Foreign Policy

How Ethiopia got here to the brink of civil warfare

Welcome to While You Weren’t Looking, the weekly foreign policy update on new global stories.

Here’s what we’re looking at this week: The Ethiopian central government sends troops Azerbaijan takes to the Tigray region when tensions increase strategic city in Nagorno-Karabakh, and The President of Kosovo resigns War crimes charges.

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Ethiopia pushed to the brink of civil war

As the world waited with bated breath for the results of the US presidential election last Wednesday, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent soldiers to troubled North Tigray province, claiming regional troops had attacked a federal military base. The crisis escalated quickly and heavy casualties were reported in clashes between the national military and forces loyal to the region’s ruling Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

On Monday, an Ethiopian military official said the air force had “hit targets precisely” in Tigray. Tensions between national and local governments in the province have eased for months and the conflict could turn into full-blown civil war. Here’s a quick rundown of how the situation got to this point and why it can be so explosive.

Origins of the crisis. The TPLF dominated Ethiopian national politics for decades: Ethnic Tigrayans, who made up around 6 percent of the population, exerted enormous political and economic influence. That ended with Abiy’s election in 2018 after his predecessor stepped down. (Abiy belongs to Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, the Oromo.)

Abiy pursued ambitious reforms, transformed one of the most repressive countries in Africa and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for ending the two-decade conflict with neighboring Eritrea. However, the political openness led to a rise in ethnonationalism, which led to tensions among the leaders of the Ethiopian states, based mainly on ethnic and linguistic divisions.

When Abiy tried to root out corrupt officials, Tigrayan leaders felt disproportionately targeted and the TPLF refused to join Abiy’s multi-ethnic Prosperity Party.

The turning point. Tensions between the central government and Tigray deepened after the region held general elections in September and opposed Abiy’s attempt to postpone the general election until next year. Tigrayan officials accused Abiy of using the coronavirus pandemic to carry out a takeover. The Tigrayan vote caused the government to divert federal funds away from Tigray’s regional leaders and instead send them to local administrators – a move the regional government described as “tantamount to a declaration of war.”

Events came to a head last week when Abiy accused regional leaders in Tigray of attempting to raid the national military’s northern command, which houses half the army personnel, and launched a military offensive in response.

The 10 semi-autonomous regions of Ethiopia have their own police and militias, and both the central and regional governments had built up their capacities prior to the clash last week, Tom Gardner wrote in a foreign policy report from Addis Ababa.

Happens now. A communication failure makes it difficult to get accurate information from the ground in Tigray. However, Reuters reports that hundreds of people have been killed since the offensive began, citing government sources. The TPLF is estimated to have around 250,000 soldiers and access to significant military equipment – it is unlikely to be easily forced to surrender.

On Monday, Abiy denied the country was on the verge of civil war. “Concerns that Ethiopia may be in chaos are unfounded and the result of an inadequate understanding of our context,” he wrote on Twitter. In an emergency session on Saturday, the upper chamber of the Ethiopian parliament voted to dissolve the leadership of the Tigray region, and on Sunday Abiy appointed new heads of the military, intelligence and foreign ministry.

What could be next? The sudden liberalization of an ethnic-federal state has drawn comparisons with the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Without careful management, Ethiopia is at risk of a rupture from an ethnic perspective, as Florian Bieber and Wondemagegn Tadesse Goshu wrote for foreign policy last year.

Tigray regional leader Debretsion Gebremichael has called on the African Union to intervene to prevent civil war. On Saturday, UN Secretary General António Guterres spoke to Abiy and the Chairman of the African Union and offered UN support in resolving the conflict. The prospects for a ceasefire are still pending, however: the government stepped up its military campaign on Sunday in an operation that Abiy called “law enforcement”.

Ethnic cleansing is threatened in Nagorno-Karabakh. The fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh area took a significant turn on Sunday when Azerbaijan’s president announced that his armed forces had captured a strategic mountain town that was viewed as critical to the exercise of military control over the region. After the Azerbaijani armed forces brought Shusha – known to the Armenians as Shushi – they now have a clear line of fire in the region’s capital, Stepanakert.

Joshua Kucera reports for Foreign Affairs that thousands of people are now fleeing the city to await an attack by Azerbaijani forces, which many fear could lead to ethnic cleansing.

Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but has a predominantly Armenian population. The countries waged a bitter war for the territory in the early 1990s, in which around 20,000 people died and Armenia was victorious. Up to 1 million people have been displaced, most of them Azeris. Now the shoe is on the other foot as Azerbaijan’s armed forces approach. FP’s James Palmer explains the full background to the conflict.

War crimes charges. Kosovo President Hashim Thaci resigned Thursday to face war crimes indictments by a special court in The Hague. Within a day, Thaci, a prominent figure in Kosovar politics, went from the presidential palace to a detention cell. He appeared in court for the first time on Monday and pleaded not guilty.

Thaci and other former guerrilla leaders from Kosovo’s war of independence against Serbia in the late 1990s are accused of being involved in the kidnapping, imprisonment and murder of alleged traitors and opponents. The preliminary charges against Thaci were announced with dramatic timing in June, two days before he was due to meet his Serbian counterpart Aleksandar Vucic at the White House for talks.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif arrives at El Alto International Airport in La Paz, Bolivia on November 7th.Gaston Brito Miserocchi / Getty Images

Zarif’s Latin America tour. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif arrived in Venezuela last Wednesday. This was his first stop on a trip to Latin America during which the Trump administration seeks to review Tehran’s influence in the region. Iran and Venezuela are united by a common enemy and have grown closely together as Washington imposed penal sanctions on both countries and Iran sent food and oil tankers to Venezuela.

Zarif will also visit Cuba and attend the inauguration of Bolivia’s left-wing elected President Luis Arce.

Tremors in Turkey. Turkey’s finance minister Berat Albayrak announced his resignation on Sunday, a day after the central bank governor was dismissed, as the country plunged headlong into economic crisis. The value of the Turkish lira has hit record lows, losing 30 percent of its value against the dollar this year. Albayrak, the son-in-law of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, officially said he would resign for health reasons – but the timing points to a realignment of economic policy.

Some analysts have also speculated whether Albayrak’s departure was a reaction to Joe Biden’s victory in the US presidential election. Albayrak, a friend of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, looked after the Turkish government’s relationship with the White House and maintained a diplomatic feedback channel with Kushner via WhatsApp.

Chinese satellites. As a 5G battle rages on Earth, China last week launched the world’s first 6G test satellite into orbit, although 6G networks are expected to be unavailable for sale for several years. It was launched on Friday along with 12 other satellites launched from the Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center in Shanxi Province.

China has invested heavily in its space program to keep up with the United States. So far this year, China has sent more satellites into space than any other country.

Foreign policy Recommends

New Zealand’s new foreign minister. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern appointed veteran politician Nanaia Mahuta as Foreign Minister – the first woman to hold the role and only the second Maori – after her party won last month’s parliamentary election by a landslide.

This Guardian profile examines how Mahuta’s appointment could pave the way for New Zealand to have more indigenous influence on its foreign affairs.

That’s it for this week.

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