The crisis in Ethiopia’s Tigray region has come to an end — at least on the surface. In November 2020, the Ethiopian National Defense Force quickly recaptured all urban areas in Tigray with the support of the Amhara Fano militia and the Eritrean military. Although the parties avoided major confrontation, the military operation left hundreds of casualties on the ground and displaced an estimated 1 million people across the region, with over 50,000 refugees crossing the border to Sudan.
In the meantime, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) leadership went underground, probably in the remote mountains of Tigray. Despite the initial bravado, the TPLF was unable to conduct guerrilla warfare against the Ethiopian forces, finding itself encircled and losing a considerable portion of its military assets. The TPLF’s very survival will depend on popular support, which, in turn, will depend on how the Ethiopian authorities are going to handle the Tigray region and its civilian population in the foreseeable future. The situation on the ground convinced Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to declare the mission accomplished.
Israel’s Comeback in the Horn of Africa
The heavy hand adopted against the TPLF sent a strong message in multiple directions. Domestically, it targeted Abiy’s Oromo and Amhara allies, but also the movements that currently defy the federal government across Ethiopia. Externally, the prime minister made it clear that the Tigray crisis was essentially a domestic issue, signaling to friends and foes that neither the country’s unity nor is his vision of an Ethiopia-centered regional order is under question. But why was such message deemed necessary in Addis Ababa and what impact did it have?
A System Under Strain
The label of “African Yugoslavia” has been hanging over Ethiopia for quite some time. Both states have enshrined a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society reflected in a federal constitutional system. Both countries have been ruled by a strong single party that initially controlled the political system from the center but subsequently gave way to regional, ethno-nationalist components. This shift eventually caused the violent break-up of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. In today’s Ethiopia, strong party leadership might ensure a different outcome.
Since Abiy Ahmed came to power in 2018, some events made observers doubt his ability to carry out his reform program and keep Ethiopia’s federation together. In June 2019, an attempted coup orchestrated by the head of the Amhara security forces led to a series of clashes between the Ethiopian army and groups of Amhara rebels. In August 2019, violent protests broke out in Hawassa as local ethnic movements demanded the formation of their own state in the south. On June 29, the killing of a famous Oromo singer sparked widespread riots in Oromia, while a series of ethnic-based murders further inflamed the political climate across the country.
Then came the constitutional quarrel with the TPLF. Back in June, Addis Ababa indeterminably postponed parliamentary elections due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The move was criticized by all opposition parties, yet only the TPLF defied the federal government and organized local elections, resulting in a relatively high turnout in support of the Tigrayan leadership. The situation spiraled out of control amid reciprocal accusations of illegitimacy. Ultimately, the TPLF attacked the bases of the Northern Command of the Ethiopian army on the night of November 3. Abiy’s response was swift and resolute, sending a convincing message regarding the state of the federation and his personal leadership.
The operation targeted the main rival of Abiy’s political project. The Tigrayans bore the brunt of the war against Eritrea and Ethiopia’s Derg regime despite being a small minority in the country. When it came to power in 1991, the TPLF managed to design an ethnic federation and dominate it for nearly 30 years. This was made possible through a careful political strategy that pitted the Oromo and the Amhara, the two major ethnic groups, against one another.
After his appointment as prime minister, Abiy heralded a new course for Ethiopia based on the unity between the Amhara and Oromo elites within his Prosperity Party. Along with his allies, he began to sideline the Tigray leadership through economic reforms and judicial prosecutions against security officers. This included an array of privatizations of Tigray-dominated public companies and tighter controls over financial flows that curtailed Tigrayan leaders’ grip on the Ethiopian economy. Now, by squashing the TPLF, the prime minister has killed two birds with one stone, eliminating his main domestic opposition and boosting unity among his allies.
The View from Outside
Prime Minister Abiy managed to convey a strong message abroad as well. Its first recipients have been Ethiopia’s neighbors in the Horn of Africa. The heavy hand in Tigray signaled that Ethiopia’s internal divisions did not affect the Addis Ababa-centered regional order currently under construction. When he came to power, Abiy understood that his country needed stability around its enormous borders in order to prosper and shield its periphery from instability. This is the reason why he developed strong relations with his Sudanese counterpart, Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, and, most notably, with Ethiopia’s traditional foes: Eritrea and the Somali federal government.
The peace with Asmara, in particular, which won Abiy the Nobel Prize in 2019, marked a revolution in Ethiopian foreign policy. One of Addis Ababa’s key priorities is access to the Red Sea, a lack of which has made land-locked Ethiopia overly dependent on neighboring Djibouti. The main obstacle to the Asmara-Addis Ababa relations was once again the Tigrayans, Eritrea’s traditional enemies. Consequently, the operation against the TPLF will help consolidate the partnership between Prime Minister Abiy and Eritrea’s President Isaias Afewerki.
One collateral victim of the Tigray crisis is the African Union (AU). The Addis Ababa-based organization has become a recognized peacemaker across the continent, as witnessed in Somalia and Sudan. Last year, the Ethiopian prime minister was praised by the AU as an example of African leadership and empowerment. In turn, he demanded the union’s intervention in the mediation over Ethiopia’s dispute with Egypt over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). While Abiy accepted to meet with AU’s envoys, he made it clear that the Tigray crisis was a domestic issue. This approach undermined the AU’s peacemaking role by revealing that its efficacy is limited to small or failed states while it exerts very little influence over large African nations.
Finally, the message targets friends and foes in the Middle East, where all the regional powerhouses, especially in the Gulf, have stakes in the Horn of Africa. The United Arab Emirates has launched numerous investment projects in Ethiopia and opened a military base in Eritrea. The Tigray crisis represents a direct threat to its interests in the region and possibly provided a reason for alleged air support for the Ethiopian military operation, coupled with calls for mediation.
Cairo was also closely monitoring the operation in Tigray. With Ethiopia’s dam project threatening Egypt’s water security, Cairo has considered all options, including military ones, as was echoed by US President Donald Trump during a phone call with Abdalla Hamdok and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In addition, there were allegations suggesting Egyptian support for anti-government riots that swept Oromia in the summer. The Tigray crisis could have looked like another opportunity to weaken Addis Ababa as part of the complex chess game around the GERD. But by swiftly suppressing the TPLF insurgency, Abiy eliminated a potential back door for any external power to exert pressure over his government.
Although the TPLF has never posed a serious military threat to the federal army, the impact of the Tigray conflict on the future of Ethiopia is unquestionable. It laid bare the weaknesses of the country’s ethno-federal system and its propensity for crisis. At the same time, it convinced the prime minister to embrace a tougher approach to domestic challenges. The heavy hand used against the TPLF has delivered a powerful message aimed at consolidating the Amhara-Oromo partnership within the Prosperity Party and drew a red line for other opposition parties that may have considered defying Addis Ababa. Likewise, the military operation signaled to external actors that Ethiopia’s position in the region and beyond is not under discussion.
Whether this new approach to Ethiopian politics will suffice to keep the federation together is yet to be seen. But the Tigray crisis has shown that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed will no longer tolerate direct challenges to his leadership or to Ethiopia’s unity.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.