By Jason Mosley, 18 June 2021
International condemnation of the humanitarian disaster unfolding in Ethiopia’s northern region is intensifying as the scale of the emergency becomes clearer. However, the conflict in Tigray is one part of a broader political crisis in Ethiopia, where elections take place on Monday (21 June). While justifiable given the magnitude of the situation, external pressure on Ethiopian officials to de-escalate the conflict and expand humanitarian access, without reference to the broader context, risks exacerbating the factors driving the conflict in Tigray.
Ethiopia is at the centre of two alternative versions of reality. These are being shaped by competing narratives about the rapidly evolving crisis in Ethiopia’s Tigray region—where an ongoing conflict between the Ethiopian Government and the former ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), has drawn in militia from the neighbouring Amhara region as well as Eritrean troops.
The international humanitarian community—and some of Ethiopia’s key donors, including the United States, the European Union (EU) and the United Kingdom—unambiguously paint Tigray as being on the brink of famine, with 5.2 million people in need of emergency assistance. Famine deaths could be in the order of half a million in the coming year, particularly if farmers cannot plant crops as the main rainy season starts this month. More than six months into the conflict, access for aid delivery remains difficult or impossible in many parts of the region.
International attention is also focused on continuing reports of violence, and of widespread human rights abuses by the Ethiopian and Eritrean militaries, Amhara regional militia and Tigrayan fighters linked to the TPLF or its Tigray Defence Forces (TDF).
In contrast, the Ethiopian Government insists that its operation against the TPLF/TDF is largely finished, and that while its interim administration in the region is experiencing challenges, the government has delivered assistance to much of the region. The government implausibly insists that famine is not a risk, and any shortfall in assistance is the result of the international community’s failure to deliver funding and supplies, not any problems with access. The government (and its ally in the conflict, the Eritrean Government) accuse the international community of ignoring the TPLF’s crimes. The Ethiopian Government designated the TPLF a terrorist organization in May.
Although clearly at odds, what these narratives have in common is a strong focus on the Tigray conflict. The scale of suffering in the region overshadows Ethiopia’s broader political crisis, which has implications for the stability of the wider Nile Basin and the Horn of Africa. Donors, especially the USA and the EU, are weighing deepening sanctions on Ethiopian (and Eritrean) officials in connection with the Tigray emergency, as well as rethinking economic and other development assistance. Meanwhile, the Ethiopian Government has pressed ahead with its election plans, and continued with economic and other development programmes as it navigates the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic fallout, despite the impacts of political and communal conflict in several parts of the country.
Ethiopia’s national transitional challenge
The Ethiopian and Eritrean governments have both criticized international calls for a ceasefire, dialogue or a negotiated outcome to the conflict in Tigray, claiming that this inappropriately puts the TPLF and the Ethiopian state on equal footing. By keeping engagement with the international community over Ethiopia’s stability focused on Tigray, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government has deflected scrutiny of the country’s broader political challenges in the run-up to next week’s twice-delayed elections.
By focusing on the TPLF, the Ethiopian Government’s narrative is also meant to speak to some domestic constituencies among whom it has been keen to shore up support ahead of the elections—although voting for 97 out of 547 seats will not go ahead. This number includes all 38 seats in Tigray, where elections have been postponed indefinitely, and 59 constituencies where voting has been delayed until September, casting further doubt on the legitimacy of the exercise.
In particular, the conflict in Tigray has dramatically accelerated shifts in Ethiopia’s political economy, with elites competing for spaces created by the destruction of the TPLF’s economic infrastructure and the displacement of well-positioned businesses associated with the TPLF-affiliated Endowment Fund for the Rehabilitation of Tigray (EFFORT).
Shifts within the former ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition saw the TPLF sidelined by cooperation between the Oromo and Amhara coalition parties to elect Abiy as chairman (and thus prime minister) in 2018. The erosion of the TPLF’s position set in motion a new phase of competition for access and opportunity. These shifts were largely invisible to Ethiopia’s external partners, which were focused on the government’s narrative of economic reform and high-profile issues such as the opening of the country’s telecommunications sector.
Widespread episodes of violence and conflict—including intercommunal violence and attacks on local minorities—have also distracted observers’ attention from elite economic competition. The spread of violence outside Tigray has remained significant and similar in distribution, both before and since the outbreak of the Tigray conflict in November 2020, (see figures 1 and 2)—although the intensity of conflict and humanitarian impacts in Tigray is dramatically higher.
Shifting political economy
Segments of these competing elites have emerged as crucial to Abiy’s position at the top of the Prosperity Party and government, particularly in the Amhara region and in the Ethiopian diaspora and returnee elites, which have been vocal in their support of the war in Tigray and for the elections to go ahead without further delay.
Although Abiy rose to power as an ‘Oromo’ politician in the context of Ethiopia’s federal politics, following up widespread protests that affected much of the Oromia region, his more centralized vision of the national state did not sit well with Oromo nationalist politicians and the established Oromo opposition parties.
The Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) was also declared a terrorist organization in May, alongside the TPLF. The OLA, or ‘Shene’, has clashed repeatedly with the national army and Oromo regional security forces in the last three years, including in the days before the conflict broke out in Tigray. Leaders of the main Oromo opposition parties have been in jail since mid-2020, following widespread violence in the wake of the assassination of a popular Oromo singer and activist, Hachalu Hundessa.
If Abiy and the Prosperity Party capture enough constituencies in the Amhara region and Oromia, as well as significant parts of the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples region, this will ensure continued control at the federal level.
Abiy’s focus has been fixed on the elections since the failure of political elites in 2018 to embrace the opportunity for a political transition, whereby politicians could have tried to reach consensus on some of the key disputes and challenges with the federal order introduced with the 1994 constitution. After an early phase of engagement with opposition parties, some important liberalizations and reforms around the media and human rights, Abiy’s attention shifted to marginalizing the TPLF and consolidating his position through elections under the banner of a single party.
The TPLF’s retreat from the national stage to Tigray was cemented—and the stage set for the conflict—by November 2019, when Abiy pushed through the merger of the EPRDF’s constituent and allied parties into a single Prosperity Party, leaving the TPLF in opposition in the federal parliament for the first time since it was established.
For its part, the TPLF’s hard-line approach to its marginalization from national politics, including increasingly bellicose rhetoric and unilateral actions during 2020, helped to sow the seeds of the current conflict—and seems to be limiting the appetite for de-escalation in Ethiopia more broadly.
The humanitarian disaster unfolding in Tigray could have been avoided, but for failures of leadership in Mekelle and Addis Ababa since 2018. However, Ethiopia’s partners risk exacerbating the tragedy in Tigray, and increasing instability in Ethiopia, if the focus of external engagement is not broadened to reflect the widespread challenges that the country faces.
The country’s transitional moment was lost, but partners should focus on ways to incentivize a move away from zero-sum politics by Ethiopia’s elites—most likely some form of truly national dialogue, as recently discussed by Emebet Getachew, Mehari Taddele Maru and Yohannes Gedamu, among others. While speaking to an immediate moral imperative and to the plight of civilians in Tigray, imposing sanctions is likely to see Ethiopia’s elites entrench their current positions—particularly in the context of tensions over the development of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. (Eritrea already proved resistant to sanctions for more than a decade before 2019.)
In the short term, the best hope is that, having engineered the conditions to ensure the Prosperity Party will remain in control following the elections, Abiy and Ethiopia’s elites will then be open to compromise. In the meantime, a more confrontational stance by Ethiopia’s donors will frustrate only those seeking to de-escalate the crisis in Tigray.