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Where is Ethiopia headed?

December 2, 2021 at 5:49 pm

Huge gathering built up at Meskel square in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on July 22,2021 [Minasse Wondimu Hailu/Anadolu Agency]

Although there have been significant international and regional efforts to push for an end to the ongoing conflict in Ethiopia between the government and the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF), clashes between the warring sides continue to escalate. The fighting which has been going on for more than a year has claimed thousands of lives and displaced almost 2.5 million people. At least “9 million people are in dire need of food assistance due to the ongoing conflict in northern Ethiopia” according to the World Food Program.

Observers fear that, if the situation is not put under control, Africa’s second-most-populous country risks sliding into a calamitous civil war, affecting millions beyond the Horn of Africa. The US and several other countries have already warned their citizens to leave Ethiopia. Last week, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, went to the frontline to lead the war against the Tigray rebels amid the latter’s recent military gains including the capture of Dessie and Kombolcha towns which risks bringing the war to the capital, Addis Ababa. The Ethiopian army’s recapture of the town of Chifra in the Afar region from the TPLF on 28 November, hence, comes as a morale-boosting military gain for the government army.

How did we get here?

Abiy came to power in 2018 following mass protests by the Oromo and Amhara, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic groups, against the TPLF-led coalition government which dominated the country’s politics for close to three decades. In September 2020, the TPLF went ahead with the regional parliamentary elections in defiance of Abiy’s government order to postpone elections citing the coronavirus pandemic. The escalation sparked a full-blown conflict in November of the same year when Abiy ordered a military offensive against TPLF in response to an attack by the latter on a federal military base in Tigray. With the support of Eritrean forces, the Ethiopian army was able to incur heavy losses on the Tigray rebels controlling the region’s capital, Mekelle, and pushing TPLF to retreat into the mountains.

READ: Ethiopia needs no foreign interference to end internal conflict

Since June 2021, however, the TPLF has made substantial gains against the government army, reclaiming much of Tigray, including Mekelle. With the support of the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), TPLF has continued to advance into Amhara and Afar territories raising concerns as there was a possibility of the spread of conflict into the capital which would cause a total state collapse.

What are the risks?

As it clearly stands, Ethiopia is at risk of being engulfed by civil war and a state collapse. The number of warring sides has increased, with other ethnic-based groups joining the Ethiopian army or the TPLF. The development risks increasing ethnic hostilities and threatening the already fragile Ethiopian nationalism.

Moreover, there is widespread violation of human rights including mass atrocities, systematic rape and torture blamed by the United Nations and rights groups on the warring sides. As we speak, the humanitarian crisis in the country continues to worsen, and because of the state of emergency and restrictions on media reporting, the accurate number of those killed and abused is not really known.

There is also fear of the balkanisation of the country. With deep ethnic-based animosities and the fact that the current Ethiopian constitution allows for the secession of regions, balkanisation is undeniable. The TPLF had previously threatened to secede. And if war continues, calls for secession by other regions are likely to gain momentum.

READ: Ethiopia restricts information sharing about war

Neighbouring countries, as well as the members of the EU, fear that the protracted conflict will lead to thousands of migrants fleeing from the humanitarian crisis and coming to their countries. Kenya has already taken measures to bolster security along its borders with Ethiopia.

Meanwhile, with much of the Ethiopian government forces focused on fighting the Tigray and its allied OLA rebels, Channel 4 News has reported that Al-Shabaab militants have increased their activities across Ethiopia’s border in a bid to take advantage of the situation to infiltrate the country and conduct attacks.

Mediation efforts

So far, mediation efforts by regional and international actors have not achieved a breakthrough in bringing the two sides to the negotiation table. The African Union’s (AU) High Representative for the Horn of Africa, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, has met with both the Ethiopian government and the TPLF leadership to urge the parties to accept a ceasefire and engage in a peace dialogue, but with little progress. Meanwhile, Jeffrey Feltman, the US special envoy for the Horn of Africa, who is also attempting to bring the sides to dialogue, noted “some nascent progress” but feared that they were “being outpaced by the alarming developments on the ground that threaten Ethiopia’s overall stability and unity.”

What role can Turkey play?

Turkey has deep and historical relations with Ethiopia, with the first Ottoman-Turkish Consulate General opened in Harar in 1912, long before many western countries came. In terms of trade, Turkey has invested some $ 2.5 billion in Ethiopia in different fields, employing nearly 10 thousand Ethiopian nationals. Most of this investment was made during the TPLF-led coalition government. Moreover, Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, have taken measures to cement relations between the two countries with the latter visiting Turkey in August this year.

Besides economic and diplomatic ties, Turkey implements cultural and humanitarian projects across Ethiopia. In light of the ongoing conflict, Erdogan has offered to mediate between the sides to reach a “peaceful resolution” to the conflict. With the wide acceptance among regional and international actors, the only way out of the conflict in Ethiopia is to find a political solution. Turkey can support efforts by the AU to facilitate dialogue and also, if possible, lead negotiation efforts.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.