Examining the geopolitical context and recent fault lines is useful for determining the most effective support measures, including small confidence-building steps in humanitarian relief which can prevent conflict spillover into the wider region.
Ethiopia’s military operation against TPLF in the northern Tigray province of Ethiopia marked a watershed for the African Horn region. While the regional escalation potentials are quite well known, stabilizing initiatives taken in concert with regional neighboring states are still at the very beginning.
Examining the geopolitical context and recent fault lines is useful for determining the most effective support measures, including small confidence-building steps in humanitarian relief which can prevent conflict spillover into the wider region. Extra-regional actors have stood aside from the conflict, but their reticence must not be taken for granted. Conversely, the role of multilateral actors such as UN, EU and AU remains quite limited, despite declared conflict prevention and resolution agendas. Finding the right balance between regional IGAD and EU cooperation to hedge against a wider conflagration is a challenge for early 2021 and preparations should start without further delay.
Conflict trajectory until 15 December
Starting on 4 November, fighting in Tigray province of Ethiopia ended on 28 November with Ethiopian federal troops capturing Mekelle, the provincial capital and seat of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). TPLF was the former power holder in Ethiopia until the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in 2018 which reduced the scope of ‘ethnic federalism’ in the country. The central government termed the military intervention, the first large scale operation with formed units in a decade, as a “police action” targeted at seditious TPLF leaders who had defied the Prime Minister with holding separate regional elections in late 2019. After most of federal funding was cut off, TPLF staged a pre-emptive strike in early November against facilities of the Ethiopian Northern Command in Tigray where heavy weapons were stored.
It was not until 12 December that a first international relief convoy reached Mekelle where medical services had all but ceased to function. Although bloody street battles were avoided, UN observers spoke of ongoing violence in Tigray at the beginning of December. Thousands of government soldiers had been captured by TPLF forces and most were eventually set free again. There is no comprehensive data about civilian casualties from the fighting, as many communications lines remained cut off, while the government started to reconnect a few cities in Tigray.
Violence in Tigray can easily jump to neighbouring states and trigger greater instability across the region. This would reverse the hard-won gains in democratic governance and conflict settlement that had recently turned the Horn of Africa into a beacon of hope after decades of major instability. This is evidenced by the transition in Sudan from the fundamentalist rule of Omar Al-Bashir including peace deals with major armed opposition movements in 2019, as well as by the coalition government of the two opposing factions in South Sudan. Prime Minister Abiy received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for his rapprochement with Eritrea, ending a decade of ‘cold peace’ after the border war from 1998 to 2000. However, in previous decades, inter-state relations had been much more conflictual, including through a pattern of shifting alliances and supporting armed opposition movements covertly (or overtly): this followed the maxim “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” for dealing with political rivals in the region.
Simmering conflict and precarious human security for populations
Everything points to a protracted conflict in Tigray and potential further escalation. Experts have noted that TPLF had an extensive arsenal of weapons at their disposal. TPLF is also experienced in guerilla warfare on its own soil, which was the reason for prevailing against central Ethiopian government power when Ethiopia was ruled by a military regime, the Derg. Only one senior member of the TPLF Central Committee, Ms. Keria Ibrahim, has surrendered so far while others are either captured or still on the run, according to government sources. Analysts see the TPLF military posture as deliberate tactics to sidestep the army assault and regroup strategically outside population centers. TPLF may have its back to the wall temporarily but may still be able to mount attacks in the coming weeks; it is not excluded that this could include turning to sponsors in the near abroad for help.
If the conflict persists, Ethiopia’s internal stability might be also affected which could compound the impact of the Tigray conflict on the wider region. In October 2019 and again in spring/summer 2020, unrest erupted in Oromia province around the greater Addis Ababa area, pointing to increased political fragility and eroding national consensus for the reform course of PM Abiy. TPLF knows how to push the right buttons in these political dynamics with the central government. Especially youth in Ethiopia are confronted with unemployment and lack of perspective and therefore susceptible to recruitment by provincial militias or militant political party elements. Although many in the Ethiopian capital welcomed the Army’s strike against TPLF, activist youth in Oromo criticized the government’s course of in Tigray. Several towns in Oromia had been under “Command Post” direct military control for weeks during the unrest. The jailed populist Oromia leader Jawar Mohammed became their mouthpiece in December, calling for a stop of the operation in Tigray.
