Since November 2020, a large-scale armed conflict has been raging in the Tigray region of Ethiopia between the opposing forces of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. While the hostilities were triggered by a TPLF attack directed at a governmental military base in Tigray, this war is a vivid reflection of the historical tensions between the different ethnicities constituting the Ethiopian population. This divide was addressed by the 1995 ethno-federal Constitution which attempted to provide an innovative solution to the question of fair political representation. Nevertheless, Meles Zenawi, leader of the TPLF and Ethiopian Prime Minister for nearly twenty years, established the Tigrayans minority as the dominating political and military force of the country. Recent elections have however partly transferred the political power away from the Tigrayans to the Oromo Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed. At the end of 2020, the gradually escalating tensions between the TPLF and the central government exploded into an all-out armed conflict. Despite the initial success in containing Tigrayans rebels, the TPLF has recently taken over major cities and even threatens the capital, Addis Ababa. With thousands of Ethiopian casualties and millions suffering from famine, targeted violence and deteriorated living conditions, the international community has repeatedly called for an immediate cease fire. Still, violence continues to surge in Ethiopia and is not only threatening the stability of the country, but that of the entire region.

To better understand the Ethiopian conflict and its political, international and humanitarian consequences, The Paris Globalist spoke with Roland Marchal, researcher at the CNRS and Sciences Po CERI. Specialized in the study of Central and the Horn of Africa, he has focused his work on civil wars and State building. He is also considered as one of the top experts on Somalia, which has led him to work with the United Nations. Roland Marchal served as the Editor in Chief of the Politique africaine journal from 2002 to 2005 and still regularly contributes to this renowned publication.

Given the recent advancement of the TPLF army, can you still envision a de-escalation of the conflict ?

         Unlike the past years when sporadic armed incidents took place throughout the country, the situation in Ethiopia is extremely complicated at the moment. After ruling Ethiopia from 1991 to 2018, the TPLF firmly believes it is entitled to decide the political direction of the country. The Tigrayans have therefore accused Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of ruining the political legacy they had built in the country. Furthermore, the TPLF’s latest victories and advancement have added to their inflexibility and unwillingness to negotiate with the national government in Addis Ababa. On the government’s side, the Prime Minister has made the crucial mistake of believing the rebels would be easily defeated. Nevertheless, the national army was weakened by the dismissal of various Tigrayans army officials, put in place when the TPLF was in power. The national government is now finding itself on the defensive against a TPLF army marching towards the capital, making de-escalation unlikely. Besides, the increasingly nationalist and racist discourse held by Abiy Ahmed targeted at the Tigrayans population does not bode well for war prisoners and the future stability of the country.

What does the conflict signify for the long-term stability of the country ?

         The first consequences of the conflict are and will be felt within Ethiopia. In the case where the TPLF takes power and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is deposed of his function, he still remains popular among certain groups. This means that if the TPLF succeeds in winning over the country, guerrilla groups might emerge across the territory and especially in the capital, Addis Ababa. Insurgents would require a significant amount of troops to be controlled, troops which might not be used elsewhere. Similarly, the victory of the governmental forces would mean the end of the rebellion but would not mean the return to peace and stability. Therefore, some people believe that this war cannot be won. Furthermore, the war has led to the resurgence of regional land conflict and border tensions which will have long-term consequences on the country.

The United States and the EU have announced the possibility of issuing sanctions against the Ethiopian government, could these measures prove effective in putting an end to the conflict ?

         The most important question of this conflict revolves around the structure and functioning of the Ethno-federal State. In order to solve this question, both parties need to be able to sit at the same table and discuss. Nevertheless, the idea of negotiating with one’s opponent has always been a challenge for Ethiopians elites. Despite the US, EU and UK sending special envoys to foster discussions between the two sides, the situation has therefore remained a deadlock.The Nobel Prize committee has even discussed the possibility of removing the Nobel Prize granted to Abiy Ahmed in 2019. Similarly, the United States enforced sanctions against Eritrea, allied with the national government, but without much results on Ethiopia. New sanctions would largely be ineffective as the TPLF is confident of its future victory and the Prime Minister views negotiating as his political death sentence. For both sides, the time of debate has ended and they are now fighting for the future of the country.

What are the humanitarian consequences of the conflict and which populations are the most vulnerable in the coming months ?

         For the time being, the area most affected by the conflict is the Tigray region itself which is situated in Northern Ethiopia. The military operations conducted there have indeed led to important casualties and the destruction of food and basic supplies. The UN and Tigray authorities themselves have estimated that more or less 1 million people are in a dire situation and 4 million will suffer from the famine. While some observers believed Tigrayans forces would block the roads and redirect food convoys from the capital to the Tigrayans, they have decided to continue their advancement South. In any case, the Ethiopian governmental forces still possess drones that could be used against relief convoys towards the Tigray region. The longer the fight, the tougher it will be for the populations across the country.

Would the partition of the country into several independent nations based on ethnicity constitute a potential outcome of this crisis and would it be desirable ?

         When studying the region, the creation of Eritrea and South Sudan are two striking examples of how complex the emergence of a new nation can be. For Eritrea, the country has missed an opportunity to develop and has largely become a garrison state. Similarly, the situation in South Sudan remains politically chaotic. In both cases, the population is the first to suffer from the instability of the region and lack of resources. Concerning the partition of Ethiopia, some Oromo political trends have expressed their support for a partition of the country along ethnic lines. Nevertheless, most political circles still support a form of federalism and the question of the partition of the ethnically diverse Addis Ababa remains a key point of contention. Rather than envisioning a partition that would prove extremely costly, discussions need to revolve around the structure of the present constitution. More specifically, how to ensure a fair political representation or what role should the central power have, are key questions that need to be addressed. This would avoid the constellation of conflict as observed in the last ten years and the emergence of a full-scale war as currently witnessed by Ethiopians.

Do you have any advice for international relations students as to how to better understand the complex situation in Ethiopia and the region at large ?

         One of the major mistakes made by international organizations, the media and often students is to analyze the conflict as it is happening. It is crucial to look at the history of the country in order to fully understand the extent and stakes of the Ethiopian conflict. I was surprised to see such the overwhelming focus on the humanitarian consequences of the war without mentioning first the political origins of the situation. Many articles very well summarize the complex history of the country and its current relationship with its neighbors such as Eritrea or Sudan. The Sciences Po CERI’s website features great pieces on the subject and The Conversation blog published a great series of papers on Ethiopia. Finally, the Eritrea hub and the Europe Media monitor provide daily news on the region. You shouldn’t rush to the sensational headlines but try to comprehend the ambiguity and complexity of this international conflict.