The conflict between the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a powerful militia and political party of the country’s Tigray region, has stoked fears of an impending civil war in Ethiopia.
Born of decades-old tensions just recently boiled over, the month-long conflict in and around Tigray has killed hundreds of civilians and left tens of thousands more displaced. The situation is particularly fraught not only because aid agencies have no access to the conflict zone, but also due to the local communications blackout, which has disabled more detailed understanding of the clash. The Ethiopian government has rejected resolving the conflict diplomatically, and the United Nations (UN) has demanded that the government guarantee protection of civilians, yet in the midst of combat their human rights remain vulnerable to abuse. Through it all, the possibility of civil war has become ever more real.
In 1991, after decades of conflict, the TPLF ousted a military junta called the Derg, seized control of central authority, and established a coalition government. By repressing political opposition, the coalition government ruled Ethiopia for 27 years, until the rise of current Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s Prosperity Party in 2018.
Since this transition, Ethiopia has politically transformed. Preaching reform and reconciliation, the current prime minister came to power in the midst of protests that blamed Ethiopia’s obstructed transition to democracy on the country’s political elite, with which the TPLF had become associated. In 2019, the TPLF’s coalition government refused to merge with the Prosperity Party and fell from power.
This June, tensions escalated between Abiy’s central government and the TPLF as the prime minister postponed a national election due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In September, in an act of defiance, the region of Tigray held parliamentary elections, which Abiy called “illegal.” Both the central government and the TPLF have since called one another “illegitimate,” as Abiy cites the parliamentary vote’s lack of precedent and the TPLF claims Abiy’s right to power has too long gone untested by a national election.
On November 4th, Abiy ordered a military operation against TPLF forces, legitimized by his accusation that the TPLF assaulted the Ethiopian army’s northern headquarters, which TPLF members have denied. The prime minister had previously also accused the TPLF of “continued … incitement of violence,” writes the BBC. According to International Crisis Group, TPLF forces now comprise about 250,000 highly trained personnel drawn from Tigrayan paramilitary units. Conflict between the Ethiopian government and the TPLF then ensued, leading to the declaration of a six-month state of emergency in Tigray.
As the conflict has continued over the last month, hundreds of civilians have been killed with tens of thousands more displaced, though exact numbers are unclear due to the communications blackout in Tigray. More than 33,000 refugees have already entered Sudan, many of whom are children, while hundreds of thousands more are expected over the next six months if the conflict continues. The UN has cautioned that the conflict could become a humanitarian crisis, frightening aid agencies, which lack access to the area.
On November 20th, the TPLF fired rockets on a city in the Amhara region, which neighbors Tigray. The regional government confirmed that there were no casualties nor was any damage caused. Still, the assault led to the addition of regional forces to federal troops already fighting in Tigray, raising concerns that the conflict may extend into a wider war.
On November 22nd, Abiy announced an ultimatum demanding the surrender of TLPF forces within 72 hours. The Ethiopian army warned that if the deadline goes unmet, its forces will surround and attack the 500,000 residents of Mekelle, Tigray’s capital city. The central government claimed to have already taken four other Tigrayan towns. In a statement to the TPLF, Abiy said: “Your journey of destruction is coming to an end, and we urge you to surrender peacefully … Take this last opportunity.”
In response to the threat of attack on Mekelle, the UN has urged the Ethiopian government to guarantee the safety of civilians and aid workers. Meanwhile, an Ethiopian army spokesman begged that residents of Mekelle “save themselves” from the impending offensive.
TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael promptly rejected Abiy’s ultimatum and vowed to fight on. In a statement, Debretsion said that the prime minister “doesn’t understand who we are. We are people of principle and ready to die in defence of our right to administer our region.” The TPLF leader also stated: “Our preparation is aimed at averting war, but if we are to fight, we are ready to win.”
On November 26th, in response to the unmet ultimatum, Abiy ordered the offensive on Mekelle as the “final phase” of his operation. Urging residents to stay at home and away from military targets, the prime minister claimed that the army will take “great care” in avoiding harm to civilians and religious sites. Meanwhile, the TPLF mobilized a significant presence in Mekelle, digging trenches and armed with AK-47 rifles. The situation has left many in fear of the TPLF’s guerilla attacks on the Ethiopian army, even if the offensive succeeds in taking Mekelle.
In response to the attack, UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet has warned that war crimes are possible, stressing that the residents of Mekelle are in “deep peril.”
Later on the day of the offensive, three representatives from the African Union (AU) arrived in the Ethiopian capital city Addis Ababa to broker a ceasefire. However, the central government rejected working towards a diplomatic resolution, saying that the conflict is a matter of domestic law enforcement. The three representatives are barred from entry into Tigray, according to the BBC.
Altogether, in the face of the broadening conflict between the central government and the mighty militias of the TPLF, a fully fledged civil war in Ethiopia has become alarmingly likely.
In this conflict, there is no clear-cut perpetrator and victim. Both Abiy’s government and the TPLF are responsible in part for the turmoil facing Ethiopia today. The central government has delayed a national election based on dubious reasoning, outruled diplomatic resolution, and ordered inadequately justified military assaults that have inevitably led to the deaths and displacement of numerous civilians, despite promises to the contrary. The TPLF has repressed political opposition and employed indiscriminate violence. In the end, the blood of all those who have died in the conflict is on the hands of both the Ethiopian government and the TPLF.
The UN and AU’s inadequate responses to the conflict have allowed the turmoil to continue for an entire month. While the UN has not only monitored and brought awareness to the severity of the crisis, but also demanded that the Ethiopian government protect civilians and aid workers trapped in the midst of the conflict, the organization has neither facilitated investigation of human rights violations nor taken any significant diplomatic action.
Similarly, as a regional organization more legitimate and thus more capable among African countries than an international entity like the UN, the AU has offered to facilitate a diplomatic resolution between the Ethiopian government and the TPLF — the failure of which is not to be blamed on the AU — yet still the organization has neglected to garner regional condemnation of the conflict or employ regional legal authorities on human rights to investigate violations.
The determined violence and disregard of democracy exhibited by the Ethiopian government and the TPLF demonstrate that without the involvement of neighboring countries as well as international and regional organizations, the likelihood of full-blown civil war in Ethiopia will only continue to grow.
In order to resolve the conflict and secure long-lasting peace, the UN and AU must first work in concert to raise global and regional awareness and condemnation of the conflict, encouraging countries to exert normative and political pressure on the TPLF and particularly the Ethiopian government, and thus bring the conflict from the battlefield to the negotiation table. The UN and AU should then work together to facilitate peace talks between the two forces and ultimately ensure their renunciation from violence by producing an agreement that both sides consider legitimate. Lastly, the two organizations must jointly facilitate investigation of human rights violations at international courts and African regional courts, by any means from gathering evidence to garnering political support for legal proceedings. Altogether, however unlikely the prospect of peace in Ethiopia now seems, there is a path towards ending the conflict.
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