Human security in Tigray has been precarious- an aspect that is commonly not so well known to the public in Europe and in the west since the Ethiopian famine of the 1980s. Even before the conflict, Tigray’s population had faced drought conditions and food security challenges, which was exacerbated by climate change and locust infestation across the borders in some parts of Tigray. The province also houses some 100,000 refugees from Eritrea who are sheltering in four camps including Shimelba and in major cities. Up until mid-December, UNHCR had no access to these camps where only a handful of national relief staff stayed behind, and resources were depleted. The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission confirmed a massacre of several hundred civilians in Mai-Kadra that took place on 9 November near the border of Tigray with Amhara province. Several other atrocities not yet discovered could fuel revenge killings and let the situation spiral out of control.
According to IMF forecasts, economic growth in Ethiopia stands at a mere 1.9% in 2020 and will slow further to zero in 2021, as the Covid-19 pandemic has caused additional losses in the economy. Weakened business activity in Tigray whose elites traditionally dominated many import and export businesses in Ethiopia reduces Ethiopia’s resilience further. Rapid normalization is therefore important to prevent additional violence, especially at the local community level so economic recovery can gain traction.
Regional domino effects and geopolitics
Sudan has borne the brunt of the conflict in Tigray so far: over 50,000 refugees from Tigray have crossed the border and UNHCR appealed for $150 mln USD in additional emergency relief funding. Sudan is in its own political transition and in the absence of comprehensive reforms in the security sector there are many irregular armed groups who could be tempted to interfere with an unsettled situation across the border in Ethiopia. It should be noted that cities in eastern Sudan such as Kassala and Port Sudan saw sporadic unrest in late 2019 and spring 2020, including tribal and factional fighting. The influx of Ethiopian refugees puts additional strain on Sudan’s fragile socio-economic environment where the value of the Sudanese Pound has fallen drastically and creates the potential for more disruption. There are reports from disputed border areas of Sudan and Ethiopia that agricultural land was seized and on both sides at the border military was deployed to tighten movements of people. After a reported Ethiopian incursion in the week of 14 December, several Sudanese soldiers were killed, and two dozen wounded. Heads of Government are scheduled for bilateral consultation on the issue on 22 December.
In Eritrea, the militarized commend economy of President Isaias Afewerki harbors regional power ambitions and provided direct backup to the Ethiopian campaign in Tigray. There were larger forced recruitment drives and vehicles requisitioned to move to the border area, according to some reports from Asmara. Former Eritrean Defense Minister Mesfin Hagos has described this cooperation in some detail, which shows a temporary alliance against a common enemy, namely TPLF. In the border war from 1998 to 2000, Ethiopia (then under TPLF leadership by PM Meles Zenawi) and Eritrea had fought major battles that cost 100,000 lives and prompted extensive deportations on both sides. In the absence of an international boundary regime and demarcation, disputed areas such as the strategic location of Badme, Irob and Tsorona remain potential flashpoints which could be re-ignited by continued fighting in Tigray.
Eritrean troops have reportedly crossed into Tigray during the latest campaign and rounded up young deserters among Eritrean refugees. It is therefore not surprising that TPLF escalated the fighting up until 28 November with several rocket attacks against the Asmara airport area in the Eritrean capital region. Previously, TPLF had targeted airfields inside Amara province of Ethiopia such as Bahir Dar. Experts have discounted the use of armed drones from the Eritrean port of Assab in the southern Dankalia zone where the United Arab Emirates maintain airpower for the war in Yemen which is fought alongside Saudi Arabia. With Eritrea remains keeping aloof from the group of seven active IGAD Region Member States after suspending its cooperation in 2007, its actions remain to some extent unpredictable.
Ethiopia also shares a border with Somalia in the southeast of its Somali regional state at the ‚Haud‘ region which was the target of Somalia’s dictator Siad Barre in an unsuccessful military venture in 1973. Distraction and a weakened Ethiopian military footprint inside Somalia alongside AMISOM and in bilateral deployments is a risk factor. The Al-Shabaab terrorist group could make additional gains during the sensitive pre-election period in Somalia and export extremist violence more easily into Ethiopia and Kenya. According to well-informed observers, the general Ethiopian force posture has not changed dramatically but a unit in the Southwest Federal State of Somalia was disarmed as it was mainly composed of Tigrayans.
