Both Sides Could Lose in the Conflict in Ethiopia

On a January day in 1900, Russian traveler and military officer Alexander Bulatovich was having a conversation with Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia, during which he laid out his thoughts concerning public governance, the army and defending Ethiopia’s northern and northwestern borders. Bulatovich expressed his thoughts in the blunt manner of a military man, making many openly critical remarks. Bulatovich eventually allowed himself one criticism too many, causing the emperor to exclaim: “Why are you telling me these frightening things? What kind of advice is that? Just give me some advice, and leave that aside.”  

This episode from the history of Ethiopia's relations with the outside world is reminiscent of the current state of affairs. The conflict between Tigray national regional state (kilil) and the federal government continues unabated. The United States and Russia are calling on the parties to sit down and talk, citing the dire humanitarian consequences of the conflict.  In its statement on the current situation, the UN Security Council also mentioned possible negative effects and risks, since the conflict directly or indirectly impacts Eritrea, Sudan, Djibouti and Somalia. However, the deafening calls by the leading powers and international organisations to strike a compromise (just like the “frightening things” above) remain unanswered by Tigray.

Everyone doubled down

The parties to the conflict were unmoved by the increase in external pressure, which was quite expected. The Tigray Defence Force (TDF) conducted major operations outside ​​the towns of Dese and Kombolcha in Amhara regional state, which were controlled by the Tigrayans from October 30 to December 6, 2021. Even though these towns are more than 400 kilometres away from Addis Ababa, the capital of the country, the strategic situation has changed dramatically. Much of Ethiopia’s overland export/import supply line passes through Dese and is part of the direct route to Djibouti. Although the road leading to the capital has an alternate route, the Mille-Awash highway, as a result of operations that have been carried out, the Tigray Defence Forces (the military wing of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front) managed to significantly limit the federal government’s ability to bring in foreign currency, not to mention the necessary imported supplies.

The strategic situation has changed not only because of the takeover of these two towns, but also the imminent defeat of a significant portion of the federal forces and militia from southern and eastern regional states. On October 6, 2021, the federal authorities announced the start of the “last offensive” on Tigray. We know now that it failed. Instead of its “final retreat,” the Tigray Defence Force announced the formation of a political alliance with other ethnic rebel organisations (primarily the Oromo Liberation Front). On November 4, in an interview with the BBC, member of the Central Committee of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) Getachew Reda upped the stake considerably when he said they are not interested in taking the capital, though… 

Faced with these setbacks, the federal government introduced, on November 2, a six-month state of emergency. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took to social media to accuse the TPLF and its new allies of destroying the country and seeking to repeat the mistakes of Libya and Syria. Meanwhile, his posts on Facebook and Telegram revealed that he understands the complexity of the situation: “It would be foolish to expect the army which is all alone (without the active support of society - author's note) to declare victory.” Clearly, for several days the federal government was at a loss of what to do next, limiting itself to thorny philippics against the TPLF and calls for more victims in the name of victory. In the following weeks, soldiers and officers were called up by the Ethiopian National Defence Force  - the federal authorities were able to stop the offensive from the north.
But the very fact that the TDF is taking strong action in key areas shows that the previous strategy to contain the Tigray issue within certain geographical boundaries has failed, and the federal government has yet come up with a new strategy.

But despite this series of setbacks, it remains determined to destroy the TPLF and its allies. Federal media liberally use epithets like “rats,” “terrorists,” or “forces of destruction” to describe the federal government’s opponents. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s call to “stop, reverse and bury the terrorist TPLF”, which was deleted by Facebook, was widely covered by national and international media. The country’s government is still capable of doing this since it enjoys absolute air and troop superiority.

Conflict and Leadership
War Never Changes. Why Pandemic Does Not Affect International Conflicts
Andrey Sushentsov
War continues to exist and does not change as a phenomenon. And although the likelihood of a major war, one analogous to the global conflagrations of the twentieth century, is small due to their catastrophic nature and the deep interconnectedness of the modern world, regional and local conflicts continue to flourish, and the defence budgets of countries set new records from year to year, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Andrey Sushentsov.

