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ModernDiplomacy.eu: Conflict In Northern Ethiopia: Pathways To Peace And Normalization

Posted by: Berhane Habtemariam

Date: Thursday, 03 December 2020

Ethiopian refugees fleeing clashes in the country's northern Tigray region, rest and cook meals near UNHCR's Hamdayet reception centre after crossing into Sudan. © UNHCR/Hazim Elhag

On 28 November, Ethiopian federal troops captured Mekelle, the capital of Tigray province in northern Ethiopia. For the first time in decades, the fighting involved formed military units after the Army’s Northern Command had been attacked by forces loyal to the Tigray TPLF.The TPLF political group held power in Ethiopia for decades prior to the government of PM Abiy. The last major military engagement in the Horn of Africa Region was fought on the 1000-kmborder between Ethiopia and Eritrea in the border war 1998-2000over areas close to the current conflict theatre. The fighting claimed over 100,000 lives and caused massive deportations on both sides.

Although an all-out siege of Mekelle was avoided, the region contains much combustible material and security risks- hovering perilously near an inter-state conflict. This was underscored by the rocket attack last Saturday from Tigray against the airport area in Asmara in neighboring Eritrea- the third such strike since the conflict started three weeks before. In the last few years, the wider Horn of Africa and IGAD region had become a beacon of hope  for increased stability and integration: this includes PM Abiy’s award of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, political transition in Sudan after the fall of the Al-Bashir regime and peace deals with rebel groups earlier in 2020.  The new conflict has once again exposed the weak state of multilateralism during the COVID-19 Pandemic, lack of consensus in the UN Security Council and the gulf between ambitions and realities in conflict prevention and conflict resolution.

All signs point to continued escalation risks in the conflict. Foreign observers agree that there is no quick end to the fighting. TPLF has apparently sidestepped the Army’s assault and may still command a considerable arsenal, according to a new statement by the fugitive TPFL leader from near Mekelle. TPLFis poised to wage a guerilla campaign in the north, which has been its strength against previous central governments in Ethiopia. If the conflict spirals out of control and unrest affects other regions inside Ethiopia, there is a lot at stake: Ethiopia will be weakened as an eminent power in the region, spillover into neighboring states may occur.

Human Security, Protection Of Civilians And Economic Issues

Already before the conflict, the civilian population of northern Ethiopia was facing great challenges. The hostilities have further weakened human security in a region plagued by drought and food scarcity, experiencing climate change effects such as transboundary locust swarms. Refugee movements peaked last week in Sudan which has received some 43,000 arrivals from Tigray and increased the stress on its resources. UNHCR has appealed for about $150 mln USD in relief. Tigray also houses about 96,000 refugees from Eritrea in several camps. During the latest fighting, the killing of hundreds of civilians at Mai-Kadra on 9 November near the border between Tigray and Amhara regions of Ethiopia  illustrated the lack of civilian protection and raised fears of more violence and retaliation. Ethiopian authorities have now stated they would establish humanitarian corridors after Tigray was effectively cut off from humanitarian aid for a month and the UN repeatedly urged  humanitarian access.

The conflict is also deepening Ethiopia’s economic trouble from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. with a projected decline from 1.9% in 2020 to zero in 2021, according to the IMF.Young peoplein particular struggle to find employment and have been recruited into provincial militias or political party militant groups. Despite its political differences and the expansion of a transport corridors with Djibouti and from Berbera Port in Somaliland, Tigray has long dominated the Ethiopian import business and its entrepreneurial class is quite established in Addis Ababa.

Vulnerable Neighboring States And Proxy Wars

Stability in northern Ethiopia is paramount for the regional neighbors, including Sudan and Somalia. They are in the middle of their own transitions and vulnerable to external shocks and political destabilization. Eastern Sudan saw tribal clashes and unrest in Kassala and Port Sudan cities in early 2020; Sudan still has many armed factions that might benefit from turmoil in northern Ethiopia. Ethiopian troop withdrawals from Somalia as a result from conflict in Tigray could additionally imperil the electoral calendar for Somalia and embolden Al-Shabaab terrorists. Continued and escalating violence could provoke more massive refugee flows and lead to an “African world war” scenario in the Horn Region, according to analysts. Across the Horn of Africa, the conduct of proxy wars by supporting domestic rebel groups in rival countries had been a pattern in the 20th century after de-colonization.

Just across the Tigray border, the authoritarian regime of Eritrea remains highly militarized. It remains a mercurial player with possible regional power ambitions in the new conflict. In 2018, President Afewerki and PM Abiy managed to form an understanding but neuralgic points along the  border such as the disputed town of Badme persist in the absence of a demarcation line. Anecdotal information suggests that Eritrea allowed sophisticated weapons such as drones to be launched from its territory. It also sheltered Ethiopian military from TPLF forces while carrying out large sweeps for mobilization in Asmara which were reportedly extended to some refugee camps inside Ethiopia. 