In the Horn of Africa region, Djibouti is a relative stability anchor, not least because of the five international military bases in the country and the strategic importance of the nearby Bab-el-Mandeb waterway for international shipping through the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. These bases include the largest U.S. base in Africa and the largest Chinese military base outside China, in addition to France, the former colonial power in Djibouti. Just after the end of the Ethiopia-Eritrea border war when the bilateral relations were at an absolute low, Djibouti hosted periodic meetings of the senior military in the format of a tripartite “Military Coordination Commission” (MCC) under the auspices of the UN Peacekeeping Mission (UNMEE) .
Red sea strategic theatre at risk from conflict escalation
The Red Sea and the Nile Basin represent the wider geopolitical theatre of current hostilities in Tigray; external interests can additionally charge the ongoing conflict. Egypt has clearly articulated its vital national interest in Nile waters and the continued diplomatic wrangling with Sudan and Ethiopia over the new Ethiopian „Grand Renaissance Dam“ (GERD) on the Blue Nile shows a high level of distrust, despite several attempts at mediation from the African Union, the World Bank and even the U.S. Other powerful extra-regional actors are waiting in the wings, including the UAE and Saudi Arabia who seeks strategic influence in investments and the agriculture sector in East Africa. China has eminent commercial interests in Ethiopia and Turkey is a prominent player in security and economic cooperation in Somalia which provides a convergence point with Ethiopia. Russia is reportedly considering establishing a naval base in Egypt at the Red Sea.
In view of this complex dynamics in the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia has not just advanced internal reforms but also put geopolitics and external actors more clearly into sharp focus. A new Foreign Policy Strategy was developed in 2019 and presented at Addis Ababa University in December 2019. The new policy marked a departure from the TPLF conduct of foreign policy and its transactional, rather self-centred approach and balancing of alliances. An end of “bullying” the Ethiopian Embassies by the political leaders in Addis Ababa and opening up to citizen diplomacy and greater diaspora engagement were also included. Through the ‘Intergovernmental Authority on Development ‘(IGAD), the Region has launched efforts at consultations on the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. A dedicated IGAD Task Force was launched in early 2019 to build an informed common understanding among all continental IGAD members, littoral states and the interested neighbors; these national consultations finished with Uganda in June 2020. It is worth noting that a complementary Egyptian Red Sea Initiative was presented at the Aswan International Forum in summer 2019 with backing from Saudi Arabia.
In the larger global strategic picture, the Red Sea ranks just behind the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean as one of the vital shipping routes on the choke point of Bab-el-Mandeb. Ethiopian analysts have pointed to the “securitization” of the Red Sea maritime zone (“Ethiopian Foreign Policy.” Presentation op. cit.) and the fact that their country is just 150 km away from the southern part of the Red Sea near Djibouti and Ethiopia; Ethiopia cannot be indifferent to the developments and emplacements from outside the Horn of Africa region in this zone. Due to the ongoing conflict in Yemen, the Red Sea is already experiencing more tension and naval incidents, in addition to human smuggling operations for migrants from the Horn of Africa towards the Gulf States and Europe. With Eritrea as a littoral state on the Red Sea fully embroiled in violent conflict spreading from Tigray, risks for interrupted sea traffic would grow exponentially. This could rapidly affect EU vital strategic interests and those of other Western and Asian powers who depend on global supply lines for energy security and trade flows.
State of play in mediation efforts and opportunities for regional dialogue
Premier Abiy and the Ethiopian government have been adamant against international mediation. The authorities in Addis Ababa point to a long list of efforts to reach out to the Tigrayan TPLF leaders before the armed conflict erupted, citing this as evidence that the TPLF cannot be trusted and must be removed. While the TPLF leadership has signalled conditional readiness to engage in talks before the rout in Mekelle, positions have generally remained hardened. Under the Chairmanship of AU Presidency held by President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa, a high-level mediation panel was constituted on 21 November. While the three former Presidents of Liberia, South Africa and Mozambique swiftly travelled to Addis Ababa and met with PM Abiy, the initiative was rebuffed.
Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok of Sudan as Chair of the ‘Intergovernmental Authority on Development‘ (IGAD) rotating presidency sounded out the Ethiopian government about dialogue with TPLF leaders at an early state in the crisis; PM Hamdok renewed his efforts on 13 December during a visit to Addis Ababa but his initiatives remained unsuccessful. On 20 December, IGAD held an Extraordinary Heads of State and Government Meeting in Djibouti; the conflict in Tigray also featured on the agenda, apart from the situation in Sudan and South Sudan as well as response to the Covid-19 pandemic (see: Communique of the 38th Extraordinary Assembly of IGAD Heads of State and Government, Djibouti 20 December 2020). In briefest terms, the meeting reaffirmed “primacy of constitutional order, stability and unity of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia” and welcomed the 29 November agreement for “unimpeded, sustained and secure access for humanitarian support” (Communique, op. cit., paras. 10 and 11).
