Ethiopia conflict: violence escalates in Tigray


What is happening in Tigray?

Forces loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the ruling party in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, took control of the military’s Northern Command in the region on 4th November, seizing a significant quantity of weaponry and taking command of around 15,000 soldiers who had been stationed there. In response, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced a major military offensive by federal forces to retake the base.

Heavy fighting was reported in areas surrounding the regional capital, Mekele, including the use of artillery and airstrikes. In response, the TPLF called upon local residents to arm themselves and resist the arrival of federal forces. According to a report issued by the human rights NGO Amnesty International, forces likely loyal to the TPLF carried out a massacre in the town of Mai-Kadra on 9th November, following their defeat by government forces in nearby Lugdi. The victims were reportedly primarily non-Tigrayan labourers from other states.

The government has placed the region under a six-month state of emergency and cut internet and phone connections to the area, severely limiting the availability of information on the progression of the conflict. Much of the information gleaned about the conflict has come from the thousands of refugees who have fled across the border to Sudan.

What is behind the Ethiopia conflict?

The immediate cause of the escalation of the conflict in Ethiopia was the TPLF’s decision to hold local elections in September, in direct opposition to the federal government, which had postponed the elections in response to the coronavirus outbreak. Abiy’s government refused to recognise the results of the poll and imposed punitive measures to punish the TPLF, with escalating tensions pushing the sides towards eventual military confrontation.

However, the underlying tensions between the TPLF and Abiy run much deeper, stemming from Abiy’s initial rise to power. The TPLF had long been the dominant faction of Ethiopia’s ruling coalition until sustained civil unrest in the Oromia region galvanised an internal challenge from Abiy. Former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn – considered a strong ally of the TPLF – was replaced by Abiy in 2017, dramatically decreasing the TPLF’s influence at the federal level. Relations further soured when Abiy launched a rapprochement with the government of Eritrea, which the TPLF had fought in a brutal two-year border war in 1998, and is still considered an implacable enemy by the TPLF leadership.

Could this become a full-scale civil war?

There is a significant risk that the conflict will spread beyond Tigray itself. While the Tigray region is relatively small, and Tigrayans only account for around 6% of Ethiopia’s population, the TPLF is a significant military force. It was the TPLF that spearheaded the rebel movement which unexpectedly overthrew the regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991. The following years of dominance within the ruling party, as well as Tigray’s position on the frontier with Eritrea, meant the region received a disproportionate share of security spending, leaving the TPLF well-equipped militarily. Tigrayans are also over-represented in the federal military, and it remains to be seen whether a significant number of Tigrayan soldiers will refuse to fight for the government or defect outright to the TPLF. A string of TPLF military successes could see its forces push beyond Tigray itself in an attempt to overthrow Abiy’s government, as well as regain control of disputed territories in neighbouring regions.

However, the TPLF faces a much more capable federal military than the one it defeated in 1991, and it is unlikely that it will be successful in pushing federal forces out of the region. The more significant risk is that ethno-nationalist movements in other states will take advantage of events in Tigray to launch similar campaigns. Abiy is already facing down a strong campaign for self-rule in Oromia, while a violent nationalist attempt to overthrow the government of Amhara in 2019 demonstrates the risk of similar events there. There is also the risk of an escalation of civilian inter-communal violence, which was already on the rise countrywide prior to military confrontation in Tigray.

What are the regional implications of the Ethiopia conflict?

While the TPLF captured a significant quantity of military equipment with its takeover of the Northern Command, cross-border support will be vital to its continued military viability. Eritrea is key to the progression of the conflict and has been entangled since the outbreak of the violence, allowing forces loyal to the federal government to shelter on its territory following the TPLF’s takeover of the Northern Command. Unconfirmed reports also suggest that its troops are active against the TPLF around disputed border towns, though the government denies this. In response to this purported involvement, the TPLF fired missiles against targets in the Eritrean capital including Asmara Airport (ASM) on 14th November, threatening to draw Eritrea further into the conflict. A direct Eritrean attack on the TPLF would further stretch its military capacity, but could also inflame anti-government sentiment elsewhere in Ethiopia, with Abiy perceived to have conspired with Eritrea to attack Ethiopian citizens.

Given Eritrea’s animosity towards the TPLF, Tigrayan leaders must hope for support from Sudan, which could seek to leverage the conflict to reinforce its position in disputes over territory and management of the Nile, which have recently come to a head over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. However, Sudan’s new transitional government remains fragile, with multiple insurgencies of its own which Ethiopia could seek to exacerbate in retaliation if it considered Sudan to be overtly supporting the TPLF.

What are the considerations for employers in Ethiopia?

Businesses operating in Ethiopia should ensure all travel to Tigray region is deferred due to the ongoing conflict. Security managers should also ensure that evacuation plans for staff in regions bordering Tigray are updated and ready to be put into action at short notice. It is vital that employees have access to multiple means of communication - in the event of a further escalation in the conflict or the outbreak of violence in another region of the country, it is highly likely that the government would cut phone and internet access countrywide, severely hindering evacuation efforts.

Businesses employing local nationals should give consideration to inter-staff relations, given the dynamics of the conflict and associated incidents of ethnic violence. Enhanced dispute resolution procedures should be implemented to ensure political and ethnic tensions between staff members do not escalate. Employers should also seriously consider how they would respond to government requests for details of staff - there have been credible reports of government officials demanding lists of Tigrayan employees from NGOs operating in the country, as well as unconfirmed reports of door-to-door searches in Addis Ababa. A pre-prepared response to such requests should be circulated to staff to ensure company policy is followed.

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