Ghosts of 1991

After several defeats suffered by the federal government, many analysts recalled that in May 1991, the TPLF had already taken over Addis Ababa, which was also preceded by bloody clashes with the government. On the surface of it, the conflicts look similar: in the 1980s, the government of socialist Ethiopia bombed areas outside of its control, and the TPLF gradually liberated rural communities and recruited the war-weary rural poor into its ranks.  

First, the TPFL enjoyed broad support among regional players, such as Somalia, Sudan and the Eritrean separatists. Political assistance was no less important than financial assistance and supplies. In 1991, the Eritrean and Sudanese leaders mediated contacts between the TPLF and the Oromo rebels in the first weeks of forming the new government in Ethiopia, when the sheer number of differences in the victors’ camp threatened to lead to a new round of clashes. 

The current realities are starkly different, since Somalia and Sudan are preoccupied with internal problems and lack strong consolidated governments capable of taking any of the possible position on the conflict between Tigray and the federal government. Eritrea took the side of Addis Ababa, not the rebels, from day one of the conflict. 

Second, in recent months, however, military luck has turned away from the Tigray Defence Force. Operation Sunrise failed in August 2021. Its goal was for the Tigray units to access Lake Tana (located to the west along the Weldiya-Wereta highway) and cut off direct transport links between the Amhara state and the central regions of the country. With great difficulty, the TDF units reached the town of Debre Tabor  which is located 30-40 kilometres away from the final destination, but were then forced to retreat almost 100 kilometres to the east. The failure of Operation Sunrise had little to do with the federal troops’ actions. The expert resistance offered by the Amhara state security forces, the militias and youth brigades of the Amhara ethnic group was enough to get the job done.

Third, in 1991, the attitude towards the TPLF in Ethiopia was more neutral. Even though socialist Ethiopia’s state propaganda did quite a lot at that time to demonise this organisation, the population did not always trust information from official sources. Today, the TPLF is, in fact, a former ruling party, which has been leading the country towards a brighter future for 27 years.  

A huge number of complaints against the TPLF have piled up over this period, especially in large cities in southern and southwestern Ethiopia. After Abiy Ahmed came to power in 2018, a new campaign to demonise the TPLF began, this time marked by broad-based social support.

Taken together, these factors make the federal government’s position more stable, despite military setbacks and greater diplomatic pressure from outside players.

Playing chicken?

Game theory offers a wonderful model called “chicken,” when players threaten to inflict maximum damage on each other until one eventually backs down. The point of “chicken” is to create extreme tension which causes one side to make a mistake. We can understand the situation in Ethiopia through this lens. On the one hand, the federal authorities have outlawed the TPLF, destroyed almost the entire business network operated by the Tigray party functionaries and are waging war with them to the bitter end. On the other hand, Tigray and its new allies are accusing its opponents of genocide, gradually cutting off the federal centre from international trade, and making statements about the need for a constitutional overhaul. Winning this game is possible only in the case of mutual concessions. Any other scenario will imminently lead to the defeat of one or both sides. Since the federal and Tigray governments are raising the stakes and rejecting compromise, only the worst-case scenarios remain on the table.

Three factors suggest that Tigray’s southward offensive is likely to fail.

First, the TPLF detachments are spread to the south from Tigrayan motorway towards the capital for tens of kilometres, which makes them extremely vulnerable to a possible attack from the west. Even if this attack is carried out by a contingent of the Amhara state security forces without the support of federal troops, it could stop the advance of the Tigray Defence Force and, provided favourable circumstances, cut off a significant portion of the units from the parent state in the north.

Second, the TPLF allies can be extremely unreliable. Among the nine organisations that formed the United Front of the Ethiopian Federalist and Confederalist Forces  , there is no clear understanding of the ultimate goal of the confrontation - it can be either a transitional government or talks with the current government. Moreover, in addition to the TPLF, the new alliance includes the powerful Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), which has a similarly long history of guerrilla warfare, including under TPLF rule.

