Last year, a palpable sense of optimism hung over the future of Ethiopia. The diplomatic instincts of prime minister Abiy Ahmed – which resulted in a long awaited peace deal with decades-long antagonist Eritrea – were rewarded with a Nobel Peace Prize. Political prisoners were released and steps were made towards liberalising the press. There was growing investor optimism around the prime minister’s economic reform agenda, which promised to tear down the barriers to international investment in the much-coveted telecoms and banking sectors. That optimism is now evaporating.
In November, Abiy sent federal troops into the Tigray region after accusing its ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) of launching attacks on federal troops stationed there. Tensions had been brewing for months. In September, the province held local elections that Abiy dismissed as illegal. The TPLF – which dominated the central government prior to Abiy’s election in 2018 – has been agitating for greater regional autonomy. By contrast, Ahmed’s political slogan is “medemer” or “coming together.” His opponents say he is bent on centralising power, which the government denies. The TPLF have also been enraged by his détente with Eritrea and the postponement of national elections due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
A ruinous war
The impact of the war has already been ruinous. Thousands are believed to have died and tens of thousands more have fled. While a media blackout makes information gathering difficult, reports suggest the war has taken on an ethnic dimension. Credible reports have emerged of atrocities committed by both sides.
International observers have expressed deep concern, with the European Union warning that the conflict is destabilising the region. Rockets have been fired into neighbouring Eritrea by Tigrayan forces, while refugees are flooding into Sudan.
“I expressed my great concern regarding increasing ethnic-targeted violence, numerous casualties and violations of human rights and of international humanitarian law,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said in a statement.
The UK says that the war puts Ethiopia’s entire reform agenda at risk.
“The UK has been a longstanding supporter of Ethiopia, which has established itself as a beacon of reform. This conflict is putting all of those reform efforts at risk,” warned foreign secretary Dominic Raab.
On Sunday, the federal government claimed to have taken control of the Tigrayan capital, Mekelle. The extent of casualties among the city’s civilian population of 500,000 is unknown, but humanitarian workers say they are struggling to treat hundreds of wounded.
Tigrayan forces had previously been given 72 hours to leave the city. Officials say police and soldiers have launched a manhunt for the TPLF’s leaders, who may be preparing for a guerilla struggle.
This pitiless war is unlikely to deliver the results that either side hopes for. The TPLF risk losing their entire regional foothold, with leader Debretsion Gebremichael warning that people are “ready to die” to defend the region and will resist surrender. Abiy’s government, meanwhile, has traded a hard-earned international reputation for a conflict with worrying ethnic dimensions which could deteriorate into a prolonged guerrilla war and tear at the country’s delicate patchwork of regions and groups. Both sides have resisted international calls to end the conflict. Nevertheless, the international community, and particularly Africa’s leaders, must redouble efforts. The government and the TPLF must be made to understand that both sides have much to lose and nothing to gain from prolonging this ruinous war.
– David Thomas is the editor of African Business Magazine