federal government’s redeployment of forces to counter the TPLF provides an opening to carry out attacks in the name of their own secessionist ambitions, with a lowered potential for a militarised response from the government.
Financial fallout is certain to accompany the conflict, whereby continued hostilities will erode foreign investor confidence. The timing of any shifts towards muted investor sentiment is temporally significant amidst recent efforts of Abiy’s government to reform Ethiopia’s economy away from its sclerotic centrally planned past towards an economically liberal future through privatisation, with multinationals exhibiting particular interest in the country’s telecommunications sector. The latest instalment of this drive came this week when a spokesman for Ethiopia’s federal government announced plans to sell a minority stake in one of Ethiopia’s major telecommunications companies, Ethio Telecoms, within nine months, adding that the present military engagements in Tigray will not delay the timeframe by “even a single day”. The confident remarks are in stark contrast to notions expressed by outside investors, whereby earlier this week South Africa’s Vodacom struck a cautious tone by stating that it is monitoring the conflict in the lead up to a planned investment in the country. Similarly, on 18 November the chief executive officer of Africa’s most prominent wireless carrier MTN Group warned that Ethiopia is presently “materially less attractive” owing to the crisis.
The federal government’s campaign against the Tigrayans has taken place as Ethiopia is locked in a geopolitical dispute with Sudan and Egypt over management of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), whereby multiple rounds of dialogue have failed to produce consensus on the terms of its management. Ethiopia wishes to fill the dam as quickly as possible with no oversight to provide much needed electricity for its population, whilst Egypt and Sudan are concerned that filling the dam too quickly will weaken the flow of the Nile and may lead to a reduction in downstream arable land. Ethiopia has thus far exhibited a unilateral posture towards the issue, with the GERD being one of the few projects on which there is widespread approval amongst Ethiopians that cuts across the country’s assortment of sub-state ethno-nationalistic societal cleavages. Accordingly, amidst the present Tigrayan conflict Abiy’s negotiating team will likely become entrenched in their intransigent approach to the GERD in order to remain staunch on one of the few federal government initiatives that unites the Ethiopian nation at a tenuous moment for the country’s unity.