The Ethiopian Crisis: A Dangerous Precedent for Future Conflicts?
Abstract: This brief analyzes Ethiopia’s conflict dynamics and highlights some of its regional and global implications. The Ethiopian military’s intervention in the northern region of Tigray in November 2020 has triggered a variety of intra-state and intra-regional dynamics that undermine the stability of the whole Horn of Africa. Although there seems to be no short-term solution to the conflict, the destabilizing effects of the Ethiopian crisis at the regional level are already noticeable, as there are a mix of concerns about the instability spilling over and other countries’ ambitions to benefit from Addis Ababa’s weakening. From a broader lens, the Ethiopian crisis has become a new ground for confrontation between the United States and China in recent months, with recent trends turning it into a test case for future conflicts and a new global balance of power.
The conflict that began last November in the northern Ethiopian region of Tigray has transformed several times in recent months, affecting the whole country. In recent months, the conflict has triggered a variety of intra-state and intra-regional dynamics that undermine the stability of a regional complex as highly fragile as the Horn of Africa. Although it is difficult to foresee how the conflict will evolve, the implications of Ethiopian instability will undoubtedly profoundly affect the future of states in the whole region. Over twelve months of conflict have led the leading international players to adopt stances that are, in many cases, completely divergent. The United States (U.S.) and Chinese rivalry has generated a struggle for influence around the Ethiopian conflict that could become a test of future global balances.
1. Conflict Dynamics and the Risks of a War of Attrition
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s decision to militarily intervene in Tigray last November triggered a conflict that has gradually engulfed the whole country. The warfare erupted after two years of tension between the new prime minister and the Tigrayan elites who had dominated Ethiopian politics and economy for over two decades. After coming to power, Abiy Ahmed reshaped Ethiopia’s ethnic-political balance, gradually reducing the influence of Tigrayan elites. Tensions, however, boiled over when the Tigray authorities decided to hold regional elections despite the federal government’s decision to postpone them. Following the attack on a federal military base on Tigrayan soil, the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) intervened. Since then, the conflict has gone through at least four distinct phases. The Ethiopian troops seized most of the northern region, including the Tigrayan capital Mekelle, followed by two Tigrayan offensives in June and August, which led to Addis Ababa’s counteroffensive in the fall. The latest stage began in October with a counter-offensive by the ENDF.
While the two camps have crystallized around the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the ruling party in the northern region, on the one hand and Abiy Ahmed on the other, there are also several other actors. The federal army’s operation involves regular troops from other Ethiopian regional states such as Amhara and Afar, plus the active support of the Eritrean Defense Forces (EDF). If the Ethiopian Prime Minister has been able to consolidate the anti-Tigrayan front during the summer, so too have the latter established their own coalition, the United Front of Ethiopian Federalist and Confederalist Force, joined by nine groups from different Ethiopian regional states that share a common desire to end the Abiy Ahmed government.[i] The TPLF-led coalition’s political agenda aims to revive the country’s federal structure through a revised version of Abyotawi democracy, the revolutionary democracy introduced during the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) era. The project has the explicit intention of countering the Prime Minister’s political agenda, who in recent years has promoted a pan-Ethiopian vision based on the concept of medemer (synergy/being added to). In terms of military aid, the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF), the TPLF’s military wing, has been able to rely primarily on the support of the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), led by Jaal Marroo.
In November, the counter-offensive launched by TDF-OLA troops achieved significant success, forcing the Prime Minister to declare a six-month state of emergency. The Tigrayan takeover of some strategically important cities such as Dessie and Kombolcha suggested a forthcoming siege of Addis Ababa.[ii] However, in a few weeks, the balance of power in the conflict shifted yet again. Some strategic mistakes made by the anti-Abiy coalition combined with the arrival of recruits to the regional armies allied to the federal government swung the conflict’s momentum back in Abiy Ahmed’s favor. Also, the massive increase of Ethiopian air power has played a crucial role in slowing down the advance of the TDF-led troops. In addition to old Russian-made jets, such as the MIG-23 and Sukhoi Su-27 used since the Derg period, the Ethiopian Air Force (ETAF) relies on unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV/drones) of various origins.[iii] Currently, the Chinese-made Wing Loong I, Iranian Mojaher-6, and, since last August, Turkish-made drones such as TB2 are flying over Ethiopia’s skies.[iv] Therefore, the last few weeks have allowed Ethiopian forces to regain ground and ensure safe transit on the route that connects the capital to Djibouti, a vital artery to ensure the continuation of supplies to Addis Ababa.