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Understanding Ethiopia’s conflict in Tigray

Impact of fighting on Horn

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy’s November 4, 2020 decision to launch federal troops into the country’s western Tigray region have sent shockwaves across the Horn of Africa region and beyond. With a population of 110 million people, Ethiopia is the second largest country in Africa and borders six other African nations astride the Horn and East African regions.

Chronic instability and acute humanitarian needs are rife across the region. The conflagration between well-armed factions inside of Ethiopia has sent hundreds of thousands of refugees across borders, disrupted trade routes. It could force Addis Ababa to abandon its role of regional anchor state, mediator, policeman, and peacekeeper. That would be a potentially cataclysmic scenario for a region ill-equipped to handle additional tumult or humanitarian fallout that could affect more than nine million people, according to the UN.

Nowhere are the threats of instability more acute than in neighboring Sudan, which two days after fighting began announced a closure of portions of its eastern border with Ethiopia, and reportedly began positioning more than six thousand of its own forces inside of Gedaraf state, which borders Tigray. Anecdotal reports from inside Sudan suggested that the normally heavy volume of trade at border checkpoints was immediately curtailed, and that Tigrayan truck drivers were being prevented from bringing their shipments into Sudan out of fear that federal authorities in Addis could see this as an effort to aid in the Tigrayan resistance.

Then the first truckloads of Ethiopian refugees began crossing into Gedaraf state. According to local media, they were housed in the first of what became many new refugee camps set up to receive people fleeing the fighting in Tigray.

At the same time, shipments of arms and ammunition headed for Tigrayan forces were also stopped en route from Sudan, adding to the potentially explosive mix inside Sudan. Sudan’s far eastern states have already been witness to growing tribal and militia-led violence, and have even skirmished with forces on the Ethiopian side of the border. If Sudan has its own powder keg, it is here. A significant influx of weapons, fighters, and refugees to the area could well unleash substantial new tensions that Sudan’s transitional government has already been proven ill-equipped to handle.

Early in the fighting, Sudanese Prime Minister Hamdok—who lived for the past twenty years in Addis and who benefitted at numerous points from Ethiopian mediation during Sudan’s still ongoing transition and internal peace process—reportedly reached out to his counterpart Abiy, as well as regional Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front leaders in their regional capital of Mekele, to urge caution and restraint. Sudan’s leading army general and leader of the country’s Transitional Sovereignty Council similarly offered to mediate a ceasefire and was rebuffed.

While neither of the two belligerents appear open to formal outside mediation, Sudan is uniquely positioned to play such a role should an opening emerge. Riding high from the recent announcement to remove Sudan from the U.S. list of State Sponsors of Terrorism, and benefiting from renewed backing from Gulf state actors who approved of Sudan’s equally recent announcement of a rapprochement with Israel, Sudan’s Prime Minister has some political capital to spend. As the current Chairman of the regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development, IGAD, Hamdok is positioned to marshal the often-underutilised mediation and peacemaking resources of that body to assist. Furthermore, as a party to the ongoing negotiations over Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance dam, and as an important buffer in those talks between Egypt and Ethiopia, Hamdok already has some credibility in seeking to find common ground on issues striking at the heart of Ethiopia’s national security interests.

No less affected by the potential consequences of a war between the Ethiopian federal government and the TPLF, but in no significant position to assist on the political front, are Somalia and South Sudan, both of which have sizable refugee populations inside Ethiopia as a result of their own on-again, off-again civil conflicts. Neither nation is prepared to have hundreds of thousands of their nationals repatriated in the near term as a result of an Ethiopian civil war.

Both Somalia and South Sudan have come to rely on a substantial Ethiopian peacekeeping presence to help reduce sectarian bloodshed in their own countries.

Before the outbreak of fighting, Ethiopia withdrew approximately six hundred of the troops it had deployed in Somalia’s western border region (though it has so far left its troop contributions to the African Union peacekeeping mission to Somalia intact). Though they were reportedly being replaced with Ethiopian police units, a United Nations security report obtained by Reuters warned that these “redeployments from near the border with Somalia will make that area more vulnerable to possible incursions by Al Shabaab,” which is the al Qaeda-linked insurgency trying to overthrow the government in Somalia.

As Somalia’s presidential elections drew near in early 2021 after multiple postponements, it was feared that a security vacuum in Somalia produced by a drawdown of Ethiopian troops could rapidly undo years of international efforts to bring a semblance of security and stability to the long restive nation, especially if fighting between the TPLF and Abiy’s federal forces is prolonged and requires a greater redeployment of Ethiopian military resources.

Ethiopia’s hard security presence among its neighbors is a source of stability in the region, but even more at risk is Ethiopia’s well-earned reputation as a peacemaker and mediator. In a region with a troubled history of political, military, and humanitarian crises, Ethiopia in recent years has been a net contributor to regional stability—even as internal fault lines were emergent.


Earlier articles by Gabriel Negatu is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center and former director general for eastern Africa at the African Development Bank and Cameron Hudson, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center, were used for this combo.

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