Only mediation can save Ethiopia from becoming the Yugoslavia of Africa

Amhara Special Forces

Member of the Amhara Special Forces sit next to a machine gun at an improvised camp in the front of a shop in Humera, Ethiopia, on November 22, 2020.

Photo credit: AFP

What you need to know:

  • The conflict is turning Ethiopia into a blotch in humanity’s conscience that the African Union and the world can no longer ignore.
  • The pan-African body has a Herculean responsibility to prevent Ethiopia from becoming Africa’s Yugoslavia. 

Africa is facing a Rwanda-like déjà vu moment all over again. Nine months after armed conflict erupted in Ethiopia’s Tigray region on November 4, 2020, the country is teetering on the brink of an all-out civil war. The war carries eerie echoes of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, when Africa and the world stood by and watched as nearly a million people were killed.

The conflict is turning Ethiopia into a blotch in humanity’s conscience that the African Union and the world can no longer ignore. It poses an acid test to the much-vaunted AU’s Peace and Security Architecture (Aupsa), created two decades ago to silence the guns on the continent. The pan-African body has a Herculean responsibility to prevent Ethiopia from becoming Africa’s Yugoslavia. 

As a starting point, the AU has to silence the guns in Ethiopia, then go on to find lasting solutions to the root causes of the festering conflict. The optimism of a democratic transition that followed Abiy Ahmed Ali’s rise to power in April 2018 has gone with the wind.

In hindsight, the Norwegian Nobel Committee erred by misreading Abiy’s military pact with Eritrea’s Isais Afewerki as a ‘historic’ peace deal that ended two decades of no-war-no-peace stalemate after the Ethiopia-Eritrea War (1998-2000) and awarding Abiy the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize. 

Unlike Somalia, which is a nation struggling to forge a unifying state, Ethiopia is an authoritarian state trying to hew a nation out of more than 80 ethnic groups. Yet, instead of brokering a workable social contract to secure the future of Ethiopia as a multi-ethnic nation, Ethiopia’s rulers have imposed versions of a repressive victor’s order.

Paradoxically, Abiy rode to power on the resentment of the minority Tigrayan ethnic aristocracy that imposed a victor’s order over the majority Oromo (35 per cent) and Amhara (27 per cent). But he weakened Ethiopia’s ethnic federalism, centralised power around his newly formed Prosperity Party and resorted to authoritarian solutions to the complex crisis of the Ethiopian state .

In June 2020, the Tigrayan leadership opposed Abiy’s move to postpone the August 29, 2020 polls, citing the Covid-19 pandemic. Tigray leaders called for a caretaker government of technocrats and for a convention on the future of Ethiopia after Abiy’s mandate expired on October 5.

Quick and emphatic victory

Tensions rose as Tigray organised parliamentary elections on September 9, 2020 in defiance of the federal government’s postponement order.

The government declared the polls unlawful and froze Tigray’s budgetary allocations. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) termed the move an “act of war”. On November 4, 2020, forces aligned to the TPLF attacked the Northern Command bases and headquarters of the Ethiopian National Defence Forces (ENDF) in Tigray.

There are three scenarios the African Union Peace and Security Council (AUPSC) has to take into account to broker peace in Ethiopia.

First, while the federal government has been working on a quick and emphatic victory, but this has become increasingly elusive and doubtful. What started off as a “law enforcement operation” has morphed into a full-scale civil war.

Abiy declared the Tigray operation “over” when the combined ENDF and the Eritrean Defense Forces (EDF), aided by UAE’s drones based in the Eritrean port of Assab, captured the Tigrayan capital of Mekelle on November 28, 2020.

The Tigrayan Defence Forces has since resorted to a guerilla war, recaptured Mekelle and forced the Ethiopian government to declare a unilateral ceasefire on June 28, 2021. Moreover, the June 21, 2021 polls further exposed the fragility of the Ethiopian state.

Protracted conflict

On August 10, 2021, Abiy called on all Ethiopian civilians to join the fight against Tigray, encouraging those who were eligible to “join the Defense Forces, Special Forces and militias” and “to track down and expose spies and agents of the (Tigrayan) terrorists”. Abiy is expected to receive military and financial boost from Turkey after his visit to Ankara on August 18, 2021.

For its part, the Tigray Defence Forces has closed ranks with the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) to fight Abiy’s government. In August, the TDF has captured Lalibela in the Amhara region, a holy site for Orthodox Christians and a Unesco world heritage site and has cut off Afar region.

The second and most likely scenario is a protracted and haemorrhaging conflict. The ENDF has lost Tigray, its capacity is decimated and conflict has spread to other regions. The ethnic logic of the Tigray conflict has whittled ENDF’s force strength of 162,000 active personnel and a budget of $520 million by 2020 to less than a third.

ENDF has lost its pivotal Northern Command based in Mekelle, which had approximately 75,000 personnel and sophisticated equipment. The Airforce, reputedly the most advanced Airforce in the Horn by 2020, is ineffectual as the elite personnel including the commander and pilots were Tigrayans. Citing Tigray, France has suspended its naval cooperation with Ethiopia.

The third, and also likely, scenario is the victory of the TPLF and its allies. From its bases in Afar, the TDF is moving in to control the Djibouti-Ethiopia transport corridor, Ethiopia’s jugular vein that carries 95 per cent of supplies to Addis Abba, and cut off supplies of goods from the Port of Djibouti, including military provisions. Djibouti has moved its troops towards the border with Ethiopia.

Similarly, OLA fighters have cut off parts of the major highway that links Ethiopia to Kenya as they advance towards Addis Ababa.

Ethiopia needs pan-Africa and global help to resolve its worst humanitarian crisis in the 21st century, which has left more than four million people without food, displaced roughly two million people and pushed more than 50,000 Tigray refugees into Sudan. Only mediation, not war, can save Ethiopia from a Yugoslavian scenario.

Prof Peter Kagwanja is a former Government Adviser and Chief Executive at the Africa Policy Institute (API).