Tigrayan Forces Retreat in Ethiopia
Tigrayan Forces Retreat in Ethiopia
Podcast / Africa

Tigrayan Forces Retreat in Ethiopia

This week on The Horn, Alan talks to Crisis Group’s Ethiopia expert William Davison about the latest dramatic developments in the country’s civil war, after a major withdrawal by the Tigray forces. 

Recent weeks have seen yet another major turn of events in Ethiopia’s civil war. Only a month ago, the momentum was firmly on the Tigray side after an advance toward the capital. In response, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed exhorted citizens to enlist and vowed to lead a counteroffensive from the frontlines. Foreign governments also swooped in with support, especially drones, which altered the conflict’s dynamics. Federal and allied regional forces have thus pushed back the Tigray forces, turning momentum once again and staving off any assault on Addis Ababa. Still, there are few reasons to expect a swift resolution: the Tigrayans have since had their own resurgence and there is little political appetite for dialogue.

This week, Alan talks to William Davison, Crisis Group’s Senior Analyst for Ethiopia, to make sense of where the current political and military dynamics now stand, following the dizzying twists and turns in the war. They take stock of the current balance of military power between the different sides, discuss the counteroffensive’s success, the impact of government drone strikes and Abiy’s relationship with foreign actors ranging from the Gulf states to China and the U.S. They also talk about the prospects for an elusive resolution to the conflict and what could prevent the civil war from grinding on for many more months and possibly years.

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify

For more information, explore Crisis Group’s analysis on our Ethiopia page. Make sure to take a look at Crisis Group’s recent statement ‘Time to End Ethiopia’s Unwinnable War'. You can find a transcript of this episode below.

N.B. This transcript was generated using speech recognition software and human transcription. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting or if in doubt. 

Alan 0:00
Hi and welcome back to The Horn, a podcast from the International Crisis Group. I’m Alan Boswell. Today we have another update on the situation in Ethiopia where a major new federal government offensive has shifted battlefield dynamics yet again. I’m joined by my colleague William Davison - William is Crisis Group’s senior analyst on Ethiopia. Will, welcome back on the podcast.

Will 0:28 
Thanks so much for having me again, Alan. 

Alan 0:30  
So this war in Ethiopia [has] had a lot of twists and turns, and the twists and turns continue. So we wanted to have you back on quickly to update us on where things stand now on the battlefield after these latest developments. 

Will 0:45 
Sure. I think probably the major development over the last few months that most of your listeners will be aware of will be some fairly significant gains by the Tigray forces since July, after they pushed the federal military out in June, then they went on the offensive through eastern Amhara. There was a moment at the beginning of November when they took two major towns, Dessie and Kombolcha. After that, they tried to push east to capture the Djibouti road [and] a town called Mille, but essentially seemed to find that too tough going. Then they also pushed south quite significantly from Kombolcha, [and] got to around 150km from the capital and seemed poised to launch an attack on Debre Birhan, one of the last remaining towns. Since then really everything has changed.

Alan 1:35
There were a lot of predictions that were made, and a lot of fears that the TDF, the Tigray forces, were about to march on Addis Ababa, potentially together with the OLA, the Oromo Liberation Army. That's where you brought us up towards, where they [looked to be] on the way towards Addis. So then, what changed?

Will 1:56 
It's hard to be sure of how all the sorts of various factors come together. But I think what we know is that because they were a long way south from Tigray at that point they had quite stretched supply lines and relied heavily on the main north-south highway known as the A2. And that seems to have got them into trouble because their supply lines started getting hit, primarily by drones. So the federal military seemed to acquire some new drone capacity, and that is believed to [have] come in the form of Chinese drones, Iranian drones, from Turkey and also the UAE, [who played] a big role, perhaps, in transporting and also perhaps in operating. So that seems to have been a big factor. And then there was also this continual, very major effort of popular mobilisation [encouraged] by Abiy Ahmed, the prime minister, [as well as] other politicians, particularly by the Amhara regional government. And I think, increasingly, the Tigrayan commanders faced that aerial threat and then a renewed ground threat: so the aerial threats [were] hitting those supply lines, and then also there were some major attacks, on their flanks at this moment where they were poised to try and capture Debre Barhan. So they were hit at a place called Gashena, which is to the west of Weldiya, a major town that the Tigray forces took before Dessie and Kombolcha back in August. And they were also hit from the east, around Kombolcha, and also [near] a town on the Afar-Amhara border called Chifra. So I think those were the two major factors, but there are also some other factors we can talk about.

