Ever since Abiy Ahmed, the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, announced a military operation against the TPLF (Tigray Peoples’ Liberation Front), which governs the Northern Tigray state, concerns were raised about the human casualties and the looming humanitarian crisis in the event of a full blown-out war.
As of today, thousands of Ethiopian refugees escaped into Sudan1 UN says planning for 200,000 Ethiopian refugees in Sudan with approximate 200, 000 more on their way.
The world has witnessed the worst humanitarian catastrophe in neighbouring Yemen with its complex proxy war that has deepened over the years. Ethiopia, which is also part of the Red Sea region, is glaring into a Yemen-esque scenario in the event the conflict in Tigray is not resolved immediately politically and diplomatically.
Moreover, the Ethiopia-Tigray war will have a geopolitical ramification that will reconstitute the geopolitics of the region – a region that has become of interest over the years to world powers like the US, China, Turkey, Britain and most recently Russia, which will have its first naval base in Sudan.
Abiy Ahmed’s geopolitical logic
Ethiopia had become a geopolitical powerhouse in the Horn of Africa since the ‘‘war on terror’’ commenced in the early 2000s. The US, which was concerned about the threat of Al-Qaeda and other radical groups in Somalia and Sudan funded and modernized Ethiopia’s vast army. Indeed, Ethiopia became the US’s prime geopolitical interlocutor in the region. This played into the hands of Ethiopia which was then worried about both nationalist and radical groups in Somalia, Secessionist rebel groups, the Eritrean regime and the neighbouring Gulf States.
However, the ascent to power by Abiy Ahmed recalibrated Ethiopia’s foreign policy and geopolitical agendas. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took these geopolitical re-orientations in considerations of Ethiopia’s internal politics, which he wanted to restructure.
Tasked with a transition that many expected to propel Ethiopia into democracy and stability after years of anti-government protests and ethnic violence, Abiy Ahmed took bold steps both in internal politics and in foreign policy2 Abiy Ahmed: America’s Checkmate in East Africa’s Geopolitical Chessboard .
However, reforms were impossible in the face of threats from the old-guard TPLF and the Eritrean regime. The Prime Minister had to be pragmatic and equally swift.
With abrupt and surprising visits to Eritrea, bonds were strengthened with Asmara. This also played into the hands of Eritrea, a country that was a geopolitical pariah for decades and slammed with numerous sanctions by the US. Moreover, in late 2018, Ethiopia, Somalia and Eritrea undertook their first tri-partite talks about regional politics and security. Diplomatic rapprochements in the horn surprised many. Nevertheless, sceptics questioned the substantiality of these warming ties given the regions’ persistent conflicts and capricious politics.
Abiy Ahmed and Isaias Afewerki, the President of Eritrea, both visited Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) simultaneously and together. Both leaders were awarded medals of honours; this was more than a symbolic gesture. The Horn of Africa and the Red Sea region were undergoing tectonic shifts in terms of geopolitics. Gulf States worried about Chinese and Turkish geopolitical ventures into the region were prepared to counter. UAE installed a military base in Eritrea and planned a naval post in the break-away region of Somaliland. The Horn of Africa became a geopolitical battle-ground.
With Eritrea and Somalia on his side, the Prime Minister was less worried about threats from the TPLF and their political maneuverings. However, the TPLF would become a stubborn thorn in the Prime Minister’s flesh. Moreover, there was a bigger geopolitical threat: talks with Sudan and Egypt about the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) were in stalemate. Even a possible and inevitable military confrontation was on the mouths of diplomats and regional observers in the event the talks fail. President Donald Trump’s tweet that Egypt could bomb the dam was a realistic concern and not a diplomatic gaffe.
Ethiopia, Sudan, Egypt and the GERD dam
On November 21, Sudan boycotted the GERD talks3 Sudan Boycotts Talks Over Ethiopia’s Mega-Dam for the first time. This is unprecedented and given its time will have geopolitical ramifications. Negotiations between Sudan, Ethiopia and Egypt have been stalled for years since each country had its own entrenched un-negotiable demands. A deal seems to be out of reach for all countries and this is an unpleasant situation for the whole region.
