Main Image Credit Members of the Ethiopian National Defense Force march during a rally to celebrate the swearing in of Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on 4 October 2021. Courtesy of Reuters / Alamy Stock Photo
Mired in a conflict that began in late 2020 between the federal government and insurgent forces in Tigray, Ethiopia faces a number of possible scenarios.
On 29 September, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs head warned of looming famine in Ethiopia’s Tigray becoming a ‘stain on our conscience’. The Ethiopian government responded quickly, expelling seven UN humanitarian staff from the country in advance of the swearing in of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on 4 October.
Violent conflict erupted between Ethiopia’s federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in November 2020. What was originally a political fight between the TPLF and the federal government has now shifted to a full-fledged civil war. The conflict has spread geographically, including Amhara and Afar regional states, and drawn in neighbours and coalition partners. Thousands have already died and millions have been displaced, with reports of atrocities against Tigrayan civilians, around 5.2 million of whom currently require humanitarian assistance while more than 400,000 people already face famine-like conditions. This month has seen a resumption of hostilities between federal forces, the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) and the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF), with attacks mounted by land and by air, including raids on Tigray’s capital Mekelle with reported civilian casualties.
How did it come to this? But, more importantly, where might Ethiopia head next?
The Road to Conflict
Close observers of Ethiopian politics cite irreconcilable visions of power distribution among political elites as the key problem. A unitary camp has long seen Ethiopia’s ‘ethno-federal’ constitution as flawed and sought a more centralised system. In contrast, for federalists (read TPLF and like-minded ethno-nationalist groups), the constitution needs only to be respected to ensure peace and prosperity.
Prime Minister Abiy harnessed discontentment among the federalists to win power in 2018. He then switched sides, offering a more centralised vision for the country’s development under the banner of a new Prosperity Party. The unitary camp he joined faced trenchant opposition from two key groups: the TPLF and opposition figures from Oromia. From 2018 onwards, key figures in the Oromo opposition were jailed or co-opted. Attention then turned to the TPLF, who were successfully ousted from power in 2018. A three-way blame-game developed between the federal government, Amhara state government and TPLF. The TPLF's leaders retreated to Mekelle, the capital of Tigray regional state. And so began a phony war, with the federal government and TPLF exchanging harsh words while making quiet preparations for the armed conflict that erupted in November 2020.
It now seems clear that Abiy’s faction within the federal government had agreed with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki and key figures within Amhara regional state to eliminate the TPLF as a political force. Doing so would allow Amhara regional leaders to gain control of disputed border land while weakening the rival TPLF and what they stand for – the federal system. President Isaias sees the TPLF as a threat to his undisputed power within the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front and has long sought to regain disputed land in Tigray state lost to Ethiopia during the Ethio-Eritrean war in 1998–2000. For Abiy, the objective will be to consolidate power and remove a key blocker of centralisation.
The State of Play
At the present time, the conflict parties are fervently building coalitions. In response to their surprise military defeat in Tigray, the federal government and allies have sought to contain, weaken and delegitimise the TDF. A blockade of Tigray is underway, denying humanitarian assistance and basic services to the population. Forces have also been posted along the routes to Sudan and Djibouti, which the TDF could plausibly look to seize in order to unlock cross-border supply routes.
Ethiopia's political terrain is marked by seemingly irreconcilable divisions, and the mood is vengeful
Meanwhile, federal spokespeople and supportive media are portraying the TDF as an anti-Ethiopian force bent on dismantling the country in concert with foreign powers. The US, Egypt and Sudan are cited, though two usual suspects – Eritrea and Somalia – are notably absent from the list. At the same time, the government is trying to widen its domestic coalition beyond Amhara. ‘Loyalist’ regional states have been asked for recruits to backfill for the broken ENDF. Though the numbers and quality of recruits are doubtful, the leadership of several states have responded.
For their part, the TDF now control all but parts of western and northern Tigray while occupying parts of Afar and Amhara states. Amhara towns such as Wuchale, Qobo, Woldia and Lalibela are currently under TDF control, while major administrative towns such as Bahirdar, Gondar and Dessie are threatened. All could be used as bargaining chips for the departure of Amhara or Eritrean forces from Tigrayan territory. More recently, they brokered an understanding with longstanding insurgents from Oromia, the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), as well as smaller insurgency groups from Afar, Agaw, Benishangul, Gambella, Qimant and Sidama. All have now announced their support for the TDF forces and joined the TDF-OLA coalition, though the military utility of these broad alliances has yet to be tested.
The country is at a political impasse, stuck midway through a failing transition that the prime minister spearheaded. Regardless of the recent parliamentary election, the questions facing the country are not being processed by its political institutions. The political terrain is marked by seemingly irreconcilable divisions, and the mood is vengeful. The conflict between Tigray and the federal government, which has an increasingly existential feel to it, is a manifestation of a decades-long ailment within the body politic. This is true from the TDF, who now see themselves as fighting for the survival of Tegaru, to Amhara elites who have banked on a quasi-religious nationalism to shore up support, to the Eritrean and Ethiopian federal leadership whose fate likely hinges on the outcome of this conflict. Insurgent groups – the TDF and OLA, in particular – want accountability for crimes committed and seem to feel they are within reach of victory. For the first time, most Tigrayans are in favour of secession, unrealistic as that may be. In this context, proposals for dialogue and consultations are not realistic.
At the same time, the situation is unsustainable. The country is facing a steep economic decline and a forex crisis. Moody’s credit agency has downgraded Ethiopia’s rating to Caa2, reflecting increased default risks. The country’s appeal for debt cancellation to the G20 Common Framework for debt restructuring was also rejected, meaning that debt repayments must continue and further loans are unlikely. With rising inflation, many household goods are now out of reach for ordinary Ethiopians, and areas affected by conflict are seeing growing hunger.