Alan 3:49  
So, before we start to unpack that, where do things seem to sit?  Despite the fog of war, where are these new front lines?

Will 3:58  
Look, as much as I know now, in the last couple of weeks there was a very major withdrawal from the Tigray leadership. Obviously, they cast this as just minor tactical adjustments but it was a pretty major rethink. They've backed out [of the] north: they've maintained control of Weldiya, but they've given up on Dessie and Kombolcha. So it looked like there was a huge amount of momentum building for this federal coalition. And then just subsequently to that, in the last couple of days, we've seen what looks like a counteroffensive from the Tigray forces. They've reportedly taken back this town of Gashena to the west of Weldiya on the road towards Bahir Dar and the Gondar areas in Amhara and also south of Lalibela. They've also walked back into Lalibela rather surprisingly, because that's quite a symbolically important town. So, as far as we can tell, in the last couple of days after a series of very significant reversals, the Tigray forces seem to have stabilised. They’re in much smaller pockets of Amhara now, but they do also seem to have gone on the counteroffensive. And as usual, they're claiming huge numbers of opposition casualties as well.

Alan 5:03  
And does it look like these new drones might be a game-changer in the long term, inasmuch as the TDF might not be able to go into the lowlands in the way that they were [able to] before?

Will 5:16
I think it makes those forays into a lot more exposed areas [more difficult], whether they're main roads or the Afar lowlands, some of the flatter areas towards Addis Ababa, or potentially the disputed territory of Western Tigray, which is quite flat and exposed, which Amhara region is in control of but the Tigray leadership is set on reclaiming. I think it does present a major obstacle in that regard. It certainly impacted their efforts to continue moving south, and the effort to control the Djibouti roads. [These] are definitely pretty significant setbacks when combined with this popular mobilisation. So I guess the question becomes, how sustained will the drone campaign be? It's quite expensive, but then that leads to the question [of] how sustained and concerted this support from Abiy’s foreign backers is going to be - whether it's [from] the Turkish government, the Chinese, the Emiratis, etc. So yeah, I think that could be a big factor as we go forwards.

Alan 6:10  
Let's talk a bit more about the foreign backers. I mean, the timing was obviously quite conspicuous, inasmuch as it looked like there was talk of Abiy’s government potentially even falling in some corners, and then this foreign support came in from several locations. Do we have a sense of if any of this was coordinated? Do we have a sense about why exactly these governments stepped up their support? And was it something that looks like it came very recently, rather than something that Abiy had been building up for some time and just happened to come online at the last minute?

Will 6:44  
Well, first of all, I think, we're going to really infuriate many supporters of the federal government from the Amhara region, opponents of the TPLF, if we suggest that this is all down to some to some foreign backing in the form of drones. They believe that the mass popular opposition to the Tigrayans, to the TPLF, is what's changed the balance here. And that also reflects the fact that a lot of people bought excessively into what they saw as TPLF propaganda claiming that the war was over. But first of all, Ethiopia has always had a pretty pragmatic approach to its foreign policy. As I think you've discussed before in the podcast, [it has] good relations with different countries, and it's showing a similar level of sort-of pragmatism. Now, of course, drones, believed to be provided by the UAE, were a big factor in the initial intervention in Tigray that forced the TPLF from power in November. So this isn't a new thing. But I think what's happened is that, faced with the prospect of what many people understandably perceive as an unconstitutional rebel takeover of the constitutionally elected federal government, certain leaders and governments decided that they wanted to come down heavily on the side of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, and his administration. He made quite a high-profile trip to Ankara and a military financing agreement came out of that. And then we saw Turkish drone exports increase to Ethiopia. We saw the Chinese foreign minister drop in on Addis the other day, presumably, to show solidarity with that cause. And then we've seen at the UN Security Council, for example, not just Russia and China, but also other states, showing strong support for Abiy's government, despite all of the concerns about Ethiopia’s instability and human rights abuses and all the rest of it. I think there's a fairly simple explanation for this, which is that when people looked at [the situation], whilst they might have understood some of the grievances on the Tigrayan side, they thought that the best thing to do was to prevent a violent takeover of government. And to be frank, I think that's not just a dilemma, or not just a decision, which is playing out in these countries we've been talking about, but I think it's also fairly clear that a lot of countries and governments in Europe, and particularly the U.S., aren't really sure what the best course of action has been to take here. So that's why we all end up saying that we need a ceasefire and talks, because [regardless of] whoever gets some form of military ascendancy here, even if there's a sort of so-called outright victory, it's not clear how that would be good for Ethiopia's future anyway.

