According to a report by Robert Malley, President and CEO of International Crisis Group, published on Foreign Policy, the War on Tigray is one of the 10 conflicts the world should watch in 2021:
- The Sahel
- Iran – United States
- Russia – Turkey
- Climate Change
On Nov. 4, Ethiopian federal forces began an assault on Tigray region after a deadly Tigrayan attack and takeover of federal military units in the region. By November’s end, the army had entered the Tigrayan capital, Mekelle. Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) leaders abandoned the city, claiming they wished to spare civilians. Much remains unclear, given a media blackout. But the violence has likely killed thousands of people, including many civilians; displaced more than a million internally; and led some 50,000 to flee to Sudan.
The Tigray crisis’s roots stretch back years. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power in 2018 after protests largely driven by long-simmering anger at the then-ruling coalition, which had been in power since 1991 and which the TPLF dominated. Abiy’s tenure, which began with significant efforts at reforming a repressive governance system, has been marked by a loss of influence for Tigrayan leaders, who complain of being scapegoated for previous abuses and warily eye his rapprochement with the TPLF’s old foe, Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki. Abiy’s allies accuse TPLF elites of seeking to maintain a disproportionate share of power, obstructing reform, and stoking trouble through violence.
The Tigray dispute is Ethiopia’s most bitter, but there are wider fault lines. Powerful regions are at loggerheads while supporters of Ethiopia’s ethnic federalist system (which devolves power to ethnically defined regions and that the TPLF was instrumental in designing) are battling that system’s opponents, who believe it entrenches ethnic identity and fosters division. While many Ethiopians blame the TPLF for years of oppressive rule, the Tigrayan party is not alone in fearing that Abiy aims to do away with the system in a quest to centralize authority. Notably, Abiy’s critics in the restive Oromia region—Ethiopia’s most populous—share that view, despite Abiy’s own Oromo heritage.
The question now is what comes next. Federal forces advanced and took control of Mekelle and other cities relatively quickly. Addis Ababa hopes that what it calls its continuing “law enforcement operation” will defeat the remaining rebels. It rejects talks with TPLF leaders; allowing impunity for outlaws who attack the military and violate the constitution would reward treason, Abiy’s allies say. The central government is now appointing an interim regional government, has issued arrest warrants for 167 Tigrayan officials and military officers, and appears to hope to persuade Tigrayans to abandon their erstwhile rulers. Yet the TPLF has a strong grassroots network.
There are disturbing signs. Reports suggest purges of Tigrayans from the army and their mistreatment elsewhere in the country. Militias from Amhara region, which borders Tigray, have seized disputed territory held for the past three decades by Tigrayans. The TPLF launched missiles at Eritrea, and Eritrean forces have almost certainly been involved in the anti-TPLF offensive. All this will fuel Tigrayan grievances and separatist sentiment.
If the federal government invests heavily in Tigray, works with the local civil service as it is rather than emptying it of the TPLF rank and file, stops the harassment of Tigrayans elsewhere, and runs disputed areas rather than leaving them to Amhara administrators, there might be some hope of peace. It would be critical then to move toward a national dialogue to heal the country’s deep divisions in Tigray and beyond. Absent that, the outlook is gloomy for a transition that inspired so much hope only a year ago.
Source: Foreign Policy| Robert Malley, President and CEO of International Crisis Group