A leader who once received the Nobel Peace Prize for ending the state of conflict with a neighboring country is now facing the potential threat of his own country breaking out into a civil war.
In the early hours of November 4th, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced a law enforcement plan consisting of airstrikes and ground troop operations against the northernmost region of the country, Tigray. This led to widespread fear about a prolonged conflict and humanitarian crisis, threatening the Horn of Africa’s stability.
Addis Ababa’s military move came after a longstanding conflict between the Ethiopian federal government and Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) — the party that formed the coalition government for nearly three decades prior to Prime Minister Ahmed’s win. When he finally came to power in 2018, he inherited a country that had just undergone anti-government protests, economic troubles, and widespread unrest. Therefore, he vowed to bring peace, prosperity, and unity to the country of Ethiopia.
This, however, was a distant dream. In his early days, Prime Minister Ahmed proposed a dissolution of the original political coalition — the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Front — that ruled the country for 27 years. TPLF accused the Prime Minister of trying to “sideline…and even criminalize” them so he could grab more power for himself. This created simmering tensions between the federal government and the TPLF.
With the increasing pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic, their relationship only deteriorated further. A national election was scheduled to take place in August, but the Ethiopian government decided to postpone the elections to the following year because of public health concerns. In response, the TPLF disobeyed government orders and organized their own elections in September. Prime Minister Ahmed declared the election illegal, stating that the TPLF defied central authority — which has since been regarded as the boiling point of the conflict.
On November 3rd, the TPLF attacked the Northern Command — the most powerful division of the Ethiopian army — stationed in Tigray’s capital, Mekelle. In response, the Prime Minister declared war on the TPLF, launching his military operation and broadcasting on national television that he had bombed Tigray. He also closed off all internet and telephone connections in the region so the Tigrayans would have no contact with the outside world.
According to Amnesty International, on the night of November 9th hundreds of people were murdered in a knife and machete attack in a town in Tigray. It is still unclear as to who is responsible and the severity of the event due to the lack of communication stemming from Prime Minister Ahmed’s shutdown of internet and telephone connections.
The Prime Minister’s office has called to arrest the TPLF leaders and replace them with appointed officials from the federal government, stating that the conflict is close to ending. However, the TPLF, infamous for their highly-skilled trained forces, has made several announcements about their willingness to defend their region. This has led experts to suspect that the fight is far from over.
While there are numerous issues occurring in Ethiopia, the most dire one is the possibility of a humanitarian crisis. According to official reports by the UNHCR, a full-scale humanitarian crisis is quickly unfolding in the nation. Hundreds of people have died in the clashes between the two sides, and tens of thousands of people have been displaced. Since November 10th, 4,000 men, women, and children have crossed into eastern Sudan from the Tigray region – every day.
Dana Hughes, the spokesperson of the United Nations refugee agency in Nairobi, said, “this is the largest influx into east Sudan in 20 years. It is very, very sudden. This is a full-scale humanitarian crisis that has unfolded in two weeks…they are arriving exhausted, scared. They had to flee very quickly, often with just the clothes on their backs. They heard the fighting and just had to go.”
This migration may also have serious geopolitical ramifications. A civil war could force the country of approximately 100 million people to find migration routes to places such as Kenya, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Europe. Therefore, it is important for the international community to put pressure on the Ethiopian government to foster diplomatic talks with the rebel groups before it is too late.
Seventeen U.S senators have already written to the United States Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, citing their concerns about the potential of civil war and humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia. Neighboring countries such as Kenya and Tanzania have also urged the government to turn to peace talks. However, more effort has to be put in by international powers like China, UAE, Suadi Arabia and the European Union, as they have the most influence on Ethiopia’s political players.
The grave situation of Ethiopia must not be taken lightly by the global community at large; it is only a matter of time before the conflict spills over into neighboring countries and threatens to destabilize the entire Horn of Africa.