Europe can stop Ethiopia’s slide into a regional war

Abiy Ahmed launched a military campaign in Tigray on November 4.

By Theodore Murphy

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Published: Sat 19 Dec 2020, 7:59 PM

The war with Tigray marks the explosion of simmering tensions between Ethiopia’s former dominant party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. In 2019 the prime minister replaced the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front with the Prosperity Party, prompting the TPLF to withdraw from the coalition rather than dissolve to join the new government. The slide into conflict began in August that year, when Abiy Ahmed delayed a national election scheduled for May 2020, citing concerns about Covid-19. In response, the TPLF questioned Abiy Ahmed’s legitimacy and proceeded with a regional election in Tigray in September. The prime minister froze federal funds to Tigray the following month, and the TPLF attacked the Ethiopian army’s Northern Command soon after.

Abiy Ahmed launched a military campaign in Tigray on November 4. He announced after three weeks that the campaign, which he called a “law enforcement” operation, had concluded with the capture of Tigray’s regional capital, Mekelle. For its part, the TPLF described its withdrawal as a tactical retreat, vowing to continue the fight as an insurgency.

Abiy Ahmed’s declaration of victory is premature. By making the removal of the TPLF from Mekelle his main objective, he has set in motion a far broader process of destabilisation. Three dynamics account for this.

Firstly, the conflict has heightened ethnic tensions, leaving Tigrayans feeling threatened by their neighbours and alienated from the federal government – a sentiment that is sure to play to the insurgency. Secondly, the war is colouring public perceptions of the goal of Abiy Ahmed’s national political project, creating the sense that it may be about centralising power — and doing so to the benefit of the Amhara ethnic group rather than genuine reform. Thirdly, the TPLF’s insurgency strategy has a strong Eritrean element, the pursuit of which will further regionalise the conflict.

The United States has all but confirmed that the Eritrean Army joined the military campaign on the side of the Ethiopian government. Though Ethiopia and Eritrea deny this, Eritrea’s involvement has internationalised the conflict. The Eritrean president, Isaias Afwerki, has long seen the TPLF as a thorn in his side. He saw in the war the chance to decapitate the TPLF while leaving Abiy Ahmed to deal with the messy knock-on effects of the conflict for Ethiopia. But the TPLF’s strategy for survival involves expansion into Eritrea. This will drag Afwerki into a conflict that he hoped to wage from a safe distance. Nonetheless, it is unclear whether the TPLF will be able to sustain its insurgency in the long term.

In any case, the TPLF will find it difficult to win even a modicum of international support, given the Ethiopian government’s standing. Ethiopia has long been the linchpin of regional peace and security, and in Abiy Ahmed has a Nobel laureate at its helm. Criticism of his conduct of the war may eventually benefit the TPLF, but it will take time for this to translate into diplomatic capital for the TPLF.

The TPLF has its back to the wall – lacking access to the sea, friendly neighbours to retreat to, and a means to push back the campaign by the Ethiopian army and the Amhara. It is important to note that, in this difficult situation, the TPLF will look to expand into Eritrea, which could help it access supply lines that run through the Red Sea but would further internationalise the conflict. The TPLF could do so by using the common ethnic, cultural, and religious bond between Tigrayans in Ethiopia and Eritrea. Indeed, the TPLF has the support of many Eritrean Tigrayans, having long welcomed refugees who fled into Tigray to escape Afwerki’s regime.

Europe is currently the only actor that can bring the international community together on the conflict in Ethiopia. The US, which will make this issue a priority under the Biden administration, remains in an interregnum. Accordingly, the AU and well-intentioned states on the Horn of Africa will need Europe’s political support if they are to help resolve the conflict.

European leaders could begin to help by gathering the currently disparate international players in the region, with a view to fashioning a core group that can achieve progress towards a political solution. Europeans can help avert further conflict in Ethiopia – but they need to act now.

Theodore Murphy is Director, Africa programme, at the European Council on Foreign Relations.


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