With Addis Ababa now at risk of falling to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the international community must step up diplomatic efforts to encourage the warring parties to agree on a political solution to the conflict. If the fighting plays out any further, it would have grave consequences not just for Ethiopia but for the wider region.
The TPLF and its ally, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), are in control of strategic towns and roads leading to Addis Ababa, threatening a fight to the finish with the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was right to warn that Ethiopia may implode if a cease-fire isn’t concluded quickly.
Unlike Afghanistan or Syria, the conflict in Ethiopia stems not from the sole dispute over who is the legitimate governing authority for the country. Instead, the conflict is about the nature of the Ethiopian state itself, including firstly, how power and resources ought to be shared between the country’s various ethnic groups and second if those ethnic groups ought to even be part of a single Ethiopia or should have the right to secede. In the current conflict, both Abiy and the TPLF are to blame. Abiy began his term as prime minister with laudable plans to transform Ethiopia’s polity away from one marked by zero-sum competition between its ethnicity-based political parties. Yet Abiy’s folly lay in trying to manufacture political consensus in Ethiopia via single-party rule with himself at the apex. The TPLF, for its part, refused to reconcile to the changed political reality in the country. Instead of working within the evolving system and trying to shape it, it consistently provoked the federal government by defying its authority. The TPLF is not a band of revolutionary democrats looking to transform Ethiopia into a liberal, democratic paradise. If it were to “win,” the group would take Ethiopia back to the pre-Abiy days of TPLF-dominated autocratic rule.
This would also further catalyze, rather than resolve, Ethiopia’s civil war, which one can argue, has been on a slow boil for the past five years. A new bout of ethnic conflict is likely to begin, with ethnic groups that support Abiy’s government unlikely to accept the TPLF running the show. Indeed, in the past, both Oromo and Amhara groups have claimed Addis Ababa for themselves. Currently, ethnic Tigray civilians, including high-profile citizens, are being rounded up in Addis Ababa by government forces on suspicion of supporting the TPLF. Were the TPLF to roll into Addis Ababa, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to imagine reprisal attacks against those deemed to be supporters of Abiy’s government. The country must brace for a long, protracted civil war between not just the TPLF and the government but also between the many dormant insurgencies that may seize the moment to press claims for independence.
This is likely to set off outward refugee flows towards neighboring countries and across the Red Sea toward the Arabian Peninsula. In the throes of its own civil war, Yemen is home to a sizable Ethiopian refugee population. Ethiopia’s neighbors, such as Eritrea, Somalia, Djibouti, Sudan, and Egypt, who Abiy has at various times provoked or allied with during his time as prime minister, are likely to intervene to protect their interests. Some of Ethiopia’s neighbors, such as Kenya and Somalia, have ongoing inter-state disputes too. Like the Democratic Republic of Congo in the 1990s, Ethiopia could become the site for the region’s countries to settle scores with each other. For example, earlier this year, American and Israeli officials accused Iran of activating a sleeper cell in Addis Ababa to launch attacks against the embassies of its regional rivals.
Not only will large flows of refugees destabilize Ethiopia’s neighbors, but the unraveling of the Ethiopian state will itself complicate long-standing stabilization efforts across the continent. For example, the peace deal that ended South Sudan’s civil war, which Addis Ababa pieced together, could come under new strain. The fight against extremist militants in the Horn of Africa, where Ethiopia has played a leading role, is also likely to suffer immeasurably. A civil war in Ethiopia could also inflame conflicts further afield. For comparison, the rise in jihadi violence across the Sahel is linked to the easy availability of illegal arms due to civil war in Libya, a country with a population that is just a fraction of Ethiopia’s.
It is incumbent upon the international community to step up diplomatic efforts to get the government in Addis Ababa and the TPLF to the negotiating table. Regional states like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who played vital roles in the earlier rapprochement between Eritrea and Ethiopia, could underwrite a peace deal. The US has rightly sanctioned Eritrea’s military and regime as a way to get it to stay out of the conflict in Ethiopia. Even as it has suspended trade benefits enjoyed by Ethiopia in response to allegations of human rights abuses by government forces, it has not widened sanctions against either the government or the TPLF, hoping to coax them to the negotiating table. The African Union, under former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, has stepped up efforts too. Yet as Obasanjo has correctly warned, the “window of opportunity” is limited.
Dnyanesh Kamat is a political analyst who focuses on the Middle East and South Asia. He also consults on socio-economic development for government and private-sector entities.