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Ethiopia: Not Too Late to Step Back from War?

AfricaFocus Bulletin
November 18, 2020 (2020-11-18)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

“We, the undersigned citizens of countries of the Horn of Africa, condemn in the strongest possible terms the outbreak and escalation of open warfare in Ethiopia. We are saddened by the attendant losses of life, property, infrastructure and opportunities. We deplore in equally strong terms further stoking of the conflict. … This conflict will not have winners; the only winners in war are those who are wise and courageous enough to avoid it.”

The sentiments of this petition (included below), initially signed by 45 citizens of the region, are widely shared by informed commentators and concerned activists in Africa and around the world. But how to analyze the causes, and what to do, are complicated and disputed.

The three main protagonists in the war are the federal Ethiopian government, headed by Abiy Ahmed; the Tigray regional government, headed by Debretsion Gebremichael; and the Eritrean government, headed by Isaias Afwerki. Many passionate supporters and passionate opponents of each government are engaged in fiery debates on social media. But these are difficult to follow for those who are not insiders, and, as these petitioners note, may serve to stoke the war.

The basic narrative is clear, but there are a lot of uncertainties about many details. This issue of AfricaFocus does not provide answers, nor are all the sources cited agreed on further analysis. But hopefully the sources cited can provide those of us, like your editor, who do not know the region in depth, with some understanding.

For basic news AfricaFocus recommends,,, and

The first two are generally reliable, in my opinion. The second two provide much additional information, but the reader should note that they each include a variety of articles reflecting different sources, including pro-government outlets as well as critics.

More extensive updates and guides to current sources of information are available at in the News Highlights Extra on the Tigray conflict from the Europe External Programme with Africa.

The two articles included in full in this AfricaFocus, from the Mail & Guardian's The Continent, provide the basic narrative, up to November 7. They were written by two Ethiopian analysts in the diaspora, Zecharias Zelalem and Yohannes Woldemariam.

For a deeper analysis of the multiple players involved, two sources of particular interest by informed external observers are (1) a half-hour interview with long-term solidarity activist and writer Dan Connell on an Eritrean on-line TV network ( – Asena TV (11/16/2020) and (2) an analysis by Bronwyn Bruton of the Atlantic Council ( (11/13/2020).

Note: the interview with Dan Connell is in English, but you have to forward a few minutes to get to the beginning.

Both made it clear that calls for negotiation and deescalation, however justified, are unlikely to be heeded because of the lack of a credible mediator or international coalition that can put pressure on all three of the protagonists. In the absence of that, even high-priority steps such as ensuring a humanitarian corridor for delivery of relief supplies to civilians will be extraordinarily difficult.

The UNCHR, however, is urgently raising funds for the new surge of refugees into Sudan. One can donate to this appeal here:

Finally, this AfricaFocus contains other links of interest and, highly important for even a basic understanding of what is happening, two maps (one of Ethiopia and its neighbors, and the other of the regions making up the Ethiopian federal state.

For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on Ethiopia, visit

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++

Urgent Call and Appeal for Peace in Ethiopia from Citizens of the Horn of Africa

November 14, 2020

We, the undersigned citizens of countries of the Horn of Africa, condemn in the strongest possible terms the outbreak and escalation of open warfare in Ethiopia. We are saddened by the attendant losses of life, property, infrastructure and opportunities. We deplore in equally strong terms further stoking of the conflict.

Wars neither have predetermined end dates nor are they guaranteed to stay within fixed territorial boundaries. Unless immediately halted, the ongoing Ethiopian civil war has all the trappings of a drawn-out conflict with adverse effects on the rest of the Horn of Africa region and the African continent at large. This conflict will not have winners; the only winners in war are those who are wise and courageous enough to avoid it.

At a time when we, as citizens of the region, were looking forward to the expansion and consolidation of the changes that Prime Minister Abiy’s rise to power ushered, this conflict dashes our hopes for the region and puts in direct, grave danger the lives and livelihoods of many Ethiopians. Given the significance of Ethiopia in the region and continent, and the strong ties that bind the countries of the region to each other, Ethiopia’s peace and stability becomes of paramount concern to the countries and citizens of the region. For this reason:

We call on all the concerned Ethiopian actors to immediately cease fire and deescalate the situation.

We call on the Eritrean government to desist from any rhetoric or actions that may contribute to further inflame the conflict.

We call on Ethiopia’s other neighbors (Sudan, South Sudan, Kenya, Somalia/Somaliland and Djibouti) to exert their utmost diplomatic, political, and other resources to help the warring Ethiopian sides defuse the conflict and help attend to the consequent humanitarian needs.

We appeal to IGAD, the AU and the UN to impress upon the two parties the need for a peaceful resolution and to use their good offices to help them achieve it.

