Tigray crisis: Ethiopian stature and regional stability at risk

Nariman El-Mofty/AP
Tigrayans who fled the conflict in Ethiopia's Tigray region carry their belongings off a boat after arriving on the banks of the Tekeze River on the Sudan-Ethiopia border, in Hamdayet, Sudan, Nov. 21, 2020. The U.N. refugee agency says the growing conflict has caused thousands to flee to Sudan, as fighting threatened to inflame the Horn of Africa region.

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As Ethiopia prepares to lay siege to its restive Tigray region, what was once billed as a central government policing operation is threatening to become a regional affair whose outcome will be felt across the Horn of Africa. With a new refugee crisis already brewing, the pressure is on Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to swiftly wrap up the fighting to prevent regional and international actors from using the conflict to further their own agendas.

Ethiopia’s ascendance as a regional power and the very peace accord that won Mr. Abiy international acclaim are suddenly at stake. The war is already affecting Ethiopia’s role as a linchpin for security and stability across the Horn as it pulls reinforcements from peacekeeping duties in Somalia.

Why We Wrote This

Conflict is destabilizing, though often in unintended ways. Ethiopia says it’s engaged in an internal police action with rebellious Tigrayans. Yet its role in Africa means a lot more is on the line.

“Already the situation was delicate in the Horn: there are plenty of actors willing to get involved,” says Martin Plaut, Horn of Africa expert at the London-based Institute of Commonwealth Studies.

“If the government does not secure a swift victory,” that would open the door to more outside involvement, and “Ethiopian nationalism will flare up and send the whole region into unknown territory,” he says. “People are already bewildered at the pace of events.”

Ethiopia has long prided itself on its independence – as the one African nation to repel Western colonizers and foreign interference as others became battlegrounds for competing powers.

But as Ethiopia prepares to lay siege to its restive Tigray region, what was once billed as a policing operation by a newly assertive central government is threatening to become a regional affair whose outcome will be felt across the Horn of Africa and beyond.

And, with a new refugee crisis already brewing, the pressure is on reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to swiftly wrap up the fighting to prevent already-mobilizing regional and international actors from using the conflict to further their own agendas.

Why We Wrote This

Conflict is destabilizing, though often in unintended ways. Ethiopia says it’s engaged in an internal police action with rebellious Tigrayans. Yet its role in Africa means a lot more is on the line.

Ethiopia’s ascendance as a regional power and the very peace accord that won Mr. Abiy international acclaim are suddenly at stake. The war is already affecting Ethiopia’s role as a linchpin for security and stability across the Horn as it pulls reinforcements from peacekeeping duties in Somalia.

“The duration of this conflict will have profound implications for Ethiopia and the entire region,” says a veteran Ethiopian analyst monitoring the conflict.

“If the conflict is decisively won in a week and the Tigrayan leadership surrenders, Mr. Abiy is strengthened at home and on the regional stage. But if this war drags on into an insurgency, it will be very difficult for Abiy Ahmed to contain the spill-over, or who may intervene.”

Martin Plaut, Horn of Africa expert at the London-based Institute of Commonwealth Studies, concurs. “Already the situation was delicate in the Horn: There are plenty of actors willing to get involved,” he says.

“If the government does not secure a swift victory,” that would open the door to more outside involvement, and “Ethiopian nationalism will flare up and send the whole region into unknown territory.”

“People are already bewildered at the pace of events,” he says.

Wednesday evening, after a 72-hour grace period for surrender expired, Ethiopian federal troops prepared to launch what they called a “no mercy” siege of Mekele, capital of the northern region of Tigray, where the ruling Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) has defied the central government’s authority.

Regional involvement

Across the Horn of Africa, the balance of power has shifted in recent years due to revolutions and outside competition for its resources and strategic waterways.

Three weeks into the conflict in Tigray, and regional states are threatening to pierce Ethiopia’s once-impenetrable status.

Tiksa Negeri/Reuters
People participate in a two minute ceremony to honor the members of Ethiopian National Defense Forces fighting against the Tigray Special Forces, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Nov. 17, 2020.

Neighboring Eritrea has already provided Ethiopia with logistics and, allegedly, air power, establishing a northern flank as Ethiopian federal troops sweep from the south.

The Tigrayan leadership alleges direct involvement by the Eritrean air force and troops – claims that are difficult to substantiate amid a communications and internet blackout in the region.

As retribution, the TPLF launched missiles into the Eritrean capital Asmara last week.

Although officially denied by both sides, the closely coordinated operation highlights the growing alliance between Mr. Abiy and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, who signed a finalized peace deal in 2018 ending two decades of cold war. Mr. Abiy was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize as a result.

Yet observers say there are deeper motivations for Eritrea’s support.

Eritrea has a long-standing feud with the TPLF, a onetime ally with whom it later fought the bitter and devastating border wars of 1998-2000.

