Ethiopia’s civil war: how the country is on the brink of ‘irreversible state collapse’

The basic issue is how much autonomy Ethiopia’s regions should have

Soldiers in Ethiopia
Soldiers take part in a memorial service for the victims of the Tigray conflict organised by the city administration in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on 3 November 2021
(Image credit: Minasse Wondimu Hailu/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Ethiopia is facing an “existential crisis”, said Haitham Nouri in Al-Ahram (Cairo). As the country’s civil war entered its second year this month, the rebel Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) was advancing deep into territory controlled by federal forces, and threatening to march on the capital Addis Ababa.

On Facebook, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed called on all Ethiopians “to organise and march... using every weapon and power... to prevent, reverse and bury the terrorist TPLF”. The war had begun last November with Abiy promising a swift operation to bring the rebellious northern Tigray region under control.

He declared victory within a month; but since then, the TPLF has launched an astonishing fightback. It has created a rebel alliance with the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), drawn from the nation’s largest ethnic group, which last week was 150 miles from the capital. Most of the inhabitants of Addis Ababa are Amhara, the nation’s second-largest group, under whose leadership the country was united in the 19th century. They still “dominate the country’s political elite and middle class and therefore fear revenge from the Tigray and other groups”.

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As well they might, said Robbie Corey-Boulet in The Mail & Guardian (Cape Town). The war was brutal; the federal army and its Eritrean allies were accused of committing mass atrocities against Tigrayans. And “a mostly hidden feature” of the civil war since has been “a mass campaign of arbitrary arrests” targeting Tigrayans in Addis Ababa and elsewhere in Ethiopia.

The government has described it as a legitimate operation to stamp out TPLF terrorist cells, but reports suggest an “indiscriminate operation” ensnaring everyone from soldiers to day labourers to clergymen. “TPLF-supporting” businesses (i.e. those owned by Tigrayans) have been closed down. Amnesty International reports that more than 1,000 people are held at one camp in squalid conditions. Military courts have handed down death sentences to “traitorous” Tigrayan officers.

Tigray protest in the US

Demonstrators march in the US on 4 November 2021, marking the one-year anniversary of the Ethiopian government's decision to deploy troops into the Tigray region
(Image credit: Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images)

If Addis Ababa falls, there is a risk of major ethnic strife, said The Nation (Nairobi). “A mosaic of more than 80 ethnicities, Ethiopia may find itself mirroring the fate of the former Yugoslavia.” As the TPLF advances, it is likely to “encounter stiff resistance from Amhara military fighters who have mobilised in large numbers”. But taking the capital “may not be what the rebels have in mind”.

They have captured the strategic towns of Dessie and Kombolcha in Amhara, and are moving east to capture the road to the port of Djibouti. This would ease humanitarian access to Tigray, where the UN says hundreds of thousands are on the brink of famine – thanks, the TPLF claims, to a government blockade. Capturing the road would also allow Tigrayan fighters to block the crucial supply route to Addis Ababa. “The strategy seems to be to strangle Addis rather than take it.” This would put the rebels in a stronger position for future negotiations.

There is little prospect of a ceasefire, said The Addis Standard. Abiy is demanding that the TPLF withdraw to Tigray, and recognise the government’s legitimacy. The TPLF has rejected those demands.

There are “no easy solutions”, said Seifudein Adem in Foreign Policy (Washington DC). The basic issue is how much autonomy Ethiopia’s regions should have. The TPLF, which was in power until 2018, dismantled Amhara dominance of Ethiopia. The Amhara – ironically, led by an Oromo PM, Abiy – want to restore it. Ethiopia is now on the brink of “irreversible state collapse, which would also have regionwide consequences”. It “is reaching a stage where it cannot save itself”.

Ideally, the African Union would step in to save it, but it is headquartered in Addis Ababa, and is “unlikely to upset its host”. The idea of US intervention – American forces are stationed in Djibouti – is unpopular. But in truth, “only the West has the willingness and capacity to rescue the Ethiopian state from devouring its own citizens – and eventually itself”.

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