All through history, men have stood amidst the ruins of war, to declare victory. Often, however, in contrast to the scale of destruction and failed promises, such proclamations have over time developed a hollow ring to them.
Without intervention, that is exactly the fate facing Ethiopia as the federal government in Addis, faces off with the breakaway region of Tigray. The fighting threatens to plunge Ethiopia into a long, costly conflict. Eight months since the conflict first broke out, it has sucked in neighbouring Amhara, as the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF), march way past their territory.
So far, the country does not appear to be in danger of disintegration since, despite their name, the first objective of the TPLF appears to be to march on Addis Ababa and take control of the centre. That risks’ drawing a backlash from Tigray’s ethnic rivals in the other states especially the Oromo, who are unlikely to accept a new round of domination by the northern minority.
Prime Minister Ahmed Abiy has also opened a Pandora’s box by asking ethnic militia to join in the fight against Tigray, stoking old grievances. What is unfolding is an asymmetric conflict, in which the different ethnic groups rise up in an attempt to settle old scores. Already, the Amhara have mounted armed ethnic militia to stop the TPLF’s march south. It is not yet known which side regions such as Afar and Ogaden will ally with.
After initially piling pressure on the federal government, the international community has adopted a ‘‘wait and see’’ mode, perhaps because they don’t fully comprehend Ethiopia’s complex politics. That posture could also be informed by the fact that unlike recent confrontations in Africa, the current conflict does not have a Muslim fundamentalist aspect to it. Western powers reflexes were activated to intervene in the Sahel because in ISIS, they were dealing with a familiar enemy who was well appreciated by their domestic audience. Intervening in Ethiopia might be a hard sell to their domestic audience. That does not mean they cannot do anything. They can mitigate against possible escalation. The biggest risk by far, beyond what the war can do internally, is sucking in neighbouring countries.
Host to many refugees from Tigray, Sudan is easily the TPLF’s rearguard. If Khartoum fails to control the movement of supplies and fighters from its territory, it could easily become a target. Eritrea is also a potential target of the TPLF since it is a known ally of the government in Addis. The least the international community can do is to refrain Ethiopia’s neighbours from taking sides in the conflict. Equally, the global powers must not get involved in the conflict either directly or through proxies.
Meanwhile, the country risks falling back into the kind of famine last witnessed during the 1980s that saw hundreds of thousands die from hunger.
Addis offered a unilateral ceasefire in Tigray and pulled its troops out of the region. Tigray spurned it, pushing on with its offensive and only this week gave five conditions for a ceasefire. But this might be too late as Addis Ababa might not want to dialogue with what it has branded terrorist. International efforts should converge around getting Tigray to halt its offensive and accept unconditional dialogue.