What’s causing the crisis in Tigray - and what happens next?
Last November, Ethiopian President Abiy Ahmed called for an invasion of Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region. Before the month had come to an end, he had already claimed victory in the conflict. That announcement was preemptive. Seven months later, a bloody and ongoing crisis has engulfed the state. The UN World Food Program (WFP) estimates that over 5.2 million people are in desperate need of aid, of which 2 million have been forced to flee their homes. Amidst legitimate claims of mass civilian killings and targeted sexual violence by Eritrean troops loyal to Abiy, external pressure is growing on both Ethiopia and Eritrea to withdraw troops and bring an end to the conflict. But the lack of a clear endgame strategy threatens to prolong the struggle indefinitely. So what caused the conflict, what is being done to bring it to an end, and what happens if it continues?
It’s all politics
The backdrop to the conflict is complex. Abiy Ahmed came to power in 2018, capitalising off protests against the ruling Tigrayan party. Since Ethiopia became a modern democratic federation in the 1990s, leaders from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) have been at the forefront of Ethiopian politics in coalition governments. Abiy’s 2018 win sidelined the TPLF for the first time. They saw his reforms as attempts to centralise power and minimise Tigrayan influence. Last September, Tigray held a regional election in open defiance of Addis Ababa’s decision to delay elections due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Abiy’s government declared the new regional government unlawful and cut funding to Tigray. The TPLF claimed this was an act of war. Then, on November 4, Abiy claimed the TPLF attacked a federal military base in the region, which crossed a ‘red line’ and justified military advances.
The motives driving the conflict are of course more complex than this. The TPLF may claim they are trying to protect the country’s ethno-federalism, which they argue Abiy is undermining, though it would be inaccurate to suggest their actions are purely altruistic. The TPLF held an iron-fisted grip over the country for almost three decades and are wishing to reclaim that power. Given Abiy’s track record thus far of relatively peaceful engagement and the disproportionate concentration of Tigrayan commanders in the military, the TPLF may have thought they could oust Abiy. If this is the case, they grossly miscalculated the equation.
The international response
Among the political games and strategy, ordinary Tigrayans are wearing the devastating human cost. Humanitarian organisations such as Amnesty International and the UN have consistently voiced their grave fears for the Tigrayan people. Legitimate reports of systematic rape, indiscriminate civilian killings, and the blocking of refugees from fleeing into nearby Sudan have exacerbated the conflict's humanitarian cost. Millions are going hungry due to destroyed harvests, and troops have been limiting the ability of aid groups to provide support. The WFP is warning of a major famine if a ceasefire and aid is not provided immediately.
Amidst this, the EU, US and UK governments are leading the calls for a ceasefire, which would allow emergency aid to be delivered. The EU and US have both paused funding to the country, while the US has gone one step further by imposing visa restrictions on officials accused of prolonging the conflict. However, the sanctions have not been well received by many Ethiopian people who perceive the intervention as an attack on ‘Ethiopian sovereignty’. It’s a fine line for Western leaders, who are concerned heavy-handedness may push Ethiopia further towards China. The US has been mostly cordial with Abiy so far; however, Ethiopia’s strong resistance to international ‘meddling’ has the potential to also sour the relationship going forward. It’s a disappointing outcome given Abiy was previously praised by the international community when he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for ending the 30 year conflict with Eritrea.
Given Ethiopia only recently put down arms with Eritrea, it seems odd that Eritrean forces have joined Ethiopians in their attack on Tigray. Eritrean soldiers have been accused by Amnesty of committing alleged war crimes, and it wasn’t until April this year that their government admitted troops were in the region. The bizarre behaviour could be explained by Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki's belief that there are no long term friends in the region. According to former Ethiopian Defence Minister, Seeye Abraha, Afwerki’s immediate support for Abiy is presumably a means to weaken the TPLF, a powerful regional actor. This motivation could explain the egregious behaviour of Eritrean soldiers, such as mass killings of young Tigrayan men and systematic sexual abuse. The UN has led calls for Eritrean soldiers to withdraw from the region, to which Eritrea and Ethiopia have ‘agreed’; however, little action has been taken to implement the retreat. Afwerki has gambled heavily on this conflict’s ability to weaken the geopolitical influence of the TPLF into the future. That gamble has already come at the cost of $100m in aid being withheld by the EU and the same visa sanctions the US imposed on Ethiopia. He might be in too deep to withdraw now.
What should Abiy do next?
Allowing aid agencies to provide support is a must for Abiy. A spokesperson for his administration has said that currently the Ethiopian government is only providing aid to 70% of those impacted.
Beyond this, he may be tempted to do nothing to bring an end to the wider conflict, especially given it is mostly popular with Ethiopian voters and international pressure is relatively tame. However, his hand may be forced if the current conflict flares up other ethnic tensions across Ethiopia, which have been bubbling since he came into office. Ethiopia's federal system is built on ethnic divisions. Against this backdrop, a national election scheduled for 21 June when millions are displaced, and political opponents are locked up, could be a tinderbox for wider unrest. In light of this, Abiy should commence a national dialogue with all affected ethnic groups and seek to minimise famine and further conflict.
Additionally, Eritrean soldiers must leave Tigray immediately in order to further minimise the crisis. Earlier this month, the Ethiopian Ambassador to the United States said preparations had begun for Eritrean withdrawal. But they also said that in April. And even as recently as mid-June they’ve said they will “definitely leave soon.” And yet, there has been no withdrawal. The international relationship with Abiy has frayed, but increased pressure must be placed on him to encourage Afwerki to implement a swift withdrawal. It may ruin his friendship with the Eritrean strongman, but sufficient international pressure could force his hand.
If either of the above does not happen, and even if they do, Ethiopia risks a descent into an ongoing crisis. Prior to this, Ethiopia had been a beacon of relative stability in the region. It would be devastating to see that slide away.
Cassius Hynam is the Regional Correspondent for Sub-Saharan Africa. He has previously interned at the Grattan Institute and is currently a Graduate Economist within Victoria's State Government.