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Geopolitical hotspot: the Tigray crisis, Ethiopia

Washington, DC – November 9, 2020: Protesters demonstrating at Black Lives Matter Plaza against the escalating military conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray Province Washington, DC – November 9, 2020: Protesters demonstrating at Black Lives Matter Plaza against the escalating military conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray Province
23 Dec
Conflict in Tigray threatens to undermine progress in Ethiopia. Tim Marshall investigates

There’s never a good time for war, but the timing of Ethiopia’s latest internal conflict couldn’t be worse.

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The country’s biggest infrastructure project, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, is on the cusp of bringing cheap electricity to the whole nation, potentially reducing the endemic poverty that feeds the separatist movements that threaten its territorial integrity. The project continues, but it’s unclear how much of Ethiopia will be left when the power comes on stream due to the war underway in the Tigray region.

The conflict was almost inevitable. Its roots lie in the patchwork fabric of the country – nine regions only loosely woven together, and fraying.

Ethiopia has nine federal states and two self-governing cities. The states reflect the nine major ethnic groups in the country, although they can each be subdivided. The Oromo are the largest with about 34 per cent of the population, followed by the Amhara with 27 per cent and then the Somali and Tigray, each with about six per cent. The states have long viewed each other, and the capital, with distrust, and minorities remain anxious about being dominated by the larger groups. There’s also a sectarian divide – about two-thirds of the population are Christians and one-third Muslim.

The country was organised by putting people into geographic–ethnic boxes, each with their own political parties. When Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (an Oromo) came to power in 2018, he said he wanted to end the inherent tensions in the system and he merged the ethnically based coalition government into a single party. Until then, the Tigrayans had dominated politics for three decades and the main Tigrayan group, the TPLF, refused to join. Tigray remained mostly calm, but within weeks of Abiy’s inauguration, ethnic clashes broke out in several border regions. Hundreds of people died and almost three million people became refugees or were internally displaced. 

Since then, the Tigray elite have either withdrawn from Addis Ababa, or been purged. In September 2020, tensions grew when Tigray held an election despite a ban because of the coronavirus. The government then accused the TPLF of attacking a military base; Abiy called it treason and ordered a military offensive.

The crisis threatens to spill into neighbouring countries. Tens of thousands of civilians have already fled to Sudan and the UN warns that a humanitarian crisis is unfolding. In order to reinforce the Tigray front with experienced soldiers, the government has moved hundreds of troops out of the Somali region, where they patrol to deter the al-Shabaab group in neighbouring Somalia. This increases the risk that separatists in Somali state will try to take advantage of the situation.

Government forces are fighting well-armed Tigray militias. The outcome could decide the fate of the country and its 110-million-strong population. If Addis Ababa can’t enforce its authority in Tigray, other regions may follow its lead and Ethiopia could go the way of another federation – Yugoslavia.

Division literally runs through the country in the shape of the African Rift system, which bisects the country’s highlands, where most of the coffee plantations that bring in the majority of Ethiopia’s foreign revenue are situated. Linking the two sides of the Rift Valley has been a major problem throughout Ethiopia’s history, hindering its ability to forge a united country. On the western side, the mountains and the Blue Nile slope down to the lowlands and on into Sudan and South Sudan. In the east, the ground drops rapidly then rolls gently for hundreds of miles towards Somalia.

To the north are Eritrea and Djibouti, which block direct access to the Red Sea. The Eritrean border region contains Ethiopia’s lowest geographical point – the vast desert plain of the Danakil Depression in Afar state, one of the hottest places on the planet, which is right next door to Tigray state.

These regional states are geographically distinct and poorly connected. Most trade routes go straight into the capital, not to other regions. There’s little reason for a Tigrayan in the far north to travel to Somali state in the southeast, nor would a Somali have cause to visit Gambela state in the west. There are 80 different main languages and many in the border regions feel they have more in common with those of the same ethnicity across the border than they do with their fellow Ethiopians elsewhere in the country. 

Prime Minister Abiy supports a policy known as Ethiopiawinet or ‘Ethiopianness’ – creating a country where people’s ethnicity isn’t their prime identity. He once said Ethiopia’s option was ‘uniting in order to live together. The other option is to kill each other.’ It’s a work in progress – severely set back by the Tigray crisis.

Tim Marshall is a journalist, broadcaster and author of Prisoners of Geography and Divided: Why We’re Living in an Age of Walls

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