On the intractability of the Ethiopian war

On the intractability of the Ethiopian war
A recent surprising turn of events and a promise of national dialogue has left the Ethiopian conflict at a dangerous impasse. But for a country wracked by ethnic division and political instability, the war is far from over, writes Suhaib Mahamoud.
8 min read
10 Jan, 2022
Captive Ethiopian soldiers carrying a fellow soldier in Mekelle, the Tigrayan capital in July 2021 [AFP via Getty]

In a sudden development in the Ethiopian war, on 19 December the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) ordered their forces to withdraw from the neighbouring regions of Afar and Amhara and to return inside Tigray's borders, calling for peace talks with the Ethiopian government.

Immediately afterwards the federal government announced the military operation against the TPLF was over, having achieved its main objective: defeat of the Tigrayan fighters and their allies who had been advancing towards the capital in recent weeks. The secret behind this sharp turnaround is the Ethiopian army's use of drone strikes, which halted the march of the Tigrayan forces and led to their defeat in less than a week.

Map of Ethiopia
Although TPLF has announced its withdrawal from Afar and Amhara, fighting is ongoing in southern Tigray. [The New Arab]

The dramatic shift carries important dimensions: for the first time the TPLF are discussing their readiness to negotiate without preconditions, as Debretsion Gebremichael, their leader, stated on 19 December to the General Secretary of the UN, Antonio Guterres. The Ethiopian government has since opened a comprehensive national dialogue, aiming towards a permanent solution to the internal conflict, even acknowledging a referendum on secession is on the table.

However, it also stated that the TPLF must disarm and surrender any "criminal elements" to enter this dialogue. It also clarified it didn’t consider the TPLF "the only entity" representing the Tigrayan people in the national dialogue process, according to a statement by Ethiopia’s State Minister of Foreign Affairs, Redwan Hussein.

"The dramatic shift carries important dimensions: for the first time the TPLF are discussing their readiness to negotiate without preconditions"

Is the war over?

No – in fact, fighting has not even ended: despite the TPLF's withdrawal from Afar and Amhara, conflict is ongoing in southern Tigray, an area seized by Amhara early in the war. The Ethiopian and Eritrean governments are eager to prevent TPLF forces retaking these areas to prevent them opening an external supply line to Sudan. Combat operations have been particularly intense between federal and TPLF forces in the border city Alamata.

On a political level, government officials insist the TPLF disarm as a prerequisite for dialogue, because they view it as a persistent threat to centralised rule. They also accuse it of committing atrocities during its recent attacks in Afar and Amhara. But of course, the Tigrayan leadership won't accept any such proposal, due to its deep conviction that the Tigrayans face existential threats from all sides.

All this indicates we are simply at the end of a chapter of this war, and that a comprehensive settlement to this highly volatile conflict is unlikely in the near future. The power struggle playing out in Ethiopia ultimately stems from structural issues and historical resentments stretching back to the formation of the modern Ethiopian state, which has seen many bitter conflicts over the last 150 years.


Military might key to power in Ethiopia

Historically speaking, military victory has long been the decisive factor for those seeking to rule Ethiopia; starting with Emperor Menelik II's military raids into the southern lands at the end of the nineteenth century, followed by Haile Selassie's victory in the Battle of Segale in 1916. There was the military rule of the Derg regime in the seventies, and that of The Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) in 1991 – none of these regimes were an exception.

The predicament Ethiopia has entered under Abiy Ahmed's rule is due to the delusion that unresolved issues in Ethiopia's system of governance could be solved by a quick military victory against those who ruled the country for the last three decades. This miscalculation has led ethnic tensions, long festering all over the country, to explode into violence.    

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who personally led some of the fighting on the battlefield and has succeeded in stopping the capital from falling to Tigrayan fighters, seems intoxicated by the victory. It is possible he will go even further and attempt a killer blow to the TPLF, a move his Amhara allies and the other ruling elites are pushing for, but which would have an immeasurable human cost

"The power struggle playing out in Ethiopia ultimately stems from structural issues and historical resentments stretching back to the formation of the modern Ethiopian state"

An uncertain future

However, future fluctuations in the conflict's power dynamics are highly possible: the TPLF enjoys enormous support in its heartlands and will likely attempt to retake control of the southern regions again, as it did last July when the government declared its victory.

