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OP-ED: The looming calamity in Tigray

  • Published at 01:32 am December 2nd, 2020
Ethiopian refugees Tigray
Ethiopian refugees fleeing the fighting in the Tigray region, on the Sudan-Ethiopia border REUTERS

Is it too late to prevent a full scale war?

The politico-military crisis in Ethiopia’s northern region of Tigray has been in the international headlines for the last couple of weeks now. It’s not easy for an international audience to suddenly grasp the significance of a new turmoil in a region of the least developed nation in Africa. There are many such armed conflicts in Africa and other places of the world; although it’s clear that the escalation of the military situation in Tigray is likely to invite a humanitarian catastrophe. 

But both the belligerent sides -- the fighters of Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) who are actually  a formal regional special force and Ethiopia’s federal armed forces aided by the regional special force from Amhara region -- are unforgiving, strong and battle hardened. 40,000 refugees have already arrived in eastern Sudan from Tigray. 

Ethiopia as a country actually stands out in sub-Saharan Africa in the sense that it’s the only country with an ancient civilizational history. The country has close historical links with the Middle East, and most of its major languages have Semitic origins. 

Ethiopian dynasties trace their roots to Biblical King Solomon and Queen Shewa. Geographically, the Ethiopian highlands are mixed of semi-arid and arid landscapes. The populous western part is relatively green and fertile, whereas the east is dry, barren, but potentially has subsurface hydrocarbon deposits.  After decades of conflicts between the 1970s to the early 1990s, accompanied by famines, stabilization of the situation began with the fall of the regime of socialist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariyam. 

After some uncertainty and instability in recent times, it appeared that the country is finally heading towards stability under the leadership of its charismatic Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali -- an Oromo Protestant Christian, son of a Muslim father, and having Amharic lineage on his mother’s side. 

Ethnicity and history

Ethnicity is important in Ethiopia. The country is often described as an Ethnic Confederacy. It has a long history of fights in the line of ethnicity and history. The ancient and medieval kingdoms of Ethiopian highlands converged into a bigger empire around 19th century. Initially, the centre of the empire was in the north in the extended Tigray region. But it moved south towards the centre later. Oromo are the largest ethnic group of Ethiopia with about 34%, followed by Amharic at around 27%. The Somalis in the east are little more than 6%, followed by Tigrayans who are around 6% too. There are many other medium and smaller ethnicities/tribes too; the total is about 80 ethno-linguistic groups. 

The Tigray region lies in the northern part bordering Eritrea of the western semi-arid area of Ethiopia. South of Tigray is Amhara and Oromia is in further south. Other smaller regions with greener pastures are in south and west. About half of Ethiopians are Christian and one third Muslims. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church is an ancient Christian denomination and the largest Christian group among Ethiopians. Islam also arrived in Ethiopia very early -- in the time of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Ethiopia is a very diverse country. 

The Eritrea factor

Ethiopia’s northern neighbour Eritrea also figures as an important factor in Ethiopian dynamics. It was a separate kingdom till the early years after World War II. Then it was forced to be part of Ethiopia by the British. It remained so until early 1990s, when its armed rebels were able to liberate it from Mengistu Haile Mariam’s dictatorial Ethiopia. The largest ethnic group of Eritrea is Tigrayan, but Eritrea is an ally now of Ethiopian PM Abiy Ahmed after they later implemented the UN-backed peace agreement with Eritrea and vacated some areas including the town of Badame in favour of Eritrea which was a key flash point in the 1998-2000 Ethiopia-Eritrea War.  

At the time of Eritrea’s liberation, Haile Mariam’s socialist regime collapsed, being under armed attack from a coalition of ethnic rebel forces of the rest of Ethiopia. TPLG, as one of the oldest rebel groups, played an important role in defeating the notorious dictator of Oromo origin, who overthrew the Ethiopian emperor in 1977 in a socialist politico-military revolution, and ever since, the group had been a key partner in the ruling ethnic coalition Ethiopia’s People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). 