Alan 9:21 
Those scenarios that were starting to be played out speculatively about the fall of Addis Ababa were quite terrifying. 

Will 9:29  
We don't necessarily know, militarily, how the fall of Addis, so to speak, is going to play out. It would depend upon the circumstances when these, essentially insurgent, forces try to take power. But even if it occurred relatively peacefully, which I think is pretty, pretty unlikely, then you would have the TPLF essentially, a slightly broader Tigray movement,  but the TPLF essentially - [or a movement] certainly perceived as such - and then the Oromo Liberation Army. They’re at the far end of the Oromo nationalist spectrum [and have] pretty strong demands [for] Oromia’s autonomy and Oromia’s rights to Addis Ababa. How would that work politically? Because there's no political constituency or political party in Amhara region that would have anything to do with a government that represented a violent takeover by those groups. And then we also have other regional states and governments, such as Somali region, which were essentially saying that they would have nothing to do with such a government. So even if it occurred fairly peacefully, this takeover of Addis, it wouldn't solve Ethiopia's political problems.

Alan 10:33 
Let's talk about that. Abiy is a sitting head of state, so he can muster these resources that a non-state armed group can't in terms of foreign backers, but he does have a lot of domestic support. And I think now might be a good time to take another step back and just talk about that level of support that Abiy is able to drum up domestically in what is Africa's second most populous nation.

Will 10:56
Well, first of all, we can look at the election results. I think the election was pretty flawed in many ways [given that] major opposition parties [were] not competing [and the] intimidating atmosphere for other parties. But, we did see a huge win for the Prosperity Party, just as we saw huge wins for the EPRDF in the past. I think what that does reflect is that, particularly in Addis Ababa, particularly in urban areas which tend to be more ethnically mixed people [and where people] see themselves perhaps more through an Ethiopian identity rather than a single ethnic identity, [and do] not [ascribe] to ethno-nationalist ideologies, there’s still, as far as we can tell, plenty of support for the prime minister. I think that goes to some extent across the country: Abiy has good support in this south. Still, [there are] concerns in Amhara region, where his federal government has left Amhara exposed to the Tigray attacks, but [Abiy still has] support in Amhara region, also [among] other urban elites. But what we can also see is that as has been said many times, this is an Oromo prime minister and he came to power on the back of the protests with people demanding more autonomy for Oromia, and he really hasn't delivered on that, as people see it. He does seem to have lost a significant amount of support in Oromia region, and that's a region of 40 million people. So it is a bit of a mixed record, I would say. And then I think the other thing to remember, Alan, is the same point if I'm talking about the Emirati government or the Turkish government. [They’re] looking at this scene and saying, well, who do we want to have in power here, do we want the prime minister and his elected government or do we want these dissident regional forces from Tigray and Oromia? Well, I think many Ethiopians are making that calculation as well. They might have issues with the prime minister as his rule has developed. They might well have issues with his Prosperity Party, which in many ways hasn't really developed. They might have many other issues, but they will probably still see the prime minister and his government as the lesser of two evils, by some distance.

Alan 12:54 
Is it fair to say, or is it putting it too strongly, that many Ethiopians would view this fight just as existentially as the Tigrayans do on the other side?

