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The Civil War That Threatens to Destabilise the Horn of Africa

Steve Shaw reports on the civil war that exploded in one of Africa’s most stable countries in the shadow of the US election, and now threatens to spill across borders

A nun on the Gheralta mountains, near Hawzen, Eastern Tigray, Ethiopia. Photo: Sergi Reboredo/SIPA USA/PA Images

The Civil War That Threatens to Destabilise the Horn of Africa

Steve Shaw reports on the civil war that exploded in one of Africa’s most stable countries in the shadow of the US election, and now threatens to spill across borders

Witnesses described dead bodies soaked in blood and strewn along the roads leading towards the centre of town. Each one with gaping wounds that appeared to have been inflicted with knives and machetes. There was no sign of gunfire.

The evidence of the mass killing of civilians in the town of Mai-Kadra in Ethiopia’s Tigray region was uncovered by human rights group Amnesty International which called it a “horrific tragedy”. 

It was the first major atrocity documented in a war that at the time was just five days old. Soon after, the human rights chief at the United Nations, Michelle Bachelet, said that if it could be verified it “would of course amount to war crimes”. She urged both sides in the conflict to de-escalate or risk a war that could “spiral totally out of control”. But neither side has shown any interest in ending. It is now threatening to spill beyond the country’s borders.

It began with a series of airstrikes in Ethiopia’s northern region of Tigray on 4 November. The country’s 44-year-old Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed had made the drastic decision to try and solve ethnic tensions that had been simmering for months by using force.

A Disputed Election

Abiy, who last year won the Nobel Peace Prize for making peace with Eritrea, rose to power as prime minister in 2018 and was the country’s first leader from Ethiopia’s largest ethnic community, the Oromo. It was a landmark moment for the Oromo, which despite being the country’s biggest ethnic group has often felt marginalised in society.

Soon after, many of the leaders from the Tigray region found themselves side-lined in Government and they soon began to accuse the new Government of unfairly targeting them in corruption prosecutions.

In a show of defiance to Abiy’s Government, leaders in Tigray held elections in the northern region despite the Government’s decision to postpone the August general election due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The results showed the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) won a landslide victory but Ethiopia’s parliamentary assembly, House of Federation, declared the election “null and void”. Abiy also dismissed the polls as a “shanty election”. But Tigray leaders claimed that by failing to hold an election, Abiy’s Government was no longer legitimate.

As the rest of the world looked to America and one of the most controversial presidential elections in decades, Abiy made his move to quell the problems in the north. On 4 November, he gave the order for the Ethiopian Defence Forces (EDF) to begin military operations against the Tigray Regional Paramilitary Police and militia loyal to the TPLF.

He gave the order following what he claimed was an attack on a military camp in Tigray by the TPLF. An accusation the liberation front has denied, claiming it was a story fabricated by Abiy to justify war. So far, the alleged attack has still not been verified.

In fact very little is known about what is taking place on the ground due to a complete communications blackout in Tigray. The UN has said it is “difficult to verify the extent of the damage so far” but there are reports “suggesting increased airstrikes by Government forces as well as fierce ground fighting between the opposing forces”. This limited information has sparked a major campaign of disinformation, with both sides constantly claiming to be making progress against the other and social media awash with doctored images.

Among the false information spread online are claims that Russian military hardware is being used by Tigray forces, these claims have been accompanied with manipulated images where soldiers have been added in. Another image which gained traction online was a picture that allegedly showed a downed Ethiopian fighter jet but reverse image searches show this is an old picture dating as far back as 2015 and the jet is not Ethiopian.

Crucially, the blackout has made it difficult for organisations like the UN to verify Amnesty International’s evidence of the massacre at Mai-Kadra. Witnesses have told the human rights group that it was forces loyal to TPLF that were responsible and it happened after they suffered a defeat at the hands of the EDF.

“There was a military operation by the EDF and Amhara Special Forces against the Tigray Special Police and militia at a place called Lugdi during the daytime on 9 November,” a civilian who entered the town after it was retaken by EDF told Amnesty International. “After they defeated the Tigray forces, the EDF spent the night on the outskirts of Mai-Kadra town. When we entered, we saw a lot of dead bodies, soaked in blood, on the streets and rental dormitories frequented by seasonal workers. The view was really debasing, and I am still in shock struggling to cope with the experience.”

The regional government of Amhara, a state south of Tigray, has also claimed there were around 500 victims, the majority were non-Tigrayan residents, sparking fears it was ethnically motivated. Until these claims can be independently verified it is important to keep in mind that it would be a major propaganda win for either side to accuse the other of such a horrific crime.

Escalation Across the Horn of Africa

It has taken just two weeks for the civil war to spread beyond the country’s borders and many observers fear if it does not end soon, it could destabilise the Horn of Africa. In Sudan, it has caused a humanitarian crisis with thousands fleeing west across the Tigray border.

A spokesman for the UN’s refugee agency has said the scale of the problems “is the worst that part of the country has seen in over 20 years,” with as many as 4,000 fleeing in a single day. Sudan’s refugee transit centre only has the capacity to accommodate 300 people but as of 17 November, 27,000 had crossed the border. Some fear that number could soon rise to 200,000.

To the north of Tigray, it is Eritrea that could be pulled into the conflict. On 13 November, Tigray forces launched a rocket attack on an airport in the country’s capital. Debretsion Gebremichael, the leader of the TPLF confirmed his forces fired three missiles and called the airport in Asmara a “legitimate target” because it has been used by the EDF. “As long as troops are here fighting, we will take any legitimate military target and we will fire,” he said. “We will fight them on all fronts with whatever means we have.”

Eritrean Foreign Minister Osman Saleh Mohammed has previously said country is “not part of the conflict” but the International Crisis Group (ICC) noted that in the days prior to the outbreak of war Eritrean forces were building up to the north of Tigray. The ICC went on to say that if Eritrea officially gave support to Ethiopia’s Government it would “internationalise the conflict” and risk also drawing in different groups from Sudan who have their own reasons for backing different side.

“Sustained fighting would send tens of thousands of refugees into neighbouring countries, and possibly leave a security vacuum in Somalia, where Ethiopian troops are deployed as part of an African Union mission to help the government in Mogadishu defeat the Al-Shabaab insurgency,” the report added.

Pramila Patten, the UN’s acting special adviser for the prevention of genocide and Karen Smith, special adviser on protecting civilians published a joint statement that warned the risk of “atrocity crimes” is high. Their focus was not just on the Tigray region but also the numerous other ethnic strongholds across the country, many of which have also had a tense relationship with the Government after Abiy imprisoned some of his opponents. The war in Tigray could provoke these other political and ethnic groups to step up their own efforts to protect their regions, further fracturing the country which the ICC has called “pivotal” to the stability of the Horn of Africa.

But there are few signs the fighting will end anytime soon. Abiy launched a fresh offensive on 18 November after the TPLF refused his calls for them to surrender, this included bombing the region’s capital of Mekelle. He has also rejected international pressure to begin peace negotiations, instead announcing ominously that “in the coming days the final law enforcement activities will be done”.

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