November 04, 2020
Civil war is breaking out in Africa’s second largest country
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Ethiopian PM Abiy Ahmed won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for enacting sweeping political reforms and inking a landmark peace deal with Eritrea. Now he has effectively declared war on one of his own regional states. Africa’s second most populous country is now sliding into a civil war whose humanitarian and security consequences could dwarf those of neighboring Somalia and South Sudan.
What happened. The crisis centers on the Tigray region in northern Ethiopia, along the Eritrean border. Tigray is governed by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a party that dominated the Ethiopian political scene from 1991 until Abiy’s appointment in 2018. Abiy’s efforts to consolidate power have isolated the TPLF from Ethiopia’s national politics but left the TPLF’s political and military wings in control of Tigray region.
Bad relations between Abiy and the TPLF soured further in September, when the TPLF accused Abiy of a power grab and held elections in defiance of his order to postpone the vote during the COVID-19 pandemic. The situation has deteriorated since, with Abiy’s government imposing fiscal sanctions on Tigray before mobilizing troops to the region in October. Both sides have threatened war, and that war is now arriving.
Abiy announced early on November 4 that TPLF forces attacked Ethiopian military posts in Tigray region’s capital and another town, saying “the last red line has been crossed.” Information is scarce—the government cut phone and internet service—but reports indicate that heavy fighting with artillery fire is ongoing, including near urban areas. This is serious fighting; the TPLF has a well-trained, well-equipped force. Tigray outlets and some analysts have claimed that Ethiopia’s Northern Command—the government forces based in Tigray—defected, but Abiy’s government has disputed these claims.
The destabilization of Ethiopia is not limited to Tigray region. Gunmen killed more than 50 people from the Amhara ethnic group in western Ethiopia on November 1. The violence is part of an ongoing armed rebellion in Ethiopia’s large Oromia region. The attack occurred after the federal government forces that had been providing security the area left to deploy to Tigray. Ethiopia faces turmoil in several other regions, with some ethnic groups pushing for autonomy.
Why it matters. Ethiopia could fracture. Its many simmering conflicts may escalate as the federal government becomes overwhelmed. The Tigray conflict could also incite inter-regional conflict, notably between Tigray and Amhara regions.
The humanitarian consequences of such conflict and fragmentation would be massive. Ethiopia already has nearly two million internally displaced people. Acute challenges—notably the COVID-19 pandemic and historic locust swarms—are threatening the livelihoods of a much larger proportion of the country’s nearly 110 million citizens. A broader conflict could lead to famine and even greater displacement.
An Ethiopian civil war would also spill beyond the country’s borders. Longstanding animosity between TPLF leadership and Eritrea could lead to a border conflict, with Eritrea aligning with Abiy’s government against the TPLF on two fronts.
Another affected issue may be the fraught negotiations around the filling of Ethiopia’s massive Nile dam. Talks between Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt over the dam resumed this week. The dam has stoked nationalistic sentiment in Ethiopia, and Abiy’s government may take an even harder line on the issue as it faces challenges at home—raising the risk of conflict with Egypt or Sudan, for which the rate at which Ethiopia fills the dam is an existential issue.
An Ethiopian collapse will undoubtedly affect the broader East African region. Ethiopia is the seat of the African Union (AU) and a political and economic heavyweight. Its destabilization could draw in neighboring Sudan, which is navigating its own fractious political transition. Also affected would be neighboring Somalia, particularly if the Ethiopian forces that are currently engaged in the fight against al Shabaab withdraw.
Al Shabaab and other Salafi-jihadi groups in East Africa are positioned to benefit from Ethiopia’s crisis. Salafi-jihadi groups have never established a significant foothold in Ethiopia but are attempting to make inroads; al Shabaab and the Islamic State plotted attacks in the country in 2019, and al Shabaab’s propaganda has targeted Ethiopian recruits. Instability that reaches Ethiopia’s ethnic Somali population could create an opportunity for al Shabaab to make inroads similar to its incursions into eastern Kenya.
More broadly, a civil war scenario risks creating an environment for prolonged proxy warfare, drawing in both Ethiopia’s neighbors and non-African powers seeking to shape the future of the Ethiopian state. The US and its allies should prioritize preventing Ethiopia’s crisis from devolving into a prolonged conflict that will generate follow-on threats, including greater militarization of the Horn of Africa region and the expansion of armed extremist groups.
The international community must act to prevent a full-blown civil war in Ethiopia. The US likely has limited leverage following Ethiopian backlash against President Trump’s warning that Egypt could “blow up” Ethiopia’s Nile dam. The US should work in concert with allies and partners to broker an immediate ceasefire in Tigray. Potential partners include the AU and possibly the United Arab Emirates, which helped broker the 2018 peace deal between Ethiopia and Eritrea.