Will 12:59
Yes. I think that's absolutely right. I think that's definitely the case in Amhara region. The fighting’s been absolutely, almost exclusively, concentrated in Amhara region, other than missile attacks on Mekelle in Tigray, and some Tigrayan forays into Afar and, of course, the ongoing insurgency in Oromia. But otherwise, the civil war has been focused in Amhara region. So that's caused plenty of destruction, huge loss of life, also plenty of alleged atrocities against the Tigray forces, similar to some of the accusations that the Tigrayans were making earlier this year. And then there's the bigger picture, where this return of the TPLF,  the prospect of Tigrayan secession or the prospect of a transitional government, again, one which came to power by force with a very strong ethno-nationalist component to it, is seen as a huge threat to those who believe that Ethiopia's federal system already gives too much autonomy, and has too large a role for ethnicity in it. So they do see that as the potential end of Ethiopia as a united state. So absolutely that many of the Tigrayans see this as a genocidal operation, campaign against them, and they fear for the survival of their region and society and people. But yes, those similar concerns are held on the other side as well.

Alan  14:26 
And that other side, this anti-TPLF side, especially from Amhara, they would seem to outnumber the Tigrayans in the country, just by sheer numbers. So what's stopping the Ethiopian federal forces from just amassing a stronger ground game, and not having to rely on this air force for part of its military advantage?

Will 14:48  
I think that perhaps the difficult element here is the level of motivation. I think, certainly, a highly motivated bunch of fighters have been recruited by the Tigrayans, but I would say that’s probably increasingly, the case on the other side, because of the narratives around this war, because of the genuine threat that the country and the powers-that-be face and Amhara region [faces], as discussed. So I think there is quite a lot of motivation on the other side as well. And there has been very significant recruitment. So maybe what we're looking at here is just the level of military organisation, because we could see a huge advantage for the state, for the federal state and its allies, in terms of resources, access to the international arms market, access to financing, trade routes. Well, the Tigrayans enjoy none of that. So there's a huge advantage on the federal side there. So instead it does seem to be the level of military organisation, the strategic thinking and the tactical field thinking by the operational officers which has given the Tigrayans something of an advantage here. 

Alan 15:51 
And so what do we know about Abiy’s mobilisation campaign? He made this big public proclamation of going to the front lines, and then encouraged more Ethiopians to sign up. It seemed like that did work to a large degree, right?

Will 16:05  
I think as far as we can tell, it's been relatively successful in terms of numbers. Clearly, it needs a huge amount of resources, and presents a major logistical challenge to recruit and train and deploy that huge number of new recruits. But I think just in terms of sheer numbers, again, it's been fairly successful. I don't think all the people that they've recruited across Oromia, maybe parts of the south, have been [recruited] particularly voluntarily. I think there have been elements of coercion here. But, there will have been cash offered that would have been attractive to some people. And then, I think the way that this has been presented as an existential struggle for Ethiopia’s survival against, essentially an anti-Ethiopian force, in the form of the TPLF, as it’s been cast, and because of the popular antipathy to the TPLF that existed because of their years at the helm of the ruling coalition since the 90s, I think that has led to a fairly successful recruitment campaign.

Alan 17:03  
Okay, so what have we learned about the OLA side of this? There was this alliance, and still is between the TDF and the OLA. Then it seemed like as the TDF pulled back [and] the OLA withdrew as well. What can we say about their military capacity at this point?

Will 17:22  
I think we can say that they are growing in terms of their support amongst the Oromo predominantly, obviously, that they are increasingly politically relevant, that people are talking about them, [and that] people are concerned about them. They have expanded the area of activity geographically out of their Western Wellega strongholds and the Guji zones in southern Oromia. They are now operational in areas such as West Shewa or North Shewa around Addis Ababa. But they tend to be, as far as we can tell, mainly occupying rural areas, and some rural towns and then [conducting] occasional forays, attacking larger towns or briefly controlling major roads. So they do seem to be growing but they haven't really, as far as we can tell, developed the military capabilities [to the point] where they are a real threat to major towns or Addis Ababa, let alone being a real threat to the power of the regional or federal government.

