Ethiopia appeared to be teetering close to the brink of civil war Wednesday, after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent in troops to the restive Tigray region in response to its forces allegedly attacking a federal military base.
“The last red line has been crossed with this morning’s attacks and the federal government is therefore forced into a military confrontation,” Abiy’s office said in a statement.
In a televised address, Abiy, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate for 2019, accused the northern region’s ruling party, the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), of launching an attack on federal army bases in the region early Wednesday.
“The army has been attacked from behind by its own citizens and many have been martyred, wounded and properties destroyed,” he said.
His spokesperson later told Reuters that government military operations in the region were underway, and reports emerged of gunfire in the regional capital, Mekelle, early Wednesday, before calm appeared to be restored. The government has declared a six-month state of emergency in the region, and cut off electricity, internet and phone services, making verifying the situation on the ground very difficult.
Analysts told VICE News the military action was a drastic escalation in the standoff between the regional authorities in Tigray and the federal government, who have been increasingly at odds.
William Davison, International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Ethiopia, said observers following the ratcheting tensions in recent months had increasingly feared an outbreak of conflict was unavoidable.
“The conflict began to look inevitable – a when, not if,” he said. “This is potentially incredibly serious.”
He said observers had feared a worst-case scenario in which the federal government tried to remove the Tigrayan leadership, and entered into a sustained conflict.
“At the moment it looks like it could be that scenario,” he said. “I say that because there is limited information.”
At the heart of the conflict are anxieties over the waning influence of Tigray in Ethiopia’s national politics. The TPLF has been a dominant force nationally for decades, following the removal of dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991. But since Abiy came to power in 2018, Tigrayans have complained of being increasingly sidelined, and in 2019 the TPLF quit his ruling coalition.
“The dynamics in Ethiopia have shifted 180 degrees in terms of who’s in control of the federal government,” Ahmed Soliman, a research fellow at the Chatham House international affairs think tank told VICE News.
Relations took a further dive when Tigrayan leaders pushed ahead with regional elections in September in defiance of a federal decision to postpone elections until the coronavirus pandemic had subsided. Following that move, federal politicians moved to cut off funding to the region, ramping up pressure on the TPLF.
In recent days, both sides have accused each other of plotting militarily, with Tigray’s regional president, Debretsion Gebremichael, reportedly saying Monday: “We have prepared our military of special force not in need of a war, but if the worst comes, to defend ourselves.” The following day, the Ethiopian parliament proposed that the TPLF be designated a terrorist organisation.
“There’s been an uncompromising approach by both sides, which threatens the unity of Ethiopia,” said Soliman, who called the situation “very worrying.”
“If it were to develop into a full-blown conflict it would have huge implications, not only for Ethiopia and its internal stability, but also for the Horn of Africa and wider East Africa.”
Davison agreed, saying that while the situation on the ground remained unclear, the tensions threatened to draw in the neighbouring Ethiopian region of Amhara, as well as Eritrea, with whom Ethiopia only signed a peace deal with in 2018.
“If this conflict continues then there is the likelihood that Eritrea will be dragged into it as well,” he said. “There’s all the pieces there for a major and protracted conflict.”
Soliman said he feared the flare-up could lead to further fragmentation in the country of 109 million people, which was riven by unaddressed ethnic and political divisions.
“If this were a protracted conflict, it could really exacerbate those divisions and lead to further fragmentation in the country,” he said.
“The key message is for both sides to pull back from escalating hostilities. Ultimately, Ethiopia’s problems are only going to be resolved through dialogue, compromise, and reconciliation – not through escalating conflict.”