Warnings Against Slipping into Civil War in Ethiopia

As Country Descends into Uncertain Politics, Dictatorship Threat Looms
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed

Baku- Three years have passed since Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed deceived the world by raising the slogans of justice, equality and freedom. The truth behind his orientations, aspirations and dreams was soon revealed, and, due to his intransigent policies, became nightmares disturbing his life. He may either end up in exile in one of the neighboring countries and prosecuted by the International Criminal Court for committing war crimes or put in jail in his country on the same charges. The peaceful mask which he wore and which led to his being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, (which must now be reconsidered), fell off in the first real test.

In fact, despite the bleakness of both scenarios on Ahmed’s future, those put forward for the future of the Ethiopian state remain bleaker, as expressed by the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, Rosemary DiCarlo in her address to the UN Security Council on Nov. 8.

“No one could really predict what continued fighting and insecurity will bring. But let me clear: What is certain is that the risk of Ethiopia descending into widening civil war is only too real,” she stressed, warning of “grave uncertainty” surrounding the future of the country and stability of the whole Horn of Africa region.

This report reviews the probable paths of the year-long escalating Ethiopian crisis.

In November 2020, Ahmed launched a military attack against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which has long dominated the national government before he came to power. It was an active party in the national politics and dominated the political and security apparatus for nearly 30 years after it took control of Addis Ababa and overthrew the Marxist military regime, represented by the Provisional Administrative Military Council in 1991.

However, it lost control when Abiy took office in 2018 and succeeded in removing the front, which did not take part in the course of national events. It also rejected the elections held by the Prime Minister in the region, launching that round of conflict, which has recently witnessed an accelerated pace.

The Tigray forces have recently succeeded in controlling key strategic cities of Dessie and Kombolcha, which enabled them to control a major highway to Djibouti, Ethiopia’s economic hub, prompting Ahmed to escalate his military war and kill civilians.

According to relevant international organizations, the Premier’s recent actions are considered crimes against humanity and genocide since he used all means of oppression and violence to silence the ethnic movements and fronts that demand their political and economic rights.

Dozens of displaced people in Ethiopia’s Tigray region

Ethiopian Crisis and Future Scenarios

There are three possible scenarios for the future of the Ethiopian crisis, as follows:

First scenario: The success of the newly-formed alliance of Ethiopian factions, dubbed the “United Front of Ethiopian Federalist and Confederalist Forces” to overthrow Ahmed’s regime, dominate the country’s resources and shall enter a transitional phase to rearrange the situation and share power among the partners.

Tigrayan forces mounted a remarkable counterattacking campaign and began coordinating with the Oromo Liberation Army, a rebel group in the Oromia region. Together with seven other opposition groups, they formed the alliance to replace Abiy’s government.

This scenario is most likely to take place since the alliance was announced by faction leaders in Washington, indicating that the US wants to get rid of Ahmed’s regime, which has committed war crimes and bolstered ties with China, which in turn has been waging an economic war against the US.

If this ambitious scenario turns out to be a success and gets rid of a regime tainted with the blood of Ethiopians, it would lead to two possible courses:

The first is concluding several understandings between the political and military forces in a way that restores stability in the war-torn country. As a result, the constitution is amended, new elections are held to reflect the balance of power on the ground and a new phase begins in the history of the state, during which the wrongdoings of the past are addressed and state institutions are built on foundations that would attain balance among racial, ethnic and religious divisions.

The second is entering a new phase of power struggle among military and political parties that succeeded in overthrowing Ahmed’s regime so that the country witnesses further division.

United Nations: At Least 400,000 living in famine-like conditions in Ethiopia’s Tigray region (Reuters)

Second scenario: The premier succeeds in dealing a fatal blow to the newly formed opposition alliance by tightening his grip and controlling the situation, taking advantage of the available resources, including soldiers and equipment, compared to the opposition fronts.

Under this scenario, Ethiopia enters a new phase of abhorrent dictatorship in dealing with the opposition alliance. It may lead to a temporary de-escalation of the conflict under the excessive use of force that compels all parties to submit.

In this regard, Ethiopia is expected to witness more crimes against civilians of the opposition fronts. They may amount to the physical liquidation of the leaders of these fronts and their active elements. However, the situation will not eventually stabilize and the conflict between these forces will be renewed, as happened recently.

The Ethiopian army is expected to enter into a guerrilla war with the elements of those fronts that refuse to resolve the conflict in favor of the government.

Third scenario: The failure of the two parties (the current government and the opposition forces) to resolve the conflict in their favor, slipping the country into a massive civil war that would lead to the division of the federal state into conflicting states based on racial and ethnic grounds.

