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Ethiopia’s Looming Insurgency 

Ethiopia could be falling apart as its stalwart ally the U.S. remains entangled and distracted.  

There is danger in falling into the role of alarmist and too easily rolling out comparisons to the 1994 Rwanda genocide, which marks one of America’s most tragic foreign policy failures. But there is an equal danger in holding back from making that comparison when it is cried out for. The worsening situation in Tigray, now enduring for more than 100 days, offers a case in point of this critical conundrum.

Ethiopia’s civil conflict broke out on Nov. 4—conveniently coinciding with the seizure of the world’s attention by the U.S. election—when Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered a military offensive against the country’s northernmost region in response to attacks directed by the area’s largest party, Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), on federal military bases housing government troops.

Others argue these attacks had been a preemptive strike by the TPLF against the build-up of federal forces clearly preparing for an offensive after months of feuding between Abiy’s government and the leaders of the TPLF. Tensions have simmered between the two sides ever since Abiy came to power in 2018 and launched a broadside of sweeping reforms that pushed the TPLF, which used to dominate Ethiopian politics, to the sidelines. 

At the heart of the political clash are differing ideological views over the type of federation Ethiopia should be and the balance of power within it: Abiy favors a more centralized state while the TPLF demands protection for regional autonomy (something that may sound familiar to Americans). The pivotal question, over which the shadow of Rwanda especially hangs, is about the role ethnic groups should play in the country’s current ethnically-based federal system. In addition to its ruthless rule, one of the reasons the TPLF became so loathed during its more than two decades in power was the fact that Tigrayans only number about 6 million people out of Ethiopia’s 110 million total population, which includes the much larger ethnic groups, the Oromo and Amhara.

Once Abiy—who is Oromo—gave the order to go kinetic, the Ethiopian military advanced swiftly. Abiy declared victory after capturing Tigray’s regional capital Mekelle on Nov. 28, with the TPLF forces and its political leadership seemingly routed. But nothing in Ethiopia ever has been, is, or could be that neat and simple. 

“There is no doubt that the TPLF has suffered serious losses during this conflict, including some of its senior leaders,” says Matt Bryden, director of Sahan, a research think tank focused on the Horn of Africa. “But the TPLF also enjoys key strategic advantages, including the support of much—if not most—of the Tigrayan population, mountainous terrain that favors the defender, and a large, well-disciplined force.”

The two sides in this standoff both possess troops and militia hardened by years of wars and constant border skirmishes, who are not prone to worrying about the likes of the Geneva Convention and rules of engagement. Hence reports of: artillery strikes on populated areas, hospitals, churches and mosques; deliberate targeting and massacres of civilians, with the use of machetes and knives; extrajudicial killings; and widespread looting and rape by troops, including reports of gang rape and forced incestuous rape used as a tool of psychological warfare. 

The government’s efforts to maintain total control of the narrative about its clandestine war, locking down Tigray and imposing a communications blackout, has made it next to impossible for journalists and foreign agencies to investigate the context and accuracy of videos that have emerged apparently showing brutal executions of civilians in rural communities. Alleged massacres have been given credence by the likes of Amnesty International and other international groups. If or when more access to Tigray is permitted, it’s likely many more massacres will be verified, some of which may be happening even as you read this. 

The tragedy is compounded by the fact this has all been a long time coming for Tigray and might have been averted had the significant international presence in Ethiopia not chosen, as usual, to either look the other way or remain tight-lipped for diplomatic expediency’s sake.

“I fully expect it to evolve into a long, grinding insurgency with the potential to spread not only to other parts of Ethiopia, but potentially to Eritrea as well,” says Bryden, who notes the conflict has already endured much longer than Abiy predicted and that heavy fighting is still reported across much of Tigray. 

Eritrean troops have already supported Abiy’s federal troops in Tigray, whose northern edge forms Ethiopia’s border with Eritrea. Since the Ethiopia-Eritrea peace deal of 2018 that got Abiy his 2019 Nobel Peace Prize—a choice that increasingly looks like an attempt at satire—he has fostered particularly cordial relations with Eritrea’s authoritarian leader Isaias Afwerki. Isaias loathes the TPLF, blaming them for starting the devastating 1998-2000 war between the two countries.

The Ethiopian military has also used drones from the United Arab Emirates, which, along with Saudi Arabia, is involved in a power struggle amongst Middle Eastern countries over influence in the Horn of Africa. Leaving aside the tragedy contained within Tigray’s regional borders, the conflict is the sort of tense, potentially escalatory situation that the U.S. diplomatic corps should be all over. It threatens the hard-won stability that the U.S. has contributed to across a region prone to volatility and harboring terrorist groups. 

But COVID-19 and domestic crises have sapped the U.S. of its political vigor and attention. And what political vigor and attention it has will be directed elsewhere, it appears, according to President Biden’s big “America is back” foreign policy speech on Feb. 4 at the State Department, including toward priorities such as promoting LGBTQ rights on the international stage. Yemen and its disastrous situation at least got a mention in the speech, thank goodness. Nothing about Ethiopia though, despite the close ties between Ethiopia and the U.S. 

The U.S. is Ethiopia’s largest partner in humanitarian assistance and has contributed greatly to Ethiopia becoming a talisman for development and hope on the international stage after its famine-stricken image seared itself on the global consciousness in the 1980s. All that could be in jeopardy as Tigray falls apart, potentially taking Ethiopia with it as the ripple effects spread outward. 

The U.S. provided $3 billion of assistance to Ethiopia in the last three years, outgoing U.S. ambassador Michael Raynor noted in a farewell speech at the end of January. In this fiscal fact there must surely be more leverage for the U.S. than it is currently wielding over Tigray. But this fact also puts the U.S.—like all other nations whose collectively colossal donations to Ethiopia are essential—in a bind. Withdrawing any money will only worsen the humanitarian crisis currently mushrooming in Tigray: a detail that Abiy and previous Ethiopian leaders have always been fully aware of and used to their advantage. 

Abiy certainly acts like a man confident the Biden administration will have too much on its plate to leverage its relationship with his country. Three leading Democratic U.S. senators recently wrote to Abiy expressing concerns about the erosion of press freedoms and the government’s “draconian tactics,” while calling for the release of detained journalists. But beyond that, little else from the U.S. 

The TPLF leadership has reportedly issued conditions for talks about a peaceful settlement to occur. But everything indicates Abiy is in no mood to compromise. “The level of intolerance around Tigray is as extreme as anything I have seen,” said one long-term commentator on Ethiopia who recently visited the country after working there for nearly a decade, and who described Abiy as displaying “classic dictatorial tendencies”.

Some commentators are saying it is time for the U.N. Security Council to weigh in. But where should that lead? As a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan and their terrible fallouts, I instinctively balk at any form of intervention. That feeling has taken hold on a much larger scale when it comes to foreign intervention and the duty to protect. It’s an understandable reaction, given how hard achieving successful intervention overseas has proven. But as with the dilemma over making alarmist comparisons with Rwanda, there is an equal danger in holding back too much and not speaking truth to slaughter. 

James Jeffrey spent nine years in the British Army, serving in Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan, before attending journalism school in Austin, Texas. Since 2012 he has freelanced in America and the Horn of Africa, writing for various international media. Follow him on Twitter @jrfjeffrey and Instagram james_rfj.