With the world’s attention fixated on the United States elections, Ethiopia embarked on a civil war last week. In a time span of five days Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who won the 2019 Nobel peace prize after making peace with Eritrea, ended the democratic transition that he had initiated two years before.
In the early hours of Wednesday last week, Abiy ordered federal troops to launch an offensive against the northern region of Tigray, which borders Eritrea and is home to about 6% of the population. Government airstrikes on military positions in Tigray and a telecommunication shutdown began the same day.
Since then, Abiy’s government has purged Tigrayan officials from government positions, mobilised ethnic militias to join the war and rejected international calls for dialogue with leaders of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
On Saturday, Ethiopia’s parliament replaced Tigray’s elected leadership with a caretaker administration. On Sunday, the prime minister appointed some of his close allies as the new heads of national defence, intelligence and the federal police. Until recently, Abiy preached national unity and forgiveness. So why did he start a civil war?
Abiy’s casus belli is an alleged raid on the headquarters of the Northern Command in Mekelle during which, it is claimed, arms were looted and scores killed. The truth is more complicated. First, the war preparations had been underway for weeks. Federal forces and allied troops from other federal states were in fact massed on the border between Tigray and Amhara as early as late October.
Second, the officer corps of the Northern Command is predominantly Tigrayan and Oromo. The command has been in Mekelle for more than a decade. It had put down deep social roots and developed close ties with the TPLF. When Abiy issued the order for an offensive, the command rejected it and reaffirmed its loyalty to the elected leadership in Tigray. A brief firefight between loyalist and dissident troops ensued, which was quickly suppressed.
The Oromo members of the command are believed to be predominantly supportive of the TPLF. Most are disenchanted with the prime minister’s arrest of Oromo leaders and the heavy-handed crackdown in Oromia.
Third, Tigray is estimated to hold the bulk of Ethiopia’s military hardware. The region has enough helicopter gunships, heavy field guns, tanks and armoured personnel carriers to mount a conventional war. The idea they would raid the command armoury and depots for weapons and ammunition is spurious, fantastical, even.
The role of distrust
Abiy distrusts the professional national army. His relations with the rank and file are brittle. His stint in the army as a radioman in the signals corps and cyber-security department was brief and had not given him the depth and network needed to effectively influence it.
This partly explains why he is increasingly reliant on ethnic forces drawn from other regional states to prosecute the campaign in Tigray. So far, the bulk of the federal fighting force is drawn from a plethora of ethnic armies from the regional states. They include Amhara State special forces and liyu paramilitary police from Oromia.
By outsourcing the war to ethnic units — some with axes to grind against Tigrayans — Abiy is playing a dangerous game almost certain to aggravate the conflict and transforming, potentially, what is a centre-periphery contest into a wider ethnic conflagration.
Both the Tigray leadership and the federal government deserve blame for the current crisis, but it is important to understand the wider context.
The speed at which Abiy evolved from political reformer to war prime minister has astonished his friends and foes alike. When he came to power amid popular unrest in March 2018, Abiy gained overwhelming acclaim as a reformer. He released prisoners, welcomed back the opposition and promised to open up the economy. Yet political liberalisation backfired as pent-up ethnic tensions spiralled out of control, destabilising a nation that has long been considered an anchor of stability in the Horn of Africa region.
“Abiymania” dissipated rapidly when it became clear that the new federal leadership was unable to manage these conflicts. Abiy faced serious political opposition from the outgoing TPLF guard, which had dominated the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front for decades. After he broke with his former colleagues of the Oromo Democratic Party, Abiy faced increasing criticism from Oromo nationalists. They accused him of selling out the Oromo cause; he had many of them arrested in return. Repositioning himself as an Ethiopian nationalist who transcends ethnic cleavages, Abiy created the multi-ethnic, but unitary Prosperity Party that controls all levers of power.
Ethiopia has taken a fatal step towards a full-blown civil war. Armed clashes are now raging on multiple battle fronts. Hundreds of soldiers have died on both sides in less than a week.
Expectations of a swift and clean victory are misplaced. The most likely outcome is a messy and grinding stalemate; and, worse, a protracted insurgency for which TPLF is well-suited. A prolonged conflict is bound to have dire implications. It elevates the prospect of a regionalised and multi-ethnic conflict, risks reversing the economic and development gains made in the past 20 years, and is almost certain to trigger large-scale displacement. Most crucially, it diminishes prospects for furthering democratisation and reduces the chances for credible elections in 2021.
The window for international intervention and mediation is closing very fast. Without a quick, robust and concerted international response to stop the fighting, Ethiopia runs the real risk of crossing the point of no return.