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SITUATION UPDATE 19 November, 2021 Back

Situation Update - Tigray War in Ethiopia

Francesca Rivera-Castillo

Tigray War in Ethiopia

Summary

  • Ethiopia is undergoing an ethnic and regional war with the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF)
  • Tigray rebels made significant recent advancements towards the capital, Addis Ababa
  • Ethiopia Prime Minister declared a State of Emergency and a citizen call-to-arms
  • The destabilization has made Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa region more vulnerable to terrorist attacks

Situation

The Tigray War in Ethiopia has been an ongoing ethnic and regional conflict between the Ethiopian central government, with support from Eritrean forces, against the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) since 3 November 2020. In recent weeks, the conflict has sharply escalated in favor of the TPLF, where Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared a state of emergency on 2 November 2021 and a call-to-arms for citizens to defend the capital, Addis Ababa.

The Tigray People's Liberation Front was an original member in the creation of the current Ethiopian government, but was ousted by the current Prime Minister in 2019. As a result, political tensions have increased to the point where the TPLF has accused the Prime Minister of centralizing power and removing the federal system. In opposition, the TPLF has routinely rebelled against the Ethiopian government through civic and armed means; from having held their own regional elections to violently clashing against the military in the past year. Over two million people have been displaced due to the conflict thus far, including Eritrean refugees located in the Tigray region. Further information on casualties and possible war crimes has been limited by members from all sides of the conflict. Relations continue to worsen after Ethiopia's Parliament designated the TPLF as a terrorist group earlier this year.

In October, tensions continued to escalate when the central government launched multiple attacks in the Tigrayan region, including airstrikes, ground offensives, and a communications blackout. Notably, the sharp escalation occurred after seven United Nations (UN) humanitarian officials were expelled at the beginning of October. On 9 November, the UN stated 22 of its staff members were being held hostage in Addis Ababa for their "participation in terror;" after which six individuals were released. Those individuals still in custody are ethnic Tigrayans. Arrests without a court order are permitted under the recently announced state of emergency if an individual is suspected of collaborating with the TPLF. The UN also reported that 72 drivers delivering humanitarian aid for the World Food Programme have been arrested in the capital of the Afar province on one of the main roads leading to the Tigray region. The drivers may have been targeted by the government as the UN has previously hired drivers of Tigrayan ethnicity for similar operations.

In the last few weeks, Tigrayan forces have advanced closer to the capital of Addis Ababa and more than a hundred casualties were reported as they took control of several cities, including the Kombolcha area’s airport (about 186 miles north of the capital). Since then, a state of emergency was declared and Prime Minister Ahmed called on Addis Ababa's five million residents to take up arms and defend the city. Large demonstrations supporting the government have been reported in several regions in Ethiopia with thousands of participants. Tigray rebels continue to threaten to advance toward the capital and are supported by eight other armed rebel groups in an antigovernmental alliance.

Implications

There is a high level of insecurity for travelers within Ethiopia, especially near or in the Tigray region where travelers have a high risk of encountering armed conflict, terrorism, crime, and kidnapping. As the situation remains fluid, options to leave the country may soon be limited. Several countries have already urged their citizens to leave Ethiopia while they are still able to acquire commercial flights out. If pro-government demonstrations continue to occur, both the risk for clashes with counter-protestors increases and the demonstrations may become targets for attacks by Tigrayan rebels. Additionally, communication and information have been limited within Ethiopia, where the government has imposed communication blackouts or the TPLF has withheld information. Recently, on 8 November, social media disruptions were reported across Ethiopia that can possibly be linked to the conflict. Furthermore, the destabilization within the country has disrupted the supply chain and economic growth has notably slowed from 9% growth in 2019 to 1.9% in 2020. Financial and humanitarian aid has also been delayed or withheld several times in the past year.

With the large presence Ethiopia has in the region, as the second-most populous country on the continent and with Addis Ababa being the headquarters for the African Union, its destabilization has and will likely further affect the Horn of Africa. This leaves the region vulnerable to security threats from active terrorist organizations, such as Al-Shabaab and ISIS, whose heavy presence in Somalia poses a threat across East Africa. Counterterrorism has been a focal point for Ethiopia’s national defense force and Ethiopia has partnered with other countries to stabilize the region. The amount of displaced people in the Horn of Africa has resulted in a spillover effect; namely Ethiopian refugees have fled into neighboring Sudan, thus causing an increase in security forces along the border which has led to armed clashes.

The conflict has brought in a range of foreign powers to take sides, including China, Egypt, Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States, and has raised the risk of Ethiopia falling victim to proxy wars between rival regional and world powers. This has led and could further lead to foreign powers facilitating attacks against either the Tigrayan rebels or the Ethiopian government, thus prolonging the conflict. For example, Eritrean troops have been sent into Ethiopia to support their ally, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, but also to return Eritrean refugees found in the Tigray region. On 12 November, the United States sanctioned the Eritrean military and its sole political party, the People's Front for Democracy and Justice, for their involvement in destabilizing Ethiopia. The situation in Ethiopia remains fluid as tensions continue to rise and the region becomes destabilized.