Drawn-out internal conflict could move Ethiopia’s attention—and troops—away from the fight against al-Shabaab militants
Ethiopia’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning Prime Minister has ordered the military to confront the country’s Tigray regional government after he said it carried out a deadly attack on a military base overnight.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said on national TV the army had been attacked “this evening in Mekelle and many other places, by traitors and the force they organised”.
The reported attack by the well-armed Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), immediately raised concerns that one of Africa’s most populous and powerful countries could plunge back into war.
Mr Abiy said “the end is near” for the regional force, which is based in Ethiopia’s most sensitive region, neighbouring Eritrea.
He added there had been months of “provocation and incitement” and declared “the last red line has been crossed”.
The row has escalated in recent days with both sides accusing each other of plotting a military conflict.
Military operations in the region had commenced, Mr Ahmed’s spokeswoman Billene Seyoum said, without giving further details.
Internet access monitor NetBlocks said the internet had been shut down in the region, confirming reports that authorities had barred telephone and internet services.
The TPLF had been the dominant part of Ethiopia’s governing coalition before Mr Abiy took office in 2018 and announced sweeping political reforms that won him the Nobel last year.
Those reforms, however, have opened space for old ethnic and other grievances. The TPLF, feeling marginalised, left the coalition last year.
In September, Tigray held regional elections in defiance of the federal government, which called the vote “illegal”.
Debretsion Gebremichael, the president of the Tigray region, said that Mr Abiy’s government was planning to attack the region to punish it for holding the September election.
Tigray’s population makes up 5 per cent of Ethiopia’s 109 million people, but it is wealthier and more influential than many other, larger regions.
A report by the United States Institute of Peace said the fragmentation of Ethiopia “would be the largest state collapse in modern history, likely leading to mass interethnic and interreligious conflict … and a humanitarian and security crisis at the crossroads of Africa and the Middle East on a scale that would overshadow the existing conflicts in South Sudan, Sudan, Somalia and Yemen”.
The international community needs to rally around the idea of national dialogue in Ethiopia, the International Crisis Group warned a week ago.
“The alternative, given the country’s multiple and bitter divides, is a potential march to war that would be catastrophic for Africa’s second-most populous country and would send shockwaves, and refugees, into other Horn of Africa countries as well as across the Mediterranean,” the group wrote.
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