Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict: why the rest of the world is worried
NAIROBI, Kenya – US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is traveling to Kenya, where he will discuss the conflict in neighboring Ethiopia.
US and UK citizens have been ordered to leave Ethiopia “as long as commercial flights are readily available,” in the words of a UK minister.
The alarming advisory, with echoes from Kabul in August, came as a rebel force from the northern Tigray region appeared to be able to move towards the capital, Addis Ababa.
A year after the start of the civil war, which left a humanitarian crisis in its wake, the chorus of external concerns is intensifying.
African and American diplomatic pressure is increasing as what is happening in Ethiopia has huge implications for the rest of the region and the world in general.
Why is this important?
The numbers alone are shocking.
At least 400,000 people face starvation conditions in the north, 80% of essential medicines are not available and more than two million people have been forced to leave their homes.
The federal government is accused of deliberately preventing aid from reaching Tigray, which it denies.
In addition, there is evidence of unlawful killings, torture and sexual violence committed by both sides.
But there are also strategic interests.
Ethiopia, with a population of 110 million – the second largest on the continent, had been a key and stable Western ally in an unstable region.
Some fear that the current fighting could unleash wider violence in this multi-ethnic nation that could even lead to its rupture. If millions of people fled a heightened conflict, its neighbors would find it difficult to cope.
Landlocked Ethiopia borders six countries, two of which are already in conflict – South Sudan and Somalia – and another, Sudan, has just experienced a military takeover.
He has troops in the joint African Union-UN mission to combat Islamist militants in Somalia and there are fears that they will be withdrawn if needed in their country.
Before leaving for his tour of Africa, Blinken warned that an all-out conflict would be “disastrous for the Ethiopian people and also for others in the region”.
Eritrean troops are already fighting in Ethiopia and a protracted crisis could suck more neighbors.
But more distant countries would also have been attracted.
Last month, the Reuters news agency said Turkey had agreed to sell Ethiopian military drones. The deal threatened Turkey’s relations with Egypt, which has its own argument with Ethiopia over a massive dam on the Nile, the report added.
Ethiopia has also purchased Chinese and Iranian weapons, and flights from the United Arab Emirates are used to transport them, the Oryx defense site reports.
From the perspective of the United States, Ethiopia has long been viewed as a reliable ally, especially during the so-called war on terror.
He fought Islamist militants in Somalia on the front lines of this conflict and offered the United States to use its airspace during the Iraq war. It was one of the few African countries to join the United States’ “coalition of the willing”.
A stable government in Ethiopia has been vital to this relationship. The United States has supported it financially, handing over $ 4.2 billion (£ 3.1 billion) in aid between 2016 and 2020.
But the US envoy to the region, Jeffrey Feltman, was quick to criticize the federal government, saying its policies resulted in massive famine, and compared it to the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad.
Is the capital threatened? After a series of advances by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Tigray (TPLF) fighters along the main highway leading from the north to Addis Ababa, tension has mounted.
The United States has issued an evacuation call to its citizens, and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has announced a state of emergency and called for more military recruits.
Authorities in Addis Ababa have called on the population to register weapons.
Another rebel group allied with the TPLF said they were also closing in on the capital.
The city’s multi-ethnic nature has compounded tensions there, with some accusing authorities of targeting Tigrayans in a series of arrests.
But the Tigrayan forces are still more than 300 km from the city – around the town of Kombolcha.
“It’s not the Taliban crossing Afghanistan and taking city after city without shooting a bullet,” Tibor Nagy, former US assistant secretary of state for Africa, told the BBC.
“Where the TPLF is operating now, there is enormous resistance … and it would be a horribly bloody battle for Addis Ababa.”
He believes that the capture of the capital is used as a threat in the same way that nuclear power could use the possibility of launching its weapons.
The TPLF said what it really wants is to allow aid supplies to reach Tigray.
“We will continue to walk [towards Addis Ababa]… But it’s not so much about Addis Ababa as our intention to force Abiy to lift the blockade, ”spokesman Getachew Reda told BBC Focus on Africa.
The Ethiopian government has designated the TPLF as a terrorist organization and the prime minister has pledged to fight against it.
“We are going to bury this enemy with our blood and our bones and bring Ethiopia back to glory,” Abiy said earlier this month.
Are there peace talks?
The concern now is that the conflict is entering a new phase and that it will become increasingly difficult for both sides to take a step back.
There are also fears that the fighting could spread across the country.
The TPLF has allied with a range of groups also opposed to the government in a new coalition seeking to end Mr. Abiy’s tenure.
The African Union envoy to the region, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, spoke of a small “window of opportunity”.
“Time is running out for any intervention,” he told the UN Security Council after speaking to the two sides during a recent visit to Ethiopia.
He calls for dialogue and a political solution, but has yet to describe how this could be achieved.
The response from Ethiopia’s Ambassador to the UN, Taye Atske Selassie, summed up the challenges mediators will face. He said he respected the call for dialogue but then called the TPLF a “criminal group”.
TPLF spokesperson Mr. Getachew tweeted that “most peace initiatives are primarily aimed at saving [Prime Minister] Abiy, not to address the country’s most critical political challenges. “
Of course, negotiations to end wars are by nature between seemingly implacable enemies.
One way to get the two sides to sit down would be for the United States and China, as well as other countries such as Turkey, to act together, says former U.S. diplomat Nagy.
“Abiy couldn’t resist the United States and China by saying the same thing.”
He says the first thing would be to end the fighting and make sure that aid can be delivered, and then gradually explore political options.
What is the war about?
At the root of the conflict is a disagreement between Prime Minister Abiy and the TPLF, which dominated the entire country for almost 27 years, not just Tigray.
Mr Abiy came to power in 2018 following a wave of protests from members of the Oromo ethnic group.
The Oromo – Ethiopia’s largest group – have long felt marginalized. Mr. Abiy, himself Oromo and a member of the ruling coalition, was seen as the man who could solve the problem.
In a whirlwind of reforms, during which it liberalized politics and made peace with its long-time enemy, Eritrea, the TPLF was sidelined.
The simmering dispute between the TPLF and Mr. Abiy then escalated into war 12 months ago when Tigrayan forces were accused of attacking military bases to steal weapons and the federal government responded.