Main Image Credit Weapons poised: a soldier guards a refugee camp near Bahir Dar in Ethiopia's Amhara region. Image: Erberto Zani / Alamy
While Ukraine grabs the headlines, Ethiopia is in the midst of a civil war that has brought famine and economic crisis in its wake. As public anger grows, the conflict may be heading towards a bloody conclusion.
In 2020, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed formed a coalition to end the dominance of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) – the former ruling party – forever. His principal domestic backers, from Amhara regional state, held long-standing grievances towards Tigray. His external supporters, President Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea, President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo of Somalia, and Prince Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan of the UAE, joined the coalition for different reasons. In the wake of a contested election in Tigray, Abiy kicked off a military operation in November 2020, ostensibly to restore constitutional order. His law and order campaign was supposed to conclude in a few weeks, but has since morphed into a civil war.
The initial phase of Abiy’s war against the TPLF went as planned. Within three weeks, government coalition forces captured Mekelle, the Tigrayan capital, with support from the Eritrean Defence Forces in the north. Tigrayan forces vacated the main towns and retreated into the mountains. The Ethiopian government announced an early victory over the TPLF ‘Junta’ and installed an interim administration in Tigray. It dismissed calls for dialogue as tantamount to compromising national sovereignty, and was backed at the time by Mousa Faki, the African Union Chairperson. Intoxicated by the short-lived victory, the prime minister said he had routed the TPLF fighters like ‘flour dispersed by the wind’. But subsequent looting and human rights abuses within occupied Tigray by Eritrean forces, Amhara militia, the Fano youth group and the Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF) pushed many Tigrayans into the arms of the new unified Tigrayan Defence Force (TDF). Amhara militias later annexed the contested areas of Wolkaite, Humera and Raya.
Routing the Largest Armies in Africa
Tigrayan forces quickly regrouped, bolstered by popular support. Battle-tested military leaders, intellectuals, youth, peasants and professionals joined the fight. Over the following seven months, they routed Africa’s two largest armies, those of Ethiopia and Eritrea, evicting them from most of Tigray and reclaiming Mekelle. Cut off from essential services, the TDF marched to open an access route, the Djibouti road. Its advance foundered in the face of resistance from the Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF) and the blistering heat of the desert. A southward advance toward the capital brought it to within 140 km of Addis Ababa, causing administrative chaos in the city. Officials of the Somali and Amhara regions diverted funds, fearing state collapse. But the advance was halted by a renewed ENDF campaign, bolstered this time by militia forces and Chinese, Iranian and Turkish drones. The Tigrayans’ main military ally, the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), remained too disorganised to shore up the TDF.
From Starvation Tactics to Economic Blockade
The TDF retreated to its state boundaries. Abiy’s federal government resorted to starvation tactics, imposing a blockade on Tigray that denying all but token amounts of humanitarian assistance. The blockade, maintained by a combination of the Eritrean and Ethiopian militaries and special forces from Afar and Amhara states, has proven effective and deadly. A recent study by Ghent University reported more than half a million deaths in Tigray due to the conflict and a lack of basic necessities as all state services, communications, banking, and food imports were denied. Nine in ten Tigrayans now require humanitarian relief, according to the UN, although the conflict has had a wider toll nationally.
Siege warfare favours the better-resourced party. Compared to the Tigray regional government, the Abiy coalition has more human, financial and diplomatic resources at its disposal. Tigray, in contrast, is resource-poor, despite its internal cohesion and will to fight. Yet Abiy’s resource advantage is fast evaporating as the economic fallout from the war hits home. COVID-19 restrictions, severe drought, economic sanctions imposed by foreign governments, falling production, the diversion of manpower and resources to the war, and now inflation have exhausted the wider public and left federal resources depleted. As of 31 December 2021, Ethiopia’s foreign currency reserves had reportedly fallen to $1.6 billion – enough to sustain imports for a month. With dwindling funding and foreign direct investment, manufacturing and construction are winding down. Commodities from iron to cement and diesel are now in short supply, and daily essentials have become unaffordable. The price of cooking oil has tripled in recent months to 1,000 Ethiopian birr, and the official inflation rate was running at 34% as of February 2022. Public anger is simmering. The government’s blockade has successfully restricted access to food, medicines and commodities in Tigray, and around nine million people – mainly in the Tigray, Afar and Amhara regions – now require food assistance. As a result of government policy, the country’s worst drought in 40 years has now become a famine. In the worst-affected parts of the Somali region, over 1.4 million livestock have died.
If severe diplomatic pressure is not exerted in short order to get the parties talking, renewed hostilities are to be expected, perhaps within weeks
Economic desperation is driving social unrest. The government no longer seems to have a monopoly over violence in parts of the Amhara, Oromia, and Benishangul Gumuz regions, in large part due to having raised unpaid militias. Crime rates have shot up. Abduction, rape and extortion are now routine in Amhara region due to local Fano militias. Many fear to leave their homes unattended in Addis Ababa, Bahirdar and Gondar. The combined effect has been a sharp decline in the prime minister’s popularity and visible divisions within his supporting party.
