Ethiopia is on the brink of civil war after the government orders attacks on a key region

A still image taken from a video shows Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed addressing the nation in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Nov. 4, 2020.
A still image taken from a video shows Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed addressing the nation in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Nov. 4, 2020.
Image: Ethiopia Broadcasting Coporation/Handout/Reuters TV via REUTERS
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Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed ordered an attack against the forces of the ruling party of Tigray Region, one of 10 autonomous regions of Ethiopia, raising the probability of a full-blown civil war in Africa’s second largest country by population.

Abiy accused Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) of attempting to attack a military camp of the Ethiopia National Defense Force, describing it as the last “red line” which had been crossed.  The government has now declared a state-of-emergency for Tigray for the next six months, restricting the movement of people and has blocked communications including the internet.

“The Ethiopian National Defense forces, under the direction of command post, have been ordered to carry out their mission to save the country and the region from spiraling into stability,” said the prime minister’s office in a statement on Wednesday (Nov. 4).

There has already been a long-running proxy battle between the Tigrayan forces and the government’s army for the past two years with each side accusing the  other of playing a destructive role in the state. The tension has been especially high after the Tigrayans independently conducted an election in September which Ethiopian federal government has declared “null and void”.

The Tigray regional government for its part, has called the federal government illegitimate and declared it will not comply with its laws, directives, and regulations.

Ethiopia ethnic map

“The outbreak of armed conflict between the federal government and the regional government of Tigray has been in the making for over a year,” says Kjetil Tronvoll, one of the few independent observers of the recent Tigray election and a professor of peace and conflict studies at Bjorknes University College.

“This was a “creeping war”, to use an Ethiopian political term reflecting the deep division between the Prosperity Party of Abiy and that of TPLF”

There are growing concerns that a full-scale conflict in the northern Tigray region could spiral southwards given existing tensions in other regions. Amnesty International warns military action would put “many lives at risk” in a country of over 100 million people.

Fraying Federalism

Some long-time Ethiopia watchers argue the problems in the Horn of Africa country reflect the wider fraying of the country’s federalist form of government rather than being specifically just about a conflict between the national government in Addis Ababa and the Tigrays.

Debretsion Gebremichael, Tigray regional president,
Debretsion Gebremichael, Tigray regional president,
Image: REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

“It is a crisis of the federal government manifest in Tigray and other regions,” writes Mulugeta G Berhe, a senior fellow at Tufts University. “The governance of the federal government has become more of an exercise in seamanship (staying in power) and less of navigation (reaching a destination) falling short of coherent and democratic approaches to address the crisis.”

As well as the escalating Tigray crisis there are ongoing conflicts in the largest populated region of Oromia as well as the southern regions.

TPLF, the party of the late prime minister Meles Zenawi who led Ethiopia with an iron fist for almost 17 years (1995-2012), has dominated Ethiopian politics for almost three decades. It was a powerful voice in the former ruling coalition of the Ethiopian People Revolutionary Democrats (EPRDF), which was dismantled at the end of last year and replaced by the Prosperity Party led by prime minister Abiy, himself an Oromo.

This week, Debretsion Gebremichael, president of the Tigray region accused Abiy of working with Eritrea to destabilize Tigray and said the region is ready for a potential war with the federal government.

“The government of Eritrea is meddling in the affairs of Ethiopia. When the Eritrea government became involved in Ethiopia’s affairs, the federal government turned a deaf ear and failed to protect its citizens when the Eritrean army prepared to launch a war against it in Tigray, he said.

In 2019, Abiy won the Nobel Peace Prize for bringing the two-decade conflict with Eritrea to an end.

Now Abiy is in a war of words with Tigray calling the leaders of TPLF and its forces “traitors” and that the TPLF-led government has been manufacturing military outfits of the Eritrean army in order to implicate the Eritrean government.

The regional government of Amhara also pointed its finger at leaders of TPLF, saying that there has been an attack launched against his region’s special force.

“TPLF tried to start a war in areas like Sorqana and Qerqar, but special forces of the Amhara region put the situation under control,” says Temesgen Tiruneh, president of Amhara Region and a former intelligence advisor to the prime minister.

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