The roots of the conflict in the Tigray region of Ethiopia can be traced back to the conception of the current political system. Since 1994, different ethnic groups have controlled the affairs of the country’s 10 regions in a federal government system. The Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) was instrumental in setting the system up and its leaders, until recently, have held the leading positions in the central government.
Despite growing prosperity in the country, discontent surrounding human rights and the level of democracy led to a new Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, being appointed in 2018. This came as a result of considerable civil unrest. Abiy Ahmed set up a new political party, the Prosperity Party and removed key Tigrayan leaders accusing them of corruption. This ended around three decades of Tigrayan power.
The situation between the two dramatically worsened in September when the Tigrayan government went against the central government and held its own regional elections despite them being officially postponed due to the pandemic. The central government subsequently suspended funding and cut ties with Tigray. This was seen as a declaration of war by the region’s government and the conflict ensued.
The fighting began on the 4th November with the TPLF forces attacking a government military base to reportedly steals weapons, however the TPLF said it was pre-emptive strike in self-defence. The PM subsequently declared a state emergency and ordered a military offensive against the region to restore rule of law. Information, or perhaps more importantly, reliable information about the conflict has been hard to come by. Electricity, telephone, and internet services were shut down making it hard for the international community to respond and gather accurate information on events. Many foreign nationals found it hard to leave as a result. The fighting intensified for the rest of November, with government forces making steady progress against the Tigray army.
On the 28th November, Mekele, Tigray’s capital was ‘liberated’ by government forces, putting them back in control of the majority of the region. However, despite it seemly looking like a victory for Abiy Ahmed, stability domestically and internationally is far from guaranteed.
The effects of the conflict are what is proving to be a cause of concern for the international community. Despite the UN coming to an agreement with Ethiopia to allow for unimpeded access for emergency relief, on a visit to the region at the time, the EU’s Crisis Management Commissioner criticized the access as severely lacking. As a result, the EU has delayed 90 million Euros worth of financial aid. They have ramped up emergency aid however.
The conflict poses a real risk to the stability of the region. Ethiopia is a close ally of the US and was seen as an essential part of maintaining peace in the fragile horn of Africa. This could force the hand of the US to intervene diplomatically. The conflict has started to spill into Eritrea with Tigrayan forces firing missiles at the Eritrean capital. A conflict with Eritrea comes with the risk of the 100,000 Eritrean refugees currently living in Tigray being displaced again.
Sudan is another area of concern, a fragile state with over 1 million refugees and an increasing economic crisis, it is a country that cannot afford conflict. Refugees from Tigray are pouring into Sudan, figures suggest 50,000 but numbers vary from source to source, realistically they will be higher than reported as many are not registered in UN camps. Tensions have increased significantly with skirmishes taking place across the Sudanese/Ethiopian boarder. Many soldiers are also making the trip with refugees and could pose as a further factor in the destabilisation of Sudan.
The conflict within Ethiopia is a worrying sign for the region and with conflict slowly spilling outside of Ethiopia’s borders, the international community will be putting pressure on the government to stabilise domestically and internationally. It is very much a guessing game at the moment as to what could happen in the region, but current signs are far from promising.