So Much for Dialogue
Diplomatic pressure to date has prompted Abiy to release prominent political prisoners, including Jawar Mohamed, Bekele Garba, Eskindir Nega, and some of the TPLF leaders. He also set up a National Dialogue Commission, though it seems to be staffed with many loyalists and has been condemned as non-inclusive by the Ethiopian Political Parties Joint Council. In March 2022, Abiy’s government announced a ‘Unilateral Humanitarian Truce’ with Tigray, which the Tigray regional government reciprocated, but without enthusiasm. It assumed the truce was a public relations tactic designed to placate foreign critics. This analysis seems to have been borne out by subsequent events. Fewer than 150 food aid trucks were allowed into Tigray in the subsequent five weeks, despite an estimated 300 per day being required to meet humanitarian needs. This is despite Tigrayan forces having met a key Ethiopian government condition for unfettered access by withdrawing from neighbouring Afar state.
The Coming Storm
In October 2021, we set out four scenarios for Ethiopia in the medium term: a TDF–OLA coalition win, a continued stalemate, a government victory, or a forced peace. We said then that a stalemate would be unsustainable in the long term. The arrival of a faux humanitarian truce probably spells the end of a stalemate that has held since around December 2021. However, if severe diplomatic pressure is not exerted in short order to get the parties talking (a forced peace), renewed hostilities are to be expected, perhaps within weeks.
While Abiy’s situation looks unsustainable, it could well be the Tigrayans who strike the next blow. Without unfettered access to aid and the return of basic services to Tigray, the TDF knows its movement and many of its people are on borrowed time. Any offensive would see the TDF striking southward, towards Addis Ababa and into parts of Amhara, while also maintaining defensive positions in the north against Eritrea. Its chances of success have grown considerably since mid-2021. While hunger has taken its toll, the TDF has had time to train and indoctrinate new recruits, including ENDF prisoners of war, and has been searching for arms and munitions abroad. Moreover, it is expected to fight in concert with newly organised allies. The most notable of these is the OLA, which is rumoured to have grown from a small hit-and-run operation into a conventional force with many new recruits and captured arms and munitions. The OLA has a strong presence in central, west and south Oromia, and has shown a willingness to synchronise operations with the TDF. Anti-government insurgent groups are also active in Afar, Gambela and Benishangul-Gumuz, while the Qimant and Agaw groups are active in parts of Amhara state. This combination of factors may well prove decisive. It is possible, though unlikely, that Abiy’s coalition could hold off a multi-pronged offensive, perhaps with external support. The cost, however, would be the continuation of current economic woes and a growing risk of further political fragmentation if Abiy is not removed. Economic hardship, battlefield casualties among allied nationalities, and now lawlessness have eaten into Abiy’s country-wide popularity. Meanwhile, the anti-government coalition he faces is looking increasingly broad-based.
Weighing the Options
The number of Ethiopians who have paid the ultimate price for miscalculations by the TPLF and Abiy governments may already number in the hundreds of thousands. Yet unless the coming conflagration can be averted, that cost will continue to grow. External parties face three broad options.
It is still not too late to incentivise the parties to negotiate; the question is whether major powers have the will and political resources to do so
The first is to incentivise and support negotiations. The parties are clearly facing a hurting stalemate. It is conceivable that once presented with a mutually enticing opportunity, they will come to the table. Negative and positive incentives would be needed, however, and in large measure. Intense diplomatic pressure would have to be exerted in concert with neighbouring countries and the Gulf states. Credible threats of further sanctions against leading government supporters and restrictions on the Ethiopian government's arms imports would all be needed. An eye on Eritrea’s presence would also be required, and indeed, Abiy’s willingness to remove Eritrean forces would be a test of his seriousness. Meanwhile, economic aid and concessional loans, together with immunity guarantees, would be required to entice the ruling elites and shift wider public opinion.
The second option, unacceptable to many, would be to strengthen the Ethiopian government’s hand. A temporary financial bailout and renewal of arms supplies might tip the balance in its favour for a time. Yet anyone contemplating this option should be clear that further war crimes would result, likely at scale. There would be no prospect at all of addressing most of the war crimes that have occurred, and a centralised political system would be entrenched against the will of many Ethiopians. Prolonging the existence of an ailing government is also not a safe long-term bet – doing so could push a successor regime towards geopolitical rivals, as well as increase the risk of eventual state failure.
A third option is to allow the anti-government coalition to contest the current government militarily and politically, on a more even playing field. As with the first option, pressure should still be applied on the government to open meaningful negotiations and to lift its blockade – after all, enforced starvation remains a war crime. But political realism would suggest that in doing so, it would risk countermeasures giving war a chance. So, the best option is a quick conclusion of the war with the triumph of one side.
It is still not too late to incentivise the parties to negotiate; the question is whether major powers have the will and political resources to do so. Given the distractions of Ukraine and the global economic contraction, this appears unlikely. If the current stalemate does then break down, the most likely of the above scenarios is some form of victory for the anti-government, pro-federalist forces. Though costly, this would be preferable to the continued starvation of millions and the failure of the Ethiopian state, which could engulf the region. Whether the route to negotiations is long and bloody, and whether outsiders play a supporting or neglectful role, are the major questions. However, at some point, Ethiopians will need to come to the table and forge a new political settlement in whatever remains of their country.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Associate Fellow - Specialist in security of East Africa and the Horn
Senior Research Fellow, African Security