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Reasons to understand why Ethiopia is “on the brink of Civil War’’

From Peace to War: what is going on in Ethiopia?

On November 4th, 2020 while the world was waiting for the results of the race to the White House, the lives of thousands of Ethiopians were about to dramatically change.

On that day, the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who won the Nobel Peace Prize just last year, deployed the military in the region of Tigray, in the North of the Country.

According to the Prime Minister, the TPLF (Tigrayan’s People Liberation Front) had attacked two federal military bases and this had triggered the federal government’s counter-offensive. The Tigray’s government, on the other hand claimed that the federal government has been persecuting the region of Tigray for two years now, that is, since Abyi Ahmed has been elected. 

The situation in the following days has only worsened. In particular, on November 9th, 2020 the TPLF was accused of the massacre of Mai Kadra. Although the TPLF denied all responsibility, the armed forces of the government of Addis Abbeba began to move against the capital of the Tigrayan region, Makallé. 

In the following days, the conflict continued more violent than ever, and numerous rockets have been launched towards the region, and even beyond up to Asmara, in Eritrea. On its part, also the TPLF seems to have responded very harshly to the military offensive. However, the news that we are receiving are still very vague as the Tigray region is isolated from telephone and internet access.

On November 23rd, the federal government gave a three-day ultimatum to surrender, otherwise the government would attack the city of Makallè which, according to government sources, had already been surrounded.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced military action in a televised address in Addis Ababa on November 4 [ETV via Reuters]
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced military action in a televised address in Addis Ababa on November 4 [ETV via Reuters]

The reasons behind the conflict: 

The ethnic division in Ethiopia

Historically, Ethiopia has always been populated by many different ethnic groups, today there are in fact up to eighty different ethnicities. This has of course deeply influenced the politics of the country, as when the TFLP came to power within the Ethiopian People Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition creating a new constitution which envisaged ten semi-autonomous federal states organized along ethnic dividends. Thus, a sort of Ethnic federalism was ultimately created and the TFLP was de facto in charge of the coalition. Yet, this new form of government did not solve the ethnic tensions in the country, but rather several thousands of people were killed in interethnic conflicts between 1991 and 2005 according to some estimations. 

When Abyi came to power, his idea of opening the dialogue and reunifying the country was very much welcomed. Recent events, however, showed us that these ethnic tensions were not at all dormant during his government, but extremely heated and ready to explode.

The elections and the pandemic, a problem of illegitimacy and recognition

Another important aspect to highlight in order to better understand the reasons behind the conflict is that of the legitimacy of the government of Addis Ababa and that of Tigray.

The TFLP had been the major force of the government coalition, the afore-mentioned Ethiopians’ People Revolutionary Democratic Front, a multiethnic alliance, at least since 1991. Last year, the TFLP refused to form a coalition in the neo-formed Prosperity Party led by Abyi. These facts of course caused several tensions within the governmental elite.

In addition, the electoral body of the country decided in March that the national elections planned for August 2020, had to be postponed due to the Corona-virus pandemic. 

Nevertheless, the Tigray leaders refused to accept this decision and have held their regional elections in September. 

This decision has eventually led to a situation in which the Abyi government considers the Tigray elections as illegal, whereas Tigray regards as illegitimate the government of Abyi whose term of office expired in October. Therefore, either part do not recognize the authority of the other.

The election held in Tigray in September  BBC’S image, Getty image
The election held in Tigray in September  BBC’S image, Getty image

What are the risks and the consequences?

Many international security and diplomatic experts have pointed out that the risks involved in this conflict are enormous, also considering the strategic position that Ethiopia has in the Horn of Africa today. Therefore, a civil war within the country could potentially have terrible repercussions on the whole area and if the conflict was to expand seriously beyond national borders, this would cause massive migratory flows, political and economic instability and the violation of human rights.

In addition, Amnesty International reported that in the night between 9 and 10 November 2020 hundreds of civilians were massacred and killed in the Tigray region. For this reason, since the beginning, hundreds of people have started to displace internally to the country and, at the end of November 2020 already 40 thousand emigrated to Sudan, bordering Ethiopia.

According to the UN, the number of migrants entering Sudan is expected to rise up to 200.000, but the country has already declared that it is experiencing a situation of food shortages and that it will not be able to provide the necessary protection for all.

Furthermore, another implication may be that of reigniting a conflict with Eritrea, a country with which Ethiopia established a peace agreement only last year (when Abyi won the Peace Nobel Prize for this reason). The United States recently praised Eritrea for holding back from intervening immediately in the conflict. However, if Ethiopia continues to strike at Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, as it did on November 15th, 2020,  with the bombings that also hit the airport, the situation could quickly degenerate.

© UNCHR/Hazim Elhag, 2020.
© UNCHR/Hazim Elhag, 2020.

The appeal of the UNCHR and of the international community 

On November 17th, 2020, the UNCHR representatives in the country warned that in Ethiopia a humanitarian crisis is taking place. The international organization has asserted that both parties have committed tremendous atrocities against civilians. It also claimed that several thousands of people are crossing the borders every day and that half of the refugees in the camps are children.

Moreover, it declared that it is extremely difficult to assist those people due to the fact that the region has been isolated from the rest of the country. 

Therefore, the UNCHR launched an urgent appeal to the international community stating that there is a desperate need for humanitarian access and for humanitarian corridors in order to help the people fleeing the country.

The entire international community is sending out appeals to cease fire in Ethiopia, but the Ethiopian Prime Minister has asked all States to stay out of the country’s internal affairs, promising that the conflict will resolve quickly.    
What is clear is that what will happen in the next few hours and days will determine the lives of thousands of people. 

This situation shows us once again how crucial the dialogue between identities is, and we should hope that a peaceful negotiating table will be established as soon as possible to put an end to the violence that is pouring into the streets and affecting thousands of innocent people on both sides.


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Peace Over War