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Will the Tigray conflict strengthen Abiy’s hand in Ethiopia?

The humanitarian crisis in northern Ethiopia is growing by the day. Nevertheless, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed refuses to change course. Abiy is relying on the power of the Ethiopian army to crush the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which controls the Tigray regional state.

Abiy, who just last December was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, has refused the African Union’s (AU) offer to mediate in the conflict. Instead, he has announced that his troops will bring the situation to a rapid resolution.

Rapid victory would boost Abiy’s power

Could this military offensive against the influential TPFL increase the prime minister’s power across Ethiopia? Nic Cheeseman, Professor of Democracy at the University of Birmingham in the UK, told DW he believes this is feasible: “It is possible that PM Abiy could get a boost from the conflict in Tigray in terms of his control over other parts of Ethiopia.”

Cheeseman suggests other political groupings could recognize him as being a strong political leader if he suppresses the rebel movement. Tigray is not an isolated case, Ethiopia is a multi-ethnic federation and its central government has long faced armed insurrections in a number of different regions.

Writer and Ethiopia expert Martin Plaut paints another possible scenario: “He (Abiy) describes it as a policing action, not as a war or conflict and that he is only after he leadership of TPLF. If that proves to be a mistake and the Tigray people loose their cities and towns and retreat into the countryside, the hills and the mountains, which they did for the last 20 years in previous fights they had with the Ethiopian government, then he is in real difficulties.” Over the decades, TPLF fighters gathered experience in using guerrilla warfare tactics against the military government that ruled the country up to 1991. Now, they could draw on that experience in their conflict with the central government.

Guerrilla warfare looming

Plaut believes the question of whether the TPLF will be able to organize sufficient supplies to hold out against the government troops for a significant time will be decisive in determining the outcome of the current struggle. Sudan will play a key role, he says, “The border is very long and the government is not very efficient.” Tigray will definitely exploit that to smuggle weapons, food, gas and other supplies into the country, according to Plaut. He concludes that it seems rather inconceivable that Abiy can resolve the conflict quickly.

Nic Cheeseman, too, believes this scenario is plausible. The political analyst stresses that the United Nations (UN) has warned of the danger of guerrilla warfare in its latest report on the situation in Ethiopia. He says such an outcome would leave Abiy looking as if he was an incompetent statesman — and it could embolden rebel leaders in other regions to rise up against the government.

Domestic pressure on the Ethiopian prime minister had been mounting in the months leading up to the outbreak of hostilities. Since taking office in 2018, he has released political prisoners, made peace with neighbouring Eritrea and announced the country would hold free and fair elections in 2020. But opposition parties have long felt excluded from his reform process. There have been repeated outbreaks of fighting and unrest in various parts of the country. In 2019, around 2.3 million people in the Oromia Region were displaced because of ethnically motivated violence. The military operation in Tigray has pushed these conflicts out of the public eye.

Ideologies persist

Abiy Ahmed ordered the first air raids in the northern region on November 4. Since then, both sides have been involved in heavy fighting that has killed hundreds of people in Tigray and forced tens of thousands to flee. The Ethiopian prime minister accuses the TPLF of carrying out an armed uprising. The TPLF, on the other hand, believe they have been badly treated by Abiy and feel aggrieved. They say he has removed numerous TPLF politicians from influential positions in the state apparatus since becoming prime minister in 2018.

Read more: Opinion: Ethiopia is on the brink of failure

But even if Abiy crushes his opponents, peace is by no means assured. In an interview with DW, the Ethiopian analyst Ato Yesuf Yasin warned: “The ideologies — in particular, the concept of ethnic identity and the related rivalries — that the TPLF has spread in the 46 years of its existence will continue to be with us for years to come — just as the wounds of war will be.”

Abiy has no ‘real mandate’

London-based expert Martin Plaut fears that the conflict in Ethiopia will destabilize the entire Horn of Africa and could lead to the break-up of Ethiopia in its current form. Abiy has lost the support of his own ethnic Oromo people, who make up around a third of the country’s population of 100 million people.

Plaut says the Oromo people and ethnic Somalis might ask themselves why their sons should die fighting for the federal army in the mountains of Tigray. And the leaders of the autonomous states could distance themselves further from Abiy. After all, the prime minister was not elected by the people of Ethiopia, but by the governing party.

Abiy Ahmed postponed the free and fair elections that were scheduled for June due to the coronavirus pandemic.

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