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Ethiopia's spiraling conflict threatens regional stability

Cai Nebe
November 16, 2020

The Ethiopian government's armed conflict in semi-autonomous Tigray threatens the future of federalism in the country. With violence spilling into Eritrea, there's a potential for a security vacuum in the Horn of Africa.

Ethiopian refugees gather their belongings in a Sudanese border town
Mass forced migration to Sudan is becoming a reality due to the ongoing violence in TigrayImage: Ebrahim Hamid/AFP/Getty Images

Deadly fighting between Ethiopian federal forces and the regional government of the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) has already claimed hundreds of military and civilian lives, according to the scarce reports coming from the region.

Internationally, there are fears that the conflict, which is quickly escalating into a civil war, will threaten regional security in the Horn of Africa.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered a military operation against the TPLF on November 4, accusing the Tigray militia of attacking a government military base.

Read more: The dangers behind Ethiopia's Tigray conflict

Meanwhile, Ethiopia's defense minister, Dr Kenna Yadeta, remained bullish about the government's ability to quickly end the violence.

"All the TPLF's actions testify to their high level of frustration.They have no more strength, capability and time to intensify wars in the region. The Tigray junta has only a very short time left to be captured," according to Kenna Yadeta, who was appointed defense minister in August 2020 as part of a major — and controversial — cabinet reshuffle by Ahmed.

"We can achieve a crushing victory any day from now," Yadeta told DW.

Read more: Ethiopia: PM Abiy Ahmed reshuffles cabinet amid Tigray fighting

Refugees wait to cross a river to escape fighting
Refugees have been flowing into Sudan to avoid fighting in the Tigray regionImage: El Tayaeb Siddig/REUTERS

Regional stability under threat

The victory may come at a severe cost to stability in the Horn of Africa, though.

To win it, there is a danger that the federal government's focus on Tigray could weaken its involvement in backing the government in Ethiopia's western neighbor, Somalia, against al-Shabab militants.

Ethiopia has already withdrawn about 600 soldiers from Somalia's western border. However they were not part of the African Union's Mission in Somalia (Amisom), which Ethiopia also supports. 

Map of Ethiopia showing Tigray

"Now, this is going to severely affect the efforts of the African Union mission that's currently involved in stabilizing Somalia and ensuring there is a functional government, and organize the elections in the next few months,” said Hassan Khannenje of the Nairobi-based think-tank the Horn Institute.

The huge numbers of refugees likely to cross the borders of an already volatile region and the likely proliferation of light weapons and small arms could lead to a "catastrophe," according to Khannenje. 

Refugees in a field outside the Sudanese border town of al-Fashqa
Refugees have fled the fighting in Ethiopia and have descended on the Sudanese town of al-FashquaImage: El Tayaeb Siddig/REUTERS

"If Ethiopia goes, then there goes the Horn of Africa region. And that's something they should worry everybody, both regionally and internationally," Khannenje told DW. 

Read more: Ethiopia has 'entered into war' with Tigray region

Conflict spills over into Eritrea

Also complicating the Ethiopian government's conflict with the TPLF is the involvement of Ethiopia's northern neighbor, Eritrea, which borders Tigray.

Over the weekend, multiple rockets — fired from Ethiopia's Tigray region — hit the Eritrean capital, Asmara.

The TPLF's leader, Debretsion Gebremichael, said his troops fought Eritrean forces "on several fronts" for the past few days. He accused Eritrea of providing military support to the Ethiopian government and sending troops across the border, allegations that Eritrea denied.

Tigray leader Debretsion Gebremichael
TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael Image: Eduardo Soteras/Getty Images

"Asmara has been accused of allowing the Ethiopian Air Force to use its base in undertaking strikes," said Hassan Khannenje, from Nairobi-based think tank, The Horn Institute.

"And so, the TPLF sees Eritrea as a fair target because of its alliance or perceived alliance currently with Abiy Ahmed's government in Addis Ababa." 

Tigrayan forces and leaders were instrumental in bringing peace and relative prosperity to Ethiopia as part of the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) by removing the brutal Derg military regime from power in 1991.

However, under its rule, Eritrea seceded in 1993, and the 1998–2000 war between Ethiopia and Eritrea followed.

When Abiy Ahmed swept to power in 2018, he made it a priority to normalize relations and make peace with Eritrea — a feat that won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019

The TPLF's resentment stems from a sense of being sidelined by Abiy's government when he formed a new coalition government — known as the Prosperity Party — which excluded the TPLF. Abiy's overtures to Eritrea are also seen as a betrayal. 

Read more: Abiy Ahmed: Ethiopia's first Nobel laureate

Anti-war protesters in Ethiopia
Thousands marched against a war in Ethiopia's Tigray regionImage: Million Hailessilasie/DW

'No more brother wars'

But many Eritreans want peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia.

Over the weekend, hundreds of Eritrean refugees in the Tigray city of Mekelle protested against the war between Tigrayan and Ethiopian government forces.

They demanded both sides end the conflict immediately and strike up dialogue.

The demonstrators also demanded a solution for the growing refugee crisis, saying military violence threatened refugee camps in western Tigray.

"The war is unnecessary. We know war. It's destructive. War between brothers is the worst. People have been persecuted and killed. The Eritreans here are against the war. It's enough!" said one male demonstrator. 

Protestors hold up placards against war in Ethiopia
Protests against the war have started in Tigray Image: Mesay Tekeli/DW

"It's very sad that people speaking the same language and sharing the same language are fighting," another protester told DW on condition of anonymity. 

Others fear Eritreans living in Tigray could also become targets.

"Since we've been in Ethiopia, especially Tigray, we have found shelter and live like every other citizen," a protestor told DW. "This war doesn't just affect civilian life, it also affects us, the refugees."

Regional rivals launch military exercise

Perhaps worryingly from an Ethiopian perspective, and further complicating matters, regional rivals Sudan and Egypt started joint military exercises over the weekend.

Both countries are in dispute with Ethiopia, over its Grand Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile.

Sudan and Egypt both claim the structure will adversely affect their water supply. 

The exercises include planning and running combat activities, as well as commando groups conducting search and rescue missions, according to an Egyptian defense ministry statement.