Ethiopia’s war is threatening domestic and regional stability

Tigray men who fled the conflict in Ethiopia's Tigray region, run to receive cooked rice from charity organisation Muslim Aid, at Umm Rakouba refugee camp in Gadarif, eastern Sudan on November 27, 2020 [File: Nariman el-Mofty/AP Photo]

On Sunday, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced the end of his government’s military offensive on Tigray after Tigrayan forces withdrew from the regional capital, Mekelle.

Debretsion Gebremichael, who leads the Tigray regional state and Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), however, said in a phone interview with the Associated Press a day later that fighting still continues and his forces have made some gains. The Tigrayan leader said the fight is about “self-determination” of the Tigrayan community – which constitutes 7.3 percent of the 108 million Ethiopian population – and it “will continue until the invaders are out”.

Indeed, despite Abiy’s declaration of victory, the deadly conflict in northern Ethiopia which started on November 4 is far from over. Despite the communications blockade the federal state imposed on the region since the beginning of the conflict, there are credible reports of ongoing clashes between the Ethiopian army and Tigrayan forces across the region.

Moreover, some of Ethiopia’s neighbours got heavily involved in the conflict, adding weight to the fears that the civil war could soon devastate and destabilise not only the country itself, but the entire Horn of Africa region.

Eritrea, which became a staunch ally of Ethiopia’s federal government after the 2018 peace deal between the two countries, is supporting the military offensive on Tigray not only politically but also militarily. There have been multiple reports of bombs originating from Eritrea hitting targets in Tigray region and human rights organisations have claimed that Eritrean conscripts are fighting against the Tigrayan force.

Ethiopia’s government denied direct Eritrean involvement in the conflict, but has admitted that it occasionally used Eritrean territory to target Tigrayan forces. Since the beginning of the conflict, the Tigrayan forces, have fired multiple missiles onto the Eritrean capital, Asmara and the airports of Bahir Dar and Gondar in Amhara regional state, in retribution.

Eritrea’s involvement in the war is far from surprising. The TPLF has been the leading force in the Ethiopian government throughout its two-decade war with Eritrea, and distrust between Mekelle and Asmara remained strong even after the signing of the peace deal between the two nations concluded under the patronage of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia and with the support of the Trump administration.

While Eritrea is already a major player in the conflict, it is unlikely to remain as the only foreign force involved in or affected by this war in the coming days and months. The trilateral agreement signed earlier this year between Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia to establish a common security front, for example, could eventually pull Mogadishu into this war as well.

Addis Ababa’s assault on Tigray is also expected to have a significant negative impact on neighbouring Sudan, a country that is already facing multiple humanitarian and political transition challenges. Since the beginning of the conflict, tens of thousands of Tigrayan refugees have arrived in Sudan and many more are expected to make the same journey in the coming days and weeks. This means the Sudanese government will need to provide accommodation, food and medical services to these people amid a pandemic and a growing economic crisis.

Moreover, the militarisation of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden started long before Ethiopia’s civil war, and the region is now an important battleground for global strategic competition. The armed conflict in Ethiopia will undoubtedly be seen as an opportunity by many actors in the region to expand their influence. At the moment, with the United States going through a difficult presidential transition and the COVID-19 pandemic raging on, global powers and multilateral organisations are paying little attention to the rising tensions in the Horn of Africa. This could speed up the internationalisation of Ethiopia’s civil war and eventually transform it into a protracted conflict involving multiple state and non-state actors.

Beyond the concerns about the conflict spilling over to neighbouring states and the wider region, the grave human rights violations it triggered in Ethiopia are worrying.

Following the federal government’s decision to block all aid channels into Tigray, tens of thousands of Eritrean refugees residing in the region may soon struggle with hunger. The UNHCR has expressed fears that refugees may be forcibly returned to Eritrea or displaced again.

Furthermore, the conflict has added hundreds of thousands to the number of internally displaced people in Ethiopia, which stood at a whopping 1.8 million even before the start of this latest conflict. At a time when the world is struggling with the pandemic and its effects on the economy, ensuring the wellbeing of all these people is going to prove difficult for the Ethiopian state.

