Some might say that Abiy Ahmed’s plan for a peaceful democratic transition of power in Ethiopia was doomed from the start.
He was, after all, a member of the very same autocratic ruling system that he had pledged to disrupt when he was appointed Prime Minister in 2018. That didn’t stop the Nobel committee from awarding him its highest honor in 2019 for his efforts to end long-standing hostilities with next door Eritrea and for promoting peace in the region. But a peace prize doesn’t necessarily guarantee peace.
On Nov. 4, in an attempt to assert centralized control, Abiy launched a military operation in the semi-autonomous northern state of Tigray following clashes between security forces affiliated with a local political party and federal troops. He declared a six-month state of emergency in the area, and cut off all Internet, phone and banking services. Now the whole region is at risk of destabilization as Abiy’s government slides into a second week of military operations.
It’s not just Ethiopia’s stability that is threatened, but its neighbors in Sudan, Somalia and Eritrea. Humanitarian organizations in Sudan told the Associated Press that at least 11,000 Ethiopians from Tigray have fled across the border, and that they are preparing for 200,000 more. Half of the refugees are children. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said that close to nine million people were at high risk of being affected by the escalation, potentially leading to massive displacement. “It’s a really explosive situation, a powder keg that could blow up in the region unless means for urgent de-escalation are found,” says Dino Mahtani, the International Crisis Group’s (ICG) Deputy Director for Africa. In failing to keep the peace in his own country, Abiy may be undermining his prize-winning efforts elsewhere.
Tigrayans say the military incursions, which include airstrikes, are a precursor to civil war; the federal government prefers to call it an “effort to restore rule of law” after it accused fighters with the local ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), of attacking a government defense post, taking soldiers captive, and attempting to steal artillery and military equipment. Either way, hundreds are reported dead from both sides, according to humanitarian reports. The state broadcaster claims that the Ethiopian Defense Force has killed 550 TPLF fighters, a number that regional leaders dispute. With communication from the region almost completely blocked, it is difficult to verify accounts from either side.
In a video statement posted on Nov. 8, Abiy condemned what he called months of TPLF “provocation and incitement,” saying he had no choice but to launch the military operation in order to “save the country.” But if Tigray’s leaders backed Abiy into a corner, as he claims, it is because he wasn’t very far from it to begin with. Tigrayans may only make up 6% of Ethiopia’s 110 million population, but the TPLF dominated Ethiopia’s military and government for much of the past three decades, until Abiy took office in 2018. Abiy’s sweeping reforms deprived the TPLF of much of its power; his peace overtures to Eritrea, which Ethiopia fought in a brutal war partially in Tigray from 1998-2000, further alienated the regional leadership.
Abiy’s central government also targeted prominent Tigrayan power-brokers in nationwide corruption probes. By all accounts the investigations were justified, but they inflamed Tigrayans, who felt that the transgressions of other, non-Tigrayan leaders in the previous regime had gone unnoticed. Ethiopia’s other ethnic groups, scarred by Tigray’s era of political dominance, piled onto the vilification campaign, augmenting the sense of victimization and fomenting a potent rallying cry for greater independence.
When TIME visited the Tigrayan capital of Mekele in March 2019, the region was already spoiling for a fight. “We feel like we are being targeted,” warned Debretsion Gebremichael, chairman of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, in an interview. “Abiy has to understand that people are not happy, and these grievances have to be addressed as soon as possible.” At the time Gebremichael was deeply concerned that Abiy’s reform campaign and call for national unity would turn the country away from the federalized balance of power into to a centralized state, with little room for ethnic, cultural and linguistic autonomy. “The people of each region must govern themselves, elect their own leaders and use their own language. To dismantle federalism in the name of unity, it will lead to conflict.”
Abiy didn’t seem to get the message. In November 2019 he did away with the coalition of regional parties that had ruled the country for 27 years in favor of a single Prosperity Party. The TPLF declined to join, and Abiy removed all remaining TPLF ministers from his cabinet, essentially cutting off Tigray from power. Then, citing the Covid-19 pandemic, he declared that national elections scheduled for August 2020 would be postponed until 2021.