Alan 18:22  
Okay, so the new lay of the land is we have the Tigray forces pulled back but still quite strong in their own right, an OLA that's that's growing and also aligned against the government and meanwhile, the federal government is remobilising [and] has very strong support, especially from the Amhara, but also [from] some other areas and is taking advantage of its considerable advantages as a sovereign government. So, just taking a step back, where does this new picture leave us, do you think, in terms of projecting this war [and] looking ahead? It obviously continues to look rather bleak.

Will 19:04  
That's right Alan. I think there's no other way to look at it. I mean, this is an almost unmitigated disaster for the country, essentially. Obviously, we don't know exactly how this is gonna play out. But I think the basic concern would be that the Tigray forces are fairly large: somebody told me the other day that they put the number at 300,000. We can assume those are massive overestimates, but [the TDF is] still a large force, dedicated and well commanded, and there isn't much incentive for the Tigray leadership to do anything but desperately cling on to positions in Amhara. And we can go into why that is, but the demand on the federal side, of course, is that they return to Tigray before anything can happen. But the danger is that we just see continued devastating warfare across northern Amhara without either side really gaining any decisive upper hand, and potentially neither side really ever seeing the need, or finding the moment, to make any concessions necessary to get a real peace process going. Then with the situation in Oromia, it's slightly different, but essentially, there just seems to be so much opposition, political energy and focus directed into armed rebellion in Oromia now. I think one of the basic problems with dealing with these armed rebellions is that they seem to have a decent amount of popular support amongst the Oromo in Oromia and in Tigray amongst those constituencies. So it doesn't necessarily look like the federal government and its allies are going to be able to completely eradicate these rebellions, because they're popular forces.

Alan 20:46 
Looking ahead: do you have any sense yet, either from your sources or just speculation, what the Tigray forces might be thinking? Obviously, there was a strategy of maybe trying to cut off Addis Ababa and Mille by road and then also pushing down to Addis Ababa, and those strategies don't look like the way forward. So do you have a sense of where they might look next? And what they might try to do?

Will 21:15 
Before we get to that, why don't I go with the federal narrative at the moment: that is that the Tigrayans are essentially on the run and that [the federal forces] are going to push them back into Tigray. I think that the problem that presents is that if the Tigray leadership went back to Tigray without achieving any of their military objectives, obviously that would be a complete defeat for them and that would then put the federal government in an incredibly strong position. If we assume [those are] the conditions that have to be in place for the Tigray leadership to decide to retreat, they would be almost fully defeated and demoralised. And then I think the federal government would try and impose a peace so that those Tigray forces were no longer a security threat to the federal government, to the Amhara region and to the Eritrean government. But obviously, those forces are an absolute necessity, as the Tigray leadership and many Tigrayans see it, for the region's security. There will also be the issue of Western Tigray. There is no way the federal government or the Amhara government is making any concessions on Western Tigray, which is Amhara occupied for now, once they force the Tigray forces back to Tigray. And then, if the Tigray leadership do not do the bidding of the federal government, what incentive would the federal government have to restore services to Tigray? [What incentive do they have to restore] banking, telecommunications, and also the federal budget, and generally to relegitimise the region? Because that would allow the region to build up its armed forces again, which is exactly what the federal government doesn't want. So Tigray would probably end up blockaded to some extent, possibly still bombarded from the air. So that's why I don't think that the Tigray forces leadership is going to be looking to make any retreat into Tigray. Their plan is, of course, difficult to ascertain at the moment. I think what they're saying, and what does fit with the pattern, is that they're focused on degrading enemy forces, as they put it. So they say they've retreated into a smaller area that they can defend better, so [that] their supply lines are less stretched, and then they will engage in continued armed confrontation with their opponents. That certainly seems to be what's [been] happening over the last couple of days. We’ll have to see, once again, what the situation looks like when the smoke clears. But I think we can assume there'll be some very heavy fighting in these areas around Weldiya, around Gashena, also further to the north. And then perhaps from the Tigray leadership's perspective, they hopefully will get in a position where they can launch some more ambitious counteroffensive in the future because there's very little point in the long run for them sitting around in mountainous areas in Amhara. That doesn't really achieve their goals, so they would have to push south. They've talked about pushing west into the Amhara heartlands of Gondar and Gojjam, perhaps trying to venture to try to take back Western Tigray, although that is still very heavily defended by Amhara forces, Eritrean and Ethiopian forces. But I think that's the broad contours of what they're planning.