TPLG leader Meles Zenawi ruled Ethiopia for long 21 years, until his death in 2012, initially as interim president, then as prime minister. 

Tigrayan Zenawi was succeeded by Hailemariam Desalegn, the leader of Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM), who was at the helm till 2018, when protests broke out against his rule. Both Zenawi and Desalegn were from smaller ethnicities and the EPRDF coalition was quite liberal to accept leaders from minority communities as prime ministers, who is the head of the government. In recent decades, only in 2018, the charismatic Abiy Ahmed Ali rose to the helm who is from the largest ethnic group Oromo. 

Peace agreement

Abiy Ahmed received international acclaim as he courageously agreed to implement a UN-backed peace agreement with neighbouring Eritrea and vacate some areas occupied by Ethiopian forces. He was felicitated with the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019. Abiy Ahmed changed the political landscape of Ethiopia quite a bit. 

He convinced all the ethnic parties of his ruling coalition to merge into one political entity and transform the coalition into one party named “Prosperity Party.” The thought was that more centralism is good for Ethiopia’s unity, stability, and prosperity. All obliged barring TGLF. Abiy Ahmed delayed elections in Ethiopia due to Covid. TGLF opposed the move, and wanted an interim caretaker government to take over rather than Abiy Ahmed leading the government in election time. 

The regional TGLF government of Tigray held their election in defiance of Abiy Ahmed’s delay plan. Abiy Ahmed’s government declared the Tigray regional election as illegal. In response, the Tigrayan regional forces attacked the HQ of the northern command of Ethiopian Federal Defense Forces. They also launched rocket attacks on Asmara -- the capital of Eritrea, and currently an ally of the Abiy Ahmed government. 

It seems the Tigrayan regional forces are in control of most parts of Tigray, including the regional capital Mekelle. The Ethiopian parliament appointed a different interim government for Tigray region, and PM Abiy Ahmed gave an ultimatum to Tigrayan forces to surrender, with a deadline. 

As the deadline was over, he ordered the federal forces aided by other regional forces to launch an assault on Mekelle and other parts of Tigray. It’s difficult to predict the outcome of the Tigrayan conflict. Apparently, the federal forces assisted by other regional forces are supposed to have the upper hand, as Tigray is a relatively smaller region with just 4% of Ethiopia’s vast 100 million population. 

But TGLF forces, who became formal regional militia later, are battle-hardened fighters. It’s also said that they’re quite large in numbers, regardless of the size and population of the region. 

There is a sense that, with the rise of charismatic and powerful Oromo Abiy Ahmed Ali, traditional political privileges of TPLF lessened a bit, which the TGLF leaders couldn’t cope with. But a TGLF leader ruled Ethiopia for 21 long years in recent times, and it’s too trivial a reason to start an armed conflict, putting the people of Tigray in to peril. 

Also, Abiy Ahmed’s centralization drive will come under question, given Ethiopia’s diverse nature and past of ethnic hostilities. Many will question his political wisdom, as well as his move to change the status quo. Regions of Ethiopia can secede as per federal constitution. Has Abiy Ahmed pushed things too far to force Tigray to ponder upon that option? Only time will tell. At this point in time, both the belligerents are at a point of no return. 

Often, arrogant politicians pick up fights that eventually cost their people dearly. Are we going to see the replication of the same in Tigray of Ethiopia? Hardly any international or continental initiative can be observed to prevent escalation. Abiy Ahmed made it clear that he doesn’t want one. But, in the end, it comes down to the international community when a calamity occurs. 

Perhaps, still it isn’t too late to engage in negotiations and solve things peacefully, as full scale war hasn’t yet started. There is always a middle ground that offers some kind of win-win. The question is --are the Ethiopian politicians willing to reach that spot at all, or try out their strength before that, even at the cost of their own people?

Sarwar Jahan Chowdhury is an opinion contributor to the Dhaka Tribune.

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