Even for most Ethiopians, the region of Tigray, tucked away in the very north of the country bordering Eritrea, is remote. Yet the sudden war that began on November 4 threatens to wreck the reforms at home that the country’s young prime minister has forged in office – and to drag in countries abroad, first and foremost in the Middle East.
In just three short years, Abiy Ahmed has made himself a power broker in the Middle East. He has forged strong links with Gulf countries and investment has poured in: just weeks after he took office in 2018, the UAE pledged $3 billion in aid and investments. An Abu Dhabi developer is building a $2 billion housing and commercial project in the capital, Addis Ababa, the largest development in the city. Saudi Arabia has also put up millions in loans and hosted the signing ceremony for the historic peace treaty Abiy signed with Eritrea in 2018.
But Ethiopia also squats in the midst of many smaller, fragile states. And it is in these states – Eritrea, Djibouti and the breakaway Somalia province of Somaliland – that Middle East states have begun constructing commercial and military facilities.
Abiy is also at the center of the most urgent diplomatic issue in East Africa, the dispute with Egypt and Sudan over the vast Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. He flew to Khartoum to ensure negotiations resumed in August, and appears to enjoy a warm relationship with Egypt’s Abdel Fattah El Sisi.
Ethiopia has grown in importance to the Middle East this century, but with Abiy in power, it has become indispensable to the plans of many capitals across the region. These new clashes, the worst of the many ethnic skirmishes that have dogged Abiy’s short tenure, threaten to undo much of his good work. That’s because what is happening in the far north of the country is a combustible mix of political competition and ethnic grievance which cannot be solved even with decisive military force.
Abiy appears determined to demonstrate resolve, sealing off the region’s roads and telecommunications, and ordering airstrikes on the night of the US election. The stage is set for a long confrontation that will surely draw in surrounding countries. Already the spillover has begun. On November 10, Sudan’s state news agency reported that the first refugees from Ethiopia had crossed the border and Khartoum was preparing refugee camps for more arrivals.
Most countries in the region will have taken the view – expressed last week by Eritrea before news of rockets from northern Tigray landing its capital on Saturday – that the clashes were “an internal conflict [that] we are not part of.” But it is now an international incident, one that could shine a spotlight on Abiy’s record on ethnic tensions and indeed on his delaying of democracy: in June, he postponed this autumn’s election indefinitely or at least “until the coronavirus is deemed not to be a public health concern.” That’s the sort of imprecision that makes opponents nervous.
While no one wants to see a civil war developing in Ethiopia, few in the international community or in the Middle East want to see Abiy himself distracted, sidelined or ousted. This is the curious integration of leader and country. Abiy has become a figure on which the hopes of the outside world have been pinned. He was given the Nobel peace prize last year and, largely on the strength of his determination to put an end to the state-led economy, the International Monetary Fund has offered a $3 billion loan. A new war would create enormous uncertainty and could even change the political weather; after all, Abiy only came to power himself after the surprise resignation of his predecessor.
Yet for all the risk to the man they have pinned their hopes on, there is very little that outside powers can do. The politics of this conflict are fiendishly complicated, crossing ethnic grievances and historical alliances.
The ruling political party of the Tigray region, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) was, until last year, part of a decades-long ruling coalition of four political parties. Abiy, seeking to break apart this cozy coalition and reform Ethiopian politics, created a new, national party, which the TPLF refused to join.
But in carrying out these reforms, Abiy unleashed ethnic tensions. Last summer, there was unrest among the Amhara ethnic group, the second-largest ethnic group in the country. A few months later, there was unrest among the Oromo ethnic group, the largest in the country and the one from which Abiy himself comes. Now tensions have exploded with the Tigrayan, the main ethnic group in Tigray.
All of these divisions have existed within Ethiopia for years, but during Abiy’s time, his reforms have pushed them to the surface: this year alone there have been clashes linked to ethnicity in every one of Ethiopia’s provinces. The hope was that he could keep a lid on the tensions, as he forged ahead with economic and political reform. That now looks short-sighted. The glossy future that Abiy was so determined to lead the country toward is built on easily shifting sand.
For now, Middle East states that have invested money, military and political plans in this Ethiopian government can only look on and wonder if the work Abiy did in three years to transform Ethiopia’s diplomatic relations and international reputation is about to be wrecked in a matter of weeks.
Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.