September 13, 2021
The conflict centred around Ethiopia’s Tigray region between the federal government and Tigray forces has already created a severe humanitarian crisis, which is likely to worsen with the fighting in a dangerous new phase. The UN has been active in engaging with Ethiopian stakeholders but needs to do more to urge all parties – including Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Tigray’s leadership – to back off from the battlefield, where an expanding war could easily cause massive casualties.
Since the conflict started in November 2020, neither the federal government nor Tigray’s forces have exhibited willingness to unconditionally pause hostilities and pursue dialogue. The consequence has been a dire humanitarian emergency where, according to the UN, over five million people in the region are in need of assistance. Some 400,000 of them are acutely food-insecure. The fighting has also interrupted the planting season, with harvests estimated at only about 25-50 per cent of average levels. After withdrawing from most of the region in late June, federal authorities have blockaded Tigray, in effect, cutting off telecommunications, electricity and banking services.
On the battlefield, the Tigray forces have been buoyed by forcing federal Ethiopian troops to depart Tigray region and have made incursions since mid-July into the neighbouring Afar region to the east and Amhara region to the south. These manoeuvres – which could cut off a critical trade route to Djibouti – are partly aimed at pressuring Addis Ababa into accepting the Tigray forces’ terms for a deal, including formation of a transitional government. The Tigrayans have nonetheless met stiff resistance and have not achieved all their military objectives. The federal government, meanwhile, has responded to its military setbacks and the Tigray offensive by enlisting paramilitaries from other regions, launching a mass mobilisation campaign and calling on “all eligible civilians” to sign up for the national army. Since November, Eritrea’s military has lined up alongside Ethiopia’s, while Amhara regional forces are still occupying territory in western Tigray.
The unwavering commitment by all sides to pursuing a military solution threatens not just many more deaths but also the Ethiopian state itself. Addis Ababa has employed dangerous rhetoric antagonising Tigrayans while calling on civilians to join the fighting. This fervour, combined with decades-long resentment of Tigrayan leaders for their part in a period of authoritarian rule, could lead to further serious fractures in Ethiopia. Meanwhile, a continuing advance by the Tigray forces could lead to thousands more deaths, bring a widening humanitarian crisis and ratchet up domestic pressure on Abiy, which – while still unlikely in the short term – could lead to an alarming implosion in Addis Ababa and an ensuing power struggle with serious risks of a broader breakdown. These factors warrant a commensurate response from international actors, including the UN, which needs to impress on all parties the need to quickly de-escalate before the situation deteriorates further.
Building on his 26 August statement to the Security Council emphasising that “the unity of Ethiopia and the stability of the region are at stake”, Secretary-General Guterres should adopt an increasingly assertive approach to the crisis. He should use his channels in Addis Ababa, especially his direct contacts with Abiy, to underscore the urgent risks of a wider conflict that could have consequences far outside Tigray. The secretary-general should counsel Abiy to drop his resistance to negotiating with Tigray’s leaders and urge both sides to cast their military plans aside in favour of a deal. Diplomats from the U.S., the European Union (EU), Germany, France and the UK should back up the UN initiative with outreach to, primarily, Foreign Minister Demeke Mekonnen, a key interlocutor for international actors, to convey the same messages about the need for a pact.
Such an agreement could have several elements. The secretary-general should call on the federal government to lift its de facto blockade of Tigray and restore basic services while granting humanitarian agencies access to Tigray – if Tigrayan leaders freeze their military operations and soften their negotiating positions. A core Tigray demand is the withdrawal from western Tigray of all Amhara forces and administrators who moved in at the outset of fighting in November as well as the exit of all federal and Eritrean forces from the region. Guterres should urge the Tigrayan side to give federal, Amhara and Eritrean leaders time to complete these steps rather than trying to achieve them via military means. In exchange for a withdrawal, Tigray’s leaders could commit to politically addressing the territorial dispute over western Tigray with the Amhara region in the future and also dropping their demands for a transitional government involving Abiy’s departure.
The Tigray conflict has expanded to a worrying scale. Leaders in both Addis Ababa and Mekelle have so far been unresponsive to external diplomatic initiatives. This is all the more reason for the UN to step up its efforts, conscious of the considerable risks ahead if the conflict continues along its present trajectory.