At least four possible scenarios present themselves.
Scenario 1: TDF-OLA Coalition Wins
Tigrayan forces are embattled but clearly well-led, motivated and enjoying broad popular support. They amassed military equipment during the early stages of the conflict and faced an unwieldy coalition of demotivated ENDF, Amhara (peasant) militias and EDF conscripts. To break the current impasse, however, the TDF must exploit their new alliance with insurgent groups, particularly the OLA, and divide their opponents militarily and politically. If the TDF does not receive outside assistance to break the federal blockade, OLA growth and battlefield engagement will be the key factor in the coming months.
In a post-war scenario where the balance of societal forces remains finely balanced, the TDF-OLA coalition might attempt to resuscitate the current constitution under their leadership. This ‘make-do-and-mend’ EPRDF 2.0 scenario would be unstable. It would be vulnerable to accusations that the TPLF remained the (corrupt) power behind the throne. In the event of a sweeping TDF-OLA victory, a much looser confederal constitution can be imagined, satisfying the appetite of many groups for greater self-determination but posing new questions about unity. In either case, economic and political liberalisation would be unlikely as the victorious party guarded carefully against counter-revolution.
Scenario 2: Stalemate
If the TDF-OLA alliance cannot achieve a breakthrough, the most likely medium-term scenario is a stalemate. This is more likely than capitulation in the face of internal pressure. The human toll of this scenario would be enormous, first within a Tigray state remaining under blockage and experiencing large-scale famine, but also in neighbouring territories feeling the effects of war and gradually elsewhere. Directing ever more resources towards war, the economy would continue to decline, and the cost of living would rise to punishing levels. Unrest would grow, first in territories like Oromia and Amhara due to hunger, but later elsewhere until Addis faced multiple insurgencies.
The country could fragment slowly in the form of ‘Somalisation’, as component states and peoples no longer recognise the political centre and forge new relationships to deal with economic and security challenges
Stalemate will ultimately be a recipe for gradual state failure. Abiy’s coalition could quickly come apart, as could the wider political settlement as the country’s composite territories begin to look to one another and to their neighbours rather than the centre.
Scenario 3: Government Victory
Federal forces are currently too weak to achieve outright military victory. Provided Amhara elites remain supportive, however, they can source adequate manpower to continue a war of attrition against the TDF. Victory might then be possible if grinding hardship diminishes popular support for the war within Tigray. The Ethiopian leadership would need to withstand a degree of international condemnation and targeted sanctions, and ride out the current difficulties with forex, which have exacerbated a halt to aid payments and loans from the IMF and World Bank. History suggests this is possible, at least for the medium term. International condemnation will also be far from universal – a number of African governments will remain supportive, acquiescent, while diplomatic if not material support could be forthcoming from the likes of Turkey, Iran, Russia or China.
The cost associated with this victory would, however, be considerable. Blockade and ultimately starvation of Tigray could be maintained through even stronger nationalist and xenophobic rhetoric. It would also require further repression of dissent. There would be an ever-growing risk of the ruling coalition fracturing in the face of economic and security difficulties, including unemployment, inflation and criminality. The damage to state capacity, legitimacy and acceptance by peripheries of the central government could be fatal, setting a slow form of state collapse in train.
Scenario 4: Forced Peace
A fourth possibility is that the international community might force a peace deal upon the parties. The region has seen strong external leadership on peace agreements in Kenya, Sudan and South Sudan. But even a ceasefire and talks would require the TPLF and federal leadership to feel they are trapped in a hurting stalemate. Tigray would require an end to the economic and humanitarian blockade, a key prop of Addis’ strategy against them to make this palatable. A deal would provide the parties with time to regroup, which could become attractive at a later point. In the short term it seems unlikely. The parties are too divided and committed to military solutions. No foreign power seems willing to invest political capital in brokering negotiations and the federal government has so far proved resistant to diplomatic overtures.
Of the above scenarios, a TDF-OLA coalition win seems more likely than an outright government victory or a forced peace, at least for the coming year. A forced peace would be the least disruptive option, allowing deferment of seemingly insoluble challenges and a cooling of heads. Moreover, it could provide an off-ramp for a defeated but defiant Abiy who could exit somewhat gracefully, leaving questions of accountability open.
But continued stalemate and protracted conflict is also likely. It could be the worst scenario for the millions now facing hunger and destitution, whether in Tigray, Amhara or Afar regions. It is also the route most likely to damage the Ethiopian state to the point of failure. Formal dissolution of Ethiopia is unlikely anytime soon. The bar is set very high both for recognising secession and for redrawing of state boundaries. The country could, however, fragment slowly in the form of ‘Somalisation’, as component states and peoples no longer recognise the political centre and forge new relationships to deal with economic and security challenges. This would open a conundrum for parts of the country that have contestable boundaries or numerous ethnic groups or autonomous entities. It might also throw up new and unwanted surprises, not least the relationship to neighbours such as Somalia or the boundaries for Amhara and Oromia and even Eritrea, the country that in many ways is at the heart of Ethiopia’s difficulties.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors’, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
Have an idea for a Commentary you’d like to write for us? Send a short pitch to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll get back to you if it fits into our research interests. Full guidelines for contributors can be found here.
Correction: A reference to Alamata was removed and replaced by a reference to Wuchale on 25 October 2021.
Senior Research Fellow, African Security
Associate Fellow - Specialist in security of East Africa and the Horn