Conflict in Tigray is plunging Ethiopia’s ethnic federalism into crisis

How a deepening conflict threatens to tear the country apart. 

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After two weeks of fighting in northern Ethiopia, between the Tigray region’s ruling party and federal government forces, hundreds are thought to have been killed and there are reports of massacres of civilians. Communications to the region have been cut, making information gathering on the ground difficult, although reliable reports of atrocities have been published in recent days.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, an ethnic Oromo, came to power in 2018 amid a wave of tentative optimism that he could end decades of one-party rule. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for his work in achieving peace with neighbouring Eritrea and advancing liberal human rights reforms. But tensions with the north have been bubbling since last year, when Abiy dissolved the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a coalition of four parties which dominated Ethiopian politics since it seized power from the communist Derg in 1991, to form the Prosperity Party.

The EPRDF has been dominated by the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), the ruling party of Tigray. Abiy’s move was viewed as an attempt to sideline the northern region’s leaders and remove some of the ethnic tension within the 1995 federal constitution. Tigrayans make up 6 per cent of the population; Oromos and Amharas represent around a third and a quarter of Ethiopians respectively.

“Abiy came through with a great reformist zeal. His emergence shifted the dynamics of ethnic federalism. The Oromos, represented by Abiy, came to the fore having never been in that position, but [after the creation of the Prosperity Party], the TPLF had to withdraw to their regional capital and readjust to a new balance of power with an Oromo-Amhara alliance [in government],” Ahmed Soliman, a research fellow at the Chatham House think tank, told the New Statesman.

In September, the TPLF ignored a nationwide ban on elections imposed in response to the coronavirus pandemic, triggering a confrontation with Abiy’s government, which said Tigray had crossed a line. According to Alex De Waal, an Ethiopia analyst at the Fletcher School of Tufts University, tensions revolve around the design of the constitution, which grants ethnic regions the right to self-determination and is designed to allow federal states to go their own way “if there were to be a democratic collapse at the [federal] centre”.

“Each federal member is essentially a nation in itself,” Soliman said.

Fighting broke out this month after the federal authorities accused Tigrayan forces of attacking a government army base on 4 November, with clashes rapidly escalating. Tens of thousands of refugees are reported to have fled to neighbouring Sudan. “People fleeing from Ethiopia to Sudan are fleeing because they are desperate. The place they are going to is hardly the most stable,” Saviano Abreu, a UN humanitarian official based in Nairobi, Kenya, told the New Statesman.

The African Union, which has its headquarters in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, has called for an immediate ceasefire, as have regional powers such as Kenya and Uganda, where there are fears about instability spilling across Ethiopia's borders.

There is mounting evidence of atrocities. In a report published last week, Amnesty International said it had collected evidence of a massacre of “a very large number of civilians”, whom it said were not involved in the conflict. The rights group said “likely hundreds” had been stabbed or hacked to death in the town of Mai Kadra in western Tigray on 9 November. It provisionally attributed responsibility for the massacre to forces loyal to the TPLF, though it said it could not conclusively determine who carried out the killings.

Fighting could spill over to neighbouring countries in the strategically important Horn of Africa region. Rockets reportedly fired by Tigrayan forces hit the outskirts of the Eritrean capital Asmara over the weekend, after the Tigrayan government claimed Eritrean forces were aiding the Ethiopian government’s campaign. The federal government also accuses the TPLF of exacerbating ethnic conflicts in other parts of the country.

The conflict could even escalate into a full-scale disintegration of the Ethiopian state into a number of ethnic republics, some analysts fear. A former US diplomat compared Ethiopia to the former Yugoslavia, adding that the conflict “is much more akin to what an inter-state war would look like”. Last year, Florian Bieber and Wondemagegn Tadesse Goshu warned: “The dissolution of Yugoslavia and the subsequent wars stand a warning that the transformation of ethno-federal states with diverse and divided group identities poses particular risks.”

Abiy, the Nobel laureate feted by the West as an ambitious reformer, attempted to take some of the ethnic sting out of Ethiopian politics. But the fighting in Tigray could prove a step too far.

Ido Vock is international correspondent at the New Statesman.

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