While the federal army can easily control the plains using drones, defeating the TPLF in the mountainous areas is a different story. Additionally, the latter has proved its ability to build alliances with Abiy’s other enemies, like the Oromos - an alliance which could gain strength as economic and political conditions deteriorate.

Right now, the uncertainty of Ethiopia's future – politically, economically and as a national entity – is of utmost concern. The national cohesion of the country lies in tatters and different ethnic groups are plunging into this war as though it is a matter of survival.

Abiy fears he will be ousted, especially after losing the support of his base in Oromia. As for his Amhara allies, they fear being removed from power again, as was the case after the fall of their ancient empire in the seventies. The Tigrayans fear uprooting and mass extermination: the TPLF has been branded a terrorist organisation, and dehumanising rhetoric is increasingly levelled against them - they have been branded "weeds" and "an imminent danger that must be eradicated".

A rally next to a banner depicting PM Abiy Ahmed in Addis Ababa, as TPLF forces were approaching the capital in November, 2021 [Eduardo Soteras/AFP via Getty]

A war for survival

In light of these conditions, every group sees a military victory as the only viable option for survival. As for the future of Abiy's government, despite his temporary success in preventing the fall of Addis Ababa, his rule still faces serious obstacles, and he desperately needs to shore up support both within Ethiopia and abroad.

To do this, he needs to rebuild the economy (the one stable aspect of the TPLF's rule) and restore basic services in the north, which has been decimated by the war. Likewise, he should release political prisoners and the thousands of civilians imprisoned without charge after the state of emergency was declared in November.

The national dialogue might solve some of these issues, but questions remain on a permanent settlement to the issue of Tigray, and its reintegration into Ethiopia's national fabric; especially since arguments for secession are growing in the region. Moreover, the TPLF is now asking the international community to impose a no-fly zone over the region, which is still under bombardment, and to impose an arms embargo on the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments.

It is unlikely, however, that the UN Security Council will adopt these measures, due to Chinese and Russian opposition. In this regard, Ethiopia has demonstrated (as have other cases, most notably Syria) the division of the international community and its helplessness in bringing an end to, or even stemming, the catastrophic losses entailed by civil war. Moreover, the geopolitical calculations of some international powers immediately became clear as they quickly moved to offer political and military support to the regime.

"Abiy needs to rebuild the economy (the one stable aspect of the TPLF’s rule) and restore basic services in the north, which has been decimated by the war. Likewise, he should release political prisoners and the thousands of civilians imprisoned without charge"

International response: Conflicting interests

It has been reported since start of the war that Turkey, UAE and China have provided Ethiopia with drones. Furthermore, the visit of Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, on 1 December to Addis Ababa sent a clear message of political support to Abiy Ahmed.

The motives of these three powers differ: China has huge economic interests in Ethiopia, seeing it as an important ally in its competition with the US in Africa; Turkey is trying to expand its new weapons sales and UAE is depending on Abiy Ahmed's government, in which it has invested since he took power in 2018, to consolidate its growing influence in the Red Sea.

As for the Western powers, they are panicky at the possible collapse of the state due to the repercussions it could have on Europe in terms of refugees. Therefore, they have adopted more critical stances towards both sides of the conflict. However, this has been limited to critical media coverage and statements by international human rights organisations condemning the humanitarian situation in the country.


The Western media has sought to embarrass Abiy – former Nobel Peace prize winner – depicting him as a reckless warlord (conversely, in official Ethiopian discourse, the "defeat of the West" was touted as an additional motive to mobilise support for the regime - stirring Ethiopian nationalism and pride for the state "which was never colonised" in Africa).

However, the EU and the US have hesitated to impose effective sanctions (like those imposed on Eritrea) on Addis Ababa, fearing it will lessen their influence to China and Russia's advantage. Therefore, they have been content to support the efforts of the African Union's delegate, Olusegun Obasanjo.

In this way, Ethiopia appears to have fallen victim to the emerging multipolar world order – a story also playing out in multiple other countries torn apart by war: Libya, Syria, Yemen… and others.

Suhaib Mahamoud is a Somali writer and researcher based in Doha, Qatar. He writes for Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, The New Arab's Arabic-language sister publication.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition. To read the original click hereTranslated by Rose Chacko.

Have questions or comments? Email us at: editorial-english@alaraby.co.uk

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.