Source: Italian Institute for International Political Studies

Martin Plaut 22 December 2021

Tigray’s campaign was to last only a few weeks. Instead, it risks of escalating into one of Africa’s worst famines.

The Ethiopian war is the most burning issue facing the people of the Horn of Africa in 2022, affecting people from Sudan to Somalia, Eritrea to Kenya and beyond. It is also among the most critical African problems the international community currently confronts.

From the start of the war in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region in November 2020, there were warnings that the conflict could lead to the collapse of the country, with catastrophic consequences for the region. The day after the war began, Johnnie Carson and Chester Crocker, both former US Assistant Secretaries of State for African Affairs, put their names to a statement signed by some of America’s best-informed Africanists, warning that the conflict might lead to the “fragmentation of Ethiopia”, which would be “the largest state collapse in modern history.” 

“Ethiopia is five times the size of pre-war Syria by population, and its breakdown would lead to mass interethnic and interreligious conflict; a dangerous vulnerability to exploitation by extremists; an acceleration of illicit trafficking, including of arms; and a humanitarian and security crisis at the crossroads of Africa and the Middle East on a scale that would overshadow any existing conflict in the region, including Yemen.” 

Since then, fighting has spread beyond Tigray to the Afar and Amhara regions of Ethiopia, with clashes inside Sudan and refugees fleeing to Kenya. It is important to note that the Tigray conflict did not occur in isolation. The International Organisation for Migration reported that fighting between ethnic groups had left 1.2 million internally displaced Ethiopians in September 2020, before the Tigray conflict erupted. What began a year ago as the invasion of the northern region of Ethiopia has spread across large areas of the countryMaps of the fighting show areas across Ethiopia held by Tigrayan forces or fighters of their allies, the Oromo Liberation Army

How did the Tigray war begin?

This is by no means simply a war between the governments of Ethiopia and Tigray. It was from the start an international conflict, with Tigray attacked by Ethiopian federal forces, militia from the Amhara region, supported by invading troops from Ethiopia’s northern neighbour, Eritrea, as well as forces from Somalia. That there were tensions between the federal government and Tigray was no surprise. The Tigrayans had ruled Ethiopia for 27 years until being ousted by the current Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed in 2018. Animosity between them was predictable. The Tigrayans – smarting from their loss of power – attempted to defy the new Ethiopian prime minister. However, the position of the Eritreans and Somalis requires some explanation. 

Tensions between Tigray and Eritrea can be traced to differences between the liberation movements of the 1970s. Then the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) had an uneasy alliance, working together to fight the Ethiopian government. This culminated in 1991 with the simultaneous capture by the rebels of their respective capitals: Addis Ababa and Asmara. The EPLF provided support to the TPLF in the assault on Addis Ababa, but their alliance hid ideological and tactical disputes. 

By 1998 this relationship had ruptured and Eritrea and Ethiopia fought a bitter border war that ended in 2000 leaving some 100,000 dead. A peace agreement was signed in Algiers, but – much to the fury of Eritrea – Ethiopia refused to accept the border drawn by the boundary commission established by the treaty. In response, Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki collaborated with the Somali Islamists of Al-Shabaab and Ethiopian guerrilla movements in a failed attempt to oust the Tigrayan rulers of Ethiopia. However, in 2018 internal factors finally saw the TPLF lose their grip on power in Addis Ababa, to be replaced by Abiy Ahmed.

Enter the Eritreans

Prime Minister Abiy soon came to share the belief of Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki that they had a common enemy in the Tigrayans. The two men signed a peace treaty, to be followed by a tripartite alliance including Somalia. A series of nine joint meetings by the Eritrean and Ethiopian leaders saw the development of a strategy to rid themselves of the Tigrayans. 

Tigray was on a collision course with both Eritrea and Ethiopia months before November 2020. Exactly what happened on 4 November is not clear, but fighting broke out at the Northern Command base in the Tigrayan capital, Mekelle, which the Tigrayans seized. Tigray came under immediate attack from Ethiopian forces, supported by local militia from the south and east, while Eritreans attacked from the north and west. This was not the ‘law-enforcement operation’ described by Prime Minister Abiy: it was an attempt to eliminate the Tigrayans as a political force. By the end of November 2020 the Ethiopian prime minister claimed that his troops had established “full control” of the city and that the conflict had been “successfully concluded.” 

Conflict and diplomacy

In reality the Tigrayans had pulled their forces out of the cities of Tigray and headed to the countryside and the mountains to conduct a guerrilla war. The UN – in a secret report – feared the war would become an extended conflict, characterised by irregular warfare. This is indeed what has transpired. By 4 April 2021 Abiy admitted that the fighting was far from over. Then, in June 2021, the Tigrayans burst forth from the countrysiderecapturing their capital, Mekelle on 28 June. Capturing Mekelle and expelling the invading forces from most of Tigray did not end the war, for the people of Tigray were being held captive. Ethiopian and Eritrean troops prevented aid from being sent into the region, cut communication links and refused access to the war zone to independent journalists. As the Economistcommented in September 2021, “Ethiopia is deliberately starving its own citizens.” By November the Tigrayans had advanced a long way beyond Tigray and appeared to be threatening Addis Ababa, but when the Prime Minister launched an offensive from the east to cut their extended supply lines they retreated northwards, abandoning towns and villages they had captured along the way.

The United States and European Union have been working with the African Union in an attempt to end the fighting, but it has been an uphill task. Prime Minister Abiy rejected an African Union peace initiative that was actually agreed to by his own President as early as November 2020.The US has sent special envoys to meet all parties and, when this failed to produce results, imposed sanctions on Eritrea for its role in the war and extended these to Ethiopia and Tigray. Former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo has acted as a mediator, visiting Mekelle as well as Addis Ababa. He has had limited success. The burden of resolving this now appears to rest on the shoulders of Kenya’s President Kenyatta. Whether he can succeed where others have failed remains to be seen.

It is possible that there will be a diplomatic breakthrough in 2022 and that an accommodation can be reached between the Tigrayans and their Ethiopian and Eritrean enemies, but the prospects look poor. Behind the intransigence lie two completely incompatible views of Ethiopia. One – supported by the Prime Minister – is for a centralised state, as created in the nineteenth century by Emperor Menelik II. The other supports a decentralised state, in which ethnic groups have the right to self-realisation, including secession. The latter is supported by the Tigrayans and other ethnic groups, including Ethiopia’s largest: the Oromo. Unless these views can be reconciled, or one side or the other wins a decisive victory and enforces its will, the prospect for 2022 is of further bloodshed. The last war the Tigrayans fought lasted sixteen years (1974 – 1991). This bitter history may be the most accurate guide to what lies ahead.