Alan 23:58  
So let's talk about some of the ongoing diplomacy and peace processes. There's been several different initiatives: the Obasanjo one, Kenya has been having some quiet diplomacy, there's obviously the efforts under U.S. Special Envoy Jeffrey Feltman. Where do you think this sudden [new twist] has put those various initiatives?

Will 24:25  
Well, the way that we reacted at Crisis Group, [was that] we were looking at the situation [and] saying, it does kind of look likely that these armed movements and opposition movements are going to march towards Addis. It looked like the ball was in the federal government's court to make concessions. And we were looking at real action to try and facilitate humanitarian relief to Tigray and then a big political amnesty to reset the transition, get some of the big Oromo leaders out of jail and back into the political picture. Could that start to build trust and get some political process going? As the federal government became ascendant, and the Tigray forces looked to be on the back foot, well, I think we could expect the Tigrayans to soften their stance. One step that could be taken is to reverse the moves made last year during the constitutional electoral dispute, and for the Tigray leadership to recognise the legitimacy of the federal government, which would actually be a huge step for them. So this is where we might expect the international actors to apply their pressure in a scenario where the federal coalition is ascendant, but of course, it's going to need all sides to make concessions. It's just a question of sequencing and somebody making the first move, I think without some sort of promise to reconnect, then that removes their motivation for their offensive to overcome the siege. So these are steps that also could be taken. I've mentioned the political amnesty already. And then the really difficult thing comes with the territorial business and the presence of the armed forces, which could form a ceasefire. And of course, that relates to the presence of Amhara [and] Eritrean federal forces in Western Tigray, and non-negotiable demands, as they put it, from Mekelle for those forces to leave Tigray. And then, of course, [there is also] the demand on the federal side for the Tigray leadership and forces to move out of Amhara. So that would obviously be an incredibly difficult piece of negotiation that would have to be overcome to get any sort of sustainable peace process going.

Alan 26:27
Now, the U.S. diplomatic efforts have placed a lot of emphasis on this Red Sea strategy, [as] it's often called, engaging with the Gulf countries especially. Do you think we can judge much from this recent turnaround? Presumably, the support coming from places like Abu Dhabi and Ankara, runs against the U.S. pressure on these countries to help de-escalate the conflict?

Will 26:51  
It is a dilemma for everyone: what can realistically be done to get the Ethiopian protagonists to shift course here? And I do sense that the U.S. has taken a slightly vacillating stance, where they want the federal government to make concessions to the Tigrayans, because otherwise they see the Tigrayans pushing forward. But then they see the Tigrayans pushing forward as possibly an even bigger disaster for the country, in the region and in the long term. So I think that ends up with a slightly ineffective, middle ground position. And then that's accompanied by other actors being more decisive and saying, well, we're going to support the federal government here, and they come in with direct military support which has an impact on the conflict. So I think we're seeing the limitations of the type of approach that the U.S. is taking, which is a fairly traditional approach in terms of U.S.-led order: to call for ceasefire and talks and call for humanitarian access. It just hasn't really shifted the dial that much. And then, of course, I think we're also seeing the limits of U.S. influence, in terms of not getting its supposed allies to align with it. I think that probably explains partly what's going on. We've seen the envoy, Feltman, head to Abu Dhabi and Ankara this week, but of course it just feels like it could be too little too late, because this support for the prime minister and his government has already proved quite significant. But of course, we'll have to see what comes out of the trip.

Alan 28:30  
Just quickly on the U.S. angle, is there any sense that some of this foreign support might have come in precisely because other countries see Washington’s very much deteriorating relations with Addis Ababa, with Abiy, and see an opportunity for influence? 

