‘Train crash in slow motion’: Why Ethiopia is on brink of civil war

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Nairobi, Kenya: Ethiopia is on the brink of civil war, threatening the stability of one of the world’s most strategic regions, the Horn of Africa, and the fracturing of one of the continent’s most powerful and populous countries.

The crisis has been building for months. According to the deputy director of the International Crisis Group's Africa program, Dino Mahtani, "it has been like watching a train crash in slow motion". Now Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year for sweeping political reforms, faces the sharpest consequences yet of the country’s recent shifts in power.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has ordered air strikes in the Tigray region.Credit:UNTV/AP

Here are key reasons for the international alarm:

What happened?

Two things occurred on Wednesday: Communications were cut in the country’s heavily armed northern Tigray region, and Abiy announced he had ordered troops to respond to an alleged deadly attack by Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) forces on a military base there. Both sides have accused each other of initiating the fighting.

Both stepped up pressure on Thursday. The army said it was deploying troops from around the country to Tigray and Tigray's leader announced "we are ready to be martyrs". Casualties were reported on both sides.

An Orthodox Christian lights a candle as people pray for peace in a church service in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.Credit:AP

On Friday (Saturday AEDT) the Prime Minister announced his government had carried out air strikes in the "first round of operation" against the TPLF, while the Tigray region was increasingly cut off.

He said the air force destroyed heavy weapons in Tigray's capital, Mekele, and surrounding areas, alleging the TPLF had "the desire to use them".

The operation would continue, Abiy said, "until the junta is made accountable by law". And he warned the Tigray population: "In order to avoid unexpected peril, I advise that you limit group movements in cities."

There was no immediate response from the Tigray government.

Some experts have compared the confrontation to an inter-state war, with two large and well-trained forces and little sign of backing down. Ethiopia is one of Africa’s most well-armed nations, and the TPLF dominated Ethiopia’s military and government before Abiy took office. It has plenty of conflict experience from the years-long border war with Eritrea, next door to the Tigray region, and the International Crisis Group estimates that the TPLF's paramilitary force and local militia have some 250,000 troops.

With communications still out, it’s difficult to verify either side’s account of events on the ground.

How did we get here?

Ethiopia’s ruling coalition appointed Abiy as prime minister in 2018 to help calm months of anti-government protests, and he quickly won praise — and the Nobel — for opening political space and curbing repressive measures in the country of some 110 million people and scores of ethnic groups. But the TPLF felt increasingly marginalised and last year withdrew from the ruling coalition.

The TPLF objects to Ethiopia’s delayed election, blamed on the COVID-19 pandemic, and Abiy’s extended time in office. In September, the Tigray region voted in a local election the federal government called illegal. The Abiy government later moved to divert funding from the TPLF executive to local governments, angering the regional leadership.

A member of the Tigray Special Forces casts his vote in a local election in the regional capital Mekelle in September. The Ethiopian government declared the election illegal.Credit:AP

On Monday, Tigray leader Debretsion Gebremichael warned a bloody conflict could erupt.

What happens now?

The conflict could spread to other parts of Ethiopia, where some regions have been calling for more autonomy, and deadly ethnic violence has led the federal government to restore measures including arresting critics.

Addressing those fears, Ethiopia's deputy army chief Birhanu Jula said of Tigray: "The war will end there".

Ethiopia, in the Horn of Africa, neighbours Djibouti where the US and China have military bases.Credit:Google Maps

Observers warn that a conflict could suck in these countries and others not far from the most strategic military outpost in Africa, tiny Djibouti, where several global powers including the US and China have their only military bases on the continent. The Horn of Africa is also a short water crossing away from Yemen and the rest of the Arabian Peninsula.

Ethiopia already was drawing concern over a dispute with Egypt over a huge dam Ethiopia is completing on the Blue Nile.

While there have been worries about military action, "I would like to think Egypt is a responsible enough actor to realise that fragmentation of Ethiopia is fundamentally so damaging to regional security," former US diplomat Payton Knopf, a senior advisor with the United States Institute of Peace, said this week.

A region in which Abiy has played high-profile peacemaker is now at risk.


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