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The outbreak of conflict in Ethiopia has been years in the making

An Ethiopian refugee child who fled fighting in Tigray province, eats while sitting with others in a hut at the Um Rakuba camp in Sudan's eastern Gedaref province. Picture: Ebrahim Hamid/AFP

An Ethiopian refugee child who fled fighting in Tigray province, eats while sitting with others in a hut at the Um Rakuba camp in Sudan's eastern Gedaref province. Picture: Ebrahim Hamid/AFP

Published Nov 22, 2020


Johannesburg - The current outbreak of violence in Ethiopia was expected – it is the culmination of years of plotting to destabilise the central government by intransigent and heavily-armed spoilers in the north of the country.

The Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which operates from its enclave in the north on the border with Sudan, has been accumulating a sophisticated arsenal of weapons for years. It also controls hundreds of thousands of soldiers and irregular militias.

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Once the TPLF (which represents 6% of the population) lost its grip on power in 2018 after controlling the central government from 1991, its leaders withdrew to the northern territory of Tigray with their arsenal of weapons. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s rise to power in 2018 was accompanied by a tide of anger against the dominance of the TPLF for so many years, which oversaw decades of human rights abuses, torture and the jailing of journalists and opposition leaders.

Abiy made significant strides in changing the political dynamic, releasing political prisoners, ushering in an inclusive government, making peace with Eritrea and making known his preference to amend the constitution, which provides the basis of the current ethnic federalism.

Proposals for a new constitution are based on the concept of redistributing power in proportion to population size, which would ultimately reduce the TPLF’s disproportionate share of power. It is therefore no surprise that there have been widespread accusations that the TPLF has been working to undermine the current political order and unseat the administration.

The problem with Ethiopia’s system of ethnic federalism is that it has entrenched ethnic divisions and prevented true Ethiopian nationalism from emerging, but encouraged narrow ethnic nationalism. In 1991, Nelson Mandela had warned Meles Zenawi of just such an outcome if the narrow nationalism of ethnically-based parties was to continue. Historians say that the entrenchment of ethnic divisions was originally the intent of the former occupiers who pursued a divide and rule strategy in Ethiopia. This was also the position of big powers especially after the overthrow of Mengistu in 1991.

Western powers were set on backing the TPLF as the driving force in the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), despite the fact that the TPLF only represented 6% of the population. The EPRDF was a four-party, ethnically-based governing coalition.

While Abiy has genuinely sought an end to the tensions with Eritrea, the new alliance also serves a strategic purpose: to contain the TPLF in the north of the country. Tensions between the TPLF and Eritrea have a long history, and were at their height during the Badme war on the border between the two countries, which resulted in over 100 000 deaths.

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The tensions between the TPLF and the central government had been simmering since Abiy took power. The TPLF had accused Abiy of purging Tigrayans from senior leadership positions, including in the military and security services after taking power. But tensions reached a flashpoint recently when the TPLF defied the authority of the central government, which had cancelled this year’s elections due to Covid-19, and called their own elections without the necessary observers, and claimed that the TPLF won 98% of the vote.

Abiy responded by declaring a state of emergency on November 4, and cut funding to the TPLF leadership. The TPLF then crossed what the central government considered to be a red line, and attacked a federal military base of the Ethiopian National Defence Force, and allegedly executed non-Tigrayan soldiers. This led to the massacre of hundreds of non-Tigrayan bystanders, and atrocities were committed on both sides. Thousands have since fled to Sudan. The central government considered the TPLF’s provocation to constitute an armed revolt or insurrection and has since launched what it hopes will be a short-lived military operation in Tigray.

According to Billene Seyoum, the press secretary at the office of the prime minister, the objectives of the government are to disarm those responsible for the attack, arrest the ringleaders and bring them to justice, end the impunity of the TPLF leaders, reintegrate the refugees, set up a temporary administration to fulfil the needs of the people, and to ensure peace and stability in the region. Seyoum says government troops have already captured key towns and are “targeting the TPLF clique in their hideout in the regional capital”. According to Seyoum, the federal parliament has revoked the immunity of eight-10 TPLF ringleaders.

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The TPLF is seeking external African mediation as it tries to internationalise the conflict, but the government of Ethiopia has so far refused any external mediation as it believes the matter to be an internal issue. From the perspective of Abiy’s administration, mediation is an option in a situation between equals, but in this case they characterise their opponents as a “clique gone rogue”, which has attacked the National Defence Forces – a criminal act, according to their constitution. The government considers their military operation necessary in order to restore security, stability and the rule of law.

The outbreak of conflict also came on the heels of tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia on the filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Prime Minister Abiy has said on numerous occasions that the government believes that the TPLF has been colluding with foreign elements in its attempts to unseat the government. While Abiy has not specified which foreign elements it suspects the TPLF to have been colluding with, unsubstantiated reports in the Eritrean Press (EP), which claims to be an Eritrean news source, reported earlier this year that the TPLF allegedly offered Egypt joint ownership of the dam if Egypt were to help it restore the EPRDF to power.

The narrative of the mainstream Western media has also been focused on the need for the Ethiopian government to end its offensive in Tigray, but there has been little criticism by the media or international actors of the conduct of the TPLF, or calls for its leaders to be held accountable. In the past, the TPLF was widely viewed as an ally of the US in the war on terror, and the perception was created that it was subsequently protected from international criticism.

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The US State Department has, however, condemned the TPLF attack on the airport in Asmara, Eritrea on November 14, and its attempts to cause regional instability. It also denounced the TPLF’s November 13 missile attacks on the Bahir Dar and Gondar airports in Ethiopia.

While the conflict rages, the humanitarian consequences on the ground are staggering. The UNHCR has said that a full-scale humanitarian crisis is unfolding in Tigray. Thousands of refugees are fleeing the ongoing fighting to seek safety in Sudan – the worst influx of refugees into Sudan in two decades.

* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media’s Foreign Editor.

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