This would make it difficult to reunite the state, increasing the suffering of people, who are paying the price of this raging conflict.

In this case, the conflict will affect the country’s geographical neighborhood, which in turn is witnessing many internal conflicts, bringing the entire region into a new destructive phase.

These scenarios remain dependent on three factors.

The first is the role of the international powers immersed in the Ethiopian crisis. Over the past years, international major powers, including the United States, Russia and China (which has the largest volume of investments in Ethiopia) have been present in the African country’s arena. Their interests certainly represent a guide for the future of this crisis, whether it is heading towards a solution or is on its way to further escalation leading to the most pessimistic scenario.

The second is the role and influence of the regional parties. These parties play a direct role in the conflict, as is Eritrea’s case, or indirectly support some of the parties to the conflict, thus enhancing their positions in the face of the other party.

There are currently several alliances between some of these regional parties and international powers that adopt an approach that achieves their interests at the expense of the Ethiopians.

The third is the role played by internal forces, which indicates the size of internal tribal and ethnic alliances and alignments. These forces have a direct influence on the conflict and its possible courses.  

Although the internal parties are affected by the stances of the regional and international powers that support them, yet they still have an influential role on the course of events, especially if the Ethiopians became aware of the dangers facing their country due to this renewed conflict.

In light of these three factors, the third scenario will most probably take place because of the fragile structure of the opposition alliance, which includes conflicting parties.

The alliance’s main target is to overthrow Ahmed’s regime. However, it doesn’t have an agenda for the post-regime arrangements. Parties to the alliance are old rivals who may renew their enmity in the first dispute they face.

Meanwhile, the government has various capabilities and equipment that exceed those owned by the alliance, which makes it very difficult to resolve the battle in favor of one of the parties. This opens the way for an actual challenge to the security of the Horn of Africa, which represents a geo-strategic and geo-economic significance on the map of international political and economic interactions.

Recent international efforts to bring the conflicting parties to the round table have also failed. The US State Department and the African Union see a small window of opportunity to end fighting in Ethiopia.

“All these leaders, here in Addis Ababa and in the north, agree individually that the differences between them are political and require a political solution through dialogue,” the AU envoy for the Horn of Africa, former Nigerian President Olusegun said, adding that “the window of opportunity we have is very little and that time is short.”

His remarks were in reference to the TPLF’s insistence on overthrowing Ahmed first, urging the PM to incite the fight to death. “We will bury this enemy with our blood and bones and make the glory of Ethiopia high again,” said Abiy, calling on Addis Ababa residents to arm themselves in line with the field progress.  

Ethiopian army forces (Reuters)

GERD and Crisis Scenarios

The challenges resulting from the Ethiopian crisis extend to one of the most serious disputes in the African continent on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which represents an international and regional issue.

It also carries humanitarian, developmental, legal and political aspects, as it remains difficult to monitor the size of its expected impact on the security of the Nile basin countries that have differences with Addis Ababa, which are the downstream countries, Egypt and Sudan.

Ethiopia’s intransigence and unilateral steps taken in this regard have led to an increase in the regional and international rejection for it to manage a fateful issue that affects the future of the peoples of the two downstream countries.

Therefore, the outcome of the current Ethiopian crisis will have a negative impact on the GERD issue, which is expected to enter an unclear stage that lacks a vision on the next step. Decision makers in both downstream countries face three possible scenarios:

In the first scenario, Ahmed succeeds in regaining control of the situation, which means he would be more stringent in managing this issue, in an attempt to restore national cohesion. In this case, the dam issue, which is national and consensual, becomes the most influential.

In the second scenario, the opposition alliance succeeds in controlling the situation, prompting it to become stricter on the dam issue, in an attempt to gain the support of the Ethiopian public opinion on a consensual issue.

The alliance is also unwilling to act against the will of international and regional powers that have investments in the dam project, especially if the governments of these countries ask for compensation for the damage incurred in case the dam construction was halted.

In the third scenario, both parties fail to dominate the country’s resources, which threatens they would slip into a civil war that will most probably affect Ethiopia’s federalism. In this case, finding a solution in the near future becomes impossible, which requires halting any developments in the dam issue until parties return to the negotiating table and discuss solutions that establish peace and stability in the country and its surrounding.

Apart from the scenarios presented, whether for the future of the Ethiopian state, its prime minister who is accused of war crimes or the management of the GERD issue, the current events require all international, regional and local parties to be aware of the seriousness of the expected consequences of the crisis the African country is going through. If things go beyond control, it will be difficult to solve the crisis, given the risks, threats and various challenges


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