We appeal to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, H.E. Thabo Mbeki, H.E. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, H.E. Olusegun Obasanjo, H.E. Lakhdar Brahimi, H.E. Graça Machel and other notable African leaders and elders to leverage their considerable leadership toward the resolution of the ongoing tragic conflict.

We appeal to all Ethiopians, citizens of the Horn of Africa and all Africans and peace-loving people of the world to say “no to war” in unison and work for peace in the volatile region.

We call on all conventional and social media outlets, activists from Ethiopia and the region, and analysts to be mindful of incendiary tone and substance in their programming, to refrain from further inflaming the situation, and to actively promote the peaceful resolution of this conflict and its root causes.

[Initial signatories include 45 names. The link also provides a link to sign the petition.]


Ethiopia and Its Neighbors

Regions of Ethiopia


Abiy Ahmed won a Nobel peace prize. Now Ethiopia is on the brink of civil war

Ethiopia’s central government has launched a major military operation – including airstrikes – against one of its own regional states

Zecharias Zelalem

The Continent Issue 28. November 7 2020, downloaded from

For a longer article by Zacarias Zelalem, from November 9, 2020, see “Ethiopia has reached a tipping point” at

[Zecharias Zelalem is an Ethiopian journalist with the Addis Standard and focuses on Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa as a whole.]

At about 2am on Wednesday morning [November 4], Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took to his Facebook page to make a grave announcement. “The Ethiopian Defense Forces, run by a command post, have been tasked with saving the country,” he said. The regional government of Tigray, a northern province, was guilty of “crossing a red line”, he said, and Ethiopian troops had been ordered to commence a “military confrontation”.

“I call on Ethiopians to remain calm, be on high alert and back the military effort,” Abiy wrote. Several commentators described this as tantamount to a declaration of war against one of Ethiopia’s own regional states.

About an hour later – still in the early hours of the morning – Abiy appeared on state television. He said the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) – the party that governs the Tigray region – was guilty of “treason”. According to Abiy, Tigray regional security forces had assaulted Ethiopian military bases in the towns of Mekelle and Dansha, killing and injuring soldiers based there.

The Ethiopian army’s Northern Command, one of four regional commands, is based in Mekelle, the Tigrayan regional capital which is more than 700km north of the country’s capital, Addis Ababa. Tigray’s regional government has announced the closure of its airspace, and claimed that the Northern Command will “stand with the Tigray people and the regional government”.

Tigray is home to about six million of Ethiopia’s population of 110-million people, and is located in the north-east of the country, along the border with Eritrea.

On Friday, Abiy told reporters that airstrikes had been launched against targets in and around Mekelle in what he described as “the first round of operations”. He said the airstrikes destroyed rockets and other heavy weapons. There was no mention of casualties.

A dramatic escalation

Tensions between the federal government in Addis Ababa and Tigray’s regional government have been running high for some time, and relations had soured considerably in recent months. Although this escalation remains shocking, analysts have warned for months that conflict was looming.

Efforts by the Mail & Guardian to contact residents in Tigray were fruitless, because internet and phone lines were not functioning. Internet tracking organisation Netblocks revealed that there was a considerable drop in Ethiopia’s internet usage that began about an hour before the prime minister’s announcement. As such, Abiy’s claims remain difficult to authenticate, and the region is virtually cut off from the outside world.

BBC journalist Desta Gebremedhin, from the BBC’s Tigrigna language desk, was able to make contact with a relative in Mekelle on Wednesday. “My cousin in Mekelle could hear the raging gun battles,” he said. This indicates that the fighting is within the vicinity of a major urban centre.

Despite the prime minister’s claims that his soldiers were ambushed and pushed into the war, preparations for the eventual escalation were made days in advance. Large-scale movements of Ethiopian troops heading northwards were reported in the days before. Meanwhile, last Sunday, Tigray regional president Debretsion Gebremichael announced that his forces were prepared for conflict, stating that “if war is imminent, we are prepared not just to resist but to win”.

A year ago, few could have predicted these developments when the prime minister of Ethiopia posed for cameras in Oslo at the award ceremony after receiving the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize. Hailed for bringing two decades of military hostility with neighbouring Eritrea to an end, the peace deal in 2018 sparked wild celebrations in both countries and was a rare feel-good story from the often conflict-ridden region.

Yet already the seeds of conflict with Tigray were being sown, as Abiy moved to consolidate his authority – in the process alienating the TPLF, which had dominated political life in Ethiopia for decades.


Ethiopia crosses the red line

Yohannes Woldemariam

The Continent Issue 28. November 7 2020, downloaded from

[Yohannes Woldemariam teaches international relations and follows the Horn of Africa closely. This analysis is published in partnership with Democracy in Africa.]