The TPLF frustrated Mr. Isaias’s regional ambitions to become kingmaker for the Horn of Africa when the Tigrayan group led Ethiopia’s government from 1993 to 2018.

Since the border wars, Mr. Isaias has slowly rebuilt his influence and networks in Djibouti, Somalia, and further afield.

By settling an old score with the TPLF and making the Ethiopian government reliant on Eritrea’s service, Mr. Isaias sees an opportunity to claim what he sees as his rightful mantle as regional leader.

“They always saw Ethiopia as an obstacle to their role as head of the Horn of Africa,” says a second Ethiopian analyst. “Removing the TPLF is removing an obstacle to realizing that ambition.”

Sudan and Somalia

Fighting has set off alarms in neighboring Sudan to the northwest, itself in the midst of a fragile and contentious post-revolution political transition.

Fighting has driven more than 40,000 Ethiopian refugees into Sudan, far more than the United Nations’ initial estimates, with an expected 200,000 to be driven into Sudanese territory within months, the largest refugee wave to hit the country in decades.

Due to intense fighting in the border regions, the U.N. said Tuesday it is transporting refugees some 45 miles deeper into Sudanese territory.

Sudan remains concerned Tigrayan fighters may retreat to its porous border region to regroup, resupply, and stage an insurgency campaign against the Ethiopian government.

Such a development could lead to a flow of illicit arms and militant activity into Sudan at a time its own security establishment is under strain and distrust is rife among Sudan’s military and civilian factions.

Due to a need for increased manpower, Ethiopia last week withdrew 3,000 troops from its 10,000-strong peacekeeping force in Somalia.

The Ethiopian contingent is the largest in the troubled state and has been critical in supporting the Somali government and bolstering the campaign against the Islamist militant group Al-Shabab.

Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters
A Sudanese military officer keeps guard as Ethiopians who fled war in the Tigray region receive supplies from the World Food Programme at the Fashaga camp on the Sudan-Ethiopia border, in Al-Qadarif state, Sudan on Nov. 20, 2020.

With the African Union coalition already fragile, and partners unwilling to carry the brunt of the burdens carried by Addis Ababa, there are concerns the African peacekeeping initiative could collapse should further Ethiopian troops be withdrawn.

“The immediate regional effect of Ethiopia withdrawing troops out of Somalia is it puts the campaign against al-Shabab at risk,” Mr. Plaut warns.

Egypt

Closely taking stock is Egypt, which has been blindsided by Ethiopia’s meteoric reemergence as a regional power and direct rival to Cairo’s hegemony.

Egypt is primarily concerned with Ethiopia’s Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a project to dam the Blue Nile River to generate electricity to fuel Ethiopia’s rapid modernization.

Egypt is concerned that the dam will affect its water supplies and agricultural lands in the Nile Valley downstream, but has until recently found itself in a weak bargaining position as talks over the dam with Ethiopia and Sudan have stalled.

With the Ethiopian conflict, Cairo has become emboldened – some insiders say “euphoric” – and is looking to seize the opportunity to bolster its position.

The Egyptian and Eritrean foreign ministers met in Cairo last week to discuss “the current situation in the Horn of Africa,” and this week Egypt and Sudan held joint maneuvers on Sudanese soil, the first such military cooperation in decades.

UAE

Hovering above the fray with a watchful eye is the United Arab Emirates, which has extensive economic and military interests across the Horn.

In recent years the wealthy Gulf Arab state has invested political capital and billions of dollars to establish bases, ports, and patrons along the Red Sea coast in Eritrea, Djibouti, and Sudan, and does not wish to see its interests and control of shipping lanes jeopardized. 

Prior to the conflict, Abu Dhabi was eager to bring Ethiopia into its sphere of influence and cement its hold on East Africa, a push fueled by the recent expansion of its rivals Turkey and Qatar into Sudan and Somalia.

Also alarming is the war’s proximity to Eritrea, a close ally and where the UAE has a military base in Assab, from which the Emiratis have projected their military power into Yemen and North Africa, particularly Libya.

Yet after weeks signaling it was supportive of Mr. Abiy’s offensive, this week the UAE called for a cessation of hostilities and a return to dialogue, offering to mediate between the TPLF and Addis Ababa.

The UAE also became the first nation to provide aid to refugees fleeing the conflict, donating $4.5 million for U.N. food relief for Ethiopians on the Sudanese border.

“The Emiratis want to play it both ways,” says an Ethiopian analyst knowledgeable of UAE involvement in the country. “On the one hand there are reports of the use of drones from their base, but they also want to emerge as mediators. Whether the conflict ends decisively in Mekele or stretches on, this will enhance their role in the Horn of Africa.”

Mr. Abiy has thus far rebuffed attempts of mediation by the UAE, Sudan, South Africa, and the African Union, expressing confidence that the siege of Mekele will be swift, the TPLF leadership will capitulate, and order will be restored.

Amid reports that TPLF forces are retreating to mountainous hinterlands, regional actors are preparing in case he is wrong.

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