Conflict In Ethiopia Extends The Greater Middle East’s Arc Of Crisis – Analysis


Fighting between the government of Nobel Peace Prize winning Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Tigrayan nationalists in the north could extend an evolving arc of crisis.

By James M. Dorsey and Alessandro Arduino

Ethiopia, an African darling of the international community, is sliding towards civil war as the coronavirus pandemic hardens ethnic fault lines. The consequences of prolonged hostilities could echo across East Africa, the Middle East and Europe.

Fighting between the government of Nobel Peace Prize winning Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Tigrayan nationalists in the north could extend an evolving arc of crisis that stretches from the Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict in the Caucasus, civil wars in Syria and Libya, and mounting tension in the Eastern Mediterranean into the strategic Horn of Africa.

It would also cast a long shadow over hopes that a two-year old peace agreement with neighbouring Eritrea that earned Mr. Ahmed the Nobel prize would allow Ethiopia to tackle its economic problems and ethnic divisions.

Finally, it would  raise the spectre of renewed famine in a country that Mr. Ahmed was successfully positioning as a model of African economic development and growth.

The rising tensions come as  Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan failed to agree on a new negotiating approach to resolve their years-long dispute over a controversial dam that Ethiopia is building on the Blue Nile River.

US President Donald Trump recently warned that downstream Egypt could end up “blowing up” the project, which Cairo has called an existential threat.

Fears of a protracted violent confrontation heightened after the government this week mobilized its armed forces, one of the region’s most powerful and battle-hardened militaries, to quell an alleged uprising in Tigray that threatened to split one of its key military units stationed along the region’s strategic border with Eritrea.

Tension between Tigray and the government in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa has been mounting since Mr. Ahmet earlier this year diverted financial allocations intended to combat a biblical scale locust plague in the north to confront the coronavirus pandemic.

The tension was further fuelled by a Tigrayan rejection of a government request to postpone regional elections because of the pandemic and Mr. Ahmed’s declaration of a six-month state of emergency. Tigrayans saw the moves as dashing their hopes for a greater role in the central government.

Tigrayans charge that reports of earlier Ethiopian military activity along the border with Somalia suggest that Mr. Ahmed was planning all along to curtail rather than further empower the country’s Tigrayan minority.

Although only five percent of the population, Tigrayans have been prominent in Ethiopia’s power structure since the demise in 1991 of Mengistu Haile Mariam, who ruled the country with an iron fist. They assert, however, that Mr. Ahmed has dismissed a number of Tigrayan executives and sidelined businessmen in the past two years under the cover of a crackdown on corruption.

Like Turkey in the Caucasus, the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa, Mr. Ahmed may be seeing a window of opportunity at a moment that the United States is focused on its cliff hanger presidential election, leaving the US African Command with no clear direction from Washington on how to respond to the escalating tension in the Horn of Africa.

Escalation of the conflict in Tigray could threaten efforts to solidify the Ethiopian-Eritrean peace process; persuade Eritrean leader Isaias Afwerki, who has no love lost for Tigray, to exploit the dispute to strengthen his regional ambitions; and draw in external powers like Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, who are competing for influence in the Horn.

The conflict further raises the spectre of ethnic tension elsewhere in Ethiopia, a federation of ethnically defined autonomous regions against the backdrop in recent months of skirmishes with and assassinations of ethnic Amhara, violence against Tigrayans in Addis Ababa, and clashes between Somalis and Afar in which dozens were reportedly injured and killed.

Military conflict in Tigray could also accelerate the flow of Eritrean migrants to Europe who already account for a significant portion of Africans seeking better prospects in the European Union.

A Balkanization of Ethiopia in a part of the world where the future of war-ravaged Yemen as a unified state is in doubt would remove the East African state as the linchpin with the Middle East and create fertile ground for operations by militant groups.

“Given Tigray’s relatively strong security position, the conflict may well be protracted and disastrous. (A war could) seriously strain an Ethiopian state already buffeted by multiple grave political challenges and could send shock waves into the Horn of Africa region and beyond,” warned William Davison, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group.

  • Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute.
  • Dr. Alessandro Arduino is principal research fellow at the Middle East Institute of the National University of Singapore.

James M. Dorsey

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore's Middle East Institute and Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog.

12 thoughts on “Conflict In Ethiopia Extends The Greater Middle East’s Arc Of Crisis – Analysis

  • November 9, 2020 at 7:18 am

    To understand the current state of affairs in Ethiopia, it requires deeper knowledge of the political and cultural landscape of the country. Most of the conflicts in the country, in the last two years, have had the hallmarks of the TPLF leadership, which is bent on reasserting its hegemonic power. The majority of Tigrean population have not benefited from the wealth that the small group amassed during the 27 years of its rule. The Ethiopian Government is attempting to bring rule of law in the region. To my knowledge, there is no any ethnic group in the country in support of the TPLF leadership; and hence a wider civil war is unlikely. For that matter, there are ethnic Tigrean parties supporting the Government’s position with respect to the region. I hope peace will reign in Ethiopia soon.

    • November 10, 2020 at 6:14 am

      are you serious Teldla Hiale, so you believe all the problem happened in Ethiopia is because of TPLF? no wonder how Abiy is excuse everything for third party even though the reality is his incapable of leadership. so are saying sending fighter jets to bomb his own people in Tigray is legit? you are worse ignorance. in fact you are dead meat. no matter what because of traitor like you The people of Tigray will fight for their right! And this will be the end Abiy and Isaias. for the Traitors like you will come to justice.

  • November 9, 2020 at 7:38 am

    You are putting false statement on the analysis about Ethiopia. The problem is not between people, but the confrontation is between the regional and federal government elites. In many of similar articles posted on websites, I have observed the intention to express the situation in quite different ways as if different tribes are fighting. Please make fair judgement on your analysis – Ethiopia will continue to survive with the help of the Almighty God. We depend on the Almighty God and we are very sure that he will not leave us to predators, rather save the Ethiopians from the evils.

  • November 10, 2020 at 2:17 am

    all the people commented by supporting the war in Ethiopia are unitarian system heretics (aka #Neftegna). Fact!. There are also too many reasons why PM Abiy Ahmed declared war on the #Tigray region.

  • November 10, 2020 at 2:54 am

    The reality is worse than War, it is a genocide on Tigrian people supported By Abiy Ahmed and Isaias Afwerki. Abiy send strike air Bomb on Tigray civilians. He send four fighter jet to Bomb on the cities of Mekelle, Quha, and Adigrat. The people of Tigrai and TPLF have no choice but have fight for their right . In fact it is a matter survival. And the federal government is attracting on people of Tigray that lives out of Tigray region including on the capital city Addis Ababa. i just can not imagine how rest of Ethiopia let him do that? This is unlivable, you don’t have to be Tigrain to say no for this Abiy & Isaias evil action, being human is enough to say no for violence. ” silence is Violence”

  • November 10, 2020 at 3:11 am

    We need to get the facts straight first, the PM Abiy Ahmed was a member of the former government after peaceful power transition but he began to accuse his former comrades for all the wrongful action that drives the opposition for a change for he blamed all alleged crimes in the past and marginalized and targeted the people of Tigria and arrested his former colleagues in vain.
    He ignored the plight of the Tigria people to open the major highway that connects the central government to Tigria State was closed for over two years.

    The people of Tigria paid a heavy price for 17 years against the Military rule to bring about the right to self determination and infavor of preserving the current constitution that allows the people of all nations and nationalities to exercise their god give freedom.
    On the other hand Abiy wants to change the constitution with a unilateral rule, changing the federal arrangement and its constitution.

    Ethiopia tested the unitary form of government in the last 100 years but failed however in the last 30 years people began to enjoy the federal arrangement even though the process was far from perfect.

    The Tigria people and government were a major obstacle for Abiy’s ambition to becoming a king and abolish the ethnic based federal constitution.

