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Tigray crisis dents Ethiopia's emerging image

Cai Nebe | Yohannes Gebre Egziabher
April 27, 2021

Fighting continues in Ethiopia, despite Ethiopia's premier Abiy Ahmed declaring victory over Tigrayan rebels in November 2020. With elections on the horizon, has the war in Tigray done more damage to Ethiopia's unity?

Units of Ethiopian army patrol the streets of Mekelle city of the Tigray region
Image: Minasse Wondimu Hailu/AA/picture alliance

The blunt comments by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on the worsening humanitarian and human rights crisis in Ethiopia, and his references to an impending "disaster" in Tigray are a rude awakening for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's government.

Ahmed declared victory over the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) in late November 2020. But six months later, the conflict is still going on, with the TPLF reportedly entrenching themselves and turning the conflict into a guerilla war. Eritrean troops, which Abiy belatedly admitted, were operating on Ethiopia's soil and reportedly sometimes wearing Ethiopian army uniforms, have still not left Tigray. TheUN says there is no sign of them leaving, either.

Blinken's comments bite

America's top diplomat openly pressing Ahmed to end the conflict in Tigray and demanding the withdrawal of Eritrean troops from Tigray "immediately, in full and in a verifiable manner" is telling.

Queue of Ethiopian refugees in Sudan
Tigrayan refugees have poured into neighboring SudanImage: Mahmoud Hjaj/AA/picture alliance

Ethiopia is a longstanding American ally, and stability in Africa's second-most populous country is key to anchoring the greater Horn of Africa region.

"Biden wants to underline that the United States is returning to a hybrid foreign policy that includes stronger statements on values and human rights and governance in particular," says Alex Vines, head of the Africa Program at Chatham House, London.

For emphasis, the White House has appointed veteran diplomat Jeffrey Feltman as a special envoy for the Horn of Africa.

"This emphasis is not only the concern of Washington around the region but also other issues such as Sudan and the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) issue, which is very important for the United States," he adds.

US allies Sudan and Egypt are also involved in the GERD dispute, where control of the Nile River's water is at stake.

Yet the longer the conflict continues, cases of human rights violations mount, and a growing famine has shone an unwelcome spotlight on Abiy Ahmed's leadership.

"The conflict has certainly prioritized Ethiopia for many countries," says Alex Vines.

Units of Ethiopian army patrol the streets of Mekelle city of the Tigray region
Units of Ethiopian army patrol the streets of Mekelle city of Tigray Image: Minasse Wondimu Hailu/AA/picture alliance

Ethiopia was previously seen as a success story of economic growth and lifting large numbers of people out of abject poverty. "Now Ethiopia has become very much an issue of security and geopolitics," Vines told DW.

With elections in Ethiopia scheduled for June 5, guaranteeing stability no longer seems a given.

Domestic elections in the balance

Abiy came to power in 2018 after several years of anti-government protests staged by Amhara and Oromo youth. Despite winning the Nobel Peace Prize the following year for opening up Ethiopia and making peaceful overtures to long-time foe Eritrea, Abiy's tenure has been marred by ethnic violence, capped by the war in Tigray which exploded in late 2020. 

Analysts warn the hotly anticipated national elections could bring about more insecurity. Organizing the vote is already proving difficult.

Map of Ethiopia showing ethnic regions
The vote of Ethiopia's ethnic groups plays a large role in deciding elections, with support from Amhara and Oromia key

Birtukan Medeksa, head of the National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE), has previously warned that insecurity has temporarily halted voter registration in several locations.

NEBE has not yet responded to DW's request for comment.

For Ethiopian political analyst Deyam Dalemo it is widely accepted that peace is a precondition for election. "The government is working to bring peace. However, there were conflicts in the recent past, and new conflicts may occur in the future," Dalemo told DW. He adds that the chances of the election actually happening largely depend on the government's ability to control clashes between rival ethnic groups.

Prime Minster Abiy Ahmed
A former Nobel Prize winner, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, will find out how his countrymen perceive his efforts in the June election - if it goes aheadImage: Yohannes Gebireegziabher/DW

"Canceling the election can backfire. It can create a legitimacy crisis for the government," Dalemo said. "Even though it is difficult, I believe the election should be conducted."

According to Yilkal Getnet of the Hibir Ethiopia Democratic Party, a smaller opposition party coalition member, an election is a non-starter.

"In short Ethiopia is in no condition to hold an election. Someone needs to stop the election, or at least put the brakes on it," he told DW, adding that the current government first needs to prove itself as a "legitimate organ" working for the Ethiopian people.  

"There is a full-scale war going on in Tigray. Sudan also invaded some 40 to 50 km (25 - 31 miles) of our border. There is also the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) crisis with Egypt."

The Eritrea issue

Blinken's demand for Eritrean troop withdrawal is a problem for Prime Minister Ahmed, who has viewed cooperation with neighbors as a way to increase Ethiopian regional influence.

"This is going to be really difficult tightrope for Ahmed, and this is not welcome news at all for Ethiopia," says Vines. 

Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, Eritrea's President Isaias Afwerki and Somalia's President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has tried to build ties with leaders of neighboring countries, including Eritrea and Somalia, most of which have a turbulent history with EthiopiaImage: Eduardo Soteras/AFP/Getty Images

The balancing act has become harder, as reports emerged of Eritrean soldiers blocking and looting food aid in Tigray, backed up by Ethiopian government documents. The EU has since pulled development aid for Eritrea worth over 100 million Euros, originally designated to Eritrea after its 2018 rapprochement with Ethiopia.

 Yohannes Gebre Egziabher contributed to this article.


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