Will 28:48  
Well, I think all of these countries are looking at the situation and making their own assessment. And they decided that the best way to stabilise Ethiopia or prevent deterioration is backing the federal government. I think that's a decision that people can arrive at without this being part of  some opportunism related to the U.S. positioning. I think the difficulty there is that even with an emboldened and strengthened federal government, as I was describing earlier, how does that really help resolve the political problems that are driving this violence, because these armed opposition movements do seem to have considerable support and they certainly think that they have a just cause. So it seems like a rather short-sighted view of Ethiopia's stability. And, of course, that is not advocacy for rebel takeover of the federal government. But that is to say that the federal government here also needs to make concessions if we're going to get some negotiated settlement under way. And while the federal government believes that it can essentially crush these movements, then it is not minded to make those concessions. I think there is another element to this, though. I mentioned the visit of the Chinese foreign minister, who has been quite a strong supporter of the Security Council. And of course, part of the prime minister and his government’s strategy has been to say that the persistent calls for humanitarian access to be provided by the federal government, [the] naming [of] the restrictions as a blockade, and all the criticism of the human rights abuses inside Tigray by the Amhara, Eritrean and Ethiopian forces, as well as the calls for ceasefires and negotiations, which are seen as treating the TPLF, a terrorist organisation in the federal government's eyes, as an equal partner, [have] obviously led to a massive breakdown in Washington-Addis relations and a huge campaign by the government to say that part of the problem here is Western meddling. So undoubtedly, as that campaign has gathered strength, and in its own terms, it's been a fantastically successful propaganda/PR campaign. I think that has led to it becoming something of a geopolitical theatre, and further incentivising some of these governments to support Prime Minister Abiy.

Alan 31:05 
So, this war is now barely a year old. It's actually a bit hard for me to believe because we've had so many twists and turns. It somehow feels even longer than that. Have we learned any more about what's the ultimate trajectory for Ethiopia, if the worst-case scenarios of a civil war dragging on in a much more long-term sense continues? Is it a bit more clear now, what that scenario looks like than maybe it was when this war started?

Will 31:33  
I think because of the way things have gone, sadly, there is a clear path to further deterioration and possibly some fragmentation. I think there is already a fair amount of support, of momentum for a Tigrayan independence bid at some point, but it's impossible to see a peaceful path to that, because of the relations between Isaias and the TPLF and also the territorial dispute with Amhara. But I also think [that] the longer this type of violence goes on, the more the capacity of the state will weaken, and we will see an increasing strengthening of armed opposition actors and non-state actors. It is, unfortunately, possible to see that path developing should the violence continue. And I really think this is why, despite all of the polarisation, the terrible bitterness that has been created by the war, and the other violent episodes, there's such a necessity for the political leaders at this stage to try and put a stop to things, and to  bring these types of disputes into a much-discussed national dialogue-type process. Because I think any effort by either sid, to impose their vision by force upon the rest of Ethiopia is simply going to lead to incredibly violent blowback. Whether that's the Amhara opposition to TPLF/OLA transitional government, or whether it's the continued efforts of the federal government to crush these fairly popular armed movements, it just seems likely to breed more violence, hence the necessity for everyone to bury the hatchet and get some form of peace process going. It's very hard to imagine how you can actually have a successful process of negotiation and dialogue, given the intractability of some of these disputes, again the Western Tigray issue, for example, or just the role of the TPLF in Ethiopian politics. But I think, despite how difficult those discussions would be, they are infinitely preferable to the course that the country seems to be on at the moment.

Alan 33:47 
Okay, thanks Will, for yet another sobering note. I hope we do not have this same conversation a year from now.

Will 33:55
Let’s hope that 2022 brings something better for the country and for its people.

Alan 34:04
Thanks for listening, once again I’m Alan Boswell and this podcast is a production of the International Crisis Group and was produced by Maeve Frances and Aida Holly-Nambi.


 

Contributors

Project Director, Horn of Africa
alanboswell
Senior Analyst, Ethiopia
wdavison10

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