    The on going Civil war is a product of these ideological differences, after Abiy assumed power the country was experiencing a security threat , wide spread violence in almost all parts of the country except Tigria, the recent killings well over 300 people in Oromia, Benishagul Amhara and Afar states are an example for the government luck of safeguarding citizens. Instead of protecting the safety of civilians, he preferred to blame the Oromo Liberation Front backed by TPLF.

    Most of the prominent opposition leaders are behind bars, including Lidetu Ayalem, Jewar Mohammed, Bekele Gerba , Eskinder Nega and thousands activists, Journalists and recently civilians who are Tigrian origin.

    All these politicians were calling for all inclusive national dialogue for peaceful transitional government. Abiy Ahmed refused to engage in any discussion about forming government and even postponed the national elections indefinitely.

    I believe the international community has a moral obligation to stop the on going Civil war before more lives lost. There is no a winner in these war and it will lead to all out war in other parts of the country and it will be too late to intervene at that time

  • November 10, 2020 at 3:31 am

    Here is a perspective on the issues in Ethiopia from Tigray/an perspective.
    TPLF/EPRDF ruled Ethiopia with Abiy and his likes for 27 years. Ethiopia saw economic development and progress in all sectors including democracy for two decades. The country needed a reform and people needed a change. So, TPLF peacefully gave away the power but the power was on the wrong hand. Instead of fulfilling the reform Abiy and his party offered on his inauguration, he wanted to become the 7th king of Ethiopia which he said his mom told him when he was a kid. ( funny but he said it in live Tv). Some groups mainly the Amharas feel they have been marginalized because they see the federal system works against their interest. The federal system gives every region the autonomy to govern itself and it was peaceful and did work. The amharas hated it because they are used to being the face of Ethiopia and ruled for hundreds of years, which is why Amharic is the government working language. They hated Federalism because it impedes their wish to dominate and impose their culture on the 82 nationalities within Ethiopia. Abiy decendes from oromia and he came to power by the blood of Oromo. However, his vision of Ethiopia aligns with those of Amharas. He declared state of emergency in oromia so that he can destroy the oppositions, which all or many are in prison now.. he changed all the regional governments by force except Tigray. Tigray was able to endure all the misery since he took power and even went on to conduct their own regional election. Which people elected TPLF. Abiy postponed the election until he put Jawar in jail, which he was the main contender.. Now, abiy and those of Amharas who glorify past kings have one more enemy to crush before they enslave the rest of Ethiopia. So simply it is a war between a Proud Tigray and 82 nationalities against Unitary Amhara identity disguised as “Ethiopian”. This is their last attempt because they know if they lose, Abiy and his associates will be in jail for the crimes, death, and corruptions that occurred within 3 years which exceeds the 27 years of mishaps by EPRDF. Not only that, the Amhara region would be in a deep hole since they are the main driving force behind Abiy. So that’s what is at stake and they can not negotiate because they know what’s coming. They have no base to negotiate. All regions except the Amhara want Federalism and want to elect their own representatives. Abiy will have no one. His own Oromia don’t want him. Amharas want him until he clears the way and they will dispose him by blowing his mind..
    The end result, Tigray, oromia and Somalia and many more will be a country and thr amharanization project dies. Tigraywillprevail Oromiawillprevail.