IGAD is to some extent dependent on Ethiopia (as the IGAD Peace and Security Division located in Addis Ababa and staffed with some high-ranking Ethiopian experts and officials) but unlike any other regional state grouping in East Africa apart from the East African Economic Community (EAC), IGAD commands an array of “soft power” tools in its multi-sector work. As the recent IGAD engagement on the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden dialogue series has shown, the organization is capable of addressing complex and sensitive issues. IGAD could undertake confidence-building measures that have broad acceptance across political and geographical divides.
Multilateral efforts at dispute settlement besides the AU initiative for Ethiopia and Tigray have remained uncharted. The UN Security Council was not seized of the Tigray conflict until 14 December when the humanitarian impact of the crisis was discussed (under the ‘Any Oher Business’ agenda item in the Council). The African A-3 group in the Council was not able to muster enough resolve among Security Council members to propose solutions for the conflict. This illustrated the prevailing UN political polarization and impact from the COVID-19 pandemic on decision making at the highest level in peace and international security dealing with emerging threats. Conflict prevention is among the centerpieces of the UN Secretary-Generals reform plan launched in 2017 but the UN has found it difficult to implement this goal in practice while navigating complex member state relations.
The way forward – Prospects for closer EU and IGAD cooperation in the Tigray conflict
Powerful members of the UN were content with issuing appeals and statements (e.g. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas in early November) while the global UN body deferred to AU and African partners for solving African problems in the case of Tigray. Therefore, it is worth taking a closer look at what combined and well-orchestrated regional and especially intensified EU efforts might accomplish. The EU High Representative for External Affairs Josep Borrell met with the Ethiopian Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Demeke Mekonnen on 24 November. He has appointed Finland’s Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto as EU Envoy to the conflict. The EU has also postponed 90 mln EUR in budget support for Ethiopia, due to concerns about the humanitarian situation in Tigray. In the regional diplomatic infrastructure for peace, this strengthens existing UN and EU Envoys posted in the Horn of Africa at Addis Ababa and Nairobi respectively.
It might be possible to regularize consultations on the monitoring and impact assessment for the conflict in Northern Ethiopia through a dedicated diplomatic channel and networked meetings of senior envoys. This could be operationalized with tailored IGAD and EU secretariat support and provide common observations and points of concern for early warning which could be relayed periodically to the Ethiopian leadership. Inter-regional cross-cooperation might be the most acceptable format for sounding options in conflict resolution since individual states often have political baggage from their previous dealings with the TPLF, which could give rise to perceptions of pushing special interest.
IGAD neighboring states are most immediately affected by escalating violence in Tigray and together with the EU their messaging might go a long way to convince the Ethiopian leaders that a peaceful settlement and dialogue with the TPLF leaders would be in everyone’s best interest. Conceiving small steps as confidence-building measures could be useful, clustered around arms control at provincial level in Tigray, humanitarian relief corridors and post-conflict reconstruction with a focus on climate adaptation as a compass for shared prosperity and stability that can speak to the aspirations of Tigrayans and the Ethiopian state.
This could pave the way for a broader national dialogue in Ethiopia ahead of the general elections scheduled for in October 2021. The contours of such dialogue have already been sketched at expert level in the U.S.; a Three-Point Plan addressing the underlying causes for conflict in Tigray offers a comprehensive road map towards redefining federal state and central government relations in Ethiopia. These steps could lead to political and institutional reforms including constitutional provisions. However, the road is still fraught with many pitfalls and possible turbulence so the immediate task would be to de-conflict with the parties at hand in Tigray and encourage them to end hostilities and focus minds on what unites Ethiopians for the future instead of what divides them.
Matthias E. Leitner has served in international peace and security positions since 1997, mainly in UN and regional contexts across Africa, the western Balkans and in the Middle East, with a specialization in the Horn of Africa/IGAD Region. He has recently implemented an EU Emergency Trust Fund Project (IPPSHAR) with IGAD in Addis Ababa. His academic background from Bonn and Oxford Universities is in languages, history and international law.