By Shannon Ebrahim, Group Foreign Editor
With the rebel Tigray Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF) advancing towards the capital Addis Ababa, the risk of Ethiopia descending into full scale civil war is very real.
The consequences of such an offensive on the densely populated capital where democratically elected Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is immensely popular, would be bloody and devastating, and would likely plunge the country into war with itself.
The TPLF (which represents only 6 percent of the population) never accepted losing power to Abiy in 2018, after ruling the country with an iron fist for two and a half decades with the backing of western powers. The group is well resourced and its backers continue to pour money and arms into their coffers in the hopes they will overthrow Abiy’s government. The TPLF has been accumulating a sophisticated arsenal of weapons for years and controls hundreds of thousands of soldiers and irregular militias. After it lost its grip on power in 2018, its leaders withdrew to Tigray to regroup and strategise on their return to power.
Ethiopia is a complex country of 90 ethnic groups and a population of 112 million, with many regions long having felt alienated and marginalised from the center of power. Since the TPLF launched its insurrection, violence has exploded in Tigray and spread to the Amhara and Afar regions, resulting in starvation and grave violations of human rights. On Wednesday this week, Amnesty International released a report documenting TPLF atrocities including gang rapes in Amhara, which borders Tigray.
The Oromo Liberation Front, which has long sought self-determination for its people, has joined forces with the TPLF in fighting to overthrow the government. The Oromos are the most populous ethnic group and have historically complained of political marginalisation. Insecurity in the Oromia region continues to worsen while the situation in parts of the Benishangul‑Gumuz region remains tense.
In recent days, Tigrayan forces have advanced southward through the Amhara region towards Addis Ababa acting in coordination with the Oromo Liberation Army. The threat to the capital has led the national government to declare a nationwide state of emergency for the next six months, and it has stated it is fighting “an existential war.”
The impact on the civilian population has been devastating. According to the UN, more than 7 million people need aid in northern Ethiopia. In Tigray, more than 5 million people need food and an estimated 400,000 people are living in famine‑like conditions. However, no aid trucks have reached Mekelle since 18 October, and air strikes have continued. In September it was reported that the TPLF had seized a fleet of humanitarian trucks for logistical use in its war efforts, and some were allegedly used to transport child soldiers. According to the UN humanitarian aid agency, it is estimated that 80 percent of essential medication is no longer available in the region.
Ethiopians know the horrors of war, they have been through it many times before. First against the Italians after the Italian invasion in 1935. Then there was the bloody war with Eritrea in 2000 that resulted in over 70,000 deaths, and the intervention of Ethiopian troops in Somalia against Al Shabaab. The latest internal war against the TPLF and its allies has resulted in further bloodshed that now threatens the very foundations of the federal state.
The deteriorating situation is fast approaching catastrophe, and while expressing concern, the UN has left the matter up to the AU to take a lead in addressing. The AU High Representative for Horn of Africa Olusegan Obasanjo has briefed the UN from his visit to the country, saying that local leaders agree that their differences are political and the situation requires dialogue. Abiy has agreed to launch a national dialogue, but whether this takes place before the situation in the capital implodes is yet to be seen.
It was only three years ago that Ethiopia was being dubbed Africa’s great hope, with a new and visionary democratic leadership which prioritised reconciliation both internally and with its neighbors. Ethiopia also had the fastest‑growing economy in Africa just two years ago. The protracted conflict against the TPLF which has sustained its insurrection against the federal government for over a year has put Ethiopia’s prospects in grave jeopardy. As Russia has said in the UN Security Council, an elected government should not be forced to negotiate with a group trying to unseat it. But at the same time, there is no military solution that will have a positive outcome, so dialogue is the imperative that must be pushed by the AU with the utmost urgency.
* Shannon Ebrahim is the Group Foreign Editor