TThe Ethiopian army’s assault on Tigray province marks a serious step backwards by the country’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, who has been internationally recognized as a modernizer and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Abiy calls it a “law enforcement operation” but runs the risk of being blamed for a growing refugee emergency and a growing crisis across the region.
An even greater fear is the disintegration of Ethiopia itself into a Libyan or Yugoslav-type implosion. The country comprises more than 80 ethnic groups, of which the Abiy Oromo is the largest, followed by the Amhara. Ethnic Somalis and Tigrayans make up about 6% each in a population of about 110 million. Ethiopia’s federal government structure was already under pressure before this latest explosion.
While it is easy to point the finger at Abiy, the Tigray leadership, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, bears the same fault for allowing political rivalries to degenerate into violence. The Tigrayans dominated Ethiopia’s politics in the decades after the 1991 overthrow of Mengistu Haile Mariam’s Soviet-backed Marxist dictatorship.
But following the 2012 death of Meles Zenawi, an authoritarian leader who made impressive economic gains, the TPLF lost its grip on power. Since Abiy took office in 2018, Tigray leaders have complained of being marginalized and victimized. A deadly attack this month on a federal army base in Mekelle, the capital of Tigray, triggered the intervention.
The fighting has brought predictable calls from the United States and the EU for an immediate halt amid concerns that Ethiopia’s democracy and territorial integrity are at stake. The elections, already postponed due to the pandemic, should be held next year. But neither party is listening. Such deafness reflects the declining influence of the West and the abandonment of the Horn of Africa. This is the geopolitical context of the Tigray emergency.
Interviewed in Addis Ababa in 2008, Meles told me that he appreciated British and foreign help, but spoke passionately about the right of Ethiopians to establish their own path. “We believe that democracy cannot be imposed from the outside in any society … Each sovereign nation has to make its own decisions and have its own criteria on how it governs itself,” he said.
By rejecting external calls for a ceasefire, Abiy also emphasizes self-determination. He maintains that he is trying to build a shared national identity and common citizenship that transcends ethnic policies that his supporters say have held Ethiopia back. Critics of Abiy say this is an abbreviation for a new dictatorship in the center.
If Abiy’s approach is proven wrong, the mistake will be hers. Analysts suggest the offensive is unlikely to produce the swift victory it predicts, in part because the national army comprises many Tigrayans and other minorities who could follow the lead of the TPLF. The longer it continues, the more likely instability will spread within Ethiopia and beyond its borders.
The Amhara region adjacent to Tigray was supposedly bombed last week. Neighboring Eritrea has also been attacked. Its president, the lonely dictator Isaias Afwerki, is said to back Addis Ababa out of enmity with the Tigrayans who led a war against Eritrea that took 20 years to resolve. This was the peacemaking feat that helped Abiy win the Nobel Prize.
Sudan to the west, only now emerging from the turmoil that followed last year’s revolution, has meanwhile become the unhappy recipient of tens of thousands of fleeing refugees. The UN warned last week of a “large-scale humanitarian crisis”. For its part, South Sudan is in a state of permanent turmoil. Both countries could easily fall into renewed chaos.
Yet perhaps the biggest regional concern is Somalia to the east, where an Islamist insurgency, extreme poverty and warring factions have rendered the country almost ungovernable. Meles repeatedly warned of an Islamist threat to the Horn of Africa. In 2007, he controversially dispatched 10,000 Ethiopian troops to crush what he called “the Somali Taliban.”
Ethiopian forces are still there. But now 3,000 soldiers are reported being retired to join the Tigray offensive. Concerns about the ensuing power vacuum that could be filled by the Islamist group, al-Shabaab, or Islamic State, which is also present, have been compounded by Donald Trump’s sudden decision to reduce US military involvement.
Trump’s move has nothing to do with a careful assessment of current threat levels or the best interests of Somalis and everything to do with securing his America First legacy. Although US special forces will remain in Kenya and Djibouti, 700 US soldiers conducting counterterrorism missions and training within Somalia are expected to be withdrawn.
Analysts warn that the withdrawals could jeopardize upcoming elections in Somalia next year, seen as a vital step towards normalcy, while also boosting al-Shabaab. The group already controls large rural areas. It frequently hits civilian and security targets in Somalia and Kenya despite US-led drone raids and attacks. Six people died last week when a Suicide bomber blew himself up in a Mogadishu restaurant.
The reduction in US commitment may accelerate another worrying trend: a competition among Gulf states for strategic influence and resources throughout the Horn. Fierce rivals Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have interests in Somalia and Eritrea. Turkey has also increased its participation in line with its post-Arab Spring interventions in Libya and Syria. He recently donated armored personnel carriers to the Somali government. Meanwhile, Russia is planning a naval base in Port Sudan.
As events unfold rapidly in Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, and in war-torn Yemen across the Gulf of Aden, the US, UK and European states are increasingly marginalized. They seem capable of tolerating any amount of human suffering from a distance. But if turmoil across the region increases the outflow of refugees and migrants and extends the reach of terrorists, they may come to regret their role as passive bystanders.
Digsmak is a news publisher with over 12 years of reporting experiance; and have published in many industry leading publications and news sites.