The Conflict in Ethiopia Threatens to Lead to Regional War

After eight months of war in the federal state of Tigray, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced a unilateral ceasefire, following a routing of government forces from the Tigray capital of Mekelle. While Abiy claimed this was not a defeat, he admitted that his government could not win given the popular support for Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Tigray Defense Forces. Nonetheless, Tigray’s state president, Debretsion Gebremichael, who had been forced to flee the capital 8 months ago, has now returned to Mekelle.

This turn of events was the predictable result of a major power struggle within the government. Ahmed Abiy had been elected Prime Minister in 2018 by the ruling coalition, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). Although the TPLF, the leading party inside that coalition, had supported him, he decided to purge their members from leading government positions when they resisted his “reform” policies, which included privatizing state companies. Several were jailed and others were assassinated under mysterious circumstances.

It should be stressed that under previous TPLF-dominated governments, Ethiopia had implemented a successful infrastructure-driven development policy, which included the Chinese-built railway between Addis Ababa and Djibouti, and the Chinese-financed Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. The government’s refusal to accept the so-called “Washington consensus” won many enemies in both Washington and London.

In 2018, Abiy signed an agreement, brokered by the United Arab Emirates, with Eritrea, with which it was still formally at war. It appeared that the policy would lead to stabilizing the region by bringing Eritrea, which was backing the illegal opposition in Ethiopia and terrorist separatists in Somalia while hosting bases for the UAE to carry out its war against Yemen, into the Belt and Road Initiative of which Ethiopia was a key component. But Eritrea fully joined Abiy in the invasion of the Tigray state in November of 2020.

The common denominator in this deal is former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is the most important adviser to the UAE. He has also been an adviser to no less than four Ethiopian Prime Ministers, including Abiy, and Blair’s Institute for Global Change has a very active office in Addis Ababa. Another likely player in the deal is former US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Herman J. “Hank” Cohen, whose lobbying firm, Cohen and Woods, served as Eritrea’s leading lobbyist in Washington.

The TPLF has said it will not stop fighting until all Ethiopian and Eritrean troops withdraw and all communications are restored. As a result, the situation thus remains very dangerous and unstable, compounded by a major humanitarian crisis.

The war has also generated a crisis with neighboring Sudan, and exacerbated the ongoing dispute with Egypt and Sudan over the filing of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Serious statesmanship is now needed to bring the conflicting sides together, while neutralizing outside interference by Eritrea and the UAE.

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