Ethiopia National Emergency – Current Status
On Wednesday, November 4, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia declared a state of emergency in the country’s Tigray region. The Prime Minister said the state of emergency would last for six months.
Ethiopia’s government cut off communications and the internet in Tigray and deployed military forces to the region. Ethiopia has accused Tigray insurgents of attacking an Ethiopian defense base in the area. Tigray says Ethiopia started the fight without provocation.
By Friday, Ethiopia said it was gathering troops from around the country for the crisis in Tigray. There are already reports of casualties from both sides. Ethiopia launched airstrikes on Tigray, and the national parliament voted to dissolve the government of the Tigray region.
Background – Ethiopia National Emergency
A military dictatorship ruled Ethiopia until 1991. During that time, Ethiopia’s many ethnic groups were not allowed to self-rule, use their languages in administration, or nurture their unique group identities.
In 1991, when the dictatorship was overthrown, a federal government system was established consisting of 9 regional states. This federation allowed ethnic groups much greater freedoms. Those freedoms allowed the ethnic groups scattered among the states of Ethiopia to self-govern and celebrate their cultures.
Freedom also allowed a level of ethnonationalism to surface within the individual states of Ethiopia’s federation. When a particular ethnic group could exercise greater control in one state than other ethnic groups in that state, it did so at the smaller and weaker group’s expense. As a result, ethnonationalism led to increasing internal conflict within Ethiopia.
Ethiopia’s Ethnic Groups
Ethiopia is the second-most populous country on the African continent (behind Nigeria). Ethiopia is home to nearly 115 million people and 80 different ethnic groups.
The Oromo ethnic group, the largest, makes up one-third of the Ethiopian population. The Tigray ethnic group, much smaller at 6.5% of the country, is the second-largest ethnic group in Ethiopia.
Who Are the Tigray
Tigray State sits in the north between Ethiopia and Eritrea.
The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) is among the most successful political parties in Ethiopia. Established in 1975, the TPLF led the fight against the country’s military dictatorship in the 1970s and 80s.
In 1991 the TPLF took control of the coalition that led Ethiopia. The TPLF established stability for Ethiopia after 1991 and increased prosperity within the country, but they also limited opposition involvement within the government.
Tigray has a local militia of 250,000 soldiers.
The Ascent of Abiy Ahmed
Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power in 2018 amid anti-government protests. He quickly grew in popularity and won widespread support for his reforms. Abiy was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for political reforms, ending the border war with Eritrea, and pursuing significant democracy reforms within the country. He also attracted large amounts of foreign investment to Ethiopia. Abiy hails from the country’s largest Oromo ethnic group.
Abiy dissolved a previous coalition of four ruling parties built upon ethnic identities and created a unified Prosperity Party. He pushed back against decades of oversized TPLF influence in Ethiopia and cracked down upon TPLF corruption within the government. The Tigray, feeling marginalized, withdrew from the Abiy’s Prosperity Party in the last year.
Abiy has claimed a desire to unify the country by increasing the federal government’s power and decreasing the autonomy of regional and state powers within Ethiopia – a direct threat to Tigray and the TPLF.
While Abiy was successful in many of his reforms, the core problems of previously established ethnonationalism remained. Many among the Oromo ethnic groups felt they deserved a larger cut of Ethiopia’s power due to their size and because the Prime Minister was Oromo.
Ethnic tensions heated up this summer as multiple crises converged on Ethiopia. Record flooding, a plague of locusts, and the global pandemic placed strains on Ethiopia’s economy and government. A wave of protests swept the country. The protests led to more than 200 people were killed and 7,000 arrested.
Abiy placed multiple opposition leaders behind bars on the grounds of inciting this summer’s protests. The pandemic forced a delay in national elections in Ethiopia.
In September, the TPLF held local elections in Tigray, which the federal government defined as illegal. In response, Ethiopia’s government diverted federal funding away from TPLF executive and toward local governments in Tigray. The TPLF described this as an act of war.
Many in Ethiopia see Prime Minister’s Abiy’s recent crackdowns as a return to dictatorship.
As recently as Sunday, November 1, the simmering ethnic conflicts in Ethiopia boiled over into violence and massacre. The government explained that 60 militants from the Oromo Liberation Army attacked and killed at least 54 people from the Amhara ethnic group in the Oromia region.
Concerns of a Civil War
The state of emergency in Tigray has raised the alarm among other states in Ethiopia who have signaled a desire for greater autonomy in recent years. They wonder if they will be next. Ethiopia’s government has explicitly stated the war ends in Tigray, and they are not interested in a wider war within the country. The TPLF and the federal government of Ethiopia say the issue is past the negotiation point, and there is no sign that talks will replace the growing levels of violence on the ground in Tigray.
Many are concerned that Ethiopia’s military, the seventh-largest on the continent of Africa, will splinter along ethnic lines. Some reports suggest this has already begun with Tigray ethnic groups defecting from the military and joining Tigray fighters.
As the government responds to Tigray, ethnic groups around the country are left undefended. Sunday’s attack and massacre of the Amhara in Oromia came about when federal troops moved to another part of the country for unexplained reasons. The Ethiopian constitution also allows for different groups to secede and form their own states. Ambitious ethnic groups and leaders within the country could perceive this moment as a golden opportunity and help spiral the crisis to new levels.
Concerns of Wider Regional Instability
Ethiopia plays a vital role in the peace and geopolitical stability in the Horn of Africa. If Ethiopia descends into civil war, vast-ranging repercussions could ripple across this region of the continent and even merge with conflicts in the Middle East.
Violence in Tigray could draw neighboring Eritrea into the fight. Eritrea is currently allied with the Ethiopian government and has longstanding issues with the TPLF. Many long term members of the TPLF were leaders in the Ethiopian fight against Eritrea in war from 1998-2000.
South Sudan and Somalia, both weakened states, could easily be pulled into an extended conflict in Ethiopia.
Sudan, Djibouti, and Eritrea have all shut their borders to Ethiopia to prevent the spread of regional instability.
Ethiopia and Egypt also have a longstanding conflict over Ethiopia’s Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which Egypt says threatens their much-needed water supply. The fighting in Yemen is less than 1,000 miles away.
China and the US each have outposts in nearby Djibouti. These outposts serve as the most strategic foothold for the two military giants in the Horn of Africa. An escalation of fighting in Ethiopia could quickly threaten Djibouti.