Atlantic Council – Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who won the Nobel Prize for his peacemaking with Eritrea, has confounded allies by resisting all attempts to dampen the ongoing military confrontation with a powerful northern insurgent group, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The TPLF effectively controlled the Ethiopian government from 1991 until February 2018, when it was driven from power by a surge of popular revolt. Global officials fear that the fighting between the TPLF and Abiy’s government forces may provoke widespread unrest in Ethiopia and a humanitarian crisis in the Horn; spark international war if neighboring states are drawn into the conflict; or cause Ethiopia to break apart like the former Yugoslavia.
But there is a worse alternative: and that is the very realistic prospect that the two sides will fight each other nearly to the death, then agree to negotiations that will allow both sides to heal and re-arm, until some provocation inevitably retriggers a new round of conflict, which will lead to another conflagration with immense costs to human life, and so on, as the cycle endlessly repeats itself. This is the scenario that has played out time and again in South Sudan, and it is by far the likeliest outcome of current demands for negotiation between the TPLF and the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF).
The reason for this is simple: the TPLF has good reason to think that it can attack the Ethiopian government forces, and yet not be held accountable by the Western democracies that wield so much influence in the country.
Despite the massive human rights violations that were associated with the TPLF’s rule—despite the authoritarianism and theft, the imprisonments and the torture that have been laid at its door—the TPLF’s international allies have never repudiated it, nor examined their inappropriate investment in the TPLF’s welfare. International analysts have pointedly and repeatedly failed even to raise the TPLF’s maladministration and intransigence in their assessments of this current crisis. This has created an attitude of impunity in the TPLF, but it has also undermined the Ethiopian leadership’s faith that international mediation and diplomacy can work on their behalf. And that is an awful tragedy, because if Abiy had any reason to believe that the international community could fairly and impartially mediate his conflict with the TPLF, he might actually be persuaded to stand down.
An unfinished revolution and the road back to insurgency
The TPLF took power in Ethiopia in 1987. Its leader, Meles Zenawi, effectively ruled Ethiopia unilaterally until his death in 2012, although he exercised his power through a four-party ethnic-based coalition called the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). The EPRDF was successful in producing a period of seeming ethnic calm and economic prosperity in Ethiopia; but it lost popular elections in 2005, at which time it took an alarming authoritarian turn, and grew increasingly repressive. Under Zenawi and his successor, Hailemariam Desalegn, the EPRDF effectively outlawed the freedoms of assembly and speech, banned most civil society organizations, and imprisoned tens of thousands of youths, Muslims, political opposition members, and journalists. Many of these individuals were cruelly tortured in prison. During this time period, the EPRDF—under the TPLF’s influence—launched a misguided invasion of Somalia and refused to withdraw its forces from Eritrean territory, violating the terms of a peace agreement and the ruling of a United Nations-backed border commission. Both of these actions have produced profound instability in the greater Horn of Africa region—in Somalia, by bringing the extremist al Shabaab militia to power, and in Eritrea, by prolonging a two-decade period of cold war that has isolated and impoverished the Eritrean people. But because the TPLF was widely viewed as an ally of the United States’ war on terrorism, it was insulated from international criticism, and also benefited from immense flows of foreign aid, which in turn allowed it to build a massive military and intelligence apparatus that was helpful in controlling the Ethiopian population, and further prolonged the EPRDF’s nondemocratic rule.
After years of public uprisings, in which many Ethiopians lost their lives, Desalegn was forced to resign as prime minister and the TPLF lost much of its hold on power. The group was largely forced to withdraw to its northern enclave, where it retained an arsenal of weaponry vastly disproportionate to its presumed political constituency (which represents approximately 6 percent of Ethiopia’s population). Though these allegations have not been definitively proved—and should therefore be referenced with caution—the new Ethiopian government has repeatedly and credibly accused the TPLF of working to incite ethnic conflicts and to undermine the new political order. Tensions have continued to rise, and have been aggravated by the global COVID-19 pandemic, which has prevented the timely holding of national elections that might have produced some consensus on proposed reforms to the federalist system and the Ethiopian constitution.
In its impatience, the TPLF defied government orders and called Tigrayans to the polls. The lack of observers and the nature of the announced results—which showed the TPLF winning 98 percent of the popular vote—prevent this exercise from being described as an election.
The international community failed at that point—and at innumerable points leading up to it—to condemn the TPLF’s goading and irresponsible actions, and in particular, its blunt refusal to recognize the authority of Abiy’s administration. This international silence has persuaded the TPLF that it has retained the sympathies of its old international backers, and has inadvertently emboldened the hardliners at the top of the party. Prime Minister Abiy, who could have chosen to ignore what was at best a flimsy provocation, likewise chose to escalate rather than defuse the situation. He retaliated by cutting funding to the TPLF leadership. That in turn, appears to have goaded the TPLF into attacking an Ethiopian Defense Forces base located in the Tigray region. Non-Tigrayan soldiers, in a foreshadowing of ethnic-based violence by TPLF-aligned forces to come, were allegedly executed during the attack, and other federal soldiers still remain hostage.