Furthermore, the federal government is still refusing to reinstate electricity, telephone, banking and internet services in Tigray, and restricting the local population’s access to food and basic medicines. These policies are not only depriving Tigrayans of fundamental human rights, but also making it impossible for the independent media and human rights organisations to investigate and report on the real scale of violations going on in the region. If these policies are not reversed immediately, Ethiopia can find itself in an unprecedented humanitarian crisis.

The federal government has also started a purge of Tigrayans from Ethiopia’s armed forces, police and intelligence agencies. Many Tigrayans have also been dismissed from their jobs in banking, civil aviation, foreign affairs and other Ethiopian public services only because of their ethnic identity. Some of these public servants have been detained, and their whereabouts are currently not known.

The Ethiopian authorities have also been rounding up ethnic Tigrayan security forces deployed in United Nations and African Union peacekeeping missions abroad and forcing them onto flights to the Ethiopia, where it is feared they may face torture or even execution, according to an internal UN account.

Neither the UN nor the AU took a clear and public position on the issue yet. Permitting the detention and forcible return of peacekeepers of Tigrayan origin to a place where they may face human rights violations, including torture and even execution, may place the UN and AU in violation of the non-refoulement principle. And their failure to act is putting at risk not only the lives of the Tigrayan peacekeepers who have been loyally serving in their missions, but also the region’s fragile stability. Ethiopia’s decision to pull contingents from key peacekeeping missions in Somalia, for example, could result in Al Shabaab making gains in the region.

While the war in Tigray is the main source of human rights violations in Ethiopia today, it is by no means the only one. Many other parts of Ethiopia, especially western Oromia, Amhara and Benishangul-Gumuz regions, areas along the borders of the Oromia-Somali and Afar-Somali regions, and Southern Ethiopia are also engulfed in violent conflicts, and atrocities. With the world’s attention focused on Tigray, human rights violations in these regions both by state and non-state actors are likely to escalate but remain under-reported.

Addis Ababa – and by extension Ethiopia – lies at the heart of African affairs. It is where many humanitarian bodies and pan-African strategic decision-making and coordination entities have their offices. A protracted war in Ethiopia would not only affect the entire continent’s strategic response capabilities but also damage, perhaps irreparably, the pan-African aspiration of Silencing the Guns by 2020 and beyond.

This is why the international community has a responsibility to intervene in Ethiopia’s war and prevent the country, which was until very recently a source of peace and stability, from devolving into a centre of conflict and violence in the region.

While the Ethiopian government is working hard to frame the war as a “domestic issue”, by failing to prevent the internationalisation of the conflict and committing widespread human rights violations, it proved that it cannot resolve this issue on its own.

It is true that international law prohibits interference in the domestic affairs of sovereign states. However, if a state fails to prevent war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide being committed within its territory, or indeed if it becomes the primary perpetrator of such acts, this principle of non-interference becomes null and void. Any state that cannot or will not protect its population indirectly forfeits its sovereignty, at which point the “back-up” protection mechanisms exercised by the regional and international community should be called upon.

Thus, the AU and the UN must condemn any military adventurism and step in to protect all peoples of Ethiopia. If the conflict in Ethiopia becomes an open ended one, neither the Tigrayan forces nor the federal government would be able to achieve their goals. Addis Ababa cannot force a strong and well-established region into political submission through military means, and the TPLF cannot topple the federal government by force.

The only thing that can protect millions of Ethiopians from endless suffering and potential genocide and the Horn of Africa from descending into chaos, is an all-inclusive dialogue.

The UN, the European Union and many others have already made calls for mediation and the AU, under South African President Cyril Ramaphosa’s leadership, appointed three envoys to help resolve the conflict through mediation. Prime Minister Abiy, however, decided to continue the military onslaught in the Tigray region after meeting the three AU envoys in Addis Ababa and also prevented them from holding any talks with Tigray officials.

Rejecting dialogue is in effect endorsing endless war. After weeks of fighting, Ethiopia’s federal government still appears determined to find a military solution to a political problem. The AU, the UN and all other international powers should increase their efforts to bring Abiy to the negotiation table. If they fail to jump-start a meaningful dialogue between the warring sides, the consequences for Ethiopia, Africa and the world could be grave.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.