Ethiopia: Growing concerns for unity as Tigray conflict spreads

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There are increasing concerns about Ethiopian unity as the conflict in the northern Tigray region escalates.

The nine-month-long war between Tigrayan rebel forces and the Ethiopian army and its allies has been mostly contained in Tigray itself.

But the fighting is spreading into the neighbouring regions of Amhara and Afar.

This is off the back of Tigrayan forces making significant territorial gains, including capturing the regional capital, Mekelle, in June after Ethiopian troops withdrew and the government declared a unilateral ceasefire.

It is a sign that the Tigray crisis is getting worse, but this is by no means the only fighting happening right now in Ethiopia.

It is the second-most populous state in Africa with a history of ethnic tensions. In 1994, a new constitution was introduced which created a series of ethnically based regions meant to address the problem of an over-centralised state.

Until 2018, the governing coalition was dominated by the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) and was criticised for crushing any dissent.

After Abiy Ahmed – who comes from the largest ethnic group, the Oromo – became prime minister in 2018, he made a series of bold liberalising moves to end state repression.

But this liberalisation was accompanied by a burst in ethnic nationalism, with different groups demanding more power and land.

“You have a plethora of ethnic warfare,” says Rashid Abdi, a Nairobi-based expert on security in the Horn of Africa.

Chart showing the ethnic make-up of Ethiopia

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One hotspot is the western Benishangul-Gumuz region – which borders Sudan and South Sudan – and described by Mr Abdi as a “perennial flashpoint”. About 200 people were massacred in an attack in the region in December.

Last week, regional authorities said security forces had killed more than 100 fighters from an armed group that it blamed for ethnically fuelled attacks.

The dispute has led to skirmishes between the two armies, amid the conflict in Tigray.

“It has the potential to escalate but it hasn’t yet,” Mr Abdi says.

And on a single day last week, 1,100 refugees from Ethiopia’s small Qemant ethnic group fled to Sudan to escape fighting in Amhara, the Ethiopian region which borders Tigray, Sudanese media reported.

Amhara regional authorities have over the past decade accused neighbouring Tigray of stoking the ethnic feud, which Tigrayans deny.

Add to those, the flare up in a long-running dispute between Ethiopia’s Somali and Afar regions, dangerously close to the Djibouti border, and a growing insurgency against the Ethiopian military in the Oromia region, and it is easy to see why Ethiopia-watchers are worried.

“Ethiopia goes through historical cycles of being robust and then precarious and it’s at one of those very, very precarious moments,” says Alex de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation in the US.

Some Ethiopian experts are now talking about state collapse as a real possibility.

“There is no denying Ethiopia is at an existential crisis moment,” says Mr Abdi. “How it is going to navigate this crisis in Tigray as well as multiple points of ethnic warfare nobody can be sure of, but it’s in serious crisis and there is a great risk of Ethiopia collapsing.”

But an academic at Ethiopia’s University of Gondar, Menychle Meseret, said he did not believe that Ethiopia was on the brink of state collapse.

“It is not even appropriate to have a discussion about it, in the first place. We have a functioning government that controls the country, except for Tigray,” he said.

The crisis in Tigray had, in fact, strengthened “national cohesion” among other regions and ethnic groups, which have rallied behind the government and military, Mr Menychle added.

Map showing federal state

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The Tigrayan forces have said they will not stop fighting until a number of conditions have been met by Mr Abiy. This includes the end of the federal government’s blockade of Tigray and the withdrawal of all opposing troops – the Ethiopian army, forces from other Ethiopian regions and the Eritreans fighting alongside them.

The blockade refers to the federal government’s shutdown of all electrical, financial and telecommunications services in Tigray since the Mekelle withdrawal in June. International organisations have also had difficulty getting much-needed aid through.

Gen Tsadkan Gebretensae told the BBC’s Newshour programme on Sunday that Tigrayan forces will continue to fight – including in Afar and Amhara regions – until their ceasefire conditions have been met.

“All our military activities at this time are governed by two major objectives. One is to break up the blockade. The second is to force the government to accept our terms for a ceasefire and then look for political solutions.”

The general added that the Tigrayans are not aiming to dominate Ethiopia politically as they have in the past. Instead they want Tigrayans to vote in a referendum for self-governance.

Ethiopia’s minister for democratisation, Zadig Abraha, told the BBC the Tigrayan rebels had a false sense of power and would be driven out of every village of the region when the government ran out of patience.

Mr Zadig denied rebel claims there was a blockade on Tigray and said it was the government’s obligation to ensure the delivery of humanitarian aid.

In a sign the conflict is drawing in yet more combatants, young Ethiopians gathered at a rally in the capital, Addis Ababa, last week, answering a call from regional leaders to join the fight against the Tigrayan rebels.

The conflict has caused a massive humanitarian crisis. The United Nations’ children’s agency, Unicef, said on Friday that more than 100,000 children in Tigray could suffer life-threatening malnutrition in the next year, while half of the pregnant and breastfeeding women screened in the region are acutely malnourished.

Food experts say 400,000 people in Tigray are experiencing “catastrophic levels of hunger”.

All aid routes into Tigray are blocked except for one road from Afar region where food convoys have recently been attacked, reportedly by pro-government militias.

The Tigrayan forces say they are hoping to force open a new aid corridor via Sudan by defeating the Ethiopia army and Amhara troops stationed there.

The UN says an estimated 5.2 million people in Tigray need humanitarian assistance, while the recent spread of fighting to Afar region has left thousands there displaced and in desperate need of food and shelter.

In the past few days, diplomatic efforts to address the multiple crises in Ethiopia have been ramped up, says Mr de Waal, with discussions taking place behind closed doors.

Matt Bryden, from the think tank Sahan Research, doubts that a political solution can be found at this stage, especially between two main protagonists.

“The Tigray Defence Forces has to weigh up the prospect of political dialogue with the risk of losing the [military] initiative. On the other side, Mr Abiy shows no interest or understanding that he might need to engage in political dialogue. He has… an unshakeable belief in himself and his mission.

“I’m afraid we’re likely to see conflict continue until either Tigray is essentially liberated or – less likely – until both sides find themselves in a hurting stalemate,” Mr Bryden says.

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