Ethiopia: Tigray, Sudan, Amhara, and the multiple crises of Abiy Ahmed

The dire humanitarian situation continues to escalate in Tigray, putting 4.5m people on the brink of starvation. In order to tackle the enormous humanitarian needs, the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken demanded a cessation of hostilities and the immediate withdrawal of both Eritrean Defence Forces (EDF) and Amhara regional forces from Tigray.

Increasing the pressure on Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, President Biden subsequently dispatched Senator Coons to Ethiopia to express deepening concern about ethnic cleansing and human rights violations in Tigray.

Senator Coons’ visit apparently had some impact on the Nobel peace laureate. In the aftermath, Abiy for the first time acknowledged the presence of Eritrean troops in Tigray, as well as recognising the need for accountability for human rights violations and war crimes.

Senator Coons cautiously welcomed the admissions but insisted that since “the prime minister has made commitments before and fallen short on delivering” it is critical that US stays engaged.

Shuffle Diplomacy

Abiy hurried to Asmara to consult with his comrade-in-arms President Isaias Afwerki after meeting Senator Coons, after which he released a unilateral statement on Eritrean troops withdrawal.

The ambiguity of the statement leaves room for interpretation, however, as the premier claims Eritrean forces are only present along the border in northern Tigray, whilst local and international observers have witnessed Eritrean forces all across the region, including in the capital of Mekelle.

Furthermore, a statement by the Eritrean Ministry of Information about Abiy’s visit does not mention any agreement on troop withdrawal, instead focusing on the “vicious military attacks” and “disinformation campaigns” against Eritrea and the need to “bolster the joint undertakings by the two sides in the period ahead”.

Tigray’s ousted president Debretsion Gebremichael, also chair of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), in a satellite phone conversation from the field with this author, dismissed Abiy’s pledge on Eritrean troops withdrawal as a ploy to dupe the international community, as the Tigray Defence Forces’ fight against Eritrean troops on the ground intensifies.

More War

The war in Tigray has increased the fragility of the Ethiopian regime, as it faces several severe political challenges simultaneously. This inhibits Abiy’s agency to maneuver and act on the pressure exhibited by US, and EU, on the war. There are four key areas of concern the Prime Minister needs to consider and balance before caving in to any requests for a cease-fire or negotiations.

TPLF spokesperson and Executive Committee member Getachew Reda claimed in a recent telephone conversation with this author from the field that the majority of the forces confronted by the TDF are Eritrean troops. Many international media reports and humanitarians confirm that EDF dominates in northern Tigray, but is also fighting alone and together with Ethiopian troops in the central and southern Tigray.

Hence, if Eritrean forces are pulled out of Tigray now, it is likely that TDF will soon regain territorial control of much of the region, as the Ethiopian National Defence Forces (ENDF) would not have the capacity to fill the strategic vacuum left by the Eritreans. ENDF has suffered large-scale losses in Tigray, are fighting a growing insurgency in Oromia, while concomitantly having re-deployed many army units to the Sudanese border in preparation for a possible escalation of the al-Fashaga border conflict.

Eritrea Reliance

The military capacity of ENDF has so far proven to be insufficient to eliminate the TDF insurgency. TDF on the other hand is reportedly is receiving thousands of new young and motivated volunteers every week taking up arms to fight the perceived invaders.

The rapid advances made by Ethiopian forces in the initial offensive in November is in retrospect attributed to the efficiency of drones to take out TDF’s artillery and missile defence system; a capacity allegedly contributed to the federal cause by the United Arab Emirates base in Assab, Eritrea. The Biden administration’s pressure on the UAE to suspend the military activity in Yemen, leading to the decommissioning of the drone base in Assab, was thus a windfall for the Tigray resistance.

As the situation currently stand, it seems that the ENDF has trouble even defending current positions, let alone make advances to eradicate the Tigrayan resistance. Abiy knows this, and in the recent Parliament session he explained that Eritrean officials would agree to pull back their troops “as soon as Ethiopia’s army could control the trenches along the border.”