And yet, at no point has any Western or African power called for the TPLF to lay down its arms. At no point have Western powers discussed leveling sanctions on the TPLF officials who authorized the attack. In fact, pointed op-editorials in premier publications have actually blamed the Prime Minister for “marginalizing” the TPLF from power, and held him equally responsible for the escalating tensions.
In fact, Abiy has been right to call the TPLF’s assault on federal forces a “red line” provocation. There is no government in the world that would tolerate such an assault. The moment that it took up arms against the federal government, and oversaw the execution of federal soldiers, TPLF forfeited its status as a political party and regional administration, and returned to its old roots as a rebel movement. There is thus no precedent in international law for calling its military assault an act of war. It is an act of insurgency; it is an act of armed revolt; and most dangerously, it is a revolt being prosecuted on ethnic lines, as the TPLF is politically isolated and lacks any political constituency outside of Tigray. TPLF forces—having consumed the narrative of ethnic-based persecution being fed to them by the TPLF leadership—have subsequently been implicated in the massacre of scores or hundreds of innocent non-Tigrayan bystanders at Mai-Kadra (though we should absolutely assume, given the previous conduct of the Ethiopian Defense Forces in Oromia and elsewhere, that there will be atrocities on both sides).
The urgent question is, how can the international community intervene to stop the fighting, and what actions can prevent a recurrence of the fighting?
First, the diplomatic community must recognize what is painfully obvious: that its lack of credibility has rendered it powerless to exercise influence on this conflict. This extends beyond the Western democracies to the African Union (AU) and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), who are equally guilty of abetting the abuses of the TPLF, especially insofar as Somalia and Eritrea are concerned.
But the United States, in particular, has for too long failed to confront the abusiveness of the TPLF ruling cadre. US President Barack Obama’s repeated references to the Ethiopian government as “democratically elected” in spite of the flagrant rigging of elections—in which the unpopular ruling party always won between 97 percent and 100 percent of seats in the parliament—was widely viewed in Ethiopia as a betrayal of fundamental American principles. The international community has also maintained a pointed silence about the TPLF since Abiy took power. Time and time again, as the TPLF has been implicated in serious acts of provocation and violence, as the TPLF has rejected the authority of the central government—and the popular will that brought the new dispensation into being—Washington and its allies, particularly those in the chattering classes, have utterly failed to repudiate the TPLF.
If any of these international actors wish to stand as credible mediators, they must admit to their previous bias and address the threat that the bias poses moving forward. They must acknowledge and act on the recognition that the international silence on the TPLF’s conduct has played a significant role in creating the conditions for this current crisis.
Second, the international community must understand that Prime Minister Abiy and President Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea have long understood that the TPLF would never be constrained or barred from a return to power by Ethiopia’s external allies. While analysts claim that “no military solution is possible,” the ongoing international toleration of the TPLF has convinced them that the very opposite is true—and that both Abiy and Isaias believe that they can quickly win this battle.
Abiy has been widely lauded for making peace with Eritrea after decades of near-war over a border dispute. But the alliance served a vital tactical purpose of containing the powerful TPLF in its northern corner, where it has been surrounded by unfriendly forces: the Eritreans, the rival Amhara ethnic police and militias, and the federal troops controlled by Abiy. This coalition of forces—as well as fears that too-aggressive action by the TPLF could trigger broad ethnic reprisals against the innocent Tigrayan population—combined for a few years to keep a northern insurgency in check. But the TPLF is thought to control several hundreds of thousands of soldiers and irregular militia, and has a powerful modern arsenal. Until now, Abiy has not had the military strength to confront it, even as the TPLF has been widely accused of fomenting ethnic unrest around the country.
But since the day he came to power, Abiy has been frantically working to reduce the TPLF’s stranglehold on Ethiopia’s military resources and manpower. He is a calculating leader, and his willingness to take action to confront the TPLF in its stronghold, after years of strategic patience, indicates that he believes that he can win. Here is why he may be confident:
First, the US Department of State has formally indicated its concern about reports of the TPLF attack on ENDF bases on November 3. This puts down a marker that the Trump Administration considers the TPLF to be the instigator of the current round of violence, and gives Abiy a political green light to quell the unrest. That may change when the Biden administration takes control of the US government, but Abiy surely expects the conflict to be over by then.
State Department personnel have also pointedly resisted the temptation to echo descriptions of the conflict between the TPLF insurgency and the ENDF a “civil war.” The term is widely being used in the press, but it is alarmist: Abiy’s assault on the TPLF is certainly a gamble, and there is a possibility that a prolonged conflict in the far northern corner of Ethiopia could eventually spark unrest elsewhere. But there is a better than even chance that the military confrontation will play out in a matter of days rather than weeks. Prime Minister Abiy’s round rejection of outside intervention suggests that he is indeed confident of this result. It’s also important to understand that the TPLF, regardless of its residual military strength, is a politically isolated faction with few internal or external allies. Its grievances are unlikely to spark widespread unrest, as long as the Ethiopian population can resist the temptation to act out reprisals on innocent Tigrayans around the country.
