When Abiy Ahmed became Ethiopia’s prime minister following a wave of protests, he was lauded for opening up the formerly repressive country, receiving the Nobel Prize for his peace-making efforts and reforms.
But this Ethiopian “glasnost” has also upended power dynamics and stirred ethnic tensions in the diverse state of some 110 million people, and analysts worry about a possible Balkanization of Africa’s second-most populous country.
The peacemaker has sent troops into the country’s mountainous Tigray region to quell an uprising by a rebellious party, which the United Nations and others warn might turn into a protracted conflict and destabilise the entire region.
“Abiy coming into the leadership was really a dramatic change, a flipping on its head of power dynamics,” said Ahmed Soliman, who researches the Horn of Africa at the British think tank Chatham House.
“It’s certainly led to rising ethno-nationalism,” he said. “Several regional forces are looking for greater autonomy.”
The rebels that the federal government is fighting, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), are a political party that long dominated Ethiopian politics. Since Abiy took office in 2018, he has been at odds with Tigray elites, purging them from government and state institutions.
Some 10 days ago, Abiy shocked the international community by ordering soldiers into the region after a TPLF attack. He introduced a curfew, appointed a new regional leader and ordered air strikes.
“This is being labelled by the federal government as a decisive operation to remove a military junta and free the people of Tigray,” said analyst Soliman.
But “the leader of the TPLF calling on citizens to take up arms suggests an entrenched conflict,” he added, noting the Tigrayans are battle-hardened and well-equipped as they were involved in the border war with neighbouring Eritrea for years.
Bloodshed has been reported on both sides, though there are no firm casualty figures available, and a stream of refugees are now fleeing Tigray across the border to Sudan.
With this, the conflict is taking on an increasingly regional dimension. Thousands of refugees could destabilize “Sudan at a time when the country is seeking a historic political transition” after a coup last year, the Soufran Center, a research group, said.
Eritrea has also been brought into the conflict, as the TPLF accused its old enemy – with whom Abiy has made a delicate peace, earning himself the 2019 Nobel – of backing Ethiopian troops on the ground.
The TPLF launched rockets across the border into Eritrea on Saturday, fulfilling the UN’s projected worst-case scenario with the fighting spreading across international borders.
Ethiopia also has a large contingent of African Union peacekeepers fighting Islamist militants in war-torn Somalia. If the conflict in Tigray escalates, Ethiopia might withdraw its troops. This could impact stability in Somalia, which is soon to hold elections.
And the conflict shows no sign of abating.
The TPLF’s leader Debretsion Gebremichael told dpa in a telephone interview that “the entire population in Tigray is angry with what’s going on … they [the federal government] subjugate us.”
He said the region is being punished for holding, and winning, elections in September in defiance of Addis Ababa – which had cancelled them due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
While the TPLF does have weapons, “the people are ready to fight, even [with] sticks,” Debretsion said.
“Now [Abiy] has to go to the ICC [International Criminal Court] for war crimes. He has bombed his own people,” the TPLF leader added.
Abiy, however, maintains he was forced into taking action in Tigray after the TPLF committed “treason” by killing federal troops “when they were at their most vulnerable … in their pyjamas.”
The TPLF “ruled the country for the previous 27 years through means of oppression rather than law,” Abiy said.
Chatham House’s Soliman said the question now facing the Nobel laureate is whether he will be able to convince the Tigrayans he is fighting in their interests, noting “turnout at the voting booth suggests otherwise.”
There is also the possibility that other regional groups follow the TPLF’s lead and rebel against Addis Ababa.
“When there is such a stark clash between federal and regional authority, that does have a potential to catalyse other similar campaigns and movements,” William Davison, Ethiopia analyst for the International Crisis Group, told dpa.
For example, Davison said, “some Oromo nationalist activists are now more sympathetic to the TPLF cause than to the federal government.”
The Oromo ethnic group have long felt neglected by the central government and earlier this year at least 239 people were killed after the violent death of a popular Oromo singer sparked unrest across the country.
“My enemy’s enemy is my friend,” could be the way various groups are seeing the situation, despite historical difference, Davison said.
Meanwhile, rights groups, the European Union, and the UN have warned Tigrayans are being ethnically profiled and discriminated.
Last week, Amnesty International reported a massacre of civilians in Tigray, though the organisation said it was unclear who was behind it.
Nonetheless, it is becoming increasingly clear that civilians will pay a heavy price in this conflict.
“The political/military strategies are for others to debate,” tweeted Maaza Mengiste, an Ethiopia author whose historical war novel “The Shadow King” is shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize.
“I’m stuck on the human cost, the layers of loss on top of loss that so many face. Those who have the least will suffer the most.”