When, or indeed whether, ENDF ever would regain that capacity, is however an open question.

Amhara Spoils

The US demand for the re-deployment of Amhara region special forces and militia from western Tigray, is also a no-go for Abiy. Amhara regional government has stated that the fertile Tigrayan lowlands belongs to the Amhara.

The solid Amhara nationalist elite backing of Abiy will last as long as he is playing their tune”

The de facto establishment of ‘Welqait, Tsegede and Setit-Humera Zone’ of Amhara region has taken place, as the area is now reportedly fully under Amhara civil administration. The majority of the Tegaru inhabitants have been chased out, Tigrinya names eradicated, and assets converted to Amhara ownership.

Abiy is in no position to confront the Amhara political elite on this issue, as he is dependent upon their support to stay in power. Being brought to the premiership by the qeerroo protest movement on an Oromo nationalist ticket, Abiy soon deserted his ethnic base and shifted to an Ethiopian nationalist policy.

Aiming to recentralise political power under a reformed federal system, Abiy’s vision conflates with Amhara nationalists’ interests. The solid Amhara nationalist elite backing of Abiy will last as long as he is playing their tune; if he tries to change the chorus he may no longer be wanted as their conductor.

Prosperity Problems

The incumbent Prosperity Party is facing its first election in early June, as the constitutionally prescribed election for 2020 was suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the government party is ridden with internal conflicts, where the regional chapters and various factions are at loggerheads over, inter alia, inter-regional territorial disputes, and issues of policy.

The open rift between Tigray PP and Amhara PP on the claims of western Tigray, as well as the flare-up of conflict between Amhara and Oromo forces in Wollo, are of immediate concerns.

Having on paper dissolved ‘democratic centralism’, which kept opponents at bay during the EPRDF era, chairperson Abiy Ahmed needs to accommodate and balance the interests of the different fractions to keep the party from unraveling before the elections.

Sudanese Swamp

Finally, the brewing border conflict with Sudan can be viewed as the nexus of the multiple crises confronting Abiy. A key conflict driver is Amhara claims to territories which Khartoum claims are Sudanese according to the 1902 border treaty. If Abiy accepts the Amhara claims to these territories, in order to maintain the support of the Amhara elite, Sudan may likely counter by offering support to the TDF struggle in Tigray.

Eritrean forces are also deployed to the al-Fashagaa triangle according to the UN, creating an even more delicate situation for Abiy to handle.

Mixed up in this pot is the GERD dam controversy, where Egypt and Sudan stand together against Ethiopian demands to fill the dam on a schedule to their own liking–which may again give Egypt an incentive to support the armed insurgencies in Benishangul-Gumuz and Oromia regions.

The Tigray war thus has the potential to spill over into the Sudan-Ethiopia border controversy.

Tigray Tinderbox

Spring is the traditional Ethiopian warring season. Old scores need to be settled or new terrain gained before the main rainy season starts in June preventing the large-scale movement of armies and supplies.

The last main offensive of EPRDF to topple the Derg military junta in 1991 ended on May 24; and the last Ethiopian offensive to push out Eritrean forces in 2000 started in late May. Speaking from the field, Debretsion said they are preparing to counter the ENDF/EDF offensives to be launched soon, and had no hope for a quick solution to the war.

The next two months will thus be crucial for all belligerent parties to mobilise offensives to regain as much terrain as possible, before the rains freezes the military positions for three months.

US should thus focus on the upcoming rainy season as the window of opportunity to seek out a negotiation process for the conflict. This gives the new US Special Envoy to Ethiopia, Jeffrey Feltman, to be confirmed shortly, a couple of months to prepare for the job.

Kjetil Tronvoll is a professor of peace and conflict studies at Bjørknes University College and the Director of Oslo Analytica. He is also a political anthropologist, Africa analyst, and conflict advisor.

First published in The African Report.