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Ethiopia’s Instability Threatens to Engulf Region

Members of the Amhara militia that sides with federal and regional forces against the northern region of Tigray ride on the back of a pick up truck in the city of Gondar, Ethiopia, Nov. 8, 2020.

In a country plagued by years of ethnic violence, analysts fear the latest fighting between government troops and regional paramilitary forces in Ethiopia could be the breaking point.

“We are not on the brink of civil war, Ethiopia is in the midst of a civil war,” said Kjetil Tronvoll, professor of peace and conflict studies at Bjørknes University in Oslo, Norway.

The violence occurred in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region after fighters loyal to the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a political party, attacked a federal government position last week in what the government called an attempt to loot weapons and equipment. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed responded by ordering airstrikes and sending in troops to put down the uprising.

Early reports say hundreds have died in the fighting. There has been an internet shutdown since the beginning of the unrest, a factor that analysts say is leading to a lack of information to assess humanitarian needs.

Tensions have been building since Sept. 9 when Tigray, the northernmost of Ethiopia’s nine regional states, defiantly held a regional election after Abiy postponed the polls, citing the COVID-19 pandemic.

Analysts are questioning whether Abiy, who called the Tigray election illegal, can keep the country together.

“The conflict between the federal authorities and TPLF might be the straw which breaks the camel’s back,” Tronvoll told VOA. “You have the potential of a serious, serious weakening of central authorities in Ethiopia. It is an extremely dire situation and I think it is very hard to see that things will return back to normality as it was before the conflict. The divisions are running too deep for that.”

Ethiopians read about the military confrontation in the country, on a street in the capital Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Nov. 7, 2020.
Ethiopians read about the military confrontation in the country, on a street in the capital Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Nov. 7, 2020.

The conflict also threatens to expand beyond Ethiopia’s border. The head of Sudan’s refugee agency reported this week that more than 2,500 refugees had crossed the border with hundreds more arriving daily.

There are also unconfirmed reports that Eritrea is positioning troops near the border. Ethiopia and Eritrea fought a devastating war between 1998 and 2000 and Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki continues to carry resentments against the TPLF which held power in the country under late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.

Long a bedrock of stability, analysts fear a destabilized Ethiopia could spell doom for the region.

“Ethiopia is the anchor state of the Horn of Africa,” said Murithi Mutiga, International Crisis Group’s Horn of Africa Project Director. “It is obviously the most populous state by far. And as one diplomat pithily put it: ‘If there was a major internal crisis within Ethiopia, it would not implode inwards. It would explode outwards.’”

Adding to its importance, Ethiopia is one of the largest troop-contributing countries to peacekeeping missions in Africa, with soldiers stationed in Sudan, South Sudan and Somalia.

It is also an economic engine that regularly recorded GDP growth above 10% prior to the global economic slowdown caused by COVID-19.

“Ethiopia is absolutely critical to the stability of one of the most unstable regions in the whole of Africa,” Mutiga said. “Home to one of the largest contingent of peacekeepers across the world. Ethiopia’s stability is absolutely critical.”