How Ethiopia’s civil war started
The Ethiopian army was deployed to Tigray on the 4th November 2020 on an operation that was intended to be rather short-lived. The objective was to quash rebel fighters with loyalties to the northern region’s governing party, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). However, this operation has since devolved into a civil war. Geographically, the conflict has expanded beyond the region’s borders and has steadily begun to encroach on more and more territory leading towards the capital, Addis Ababa.
Besides the issue of territory, the conflict has also sparked a humanitarian crisis characterised by mass civilian rapes and massacres, as well as famine. While tens of thousands have died, around two million have been displaced. More than that, talk of eliminating ethnic groups has become quite common. Just this month, on the 2nd November 2021, the federal government declared a nationwide state of emergency out of fear of increased instability. Ultimately, we have seen the situation in Ethiopia evolve from a simple military operation, into a protracted bush war.
Currently, rebel fighters led by the TPLF, are travelling further and further South towards the capital, and the war appears to be swinging in their favour. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has, as a result, called on citizens to take up arms to stop the fighters’ advance. We have therefore seen the Ethiopian government increasingly lose their influence and control over territories in the north.
In response to this unraveling, the Ethiopian government has taken a rather questionable approach: the indiscriminate arrest of Tigrayans. Detentions began pretty much with the onset of violence, however, they were largely restricted to members of the military. Throughout the war, the number of detentions has risen steadily, especially since the turning point of July this year, when TPLF forces began gaining more territory.
Ethnic tensions have risen steadily in Addis Ababa, but have escalated since the TPLF took control of Dessie. An example can be found in the treatment of the unnamed Tigrayan activist reported by the Mail & Guardian. The activist had been using his Facebook account to raise awareness of the massacres and gang rapes taking place in the region. After being arrested, he was taken to a military camp in the Afar region to join the roughly 1 000 detainees made up of journalists and politicians. Many of these detainees are held in custody with no charge in these detention centres and military camps known for their unsanitary living conditions. It therefore appears that the government’s response has been to detain anyone using a public platform to discuss the war, regardless of overt support of TPLF forces.
The crux of the disagreement
So far, we have looked at how the war started, as well as the government’s response. However, we have not yet considered the ultimate goals of either party. In terms of the TPLF, we can deduce the ultimate goal to be the destablisation of the country through economic hardship. Back in June, the Ethiopian government declared a unilateral ceasefire. However, the TPLF simply grew their territory to include the Afar and Amhara regions. These are both economic lifelines for Ethiopia. In targeting these particular regions, it becomes clear that the TPLF is looking to destroy Ethiopia’s economy, destablise the government, and subsequently trigger a regime change. On the other hand, the Abiy Ahmed regime is obviously looking to maintain its position and is therefore opposed to anything risking a regime change.
Who has the popular vote?
Interestingly, in the build-up towards the war, Tigray was actually a source of support for Prime Minister Ahmed. The general concern was that internal conflict would just put strain on an already delicate economy and society. However, since the TPLF’s attack on the North Command, popular opinion has changed. More specifically, the consensus seems to be that in order to save the nation, defeat is necessary.
Genocide as a barrier to future peace
We have not yet considered the journey to peace once the conflict comes to an end. We can identify a serious obstacle to this: genocide. Other than the obvious humanitarian concerns, acts of genocide complicate the post-conflict reconciliatory process. When negotiating peace and establishing such transitional mechanisms in the aftermath of a genocide, we must address the existential threat that comes with genocidal acts. More specifically, moving forward and letting go of any resentment or hatred is difficult once we have viewed a particular group as having attacked our own identity to the extent of fearing death. On the other side, it is difficult to unite with a community that we have persecuted. This is important when considering possible peace in Ethiopia.
According to the Genocide Convention and the Statute of the international Criminal Court, the ongoing violence in Tigray can be defined as crimes against humanity and acts of genocide. And so, when trying to de-escalate the conflict in Ethiopia, the complexities of ethnic hatred and genocide must be at the forefront of the minds of those who mediate.
On that note, who is getting involved?
The Ethiopian government has held a very staunch stance on disallowing any foreign involvement. The rationale has been that it is a domestic matter, and so only domestic forces should get involved. However, that does not mean that there has not been any external involvement.
The TPLF accused Eritrea of deploying troops in support of Ethiopia’s military campaign. At the onset of the violence in November last year, both Eritrea and Ethiopia denied any collaboration. However, following this statement, videos and photographs to the contrary surfaced on social media. And so, there is now diplomatic pressure for Eritrea to withdraw the troops from Germany, Sweden, and other EU representatives.
Another accused of intervening is Somalia. Unconfirmed reports have circulated claiming that Somali soldiers have been sent to the Eritrean army to fight in Tigray. Somali families have in fact protested as a result of no longer being able to contact or get any information as to the whereabouts of these soldiers. Somalia’s information minister, Osman Dubbe, has however denied the presence of Somali soldiers in Ethiopia.
A third potential interlope is that of the United Arab Emirates. The TPLF has accused the Ethiopian military of receiving aid from the United Arab Emirates in the form of drones dispatched from an Eritrean airbase. While it has been confirmed that the Ethiopian army has been using drones, it remains unclear where they have been sourced from.
And so, how will it all end?
As it stands, the TPLF has gained extensive territory and Addis Ababa is more at risk than ever of falling into their hands. More than that, it appears that the Ahmed administration has lost the support of the populace, or at the very least, their confidence in the government. While only time will determine the victor, the TPLF appears to have victory in sight. Regardless, whoever is crowned victor will be responsible for overcoming the repercussions of the acts of genocide in Tigray.
Stephanie is the Assistant Editor at the Journal of Political Risk. She has a B.A. in Politics, Philosophy, and Economics and an Honours degree in Justice and Transformation from the University of Cape Town. She is currently pursuing her MPhil in Public Law, focusing on a gendered analysis of transitional justice mechanisms. She has also contributed as a member of the research team for the South African Medical Research Council, focusing on the National Health Insurance bill.