Two weeks ago, Americans and millions around the globe were glued to their televisions as votes were tallied in Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Georgia, and North Carolina. But as the world was consumed with elections in the United States, a war was breaking out in Ethiopia — a nation larger, and more populous, than all those swing states combined. A heated feud between the country’s reformist prime minister and the old guard he’d supplanted had finally reached a boil, and the violent clashes now enveloping Ethiopia’s northern region have brought the country of 110 million people to the brink. Ethiopia, it has been said, is “too big to fail.” If it does, it could drag an entire region down with it.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize less than one year ago. Now his country is on the verge of a civil war. Ironic, yes, but a surprise? Not entirely. Having promised sweeping reforms in one of the world’s most repressive states, Abiy, as I wrote at the time, had “finally taken the lid off Ethiopia, initiating one of the world’s most important political transitions, but also its most fragile.” It was a laudable pursuit — though one that required not just lofty rhetoric and visions of a radically transformed polity, but a plan (and a commitment) to bring Ethiopia’s 10 ethno-regional blocs with him.
The period since has instead been plagued by tense relations between the central government and various regional authorities, the most rancorous of which have involved the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The Tigrayans are a small ethnic minority — just 6% of the population — from the country’s far north, but it was they who fashioned Ethiopia’s federal system in 1991 and then dominated its political and security institutions until Abiy, an ethnic Oromo, came to power in 2018. TPLF leaders had long known that their monopoly on power, however tight their grip, would one day come to an end. That didn’t mean they were going to go quietly, however, and they have since fought Abiy’s reform project with increasing vigor.
While the past weeks have seen no shortage of finger-pointing between these bitter rivals, the truth is that both sides are to blame for the conflict now imperiling Ethiopia.
A cycle of provocation
Ethiopia was until last year governed by a four-party coalition, a TPLF-designed marriage of convenience that allowed each ethno-regional bloc a degree of autonomy and a share of the national cake. But the coalition began coming apart in recent years, and a popular backlash finally dislodged the TPLF establishment and, in turn, opened the door to Abiy. Keen on redistributing power and moving the country away from ethnic federalism, Abiy replaced the coalition with a single, nationally oriented “Prosperity Party.” The TPLF, concerned its relative influence would decline, fought the move, failed, and then opted out, leaving the powerful minority outside the national government for the first time in a generation.
In June, when Abiy announced that Ethiopia’s 2020 elections would be postponed on account of the coronavirus pandemic, the TPLF cried foul and refused to recognize his legitimacy, arguing his mandate had expired. Tigray went ahead and held its own regional elections in September over strenuous objections from Addis Ababa. And a month later, when Abiy dispatched a new general to Tigray to head the national army’s Northern Command, the TPLF sent him back with a message for the prime minister: we do not recognize your authority. Abiy responded in kind, declaring Tigray’s elections illegal, cutting federal funding to the region, and taking further measures to restructure the army’s Northern Command.
The tit-for-tat has been fueled throughout by dangerous rhetoric. While Abiy has accused Tigrayan “traitors” of undermining the state and fomenting unrest, the TPLF believes it has been singled out by a heavy-handed “dictator” intent on bringing “the people of Tigray to their knees.”
The dam finally gave way in the early morning hours of November 4, when Tigrayan forces attacked a national military base in Tigray. Citing months of sustained “provocation and incitement of violence,” Abiy declared that “the last red line has been crossed,” and ordered government troops to mount a military operation against the TPLF.
Telecommunications links in Tigray promptly went dark, ground offensives and air strikes followed, and thousands of civilians were soon fleeing west across the border into neighboring Sudan. The battle now raging could prove both intense and sustained, as the TPLF is home to some of the best-armed forces and most experienced generals in the country, and reports suggest it has scored defections and equipment from the Northern Command. Meanwhile, worrying reports of unlawful detentions, ethnic targeting, and civilian massacres are polarizing Ethiopians of all backgrounds, and constituencies in the neighboring Amhara region have already been drawn into the fight — evidence of just how easily this conflict could spread.
Neither side is likely to “win” this war, nor is an endgame especially clear for Abiy or his TPLF adversaries. If TPLF forces hold their ground, they could expose Abiy’s weakness, undermine him politically on the national stage, and retain considerable autonomy within their preferred system of ethnic federalism. (A TPLF return to national power, which would be opposed by Ethiopia’s ethnic majorities, isn’t especially likely.)
Abiy’s stated aim, meanwhile, is to arrest a “criminal clique” of some 64 TPLF leaders, an act for which he argues the people of Tigray will thank him. But such a clean and limited outcome is unlikely, and his attempt to paint the current situation as a matter of law enforcement denies the wider realities of ethnic strife and social unrest manifest not only in Tigray but across much of Ethiopia. If and when battlefield gains diminish, national forces are further stressed, limited financial resources dry up, and international pressure to stop the fighting mounts, Abiy may well have to change tack.
