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Conflict in Tigray: Implications for Ethiopia’s International Standing

Charged Affairs | Since Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed assumed office in April 2018, experts have optimistically predicted the country’s emergence as a regional power. Factors such as a large population, rapid economic growth, and a reform-minded head of government seemed to support this proposition, until recent instability in federal relations threatened an upset to Ethiopia’s position as an emerging power.

After the federal government’s recent incursion into the Tigray region of Ethiopia and subsequent fighting, reports suggest that several thousand citizens are dead and upwards of 40,000 are displaced. The conflict has drawn attention from the African Union and various other international actors. The crisis in Tigray is not an isolated event, but a manifestation of the security threats and political instability plaguing Prime Minister Ahmed Abiy in his campaign for national unity. Should Addis Ababa fail to resolve Ethiopia’s underlying grievances, Ethiopia risks losing both its position as a regional power and its cache as an international partner.

Violence in Tigray commenced in early November 2020 when Abiy ordered federal troops into the region. While the invasion was ostensibly a reaction to looting by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), most observers agree that the military action was intended as punishment after regional leaders held elections last September in defiance of a federal ban. Abiy declared victory on November 28th after federal troops took control of Tigray’s capital, Mekelle. However, fighting in the region remains heavy. International observers have also raised concerns of war crimes after Ethiopian armed forces threatened to target civilians.

At the heart of this contest between Abiy and the TPLF is a debate around Ethiopian governance and the extent to which Addis Ababa should exercise centralized control. The Tigray conflict has highlighted Ethiopia’s unique system of ethnic federalism, which gives semi-autonomous power to the country’s states, each of which was created along ethnic lines. Since this system was first implemented in 1995, certain ethnic groups – notably the Tigray – have enjoyed a degree of political control disproportionate to their demographic representation.

Abiy’s 2018 election marked a challenge to Ethiopia’s status quo. As the country’s first Oromo prime minister, an ethnic group which is demographically dominant but historically marginalized, Abiy has prioritized the blurring of ethnic lines. His program of “Ethiopianization” envisions a unified national identity that would take precedence over ethnic divisions. But after enjoying 15 years of special advantages achieved through their political clout, powerful ethnic groups fear losing their superior position to homogeneity. The resulting discontent has destabilized Ethiopian governance, as regional leaders fight to maintain their power and autonomy while Abiy tries to solidify central control.

The degree of violence seen in Tigray and the seeming intransigence on both sides of the federalism debate has led some analysts to warn of a broader civil war in Ethiopia. These fears are likely overblown. Two months of intense conflict in Tigray have strained TPLF resistance, and no other state in Ethiopia has the economic or military assets to successfully launch a revolt at this scale. However, it is clear that tensions between Addis Ababa and powerful regional contingents are not going away.

Although it received the most press coverage, what happened in Tigray is not an isolated event. Amhara’s attempted regional coup and the Sidama region’s vote for autonomy from the Southern Nationalities, Nations, and People’s Region, both in 2019, represented earlier challenges to Abiy’s anti-federalist agenda. Nationwide, escalating violence from ethnic paramilitary groups has also threatened Ethiopianization. In the face of continuing resistance, Abiy must be prepared to use force to retain control over the country. Tigray demonstrated his military willingness towards this end, and recent purges of opponents from top positions have shorn up his political might. Abiy should also realize that ruling under martial law may seriously jeopardize Ethiopia’s position as a regional leader and international power.

Ethiopia has some natural advantages that set it up as a regional power, including its size and resource wealth. But the country’s leadership has also sought out an expanded role in recent years: Addis Ababa hosts the African Union headquarters; the country’s National Defense Force coordinates and oversees multilateral peace and security operations in the region; and Ethiopian heads of government have mediated conflicts among neighboring states. Today, as Kenyan-Somali ties disintegrate and the U.S. withdrawal from Somalia generates ill-will in the region, strong leadership over the Horn of Africa is more important than ever.

The Tigray situation is already having harmful effects on regional relations. Federal troops came into direct conflict with Ethiopia’s western neighbor after patrol operations “ambushed” Sudanese forces. The burdens that come with mass refugee flows also threaten regional ties, as Tigrayan civilians surge over the border into Sudan and Eritrea. Perhaps the most serious consequence for Ethiopia’s position in East Africa, however, are the indirect effects of Abiy’s battle for centralized control. The guarded militarism inherent in this fight against state autonomy does not lend itself to legitimate leadership, raising the potential for increased distance from neighbors and regional institutions.

Of even greater concern to world leaders is the risk that an Ethiopian implosion could disrupt international security operations in the Horn of Africa. Prime Minister Abiy and his predecessors have operated in close partnership to American and European powers in counterterrorism and anti-piracy initiatives. With terrorist capabilities surging in the region and piracy ramping up off the coast of Somalia, international actors depend on capable, stable partners like Ethiopia. Unless Abiy finds a peaceful and sustainable solution to conflict over federalist governance, Ethiopia will lose its position as that go-to ally

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