  • November 10, 2020 at 3:43 am

    To balance the fact: It is very crucial to investigate the root and immediate causes of the unjust war happening against the Tigray people. The root cause will take an outstanding research but the dispute between the center and T.P.L.F was very clear to the Ethiopian people and International community at large. Once Prime minister Abiy Ahmed Ali came to power as a transitional leader following the unprecedented youth movement, Especially the Oromo youth against the E.P.R.D.F has started to sideline T.P.L.F and accuse them as the only group who should be accountable for every illegal and unjust actions happened in Ethiopia for 27 years. And the government owned EBC broadcasted documentary which was targeting the Tigrean people without any legitimate reason and made extrajudicial arrest of many Tigray people. Additionally he merged E.P.R.D.F to one party without any consensus then T.P.L.F left because they did not agree on the unknown political program. Secondly Prosperity party postponed the national election from May 2020 to August 2020 before COVID19 was known as pandemic. Unfortunately COVID 19 become pandemic soon after he postponed it. Tragically COVID 19 has helped Prime minister Abiy Ahmed to extend the constitutional election for unspecified time. To be honest COVID 19 was not the reason because there are many countries who hold election with precautions. The Tigray government and Tigray people were following all actions of Prosperity party which broke the constitution and they ( Tigray people) decided to hold their constitutional election in securing their right to self determination and administration with all Precautions of COVID19.Unfortunately Prime minister Abiy Ahmed threatened to the people of Tigray saying ” if you hold Election mothers will weep”. Following the election in Tigray the central government decided to hold the shared budget of Tigray which is tragic and deliberate. Constitutionally the government of Ethiopia’s term is expired on October 5/2020. On November 2/2020 more than 30 innocent people killed in Welega, Oromia Region After the national army’s has moved out and Prosperity party claimed the “killing was orchestrated by T.P.L.F” which was pointedly and deliberately fabricated. The Prosperity Party’s army has moved to Tigray in a mission of round up the only legitimate government in Ethiopia. Then the Tigray liyu hayl ( Tigray Special forces) clashed with the Army. Hence the Prosperity party incited the war to accomplish its Authoritarian, Unitary and Isaias Afwerki’s mission. To sum up the war is between those in favor of Self determination, Self Administration right ( Tigray people) and illegitimate, unitary and evil (Prosperity party).

  • November 10, 2020 at 3:51 am

    It is a genocide on Tigrian people supported By Abiy Ahmed and Isaias Afwerki.

  • November 10, 2020 at 4:53 am

    This is clearly a war against the people because the “central government” has
    – blocked the network to around 10 million people in Tigray ( they can withdraw money from a bank for daily activities, can receive salaries ) putting people’s lives at risk
    -Cutt power to the whole region though it is restored with the effort of the people from local stations
    – Ethnic based attack on Tigreans all over the country (close to 37k are imprisoned since the start of the war)
    -Ethnic Tigrean servicemen and women are being racially profiled and sidelined from the federal police and defence forces and other key federal institutions.
    -The PM has clearly told the people he will bombard them on a televised speech in their own language (He has already made 10+ Bombing attempts)

    This government is supported and consulted by neighbouring Eritrea. The PM has also a close relationship with middle east countries who can equip proved logistic and military support. Sudan has already closed borders. The people of Tigray are encircled and they are defending themselves against this government military attack.

    The world should act before it is too late.

  • November 10, 2020 at 5:02 am

    Reporters of world media should take note of the following facts:

    Too often Abiy Ahmed’s ethnicity is reported as Oromo to suggest that he came of Oromo protracted revolution of 2015-2016 in Ethiopia. Trues his ascendance to power was on the back of Oromo uprising. The morning after his rise to power he gave up on the people who brought him to power and donned the imperial Ethiopia garb and started to slowly dismantle the federal structure of the country. It should be noted that he was never elected. So federal constituents were sidelined. In two years he tried to dismantle the whole structure that was built over 50 years to address the inequities of the previous monarchs. While he engaged in bulldozing the structure, he sowed mistrust among people by constantly creating conflicts all over the country. Now the chicken is home to roost. The whole picture of a stable government was a sham. Abiy is dragging the country to an abyss and with Ethiopia goes the whole of horn of Africa.

  • November 19, 2020 at 3:29 pm

    Wow. I often think our politics here in British Columbia, Canada are convoluted.

    Ethiopia has been cobbling together a nation of conflicting blood lines and ideological overburden combined with interference from outside interests . . . and more, I would guess,

    And in it all are real people not so unlike myself, but less lucky. Divine Providence may be the only solution.


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