Hundreds have already died. The dangers are multiplying for the country and the region
On Tuesday, two weeks after launching military action, the Ethiopian prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, announced a “final and conclusive” push against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. Few expect it to be so easy. The TPLF, which dominated Ethiopian politics for years but has been sidelined since Mr Abiy rose to power, has a long history of guerrilla warfare and heavily armed forces.
While each side blames the other for the conflict, civilians are bearing the brunt. Tens of thousands of people have fled from Tigray to Sudan. Hundreds are reported dead, though the severing of communications with the north-west region means that news from there is sporadic and unreliable. Refugees have described both sides committing atrocities against civilians. Aid workers leaving the region report a chaotic and rapidly shifting situation; their departure from an area where many already went hungry will deepen suffering.
Power has long been leveraged along ethnic lines in Ethiopia, and there are tensions not only between ethnic groups but within them – including Mr Abiy’s own Oromo community. People have mooted the risk of the state collapsing as Yugoslavia did since Mr Abiy, a Nobel peace prize winner, began the political reforms that won him widespread applause. Those concerns now look increasingly pressing. The UN special advisers on the prevention of genocide and responsibility to protect have warned that ethnic violence has reached alarming levels in Ethiopia over the last two years, adding that such attacks and reported ethnic profiling of citizens constitute “a dangerous trajectory that heightens the risk of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity”.
Conflicts are not easily containable, whatever Mr Abiy may believe. The TPLF has already carried out strikes on the airport of the Eritrean capital, Asmara, which it says has been used by Ethiopian federal forces; it has also accused Eritrea of sending its own troops into Tigray. Analysts wonder if Egypt, angered by Ethiopia’s colossal new dam on the Nile, might be tempted to take advantage of the government’s distraction. Ethiopia says it has disarmed hundreds of Tigrayan peacekeepers serving in Somalia over a security issue; with feelings there running high as elections loom, any further weakening of forces could prove destabilising.
The Horn of Africa’s strategic importance has seen Gulf countries as well as China, the US and others jockeying for influence in recent years. Plenty of players have a stake in maintaining security in the region. The UN, the African Union, the EU and others must up the pressure on both sides to come to the table, something that Mr Abiy so far spurns. Each side has regarded the other as illegitimate since the prime minister postponed elections, citing the pandemic, while Tigray went ahead. But though the TPLF has been increasingly provocative, Mr Abiy has made not a targeted response but an all-out push to remove it from power. The reality is that this is a crisis that can only be solved politically. The alternative will simply bring more suffering.