Who is fighting in Ethiopia?
The conflict pits Ethiopian government forces and allied militias against troops loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which is the ruling party in the Tigray region. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched military operations in Tigray on November 4 after accusing local authorities of attacking a military camp and attempting to loot military resources. The TPLF denies the charge and accused Abiy of concocting the story to justify the offensive.
Where is Tigray?
The region lies in the mountainous corner of northwest Ethiopia and borders Eritrea and Sudan. There are around 7 million people, out of a total Ethiopian population of 110 million, but the region has played a disproportionate role in the country’s recent history.
What are both sides saying?
Each has very different stories. In general terms, the Tigrayan rulers assert that Abiy is an authoritarian desire to centralize power away from the regions, which enjoy a significant degree of autonomy under the constitution. The Prime Minister and his supporters say the Tigrayan leaders are extremists who threaten the cohesion of the country and want to seize power.
Analysts say the confrontation could have been avoided. The TPLF dominated the Ethiopian government coalition for decades before Abiy took power in 2018 and pushed for widespread changes aimed at opening up the media and the economy, but which also fueled ethnic tensions.
Tigrayan leaders complain that they have been unfairly targeted in corruption prosecutions, purged of senior positions and generally blamed for the country’s problems. The postponement of national elections due to the Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated the dispute, and when parliamentarians in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, voted to extend the terms of civil servants, the Tigrayan leaders held elections. regions in September which the Abiy government deemed illegal.
How serious is the fighting?
With the ban on journalists from the combat zone and communications largely cut off, it’s hard to know. There were airstrikes and artillery fire over a wide area, forcing tens of thousands to flee. Many have reported violent clashes.
Ethiopian government forces appear to be making progress with two advances along the main road from Mekelle, the capital of Tigray, and from the Sudanese border to the strategic town of Humera. Atrocities targeting civilians on both sides have also been reported.
How long could this last?
A long moment. The Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) has around 140,000 personnel and extensive experience in combating Islamist militants in Somalia and rebel groups in border areas, as well as a two-decade border standoff with Eritrea.
But many of the senior officers were Tigrayan, and many of the ENDF’s most powerful weapons are based in Tigray. The Tigrayans also have a tremendous history of martial achievement. They spearheaded the rebel march to Addis Ababa that overthrew a brutal Marxist dictatorship in 1991 and carried the brunt of a 1998-2000 war with Eritrea, in which hundreds of thousands people were killed. Their region is mountainous and rugged terrain, ideal for guerrilla warfare with local knowledge and support.
So what happens next?
The big concern is that the conflict destabilizes Ethiopia, already torn by ethnic tensions, and attracts regional powers. Either of these developments could be extremely damaging to one of Africa’s most fragile regions. Eritrea is already involved in the conflict, with the TPLF firing missiles at the Eritrean capital, Asmara, and troop movements reported at its border with Tigray.
Most analysts believe Sudan, which is in the midst of its own democratic transition, will support Abiy. But there is always the prospect of the conflict getting out of hand and – especially if powers in the Gulf or beyond are involved – turning part or all of Ethiopia into a ‘Libya in East Africa’, like the ‘said an expert.
No hope of a negotiated ceasefire?
Not at the moment. Abiy, who won a Nobel Prize last year for ending hostilities with Eritrea, appears determined to force TPLF leaders out of power, and even out of Tigray and Ethiopia altogether. Ethiopian government officials said negotiating would “encourage impunity”.