Ethiopia’s Civil War: Ethnic Atrocities Recall Balkans
Reports of torture, murder and gang rape are emerging from the civil war in northern Ethiopia. The conflict has spread across the country and an imminent collapse seems likely, spreading across the region. Now Turkey is also getting involved.
These accusations are overwhelmingly directed at Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers who are fighting the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) for power in Ethiopia’s northernmost state. At first, the Ethiopian government dismissed the accusations as “propaganda,” but now the Ministry of Women’s Affairs admits there is “no doubt” that rapes have taken place.
On the other side, militias close to self-declared liberators the TPLF are also believed to have committed atrocities. They have been repeatedly accused of murdering hundreds of members of the Amhara ethnic group, who have been fighting supporters of the militia for centuries for control of relatively fertile farming regions.
The conflict has spread across the country like wildfire. Ethiopia’s central government has not succeeded in removing the TPLF from power for any length of time. Government troops have been driven out of the most important cities in Tigray. The militia is distributing video footage of thousands of soldiers being humiliated and degraded, to make sure everyone in the country gets the message.
The war threatens its very existence.
In terms of population, Ethiopia is the second largest country in Africa. Now it is caught up in a war on multiple fronts, a war that threatens its very existence. Thousands of people have been killed and almost two million citizens have been driven out of their homes. The TPLF has made gains in the eastern region of Afar, through which the main routes to neighboring Djibouti pass, a vital lifeline for a landlocked country such as Ethiopia.
Beyond the northern regions of Tigray and Amhara, fighting has increasingly spread to the state of Oromia – the most populous in Ethiopia – where the rebel group Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) is making advances. It is threatening to block trade routes to Kenya and has announced a military alliance with the TPLF.
One consequence is that the country has been vulnerable to famine for decades. Not least because, according to credible reports from aid organizations, Ethiopia is blocking food supplies to contested regions – although the government officially denies this. The weakened government and the rebel groups are both calling on civilians to arm themselves. Longstanding tensions between ethnic and tribal groups in Ethiopia are escalating.
The TPLF’s main aim is to remove Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed from power. Ethiopia, often seen as a shining light of stability in the Horn of Africa, seems at risk of collapse. Observers are already comparing the situation to the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the Balkan Wars in the 1990s.
Ethiopia’s constitution explicitly allows the secession of individual states. While Abiy is seeking to expand the central government’s influence, there are growing calls for regional self-determination. Once again the model of ethnic federalism seems likely to collapse, as it did in South Sudan.
This seems especially likely because the Ethiopian system has been based on pure power calculation from the start. Only 6% of the Ethiopian population are Tigrayan. However, as early as the 1980s, the influential TPLF militia fought the communist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam (known as the Black Stalin), and after he was removed from power in 1991 the ethnic minority gained political dominance.
In order to gain support among much larger ethnic groups such as the Oromo (which represents around 34% of the population) they set up a federal system with nine states. In theory, at least, the main people groups of Ethiopia were supposed to be fairly represented.
However, in practice, the TPLF was overrepresented in leadership positions nationwide. Three years ago, ethnic tensions and dissatisfaction about infrastructure projects that didn’t take the interests of local people groups into account boiled over, and they could no longer keep them under control through their ever more authoritarian government.
Ethnic tensions have boiled over.
At first the current Prime Minister Abiy seemed like an ideal candidate who would be able to calm unrest without significant losses for the ruling elite: a young, dynamic representative of the large, dissatisfied Oromo people group.
But the Tigrayans miscalculated. Their influence waned as the new Prime Minister introduced rapid pan-Ethiopian reforms. While Abiy received the Nobel Peace Prize for the apparent easing of tensions with Eritrea, the TPLF felt it had been cheated, as the longstanding border conflict, which had seen thousands of deaths, was concentrated on the Tigray region.
The reaction from Turkey shows how important the ramifications of the current conflict will be on the world stage. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has promised military support to Ethiopia. That may be badly received in Egypt and puts the recently reopened discourse between Cairo and Ankara at risk.
There is a long-running dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia over the latter’s decision to fill up a reservoir behind a dam on the Nile, which could significantly reduce water supply to Egypt. Due to the Tigray crisis, this potential military conflict over water seems almost forgotten. But its effects will be no less devastating.