A region experienced in proxy conflict
Ethiopians aren’t the only ones paying attention, as the conflict carries considerable implications for — and conversely, may be shaped by — states across the Horn of Africa and the wider Red Sea region. Eritrea, which shares a border with Tigray, fought a bloody war with Ethiopia between 1998 and 2000, and its president, Isaias Afwerki, is public enemy No. 1 in Tigray. Isaias and Abiy have found common cause in subduing the TPLF. And the Eritrean leader was already intimately involved in the war effort before this past weekend, when the TPLF launched a volley of missiles at Asmara — officially internationalizing the conflict.
Sudan has dispatched troops to the region and, for now, has closed its border with Tigray — the landlocked region’s only outlet. Egypt has for years been at loggerheads with Ethiopia over use of Nile River waters and the building of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam; Cairo could exploit current circumstances to sow further divisions and improve its hand at the negotiating table. Somalia’s fragile government has long been underwritten by Ethiopian security, and a diversion of Ethiopian resources and attention could leave behind a dangerous security vacuum in a still highly vulnerable state. Finally, the United Arab Emirates has interests in both Ethiopia and Eritrea, and enjoys good relations with Abiy and Isaias — as well as Egypt and Sudan’s military brass. Abu Dhabi could conceivably be part of a solution, but it should take care to prioritize the interests of the two countries — not just their leaders — and to coordinate diplomatic efforts with the African Union (AU) and the wider international community.
The United States, meanwhile, has long deemed Ethiopia an important ally in a volatile region, and might have been an ideal intermediary. But the Trump administration’s wayward policies — including its unbalanced support for Egypt in the aforementioned Nile water negotiations — have left Washington with little clout at a moment of extraordinary peril.
Toward resolution: Elements of a settlement
The past week has seen considerable chatter among international diplomats about who, if anyone, can best engage the Ethiopian antagonists in dialogue, and how. But it’s also time to talk substance — to turn the conversation toward the elements of a deal such that they can be debated, refined, and ready for when the costs of conflict begin to outweigh potential gains. That moment will come, and when it does, intermediaries must be ready.
To that end, the following broad elements could be proposed by the African Union — as a baseline for negotiations — with support from the United Nations, from neighbors such as Sudan, and from the European Union, the United States, the Gulf states, and China. All have interests in the Horn of Africa, and none should underappreciate the very real consequences for international peace and security should Ethiopia descend into chaos.
- Cessation of hostilities: First, the fighting must stop; the modalities of a cessation of hostilities — including provisions for redeployment, control of the military’s northern command, and a monitoring mechanism to prevent flare-ups — could be determined in consultation with AU officials and independent security experts. Humanitarian access must also be assured. In the long run, security forces—including military, police, and irregular militia—will need to be restructured (and not only in Tigray). Such an overhaul could begin after elections and be based on a new political dispensation.
- Mutual acknowledgment of legitimacy: Second, the Tigrayan regional government could acknowledge the legitimacy of Prime Minister Abiy’s government, in a transitional capacity, until the convening of national elections — date to-be-determined — next year. In turn, Prime Minister Abiy could acknowledge that the mandate of Tigray’s regional authority, per its September 2020 elections, represents the will of the people, and it shall likewise be accepted as the legitimate transitional authority until national elections. The outer bounds of their respective transitional authority could be delineated, and normalizing measures could flow from the mutual declaration, including, for example: a) restoration of federal funds to the Tigray region’s capital of Mekelle (and if necessary, a mechanism to verify accountability for their use); b) restoration of telecommunication and trade links; c) release of political prisoners; d) accountability for acts of violence committed during the transition period to date; and e) enactment of near-term security guarantees as provided by a cessation of hostilities agreement.
- Dialogue and elections — terms and timing: Ethiopian elites must renew a political dialogue now, ahead of national elections; it should expand on existing efforts and involve not only Abiy and the Tigrayans, and leaders of all ten federal states, but Ethiopians across the political and ideological spectrum. Together, they should determine the path to elections, set a new date, and decide what kind of convention will be held thereafter to revise the 1995 constitution and resolve core questions about the nature of the Ethiopian state. There is good reason to be cautious about convening elections amid fragile political transitions; but given Ethiopia is already suspended in an extra-constitutional limbo and elections are a central pillar of the dispute, they will be necessary to turn a page on this tumultuous period and restore confidence in the country’s wider democratic transition.
Given Ethiopia’s size and its centrality to politics, economics, and security across the region, the scale and consequences of a wider civil war — or collapse of the state — are difficult to comprehend, except to say they could prove far, far worse than the state failures of recent decades. While a window of opportunity has not yet opened, the time to start talking about the outlines of a negotiated settlement is now.