The Ethiopian PM received the 2019 Nobel Prize for his peace agreement with Eritrea, breaking nearly 20 years of stalemate. After the Tigray conflict erupted last November many observers asked: “He got the Nobel Peace Prize, but starts a war the next year: why”?
In Ethiopia, an armed conflict that took many observers by surprise erupted in November 2020 in the northern region of Tigray, one of the ‘regional states’ in the country and historically and culturally one of its core regions. As Ethiopia, with ca. 108 mln people and a growing economy, is a key regional player in Eastern Africa, the question is apt as to what this conflict means for the country’s stability and political reform process. What led to this crisis, and will it persist in 2021?
Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s prime minister since April 2018, is a thorough reformist and a type of leader that the country had never seen before. He initiated significant political and legal changes aimed to transform the authoritarian ‘political culture’ of Ethiopia. He consistently called for cooperation of parties and ethnic groups and for reconciliation, trying to find new ways to tackle the deep domestic political problems. These were mostly the legacy of his predecessors, notably PM Meles Zenawi (r. 1991-2012) and his party the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF), the former insurgent movement that took power in May 1991 and ruled as a deeply authoritarian and dominant partner in the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition.
True, Abiy (not a member of the TPLF) received the 2019 Nobel Prize for his peace agreement with Eritrea, breaking nearly 20 years of stalemate, and after the Tigray conflict erupted on 4 November many observers asked: “He got the Nobel Peace Prize, but starts a war the next year: why”? The mistake in this superficial approach is that the political complexities from pre-Abiy Ethiopia are much underestimated, and in addition, a Nobel Prize winner cannot be ‘hostage’ to this prize for the rest of his career if major problems emerge that endanger domestic peace and stability.
And these problems indeed presented themselves. Needless to say, armed conflict on the scale we saw was disturbing: people got killed, refugees and IDPs were produced, property destroyed, and resources were squandered. But the clash was inevitable due to the relations of an autonomous regional government and TPLF party elite in the Tigray Region with the federal government having gone totally sour – via sabotage and subversion. There was willful lack of cooperation of the TPLF government in Tigray (ca. 7% of the total population) with the reformist federal government in Addis Ababa. The TPLF political elite, which over the past two years retreated more and more to Tigray’s capital Mekelle, built up a number of grievances, resulting from their loss of power on the federal level. One of these was the delay of the 2020 parliamentary elections, ordered by the federal government because of the COVID-19 pandemic They went ahead with their own elections, which however had little credibility and had not allowed any opposition parties to campaign. In rejecting all federal rules and policies in the past year, the TPLF party – with huge economic interests - started to behave like a ‘state in the state – not in the federal-constitutional sense but in the mafia sense.
While the recent conflict was phrased by the TPLF political elite as an ‘ethnic’ issue with Tigrayans ‘unfairly targeted’, the facts tell otherwise. There was no government rhetoric against ‘the Tigrayans’ on any ‘ethnic’ basis, on the contrary. Rather, there were specific accusations towards leading Tigray officials/TPLF members who had abused their political, economic and military positions. Some of them, accused of embezzlement, illegal violence, and corruption, were already brought to court in the past two years. In the federal army, acts of subversion of certain (not all) Tigrayan officers were ground to dismiss or arrest them. One major example was the general in the Defense Ministry, who on 3 November cut the ICT command lines from Addis Ababa headquarters to the Northern Command in Tigray, immobilizing the federal army there, allowing the TPLF forces to unexpectedly attack the two federal army bases in Dansha and Mekelle, whereby hundreds of federal soldiers were killed by their ‘comrades’. The man is now arrested.
In early December the federal army successfully ‘secured’ the Tigray region with minimal civilian casualties. Efforts are ongoing to install a transitional administration replacing the TPLF government, despite skirmishes with remnant TPLF units continuing and not all TPLF leaders being in custody. Interesting so far is the relative quiet in the region and the overall cooperation of the local population, many of whom seem relieved. This may indicate that a major insurgent war will not flare up again. Indeed, conditions are very different from those in the 1980s, and mass support in Tigray is unlikely. The TPLF leaders also seriously underestimated the federal army. But clearly there will be real challenges, especially to restore supply routes, overall humanitarian access to refugee camps (of ca. 100,000 Eritreans), install a credible government, and gain more support among the Tigrayan population.
The eventual international ramifications of the campaign are also to be considered. Here we hear very different voices. Many in the UN, the global media and donor country NGOs and of course on social media were quick to predict major crises and instability as well as internationalisation of the conflict. But evidence for this was slight. The eagerness with which these narratives and predictions were made is puzzling. There were victims, but expectations of massive humanitarian misery, of thousands of civilians in Tigray being killed, etc. have not been confirmed. There is evidence of an appalling massacre of civilians on 9 November in Mai Kadra town (one day before the federal army arrived), but that was by TLPF militia troops and youth activists (the Samri) on Amhara residents, and in which no Tigrayans were the victim. Yes, at the height of the conflict there were ca. 50,000 refugees from Tigray in Sudanese refugee camps across the border (part of them having returned meanwhile). But expanding humanitarian disaster is not at issue.
Any protracted war or massive internationalization of the conflict in 2021 is unlikely. While there are some problems with Sudan, a large-scale extension of armed conflict into that country or material support from its government to the TPLF is unlikely. Eritrea has declared itself to be supportive of Ethiopia in this conflict and observers claimed evidence of material support for the Ethiopian army in border areas, e.g., near Humera town. PM Abiy had to maneuver carefully so as not to allow massive and visible support from Eritrea in what he has defined as a domestic ‘law-and-order operation’.
Why should we keep an eye on this Tigray crisis in 2021? Although the fighting is basically over, the defeated TPLF leaders and remaining forces would love nothing better than permanent instability in the region, and they and their supporters in the global media will continue to try and make the conflict an international one. But the international fallout of the conflict will be limited. The domestic dimension of the conflict is likely more relevant, and here we need to understand local actors and parties. The political arena primarily consists of PM Abiy’s federal government, the new ruling party (the Prosperity Party), ethno-regional groups and activists, and social media propaganda and narratives. All contest the political system and will jostle for influence in the coming electoral campaigns of early 2021. The May 2021 elections will strongly impact on the future course of events. In the run-up to these elections, PM Abiy Ahmed is still a leader to watch, also because he enjoys large popularity at home.