Ethiopia’s Tigray Conflict Threatens to Spill Over

The conflict between the Ethiopian federal government and a rebellious local government in the Tigray region has not only spread to other parts of the country, but now also beyond Ethiopia’s borders. Thus, a local conflict is now seeding violence in Ethiopia’s surrounding region – and could get worse.

To be sure, it was Tigray’s erstwhile ruling party that precipitated the local conflict, but most of the blame lies with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. He squandered the enormous political capital available to him when he first took power by pursuing a political self-aggrandizement project. In his ostensibly high-minded endeavor to refashion Ethiopia into a liberal democracy, Abiy completely disregarded dialogue and consensus-building between Ethiopia’s various ethnic groups. By an act of fiat, he dissolved the country’s ruling coalition of ethnicity-based parties in 2019 and replaced it with a pan-Ethiopian party, the Prosperity Party, and placed himself at its helm. This alienated even some of his closest allies, and further inflamed ethnic strife throughout the country. Even before the start of the current conflict, Ethiopia had one of the largest numbers of internally displaced people in the world.

In November, the federal government disarmed Tigrayan soldiers, one of the army’s most well-trained and battle-hardened troops. The soldiers, serving in Somalia, were then recalled. Ethiopia has long played the role of guarantor of security for the beleaguered government of President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed. The most immediate repercussions of this will be on the stability of the government in Mogadishu.

The withdrawal of Ethiopian troops will strengthen Al Shabab, which could wreak havoc and expand its area of control in Somalia and Somali-inhabited areas in Ethiopia and Kenya. With its avowed links to Al Qaeda, an emboldened Al Shabab could re-launch reprisal attacks against major cities in countries such as Uganda, Kenya, Djibouti and Burundi that have sent soldiers to the African Union Mission in Somalia. The Libyan civil war fueled terrorism across the Sahel through the easy availability of weapons and porous borders. Similarly, state collapse in Ethiopia and chaos in the Horn of Africa region could further inflame terrorism further afield in Mozambique, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The other consequence of a weakened government in Mogadishu will be heightened tension between the government in Mogadishu and Somalia’s federal units, some of which, like Somaliland, practically function as independent states. On January 24, clashes erupted between forces loyal to Mogadishu and those of Jubaland, an autonomous Somali federal state backed by Kenya. Should this escalate further, it could bring Ethiopia into conflict with Kenya.

Egypt, which has sought to expand its influence in the Horn of Africa to counter Ethiopia and Turkey, could also be drawn into a future conflict. Cairo recently sought to establish a military base in Somaliland. This could then be countered by Turkey, which like Ethiopia, maintains strong military and economic ties to the government in Mogadishu. Ethiopia’s ongoing civil war could make the Horn of Africa region the site of proxy conflicts between various regional states looking to settle scores with each other.

The other brewing dispute that has erupted due to the conflict between Addis Ababa and the Tigray region is that between Sudan and Ethiopia. On account of Ethiopia’s internal conflict, Sudanese troops moved approximately 40 kilometers into territory long contested by both countries, in December. Violence has since broken out in this area, with Sudan accusing Ethiopian government militias of launching cross-border attacks that killed at least five Sudanese civilians.

Sudan has since accused Ethiopia of violating its airspace and has rushed additional troops to the region. On January 25, clashes involving artillery broke out along the disputed border. It is conceivable that Abiy may choose to burnish his sagging political credentials by provoking a military conflict with Sudan. In Sudan, politicians and the military are jockeying for influence as part of a fragile transitional government. Standing up for Sudan’s territorial integrity may be just what the military needs to bolster its standing among ordinary Sudanese.

It is worth noting that since the start of border tensions between Sudan and Ethiopia, there has been a flurry of high-level exchanges between Khartoum and Cairo. On January 14, a Sudanese military delegation visited Cairo to meet Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi to discuss tensions with Ethiopia. In November, the air forces of both countries carried out joint exercises. Cairo could use current Sudan-Ethiopia tensions to put pressure on Addis Ababa over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which Cairo views as an existential threat and over which there is still no deal between Egypt and Ethiopia.

Another lever at Sudan and Egypt’s disposal is the presence of at least 50,000 Tigrayan refugees in Sudan. Cairo and Khartoum could provide arms and training to these refugees and use them to launch cross-border militant attacks, thus keeping up military pressure on Ethiopia.

Ethiopia’s ongoing civil war risks causing the collapse of the Ethiopian state. But it will almost certainly foment inter-state conflict across the broader region that could draw in regional states. It could also lead to an increase in terrorism across large parts of Africa.

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.