The rights to the Nile river waters have been contested for decades. The first treaty on the Nile waters 4 Arthur Okoth-Owiro, The Nile Treaty, State Succession and International Treaty Commitments: A Case Study of The Nile Water Treaties, Konrad Adenauer Foundation, Nairobi, 2004 was signed in May, 15, 1902 by Ethiopia and colonial Britain which was acting on behalf of Anglo-Egypt and the Anglo-Sudan. Ever since then, the waters of the Nile have been the bone of contentions for Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia. The latest deal5 The limits of the new “Nile Agreement” was signed in March 23, 2015 between Omar al-Bashir (Sudan), Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (Egypt) and Hailemariam Desalegn (Ethiopia). The Khartoum Declaration, as it was called, emphasised on the preservation, maintenance and use of the Nile waters efficiently and in sustainable ways agreed upon by all the riparian nations that the Nile River pass through.
However, sentiments changed as the GERD dam approached its finishing line. A revolution in Sudan in 2019, Abiy Ahmed coming to power in 2018 and Egypt’s economic crisis complicated matters. Although 85% of the Nile waters come from the Blue Nile which has its source in the Ethiopian highlands, the majority of the water is used by and flows into Sudan and Egypt and then into the Mediterranean Sea. The economies and livelihoods of the majority of Egyptians and Sudanese people depend on the Nile waters. This has rendered the GERD talks a national security issue for both Sudan and Egypt; while Ethiopia also claims of sovereign rights to waters within its borders.
GERD talks spearheaded by the US broke-down6 Trump and Africa: How Ethiopia was ‘betrayed’ over Nile dam after Ethiopia protested the impartiality of the US in the talks. The US was leaning towards the Egyptian and Sudanese position regarding the dam. Ethiopia moved on to fill the dam amid diplomatic protests from Sudan and Egypt. This raised the tensions. In retaliations the US cut aid funds to Ethiopia7 Nile dam row: US cuts aid to Ethiopia .
The African Union (AU) took the initiative to lead the talks but with Sudan’s boycott, these efforts seem to fail. Trump suggestion that Egypt could bomb the GERD dam and the recent military confrontation in Northern Ethiopia, which borders Sudan, seems to compound the talks and the politics of the GERD.
The looming guerrilla-proxy war in Ethiopia
On November 22, the federal troops of Ethiopia surrounded Mekelle8 ‘Save yourselves’: Ethiopia warns Tigrayans of Mekelle attack , the regional capital city and power seat of the beleaguered TPLF. Although the government has ‘‘liberated’’ many cities and town from the TPLF fighters, this military confrontation is far from over. The Tigray region is a rough and rugged region with mountain ranges and difficult road – it is similar to the Southern Turkey and Northern Iraq.
Moreover, the TPLF, a guerrilla rebel group that come to power in Ethiopia in 1991 and ruled the country for three decades will not be easily dislodged or defeated. TPLF took control of the Ethiopian army’s northern command and its heavy weaponry and ammunitions; they even have the capabilities of firing rockets to neighbouring Eritrea and Amhara region. The TPLF is armed to the teeth even if it is militarily over-powered.
A guerrilla war with the potential of morphing into a proxy war that pulls-in regional countries is in the making in Ethiopia. This is dangerous and will have far-reaching geopolitical and humanitarian consequences. Reports indicate Eritrea is already fighting the TPLF in the Ethiopia-Eritrea borderlines9 Fears of regional conflict in Horn of Africa after rocket attacks on Eritrea . Moreover, the TPLF claimed that UAE drones10 Tigray: UAE drones supports Ethiopia based in the Eritrean port city of Assab targeted their positions in the front-line. The Ethiopia-Tigray conflict is taking a geopolitical dimension.
Egypt and Sudan have stakes in Ethiopia with regards to the GERD dam. In the event of a failed talks and a prolonged conflict in the Tigray region, it is not unlikely that both Sudan and Egypt will participate in this active theatre of war seeking their own interest in its outcome. The Ethiopia-Tigray war could ignite the whole region into violence and humanitarian catastrophes. And given the TPLF and Abiy Ahmed’s hard stance, this is a possibility unless the AU and UN and otherglobal powers intervene diplomatically.
Ethiopia is in unexpected war it never wanted. In an overnight, a political impasse between political adversaries culminated into a full-fledged military war. Ethiopia is a country with a volatile and complex political history rife with violence and brutalities. There are no easy solutions to this conflict which might get prolonged and engulf the whole region. In the words of Awol Allo11 Check out Awol Allo’s tweet , a legal scholar and political analyst, ‘‘this war has already depleted our chances of peaceful co-existence. Further bloodshed will only make things worse’’. Ethiopia hangs on the balance; and the stakes are high politically, geopolitically and in terms of the human toll in this war.