Africa Report: Another Ethiopian crisis could overtake the Tigray conflict

Africa Report: Another Ethiopian crisis could overtake the Tigray conflict

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Takeaway key: The ceasefire agreement between the Ethiopian government and rebel forces in Tigray indicates that the Ethiopian government faces an even more pressing threat elsewhere. Multi-level conflict in Oromia – which surrounds the capital and is the country’s largest and most populous regional state – is deepening Ethiopia’s humanitarian crisis and could lead to its fragmentation or a change in national leadership.

Figure 1. The Salafist-Jihadist movement in Africa: April 2022

Source: Authors and Kathryn Tyson.

A recently declared humanitarian truce has allowed limited aid to enter Tigray in northern Ethiopia. The Ethiopian government, in partnership with local armed groups and the Eritrean military, has severely restricted humanitarian access to Tigray since the start of the current conflict in November 2020. The United Nations Office of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that half of civilians of Tigray are facing acute starvation and starvation conditions. The Ethiopian government announced an “indefinite humanitarian truce” on March 24 to allow the delivery of aid to Tigray. Initially pro-government militias refuse change to humanitarian convoys in the first weeks of the ceasefire, but aid convoys began arriving At the beginning of April.

The Ethiopian government likely declared a truce in an effort to freeze the Tigray conflict so it could devote resources to another pressing priority. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed had previously declared a ceasefire, in June 2021, to thwart the advance of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) outside Tigray. The current ceasefire has largely held despite some light fighting between ethnic militias and TPLF forces in the Tigray border regions in late March. Reports of troop mobilizations just south of Tigray in late March indicate that federal forces could be preparing for a future offensive. A TPLF Withdrawal from the neighboring Afar region on April 14 could be a concession to prevent another offensive, but it could also signal a willingness to negotiate.

The Tigray conflict has contributed to a more generalized destabilization of Ethiopia. Ethiopia has an ethnic federalist political system that administers geographical areas of the country according to the local majority ethnicity, and political parties are formed along ethnic and regional lines. The Tigray war and government response have “normalized political violence” and encouraged ethnically aligned armed groups to mobilize or re-mobilize to address perceived injustices. Regional ethnic militias took advantage of the frustrations of Oromo civilians and other aggrieved populations to take up arms. The Oromo make up 36% of Ethiopia’s 120 million people, but historically lack access to state power and resources.

Figure 2. Regions of Ethiopia

Source: WikiCommons.

An Oromo uprising developed alongside the Tigray War. Oromo insurgent groups appear in several forms throughout Ethiopian history. The Oromo fought against the domination of the Amhara ethnic group during the Ethiopian imperial period. More recently, young Oromo protesters played a key role in ousting the TPLF-led coalition in Ethiopia in 2018, helping pave the way for Prime Minister Ahmed to take power. Ahmed’s actions included reaching a peace deal with the previously banned political party Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). However, his Prosperity Party coalition relied on a close relationship with mainstream Amhara political parties – a relationship that intensified as Ahmed’s government joined forces with Amharian militias in the conflict with the TPLF since 2020. These developments have *dissolved once hopeful feelings among Oromo activists.

The separatist Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) capitalized on Oromo community grievances and disillusionment to reignite an insurgency. The OLA was the armed wing of the OLF but* split in 2018, opposing the peace deal with Ahmed’s government. Oromo frustrations grew in June 2020 when millions protested the murder of a popular Oromo singer and faced a harsh crackdown, emboldening Oromo militant groups to step up attacks on government institutions and ethnic minorities. The Tigray War created another opportunity for the OLA, which allied itself with the TPLF alongside eight smaller rebel groups in May 2021. *Political factions within Oromia’s national and regional governments are *divided on how to respond to the OLA.

The OLA insurgency fuels and is fueled by the mobilization of militias in the neighboring Amhara region. Amharian militias, some of which are affiliated with the regional government, have taken up arms alongside Ethiopian federal forces to fight the TPLF. One such group is the Fano, a loosely organized *Amhara nationalist militia. Fano has partnered with the federal government against the TPLF, including repelling the TPLF’s 2021 summer offensive. Reported TPLF atrocities against Amharian civilians increased Fano’s recruitment and mobilization. Amharian militias have also been accused of retaliatory attacks against Tigrayan civilians. The Amhara mobilization is not limited to the border areas of Tigray. Tensions have also increased between the regional governments of Oromia and Amhara over *clashes between pro-government militias and the incursion of regional forces* into Oromia-administered lands in April 2022.