In a bipolar structure like that, the ethnic organisations may well get distributed between two centres of gravity where political associations of the Agaw, Afar and Kemant ethnic groups will gravitate towards the TPLF, while those of the Somalis and Sidamas will gravitate towards the OLF. Given the uncertainty over goals, the emergence of dividing lines in a new anti-government alliance is all but unavoidable.

Third, resistance to TPLF operations will grow as they get closer to the densely populated highlands in central Ethiopia. One gets the impression that TDF is most effective in mountainous and rural areas, while operations within a radius of 200 kilometres from the capital will require completely different material and organisational resources that the Tigray forces simply do not possess yet.

There is a number reasons the federal government may fail. Following a series of resignations and dismissals of high-ranking supporters of the former regime, the military command of the Ethiopian National Defence Forces was essentially incapable of military planning, namely, to concentrate the forces and means necessary to eliminate clear threats, or to set and pursue several objectives at once. The current federal government’s situation is a direct outcome of failures in military planning, and prospects for improvement are slim, since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has no other staff to rely on.

The worsening socioeconomic situation in the country and weakening support for the current government are another reason. Amid the pandemic, GDP per capita dropped to 2014 levels, and inflation grew by 15 to 20 percent annually. [World Bank data. ].  According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, droughts and locust infestations in eastern and southeastern Ethiopia in 2019-2021 put at least 12.9 million people on the brink of starvation, or, in UN terminology, “are expected to face high levels of acute food insecurity.”  In addition, Ethiopia is home to 4 million internally displaced persons, concentrated in the country’s central and southwestern regions. Many forced migrants have been unable to return home for years now and remain in tent camps, upsetting the locals. Disturbances between them have been quite commonplace for a long time  now. Add to that the numerous disagreements and clashes between ethnic groups, and it appears inevitable that the current federal government’s base of support will continue to shrink, making it harder to mobilise resources and maintain numerical supremacy over the Tigray Defenсe Force.
The loss of both sides after inflicting maximum damage on each other is the worst outcome in the “chicken” scenario.

Since simultaneous mutual destruction is unlikely, developments in Ethiopia may unfold as follows. The land between the town of Weldiya and Debre Birhan will turn into a zone of instability with a patchwork of areas controlled by the TDF, OLF and forces loyal to Abiy Ahmed’s government (mainly from urban areas). This will create something of a buffer zone between direct parties to the conflict and keep it localised. However, local conflicts tend to spread, and that would aggravate numerous pockets of confrontation in the states of Afar, Somali, Oromia, and Benishangul-Gumuz. In the worst-case scenario, the federal government will be able to maintain effective control only over the central or even southwestern part of the state of Ethiopia.

An outcome in which both sides lose would set Ethiopia back decades in terms of socioeconomic development. Amid limited access to international trade and capital markets (with the route to Djibouti blocked, air travel and an unfinished transport corridor to the Berbera Port in Somaliland is what remains operational), the federal government will be forced to significantly reduce its social obligations and infrastructure plans. In its zone of control, the TPLF on its own will not be able to rebuild infrastructure and help the regions impacted by the war, droughts, and locust invasions.

In place of a conclusion

Based on the above, this much is clear. 

First, the defeat of at least one party to the conflict (and worse yet, two) is fraught with serious political and economic consequences for the Horn of Africa’s largest country.
Second, the federal government and the Tigray authorities have so far continued to be uncompromising. In “chicken” game model, there is no pain-free way out. Much more perseverance, ingenuity and patience will be required from the international community and the African Union if they really want to influence the course of the conflict in Ethiopia. Space for compromise will have to be created where almost none existed prior. And this work cannot be postponed indefinitely.

More than a century ago, the Ethiopian emperor Menelik II turned away Bulatovich's frank advice regarding war and territorial administration. But this does not mean that the emperor did not take similar ideas in. There was a Swiss man named Alfred Ilg  at the Ethiopian court who was able to convey similar ideas in a softer and more convincing way. Perhaps all is not lost for Ethiopia today, either.

Ethiopia, Egypt, Blue Nile and Russia
Youssef Cherif
The October Sochi meetings between the Russian, Ethiopian and Egyptian leaderships, if they lead to agreements about the use of the Nile water, would improve the future of the nations of Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.