On 3 November, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared war on the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), launching a military offensive in response to a series of attacks and incidents that he claims reveal his former allies to be “traitors”. This dramatic escalation of tensions between the Tigray region and the federal government represents a major gamble on Abiy’s part that could result in the collapse of Ethiopia itself. If the country’s slide towards civil war is not halted immediately, the consequences for Ethiopian people and the wider region will be disastrous.

But how did we get here?

Historically, both the TPLF and Abiy were part of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) government. However, since Abiy came to power in 2018, the relationship with the TPLF has deteriorated, with Tigrayan leaders increasingly relegated to play a backseat role in a “coalition” that they had previously dominated. The relationship finally broke down when Abiy announced plans to dissolve the EPRDF and replace it with his own Prosperity Party, a new political vehicle that the TPLF refused to support.

Ever since, Abiy has sought to contain the influence of the TPLF to the Tigray region, while TPLF leaders have questioned his authority to rule over them, leading to a series of spats and mutual accusations and recriminations. These tensions had been simmering for some time, but reached boiling point following Abiy’s decision to postpone scheduled general elections on the basis of the coronavirus pandemic. Determined to embarrass the prime minister and simultaneously assert their own authority, TPLF leaders went ahead with their own election in Tigray, directly flouting Abiy’s objections.

The growing conflict between the prime minister and the TPLF is particularly explosive for three main reasons. First, Ethiopia is plagued by intractable ethnic politics, and Abiy already faces an uphill battle to retain political stability amid growing political violence. Second, the government lacks the capacity to win a decisive victory, as the TPLF has considerable military capacity and is used to protracted armed struggles – having come of age fighting against the Derg government as a guerilla group in the late 1980s. Third, Ethiopia’s constitution recognises the right of ethnic communities to campaign for political autonomy, and secession is a constant topic of conversation in areas such as Tigray, the Southern and Somali regions and Oromia.

Against this backdrop there is a real chance that conflict between the federal government and the TPLF will be long and drawn out, and will suck in other regions and movements – quickly becoming a situation over which Abiy has little control. Already, reports suggest that an attempt to capture TPLF leaders in Mekelle via a commando operation have proved unsuccessful.

This is certainly the prediction of Seyoum Mesfin, a veteran TPLF member and Ethiopia’s foreign minister from 1991 to 2010, who says that if civil war comes Ethiopia will be like Syria, Yemen or Libya – a failed state in which foreign players sponsor proxy armies to further their own interests. The potential foreign influence currently being debated by Ethiopians on social media is that of Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea and possibly Egypt over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam dispute. But what Seyoum is alluding to is a far more extensive intervention involving actors from the Gulf States as well as non state actors.

In particular, the close relationship between Abiy and Eritrean dictator Isaias Afwerki has triggered numerous rumors, the truth of which is hard to pin down.

It does seem, however, that both Isaias and Abiy feel that they have scores to settle with the TPLF. While Abiy sees the group as his main barrier to asserting control over Ethiopia, Isaias blames the TPLF for past conflicts, standing in the way of his regional ambitions and refusing to demarcate the Eritrean border.

The TPLF itself is certainly concerned about the close relationship between the two men, accusing Abiy of treason for his “conspiracy” with Isaias, and such suspicions are fanning the flames of conflict.

So how will we know if things are starting to fall apart?

Conflict between the TPLF and the federal government is likely to be prolonged under any circumstances, but is most likely to descend into a fully fledged civil war if the military fragments.

Much therefore depends on whether Abiy retains full control over the Ethiopian Defense Forces, which includes Tigreans within its ranks. The growing political polarisation suggests that maintaining a cohesive national army will be particularly challenging.

Abiy has appointed a new general to take control of the Northern Command – historically one of the four military divisions in Ethiopia with responsibility for Tigray and the Eritrean border – but the TPLF has blocked his path. Whether the military remains united under these circumstances will heavily shape the course of the conflict. The fragmentation of the army, or defection of troops to Tigray, would dramatically weaken Abiy. In turn, this would encourage other groups such as the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) to step up their efforts, accelerating the country’s disintegration.

Such a development would push Ethiopia into a full civil war that could destabilise the entire region, creating millions of refugees and undermining economic trade and growth. Preventing this is imperative – but if this is to be done concerted international and domestic action needs to be taken now, before there are further clashes and before the state comes apart at the seams.


Other recent links of interest from generally reliable sources

Note dates (in URL or in parentheses) because the situation is changing rapidly. (11/17/2020, by Alex De Waal) – BBC summary (11/15/2020) - by Nick Wescott of the Royal African Society in London) (by Tsedale Lemma, editor in chief of the Addis Standard). (particularly the article by Gabriel Negatu, former former director general for eastern Africa at the African Development Bank) (11/10/2020) (11/05/2020)

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter. For an archive of previous Bulletins, see,

Current links to books on AfricaFocus go to the non-profit, which supports independent bookshores and also provides commissions to affiliates such as AfricaFocus.

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