Africa’s second most populous country is in the midst of an increasingly rocky political transition that began in 2018, with the ascent of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. At first, the change seemed to hold great promise, but fissures have grown, partly between and among the country’s numerous ethnic groups. At stake is the state’s stability and the post-1991 ethno-federalist system, which many Ethiopians support as guaranteeing local autonomy, and many others oppose as sowing division and undermining effective central government. War between the federal and Tigray governments broke out in the northern region in late 2020 as these tensions came to the fore. Through its research and advocacy, Crisis Group works to end the fighting and ward off similar conflict elsewhere, with the long-term goal of encouraging comprehensive and inclusive national dialogue about the country’s political future.
A rapidly escalating conflict has pushed Africa’s second most populous country to the edge. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert William Davison explains why the main protagonists urgently need to strike a deal to avert a downward spiral toward state collapse.
Tigray forces’ advance faced resistance in Amhara and Afar; violence continued in Oromia and federal govt deployed reinforcements to Benishangul-Gumuz. Federal govt 9 Sept said military and Afar forces had compelled Tigray forces to withdraw from Afar region; Tigray forces denied claim, said they redeployed to neighbouring Amhara region. Large parts of Amhara’s North Wollo Zone, including Weldiya and Lalibela cities, still under Tigray forces’ control by month’s end. Amhara officials 8 Sept accused Tigray forces of having killed over 120 civilians in Chenna village near Dabat town (North Gondar Zone) 1-2 Sept – in what would be one of deadliest massacres of ten-month war; Tigray forces rejected “fabricated allegation”, as well as claims they executed dozens of civilians in and around Kobo town in North Wollo Zone starting 9 Sept. Mobilisation continued, with military graduating tens of thousands of new recruits in Sept. UN humanitarian agency 2 Sept reported less than 10% of required aid had entered Tigray region since mid-July, 1.7mn in Afar and Amhara food insecure due to war. U.S. President Biden 17 Sept allowed U.S. govt to sanction individuals and entities involved in conflict. Addis late Sept expelled seven senior UN officials, citing “meddling”. Violence increased in Oromia region following Oromo Liberation Army (OLA)’s Aug alliance with Tigray forces. OLA late Aug-early Sept claimed to have captured localities in East Wollega Zone and parts of Borana Zone from govt forces; around 22 Sept clashed with federal govt and Oromia forces in North Shewa Zone. OLA also continued attacks on civilians, reportedly killing at least 28 in Kiramu district, East Wollega Zone 16-18 Sept. Meanwhile, federal govt deployed troops from four regions to Benishangul-Gumuz region in north west after regional authorities 9 Sept accused ethnic Gumuz rebels of killing five security forces and one Chinese national in Metekel Zone previous day; attacks in Metekel have displaced hundreds of thousands since Sept 2020. Delayed parliamentary elections held 30 Sept in Somali, Harari and Southern Nations (SNNPR) regional states; voters in part of SNNPR same day voted in referendum to decide whether or not to form South Western regional state.
In mid-December, Sudanese troops moved into al-Fashaga, an agricultural area on the frontier with Ethiopia, expelling Ethiopian farmers and building fortifications. Fighting threatens to escalate. With assistance from outside mediators, the two countries should convene talks about restoring the shared land-use agreement that prevailed beforehand.
Both federal and resistance forces are digging in for a lengthy battle in Ethiopia’s Tigray region. Conditions for civilians are dire, with famine a growing danger. Outside powers should urge Addis Ababa to let more aid into the war zone, while maintaining pressure for talks.
War has devastated Ethiopia’s northernmost region. Pending comprehensive national dialogue, Addis Ababa should ease Tigray’s immediate predicament, engaging elements of the authorities it unseated to govern the area and ensure that aid reaches the millions in need.
A clash over budget transfers is the latest flashpoint in the bitter dispute between Ethiopian federal authorities and their rivals in Tigray. To avoid the standoff triggering a damaging conflict, both sides should back down and embrace comprehensive dialogue.
A disputed regional election plan has ratcheted up tensions between Ethiopia’s federal government and its rivals in Tigray. To avert a confrontation, Tigrayan officials should press pause on election preparations and both sides should embrace dialogue to address the dispute and underlying causes.
Firefights have broken out between federal Somali soldiers and troops from the Jubaland region. A heightened confrontation could embolden Al-Shabaab’s Islamist insurgency. The African Union should press Ethiopia and Kenya, which back Mogadishu and Kismayo, respectively, to coax the two sides into negotiations.
Given the current situation [in Ethiopia] and the likelihood of continued fighting, particularly in the Amhara region, I think we are likely to see the U.S. implement targeted sanctions soon.
The current violent blowback indicates that [President] Abiy and his allies cannot achieve peace and prosperity for all Ethiopians by imposing their vision and party on Ethiopia using the coercive power of the state.
The fact that the U.S. and its allies have secured [a UNSC] meeting is itself a signal that Ethiopia has lost some credibility […] and it opens up the possibility that the Council will take further action down the road.
Ethiopia will not be deterred from finishing GERD by U.S. aid cuts and nor will it change its negotiating stance.
Ethiopian political leaders should consider appealing to a third party to mediate, should they have exhausted all other opportunities.
[En Ethiopie] le parti au pouvoir fait face à d’énormes défis électoraux et il semble répondre à ceux-ci avec les mêmes tactiques que l’ancien parti, c’est-à-dire les arrestations et la violence.
Online event to discuss International Crisis Group's recent briefing -> Ten Challenges for the UN in 2021-2022
This week on Hold Your Fire!, Richard Atwood and Naz Modirzadeh talk to William Davison, Crisis Group’s Ethiopia expert, about the stunning turn in the war in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, as rebels seized regional capital Mekelle and the government announced a unilateral ceasefire.
Elections delayed from 2020 due to COVID-19 are set to take place on 21 June amid mounting crises across Ethiopia, including a grinding, brutal war in Tigray. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert William Davison outlines what to expect.
This week on The Horn, Alan Boswell talks to Crisis Group expert William Davison about how June elections may play out amid rising insecurity across Ethiopia, and what a victory for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s party could mean for the turbulent transition and broader region.