Amharan militias, particularly the Fano, are an increasingly powerful force with their own grievances. Fano and the OLA are engaged in a cycle of retaliatory violence in the Amhara-Oromia border area. *Targeted executions have spread* further into Oromia or Amhara territory since August 2021. The Fano now claim to be defending Amharian civilians in central Ethiopia from OLA aggression. Amharian militias have committed *atrocities against Oromo civilians and other ethnic minorities whom they accuse of being OLA accomplices. Fano’s mobilization also challenges the federal government, which has sought to regain control of the Amharian militias. Protests over arrests of Fano members escalated into* clashes between federal forces and Fano forces in Amhara in March 2022.

The violence in Oromia and neighboring areas is aggravating the already serious humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia. Civilian casualties in Oromia have increased 17 times in 2022 compared to 2018-2021. The militias committed hundreds of *kidnappings, raids, * killings and executions against each other and against civilians in 2022. The OLA, other militias and civilians using homemade weapons have committed ethnically motivated killings in neighboring regions such as Sidama or the region of Nations, Nationalities and Peoples of the South (SNNPR). Fano and allied militias retaliate against Oromo civilians and commit atrocities along disputed border areas and Oromo communities deeper in the Amhara region. Regional government forces and police also contribute to ethnic violence through extrajudicial executions and arbitrary detentions.

Fighting in central Ethiopia is disrupting access to government services and humanitarian aid, exacerbating displacement and healthcare shortages during a historic drought. Oromia and the neighboring region of Benishangul-Gumuz* reported more than 1.5 million internally displaced people in 2022, and the capital* Addis Ababa receives more than 1,000 refugees from affected areas daily. *Staple food prices have soared in 2022 as conflict, drought caused by *record rains and global supply chain issues lead to severe food insecurity. A recent outbreak of *meningitis in conflict-affected areas highlights barriers to *basic services.

The Ethiopian government is reallocating resources to fight the OLA insurgency. The OLA now holds * eight of the 21 zones in the Oromia region, including territory within 60 miles of the capital Addis Ababa, and it carried out attacks and assassinations in all 21 zones in 2022. L he Ethiopian army announced a major offensive against the OLA in southern Oromia, near the Kenyan border, on 4 April. The Ethiopian army and regional government forces launched operations in five other areas of Oromia in April 2022 in an attempt to surround the OLA and prevent it from establishing safe havens in neighboring countries. The Ethiopian government has also entered into *security pacts with neighboring Kenya and South Sudan to *prevent OLA fighters from crossing their borders. However, the three states have a limited ability to seal the *porous borders.

Figure 3. Main conflict-affected areas in Ethiopia: April 2022

Source: Authors.

The TPLF and OLA insurgencies are only the most recent and resounding examples of the deterioration of the Ethiopian state. The Somali region in eastern Ethiopia is also facing a *political and *security crisis. Riots and *inter-communal violence peaked in the South West and SNNPR region in the spring of 2022, and transnational criminal organizations are proliferating in the *Gambela region. Conflict spillovers and internal security concerns also plague the Benishangul-Gumuz region, home to the recently completed and regionally controversial Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).

The security situation is disrupting the Ethiopian economy. Major infrastructure projects, including one *Turkish Railway investments, have stagnated for security reasons. A regional* transit initiative was halted after the OLA captured portions of a transnational highway in November 2021 and again in February 2022. Addis Ababa overtook Dakar, Senegal as the most expensive city in Africa in 2022, as food prices soared across the country. The conflict has also *damaged the infrastructure needed to distribute the benefits of the GERD, which aims to mitigate the high price of *domestic energy across the country.

The current level of pressure on the Ethiopian system is most likely unsustainable and will lead to major changes in national governance, although it is not yet clear whether fragmentation, a change in leadership or another dramatic outcome is most likely. . A return to the pre-2020 status quo is unlikely as the Ethiopian federal government most likely lacks the capacity to defeat multiple insurgencies militarily at once. This reality may push Ahmed’s government to negotiate, and in fact it has announced a national dialogue at the end of 2021. This dialogue, however, excludes the TPLF and the OLA, making this framework unlikely to end the current conflicts.

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