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26.07.2021 Author: Viktor Mikhin

Ethiopia on the Brink of Civil War


For a time, it seemed that with the return of its capital (Mekelle is the capital city of the Tigray region) by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the war in the northern region of Ethiopia was at an end. However, it soon became clear that the fighting was active on two levels: on the battlefield and in the humanitarian crisis.

The November 2020 war between the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF), supported by units from neighboring Eritrean Army and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, accelerated the rapid and widespread deterioration of humanitarian conditions in the Tigray region. The situation significantly worsened after the “valiant” US Air Force bombed the two main bridges there. One of them, the bridge over the Tekezé River was vital for delivering humanitarian aid. Observers argue that the destruction of these key bridges is evidence of the Ethiopian government’s intention to resort to the “weapon of hunger” in its conflict with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.

Images of captive Ethiopian soldiers parading through the streets of Mekelle challenged the central government’s explanation for the sudden and rapid withdrawal of its troops from the region. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali said that the withdrawal was ostensibly tactical to allow farmers to take advantage of the agricultural season. It is now clear that government forces have suffered a crushing defeat and that the army is retaliating by cutting off sources of livelihood and aid to the rebels. According to foreign media reports, the process began during the withdrawal of troops, when departing soldiers attacked and looted humanitarian aid bases, killing 12 staff members. In addition to the destruction of bridges, Addis Ababa has intensified the blockade by banning civilian flights to Tigray airports, blocking land routes from all provinces of the country, including Amhara, and cutting off electricity and communications resources.

Contrary to Abiy Ahmed Ali’s stated desire to help farmers, agriculture in Tigray has almost halted due to continued hostile targeting of the sector. In addition to military attacks on farms, trucks carrying seeds and other agricultural essentials failed to reach their northern and central Tigray destinations. Meanwhile, Amhara militias fighting the government are systematically burning fields in the western parts of the region. As conditions continue to worsen, the UN has warned that more than 400,000 people face starvation. The United States Agency for International Development fears the number could be as high as 900,000. USAID Administrator Samantha Power called USAID’s latest findings on the dire humanitarian situation in Tigray “appalling,” but, as usual, Washington has limited itself to that without resorting to other more effective measures in its arsenal.

The war against its own people in the northern province caused the country not only moral and political losses but also direct financial difficulties. According to the foreign press, the administration of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali is “reeling from the war in the Tigray region,” which has so far consumed at least $2.3 billion, forcing officials to resort to austerity measures. Ethiopia has also seen its currency fall more than 12 percent against the dollar since January, and Bloomberg rated it the worst of the 20 African currencies it tracks. In May, Moody’s downgraded the country’s credit rating after a similar downgrade by Fitch Ratings three months earlier; in early June, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) urged Ethiopia to establish a creditor committee to support its debt plans quickly. On a related issue, the USA which has a strong position in financial international organizations and banks, not only does nothing to stop the fratricidal massacre but drives Addis Ababa even further into a debt hole.

Trying to get out of debt, the country is also restructuring its debt on the domestic front by converting short-term bills into long-term bills and bonds. About $4.37 billion in direct advances from the National Bank of Ethiopia were restructured by converting the 15-year bond redemption period into a 10-year grace period. Another $3.4 billion in old Treasury bills were converted to long-term Treasury bills.

But the war in Tigray continues, inflicting more and more financial losses. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front said it was ready to agree to a cease-fire, but only under certain conditions. In a statement issued, it insisted on strict international assurances that Ethiopian federal forces would no longer attack the region. The remaining Amhara and ENDF forces would withdraw from the Tigray areas they controlled. In addition, there must be guarantees of unrestricted access for humanitarian aid to the region, complete restoration of electricity, communications, and other essential services. Banks, schools, and hospitals can resume their normal activities. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front statement also called for the immediate release of detained members of the movement, concluding with a call for an independent commission of inquiry into war crimes and a UN mission to oversee any cease-fire and prisoner-exchange deals.

On other fronts in southern Ethiopia’s Oromia province, clashes between government forces and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) are increasing, especially in the western parts of the Velega Administrative Zone, where clashes between the two largest ethnic groups, Oromo and Amhara, have occurred. OLF forces focused their attacks mainly on federal police forces in these areas, and police responded with raids, arrests of insurgent members, and sustained executions. The OLF has recently expanded its attacks into areas of the Amhara region north of Oromia, mainly villages southwest of Gondar in northern Amhara.

In early July, the OLF issued a declaration unilaterally establishing the Oromia Regional National Transitional Government formation. This happened just as the central government was losing control of the Tigray region suggests a certain level of coordination between the OLF and the TPLF. A previous OLF paper on the movement’s vision for a comprehensive solution in Ethiopia had many points in common with the recent TPLF statement.

In addition to reinforcing their presence in Oromia, government troops have also begun increasing their presence along the borders with Sudan in recent weeks. Mai Kadra, Abdurafi, and other towns, located in the far west of the Tigray near the Sudanese borders, became bridgeheads for rapid incursions into Sudanese territory. The most recent incident was the raid on the village of Basanda in al-Fashqa region of eastern Sudan.

The increasingly tense military and security situation was part of the backdrop of the recent general elections held for the sixth time since the current constitution was promulgated in 1994 and the first time since Abiy Ahmed Ali took office in April 2018. After a delay of almost a year due to Covid-19 and other problems, elections were held in all but three regions. They were canceled in Tigray due to security concerns and postponed until September in the Harari and Somali regions. The final results have not yet been announced. Still, based on conditions affecting the electoral process and other factors, the ruling Prosperity Party is expected to win a majority, with Balderas and Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice fighting for second place.

Turnout was generally low, with Oromia, Benishangul-Gumuz and Afar regions recording the most insufficient numbers. Ethnic violence in several regions in the run-up to the elections and pressure on parties competing with the Prosperity Party, especially those affiliated with the Tigray and Oromo peoples, and the OLF and the Oromo Federalist Congress parties, resulted in their supporters simply not participating in the elections.

Tensions also affected opposition parties close to the ruling party, such as Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice, two of whose candidates were killed in Oromia and Amhara. In addition, two candidates of National Movement of Amhara were killed in Amhara and Benishangul-Gumuz regions. Several potential opposition candidates were arrested on the eve of the election. Such conditions have forced the EU and several other international organizations to refrain from monitoring the polls this year.

The suppression of opposition in the capital intensified after the central government lost control of Mekelle and much of the northern province. Numerous Tigray figures were arrested, and several journalists were imprisoned. In early July, Ethiopian police raided the offices of Awlo, an independent broadcast media center in Addis Ababa, arresting at least 12 of its staff and some independent journalists. The move seems designed to silence those journalists who might cause problems by focusing on the recent defeat of government forces in Tigray. This military rout is likely to profoundly affect Ethiopia’s federal system, especially in light of the increasing separatist appeals from the northern and western regions.

Viktor Mikhin, corresponding member of RANS, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”. 


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