Unpredictable military moves in an area fraught with a history of tension can create misunderstandings and easily spark wider conflagrations. As a small state that has so far been unaffected by the violence, Djibouti prides itself of stability but remains potentially also at risk. The country is still nominally at war with Eritrea. Just after the Ethiopia-Eritrea border war, Djibouti hosted tripartite military talks under UNMEE UN-Mission auspices in the form of a Military Coordination Commission. For transparency and arms control in northern Ethiopia and its border regions, similar confidence building efforts could take place. This could manage further escalation potentials and discuss sensitive reform steps in the military and security posture of Tigray.     

Geopolitics In The Red Sea Region And The Nile Basin

Although there is no evidence of any outside power interfering with the conflict in northern Ethiopia, extra-regional powers are by no means disinterested. These actors include Egypt which vigorously opposes the completion of Ethiopia’s new „Grand Renaissance Dam“ on the Blue Nile for fears of water security as well as the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and China. Russia is considering building a new naval base on the Red Sea in Sudan. 

IGAD regional states have only recently started systematic information sharing and joint dialogue for the Red Sea Region among littoral states and some important neighbors. Consultative meetings were held with all IGAD members through an IGAD Task Force for the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, established in February 2019. It is in this complex geopolitical environment that Djibouti may have a role to play, as a realistic and trusted actor on the doorstep of the strategically important Babel-Mandeb Strait. Further up from Djibouti on the Red Sea along the Eritrean seacoast, the shipping lane is only about 150 km from Ethiopian territory and caries significant international traffic for Energy security in Europe. Interference or a surge in illegal migration across the Red Sea towards the Gulf States would have to be avoided at all costs. Nothing could illustrate better the sensitivity of Djibouti’s strategic location than the concentrated military presence. There are no less than five foreign military bases in Djibouti. The US keeps its largest base in Africa there and China its largest overseas base, along with France, Italy and Japan.   

The Way Forward In Conflict Resolution And Mediation

PM Abiy has so far refused outside mediation or negotiation with the TPLF faction, labelling the intervention a “law enforcement action” and an internal matter of Ethiopia. The designated panel of African Union mediators (three former heads of state from Liberia, Mozambique and South Africa) has not been allowed to engage after they arrived in Addis Ababa last week. Commentators have criticized the AU of being inconsistent and bowing to Ethiopian pressure, since the AU is headquartered in Addis Ababa. The EU has nominated Finland’s Foreign Minister as an Envoy for the conflict, and both the EU and the UN  already keep envoys for the Horn of Africa in Nairobi and in Addis Ababa. High-level coordination and cooperation are therefore well resourced. Once sufficient trust has been built for an Ethiopian-led process to bring the protagonists to the table, flanking support can be provided to an African Union mediation effort.

Despite the current challenges, an Ethiopian-led genuine dialogue and comprehensive normalization process can still gain traction. This would require a tailored set of confidence building measures (CBMs) to reassure the parties that a return to the battlefield is firmly excluded and a modicum of oversight internationally guaranteed. Incentives can be created  for quick recovery, restoring trust in stability among neighboring states, and in justice and the rule of law as harbingers of reform which is a shared interest of all protagonists. Along the vectors of conflict risks outlines above, these initiatives can help open the door to national reconciliation and more comprehensive mediation processes around the time of the next Ethiopian general election in 2021.

Some analysts are proposing a basic3-Step Planto launch negotiations (including ceasefire, humanitarian access, mutual acceptance and national dialogue for a new dispensation of power in state and federal level relations as well as constitutional reform). In the Horn of Africa region, many leaders are cautious about formal ‘power sharing’ arrangements which showed their limits in situations such as South Sudan. Therefore, smaller discreet steps and targeted incentives run in parallel might be advisable in the short run to create a more conducive environment for broader mediated talks:

  1. Provide expertise for an inventory of heavy and crew-served weapons and cantonment under mixed supervision, e.g. with International Observers.
  • Establish common principles for Security Sector Reform steps in affected areas, with focus on the regime and command and control over provincial militias / paramilitary units and police forces as well as training in Protection of Civilians; monitoring of military tribunals to ensure the conflict parties are seeing fair trials against worst offenders.
  • Launch rapid projects for connecting infrastructure and self-help reconstruction for returnees with the goal of normalizing conditions in Tigray province and on the borders;devise labor-intensive programs to benefit transport and trade corridors as  outlined by the World Bank and African Development Bank in order to boost the region’s economic potentials, create jobs and foster entrepreneurship.

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