And in spite of speculation that the TPLF may attempt to push an attack towards Addis Ababa, the battle is unlikely to spread southward. Abiy came to power when millions on millions of Ethiopians took to the streets to overthrow the TPLF-dominated regime. Anger against the TPLF—and unfortunately, against the broader Tigrayan ethnic group, precious few of whom have truly benefitted from TPLF rule—ran so high in the months following Abiy’s rise that many feared that a genocide against the Tigrayans could be imminent. For all the popular disenchantment with Abiy’s government, a launch of TPLF forces towards Addis Ababa, for the explicit purpose of overthrowing the government by force, would almost certainly produce an avalanche of popular anger. Abiy seems to have done a pretty good job of convincing average Ethiopians that his military assault is indeed a law and order operation designed in the long run to reduce conflicts across the country. Abiy’s popular standing has also benefitted from the nationalist fervor rising over Egyptian threats against the GERD, and US President Donald Trump’s casual incitement of a conflict between Egypt and Ethiopia. (Another powerful reason, frankly, for the Ethiopian government to distrust any Western attempts at mediation.) The TPLF seems aware of this risk: apart from some bombast, its rhetoric has squarely emphasized a goal of self-defense.
A regional conflagration as a result of the fighting between the TPLF and ENDF is also unlikely. Neighboring states—all of whom have good relations with Abiy and poor relations with the TPLF—have so far resisted any impulse to insert themselves into the crisis. Sudan immediately closed its border with Tigray, and far more importantly, Eritrea has not launched troops into Ethiopian territory. (There have been unconfirmed reports of fighting between Eritrean and TPLF troops at various points along the border, but these have not been confirmed, and there is reason to think that Abiy and Isaias will resist Eritrea’s entry into the conflict unless it is absolutely necessary.) At a time of great uncertainty in Ethiopia, the restraint of the neighboring nations is a profoundly important asset: in Africa, “civil wars” are often sparked and aggravated by the meddling of foreign forces. Ethiopia’s strong relations with neighboring states are likely to prevent this outcome.
There is a risk that the TPLF may, out of desperation, attempt to push into Eritrean territory—as it did most recently in June 2016, at a time when the TPLF was at the height of its political and military power, in control of the entire Ethiopian military apparatus, and in possession of strong international support. (That attack also led to panicked headlines about the potential for a new war in the Horn.) But Eritrea successfully deflected the attempted invasion and is just as likely to be able to defend itself now. Plus, if the TPLF moves into Eritrean territory, Asmara will be able to justify a counterattack—and the TPLF will then be forced to fight powerful enemies on two fronts, with good reason to think that the ENDF and Eritrean forces would seek to coordinate their assaults. Again, that is not an outcome that the TPLF is likely to seek out.
This conflict has been years in the making, and it’s hard to see how it can be resolved through dialogue. By allowing most of the TPLF leadership to live unmolested in the north after losing power—without a truth and reconciliation commission, and with few attempts to hold the old regime accountable for human rights abuses or thefts of Ethiopian treasure—Abiy, willingly or not, had embarked on a grand experiment. The TPLF has not kept its side of that bargain. It’s true that if Abiy’s military gamble now misfires, Ethiopia and the rest of the region may be in for a miserable round of suffering. But neither can Abiy govern the country with an intransigent, heavily-armed spoiler in the north. There is no indication that any of these actors are willing to negotiate, and Abiy probably feels that this military confrontation is his best chance of achieving long-term peace.
Indeed, Abiy probably fears that if he fails to answer the TPLF’s overt attacks on the Ethiopian state and its citizens, it will cause him to lose control of his government. And all Ethiopia’s allies should fear that outcome, because we have no idea at all what might come next.
The most effective means of discouraging the continuation of this conflict is to finally put pressure on TPLF leaders—especially Chairman Debretsion Gebremichael—to stand down his forces in the interest of protecting the local population. Abiy urgently needs to be persuaded that he can rely on the international community—and not only his army—to ensure that the TPLF will be prevented from returning to power. Counterintuitively, the fastest way for the international community to do that is to stop calling for negotiations, and to start demanding accountability for the TPLF.
Calling for negotiations, as so many are advocating, will only encourage TPLF leaders to believe that violence will permit them to fight their way to a bigger chair at the table. That is not only a losing strategy in Ethiopia—it sets up an extraordinarily dangerous precedent for the next armed insurgency that wants to challenge central authority.
Bronwyn Bruton is the director of programs and studies of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center. Follow her on Twitter @BronwynBruton.
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