The Silent Cost of Ethiopia’s Internal Conflict

By Stanley Shapiro

Photo: AFP (<https://www.thedefensepost.com/2020/11/05/ethiopia-military-says-war-tigray/>)

Despite its global importance, the ongoing fighting between the Ethiopian Federal Government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPL), the regional ruling party of Tigray, Ethiopia, is relatively unknown to much of the world. This is mainly due to a lack of reporting from inside Ethiopia, as well as a general global ignorance of conflict in Africa. However, despite this lack of coverage, the conflict in Ethiopia has massive implications outside of the country’s borders.

The Horn of Africa, a region on the east coast of Africa, is made up of Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, and Somalia. In recent years, Ethiopia has seen substantial economic growth, due to a variety of regulatory and developmental reforms, and the emergence of a stronger private sector. The country still faces its fair share of economic challenges, but through its growth, it has become a beacon of stability, a status boosted by the election of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who won the Nobel Peace Prize  just a year into his term. However, just two years after winning this prestigious award for his work deescalating conflict with neighboring country Eritrea, he has put his country on the brink of civil war, and the whole of the Horn of Africa at risk.

The physical conflict in Tigray began in November of 2020, when TPLF forces attacked a federal army base in Mekelle, Tigray’s capital. Since then, thousands have been killed, and over 2 million people have been displaced, with refugees pouring into neighboring countries. There are also confirmed reports of Eritrean soldiers fighting alongside federal forces, an action the international community has condemned. Furthermore, over 4.5 million people in the region are in urgent need of assistance, according to the United Nations. This conflict is far from the swift and bloodless campaign Ethiopia’s prime minister promised. Rather, it is a standoff with fighting in the mountainous and rural areas of the Tigray region, and with reports of horrific crimes against women and civilians flowing in. There is no clear end to the fighting in sight, with Prime Minister Ahmed refusing to call for a ceasefire, in what he deems an attempt to build a shared national identity.

The effects of this instability are already spilling over into neighboring countries, and the consequences could be serious. Ethiopia is substantially responsible for maintaining regional stability, but their resources are now focused on Tigray. Somalia, for example, relies on the presence of Ethiopian forces to prevent a resurgence of Al-Shabaab, a radical faction of the Islamic Courts Union. With Prime Minister Ahmed’s decision to continue his offensive in Tigray, many troops are being withdrawn from Somalia and redeployed. This runs the risk of creating a power vacuum Al-Shabaab will be eager to fill. Furthermore, Sudan, which is still recovering from political turmoil, is reluctantly being forced to take in tens of thousands of refugees from neighboring Ethiopia. This has the potential to result in a massive humanitarian crisis spanning multiple countries, further destabilizing the region. Finally, Ethiopia has recently come to peace agreements with Eritrea, but since Eritrea joined the conflict as allies of the Ethiopian Federal Government, they have come under attacks by TPLF forces. While the potential for additional escalation is now low, as Eritrea recently withdrew from the fighting, the threat posed to the peace agreement between the nations should not be ignored.

The continued fighting between the Ethiopian Federal Government and TPLF Forces threatens to cause seismic shifts in Ethiopia, and since Prime Minister Ahmed has refused any foreign help, there must be measures put in place to address both the current humanitarian crisis and potential ensuing security crisis that could occur in the Horn of Africa.

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