Tigray wasn’t having it. The state held its own elections in September. Not surprisingly, the TPLF won handily. The federal government declared the elections void and retaliated by withholding funding. Then, on Nov. 2, Ethiopia’s federal parliament took up a proposal to designate the TPLF a terrorist group. The motion did not pass, but it helped shut the door to any kind of negotiated resolution. “The TPLF crossed a red line,” says Zadig Abraha, Abiy’s minister in charge of Democratization. “The Prime Minister is committed to peace. He brought peace to our country, and he was able to solve the longstanding conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea, so when you come to his record there is no doubt. The problem is not him, but the TPLF.”
Although the government’s accusations that the TPLF have committed terrorist acts throughout the country appear to lack evidence, Tigray’s leaders did little to calm the waters. “The Tigrayans deserve a significant amount of blame for carrying on with that election as they did,” says Judd Devermont, Africa program director for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., and the U.S.’s National Intelligence Officer for Africa from 2015 to 2018. “The TPLF has been obstructionist, stubborn, resistant and provocative throughout this entire process.” Still, he notes, the federal government should have done more to address some of their concerns before getting to this point.
Before last week, war was not the inevitable outcome of increasing tensions. Now it may be. Abraha says that the only acceptable outcome of the military operation in Tigray is for the “criminal TPLF junta” to step down, surrender, and face a court of law. “The TPLF leadership not only broke the law, they aided, funded, abetted and planned this terrorist attack. We cannot negotiate with a terrorist organization that is involved in the killing of members of our National Defence force.” He claims that the federal forces have already made significant inroads into Tigray, and estimates that they will be successful in achieving their objectives in a matter of days.
While it is impossible to assess the situation on the ground—reports are still emerging of continued airstrikes—Tigrayans are not going to succumb easily. The ICG’s Mahtani estimates that, between local militias and a large, well-trained paramilitary force, Tigray could have up to 250,000 troops, and it appears that the TPLF has the support from the region’s approximately six million people. Back in March 2019, TPLF chair Gebremichael boasted that the war with Eritrea had sharpened their skills, and that “even the elders were giving me spears” to take on the central government. On Nov. 12, the TPLF declared their own state of emergency and called upon all Tigrayans to “defend the security and existence of the people of Tigray and their sovereignty.”
Should the fighting escalate, Eritrea’s president, Isaias Afwerki, could be tempted to send in his own troops in support of Abiy’s forces against longstanding foes in the TPLF dating to the war. Already members of the TPLF allege that Afwerki has sent military advisors to Addis Ababa for consultations, and there are reports of Eritrean conscripts massing at the border. The war could also suck in communities in eastern Sudan, says Mahtani, where Ethiopia, Eritrea and Tigray all have allies. And if Ethiopia continues to move its military units out of Somalia, where it is one of the key troop contributors for the African Union mission, “it could create a vacuum there.” Says Mahtani. “This is a disaster for the region, for Africa, for the world.”
Even United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres says he is “deeply alarmed” by the situation. “The stability of Ethiopia is important for the entire Horn of Africa region,” he tweeted on Nov. 6. “I call for an immediate de-escalation of tensions and a peaceful resolution to the dispute.”
Without more outside pressure on both parties, it’s hard to see where the necessary compromises might start. Both the European Union and the African Union have called for a ceasefire and dialogue, but so far, Abiy does not appear to be listening. He has already rejected a Tigrayan call for peace talks posted to Facebook. According to Abraha, winning peace for the nation will require a fight. But peace at any cost is not the kind of peace the region can afford.
Correction, Nov. 19
The original version of this story misstated where the 1998-2000 war between Eritrea and Ethiopia was fought. It was fought in both Tigray and Eritrea. The story also misstated the Ethiopian federal parliament’s action on designating the TPLF as a terrorist group. The parliament voted on the motion, but it did not pass.