With the proliferation of ethnic armed conflicts in Ethiopia, the country seems to have entered a state of disintegration, portending a new phase of civil war that may affect the survival and cohesion of the state or gradually lead to its division. In no case can the Ethiopian policies and the Amhara be relieved of any responsibility for the current situation. The Amhara worked to marginalize other ethnicities and sought to re-establish their historical presence at the helm of authority in Ethiopia, subordinating all national components under their control through repression and oppression.
The Changing Geography of War
Unquestionably, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front’s (TPLF) restoration of their capital, Mekelle, and the rapid deployment of their forces in the southern and western regions on the borders of Amhara are the overriding reasons for the current conflict. Despite the lack of information, parties’ availing of information in only Amharic and Tigrinya, the divergent military positions, and the psychological warfare waged by both parties to raise the fighting spirit, the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF) managed to make some gains in its war in the Afar region, notwithstanding the violations committed against civilians.
Since the outset of the crisis, the TPLF has been using guerrilla warfare strategy to run the war around its territory, adopting tactical retreat and keeping away from war in its towns to avoid civilian casualties and violations similar to those committed upon its withdrawal from Mekelle. The political discord between the provincial government in Afar and a number of political groups played into the hands of the TPLF in their war in Afar.
These factors contributed to relocating the military confrontations in the northeastern part of Ethiopia between the TDF and government forces in Afar near the borders with Djibouti. For the TPLF, this would turn out to be a tactical shift if their forces managed to cut off the 700 km supply route linking Djibouti and Addis Ababa, being a major transport artery for the Ethiopian capital.
Calculations of Political Actors in Afar
The fighting between the TPLF and the Afar forces came after the governor of Afar announced allowing entry of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) and the Amhara militias into the region to besiege the TPLF with the help of Afar’s military which participated in the battles that took place between 22-23 July 2021, resulting in 20 deaths, displacement and immigration of thousands, and hostages from both sides. The coalition between the TPLF and the political opposition in Afar was another reason for the Tigray-Afar fighting. Such coalition would allow the TDF to move deeper into the region and topple its government, which prompted the provincial governor, Awol Arba, to turn to Addis Ababa.
Soon, the TPLF took steps to avoid clashes in Afar, including negating any desire for permanent presence in Afar after deterring Abiy Ahmed’s forces, stopping expansion toward the east, re-attacking the Amhara in the west, and coopting community leaders of the Afar villages.
The clashes that took place on 25 July 2021 between the Afars and Somalis ruled out the possibility of any sustainable fighting between the Tigrayans and Afara. These clashes came as a new cycle of the growing violence between the two neighbors. Historically, the relationship between the Afars and Somalis has been very tense due to sovereignty disputes over adjacent lands. Indeed, the Afars-Somalis conflict is deeper and more serious than that between the Afars and Tigrayans.
Local and Regional Implications
The Ethiopian military proved unable to take the lead in the battles that started mid-July with the TDF, in some cities and non-congested residential areas as well as small localities. This fact is also apparently evidenced by consequences of the fighting at borders of Tigray with the Amhara and Afar regions and the number of hostages, all or most of whom were from Oromia and southern Ethiopia. These battles revealed the weak military capacities of militaries joining from the other regions and made clear the failure of the Ethiopian military to run media and military operations.
As the war continues, battles are likely to spread to other major cities and areas that might be difficult to militarily approach but in which battles will nail to the morale of the parties to the conflict.
The TPLF’s circle of solidarity is likely to widen to include a number of rebel groups in other regions, including the Gambella People’s Liberation front (GPLF), which announced mobilization to bring down the Ethiopian government through armed combat, moving from peaceful struggle to armed struggle towards achieving freedom and justice for the people of Gambella. Relatedly, the Benishangul-Gumuz People’s Democratic Unity Front announced it carried out the assassination of the commander of the special forces of the region and it placed enormous pressure on the governor of Benishangul-Gumuz, demanding the expulsion of the ENDF-allied Amhara forces and militias.
The real conundrum, however, is that military advancement of the TDF towards the capital, Addis Ababa, will require collaboration and coordination with the Oromo, who will be the decisive factor in the conflict between the Amhara and other ethnicities; a highly complex political equation, particularly in the absence of trust between the Tigrayans and the Oromos.