Ethiopia will be chairing this month’s African Union Peace and Security Council, the continental body charged with maintaining tranquillity, even as Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered a military response to Tigray after the region “crossed the last red line.”
And Ethiopia’s position in the region, and the continent, means analysts in the Horn of Africa are worried any snowball from the tension between Addis Ababa and Tigray region could be devastating to peace efforts elsewhere.
Dr Abiy’s government on Wednesday also imposed a six-month state of emergency in the northern Tigray region, accusing the local administration of threatening the sovereignty of Ethiopia.
Ambushed Ethiopian forces
Dispatches from the Prime Minister’s Office in Addis Ababa claimed the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) had ambushed Ethiopian forces at a camp in Tigray and “attempted to rob” artillery from the facility.
“The attack on the Northern Command (of ENDF) has been premised on TPLF viewing the Ethiopian National Defence Forces as a foreign army rather than an army that has been protecting the people of Tigray for more than twenty years.
“Resultantly, TPLF has chosen to wage war in Dalshah,” the PM’s Office said, referring to the ENDF base in Tigray.”
Although no new fighting had been reported by Wednesday evening, analysts think Ethiopia is too important to implode now.
“The conflict brewing in Ethiopia has the potential to spill over to the region; the immediate Horn of Africa neighbours,” Abdimalik Abdullahi, a Horn of Africa Researcher said.
“Both PM Abiy and Tigray ought to heed the voices of reason and embrace national dialogue. Sobriety and maximum restraint should reign or Ethiopia will go to the dogs.”
Ethiopia, the seat of the African Union, is seen as an alternative safety haven for refugees fleeing neighbouring countries with Kenya and Uganda taking a significant share of refugees too.
“Any increase in violence would foreshadow further regional destabilisation and humanitarian disaster. We call upon all parties to resolve tensions through dialogue and to take all appropriate measures to end military action,” Jan Egeland, the Secretary-General of the Norwegian Refugee Council said last evening.
Ethiopia has about 1.82 million people internally displaced across the country and hosts another 790,000 refugees from other conflicts in the East Africa region.
“Humanitarian needs are high and resources to meet them scarce, especially during the (Covid-19) pandemic. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize recipient, must manage this crisis carefully and be steadfast in preventing the humanitarian situation from deteriorating further,” Egeland added.
Last year, Addis Ababa was involved in peace bids in neighbouring Sudan, South Sudan and restored diplomatic relations with Eritrea. But some observers think Tigray is now a common problem for both Ethiopia and Eritrea, given the ethnic composition.
“PM Abiy would not have ordered the army to go on the offensive in Tigray without Isaias Afewerki's active connivance and instigation. A short, sharp campaign to dislodge TPLF as two hope wide off the mark,” Rashid Abdi who analyses geopolitical issues in the Horn and the Gulf region said, referring to the Eritrean President.
“Tigray now a volatile theatre likely to draw in Eritrea, reignite border conflict.”
In August, Tigray defied Abiy’s postponement of national elections to next year, citing Covid-19. Tigrayans who held their local polls have argued they do not recognise him. Addis Ababa in turn cut budgetary allocation for Tigray.
Tsedale Lemma, an Ethiopian political analyst said the Tigray situation is the by-product of Premier Abiy’s failed political project.
“The price tag for this transactional political order keeps skyrocketing; what started by jailing formidable opponents of Abiy's failed nation building project has now morphed into a civil war to get rid of TPLF, a powerful opponent, once-for-all using the military,” she argued.
“But make no mistake, this isn't ‘a surgical operation’ which will quickly end TPLF, but an epistemic rupture of the Federation as we know it. When it's over, and regardless of its outcome, Abiy's failed ambition of a nation building project will be irreparably dented.”
And In a statement Wednesday, TPLF banned any type of flights across the Tigray regional Airspace.
It also warned against any military movement near its borders and threatened to take action against any forces that attempt to cross the regional borders.
It said the federal forces that were stationed in Tigray have abandoned central government and decided to stand with Tigray in a struggle to remove the PM Abiy-led "unconstitutional government".
It further called on all federal forces to abandon the central government and join the TPLF-led struggle
Access to telephone and internet in Tigray is blocked.
Although the council of ministers declared a six-month state of emergency in Tigray, it is not clear how the federal government, which is not in control of the region, will implement the decree.
Whether it was wise for Tigray to defy authorities in Addis may yet to be seen. The Ethiopian federal system has often followed ethnic lines, with each of the ten regions named and composed of major tribes in the country.
Yet it, sort of, held together the country. In December 2019, Dr Abiy led the dissolution of the coalition, Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front and merged parties into the Prosperity Party. The TPLF which had been part of the coalition refused to dissolve.
Some experts, however, think Tigrayans have been over ambitious.
“Ethiopian PM's order to the army to tame rogue Tigrayan region is wise and timely. Misguided Tigrayan elites thumbed their noses at the very Ethiopianness PM Abiy was pushing for,” Dr Abdiwahab Sheikh Abdisamad of Nairobi’s think-tank Southlink Consultants told the Nation, arguing Ethiopia should crush them once or regret later.
Tigrayans have also bickered with Amhara, the neighbouring autonomous region.
“They want to govern the country by force, because they have everything. They are one of the best equipped autonomous regions of Ethiopia, militarily. But their way of doing things will undermine the stability of Ethiopia and the entire region,” Dr Abdisamad added.