Rebel Victories in Tigray Are a Watershed Moment for Ethiopia

Dnyanesh Kamat

AFP photo: Yasuyoshi Chiba

The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) has made gains over Ethiopian and Eritrean forces and recaptured several urban centers in Ethiopia’s Tigray province, signaling a significant shift not only for Ethiopia but for the wider region. For Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, the rebels’ gains are also a stark warning that unless he engages with them, the future of his country can only get bleaker.

The TPLF’s control over Tigray poses an existential threat to Isaias Afwerki, Eritrea’s authoritarian president. The TPLF and Isaias have been sworn enemies ever since Isaias led the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front to defeat by the TPLF-dominated Ethiopian army in the 1998-2000 Ethiopia-Eritrea war. The feud has now reached the point where neither the Isaias regime in Asmara nor the TPLF in Tigray is willing to tolerate the other’s existence. Indeed, several TPLF leaders have threatened to cross the border into Eritrea and oust the president.

The TPLF already has lobbed missiles into Asmara, the Eritrean capital. Another defeat at the hands of the TPLF will be damaging to an already unpopular Isaias, which explains why the TPLF has openly called for retreating Eritrean soldiers to defect and join the anti-Isaias opposition.

If nothing else, the conflict has put paid to the notion of Ethiopia and Eritrea forming any sort of confederation. This was long thought to be a joint plan by Abiy and Isaias to give Ethiopia access to Eritrea’s Red Sea ports and allow Isaias to fulfill his ambition of becoming a regional leader.

The TPLF has also declared its intention to evict the Amhara militias that currently control territory in western Tigray. This will also give the TPLF control over the border with Sudan and, through that, access to arms supplies. Egypt, which recently signed a military cooperation agreement with Sudan, is likely to encourage this to put pressure on Addis Ababa on the issue of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).

However, the free flow of weapons through Sudan can only destabilize a country that is going through its own political transition. Ethiopia has in the past supported Sudanese rebel groups and could use those to foment instability, which Sudan can ill afford. There have already been clashes over the last year on the Sudan-Ethiopia border and Abiy has used the increased tension with Sudan to explain why he has withdrawn troops from Tigray. Presented as a nationalist cause, this could also be what Abiy needs to ensure his political survival. For Sudan, it could severely undermine its fragile political transition and potentially lead to renewed conflict.

The war also has had repercussions in Somalia, Ethiopia’s eastern neighbor. At the start of the conflict, Addis Ababa withdrew a third of its peacekeeping contingent from Somalia. These troops played a crucial role in propping up the government of president Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo. The resulting security vacuum in Somalia could embolden the jihadis of Al-Shabaab, further destabilizing the entire Horn of Africa region. Turkey, which maintains security ties to Farmaajo’s government, is then likely to step into the breach, setting the stage for Somalia to become yet another proxy battleground for the region’s competing power blocs.

As far as domestic politics is concerned, a Tigray province entirely controlled by the TPLF will only embolden Ethiopia’s other ethnic insurgencies. Abiy has sought political support from Amhara militias to counter rising disaffection against him from Ethiopia’s other ethnic groups, including his own, the Oromo. But if the TPLF drives Amhara militias out of western Tigray, Abiy’s putative alliance with Amhara groups becomes untenable. The fact is that the reason Amhara militias got involved in the Tigray war in the first place has less to do with Ethiopian nationalism and more to do with reclaiming what Amhara nationalists claim is Amhara land within Tigray province.

Democratic politics, which ought to work as a safety valve for a combustible multiethnic country like Ethiopia, lies in tatters. Abiy’s government has just organized a sham national election that was boycotted by most opposition parties. Twenty percent of voters could not vote and there were no elections held at all in a fifth of the parliamentary constituencies. This free but unfair election took place against the backdrop of several arrests of opposition politicians and a clampdown on the media.

In effect, the political process to remake the Ethiopian state – Abiy’s professed goal when he took office – is dead. Instead, Abiy and his Prosperity Party preside over a state with one dominant party and opposition parties that are no more than showpieces. His government has little electoral legitimacy and its focus will be on maintaining power, rather than addressing the country’s myriad challenges.

To ensure his political survival, Abiy has turned to the GERD issue. On July 6, Addis Ababa announced that the filling of the dam would resume, leading to protests from Egypt. The move is no more than a cynical attempt to foment nationalism. But it is unlikely to work; Ethiopia is too riven by rising ethnic tensions and a tanking economy.

Instead, it would serve Abiy better to address concerns about human rights abuses and the denial of aid to Tigray’s beleaguered population. This would at least open up the door to the financial aid the country so badly needs.

There is still a small window of opportunity for Abiy to engage in meaningful discussions with the TPLF and other opposition groups about the future of the Ethiopian state. Anything less will merely push all its various conflicts on to the back burner where they will simmer away or, worse, boil over. Abiy must seize the moment, for the sake of his country and the entire region.

Dnyanesh Kamat is a political analyst who focuses on the Middle East and South Asia. He also consults on socio-economic development for government and private-sector entities.