Since the beginning of November 2020, a full-scale armed conflict with the use of tanks and aircraft has continued in the Ethiopian region of Tigray. Government forces and armed formations loyal to them are fighting against the security forces and volunteers who support the ruling left-wing populist party, the People's Liberation Front of Tigray, which defends the ideas of separatism. More than 600 civilians have died, according to Ethiopia's Human Rights Commission. Over 40,000 residents of the region fled to Sudan. This is a humanitarian crisis in the worst African tradition.
It is noteworthy that the media portray the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed Ali, in a negative way, emphasizing that the conflict was unleashed by the Nobel Peace Prize laureate (he received this award in 2018 for resolving the border conflict with Eritrea). Not everything is so simple in Tigray, if you delve into the prerequisites of the conflict. Ukraine and Ethiopia are united not only by the Orthodox faith, which is professed by the majority of the population of the two countries, but also by problems with territorial integrity.
Prerequisites for the crisis
Ethiopia does not fit into the existing stereotypes about African countries. This state has an ancient statehood and is part of the Christian civilization, which was formed in the 1st century AD. It has never been a colony of European countries, except for the period of occupation of the Ethiopian Empire (Abyssinia) by fascist Italy in 1936-1941. The Ethiopian rulers themselves carried out the expansion. During the period of maximum expansion, the Ethiopian Empire controlled the south of Egypt, the east of Sudan, the territory of modern Eritrea, and the western part of the Arabian Peninsula. At least 80 different peoples and tribes live in one state. Ethiopia was not spared the problem of separatism: at different times the Oromo people fought for the creation of their own state, among which there are both Christians and Muslims, the peoples of Somalia and Afar (Muslims) and Orthodox Tigray.
Tigrays represent less than 6% of the population of 110 million Ethiopia, but have contributed to the formation of its statehood. These people participated in the political life of the Aksumite kingdom in the 1st-10th centuries. In the 40s, the tigrays staged an anti-government uprising against the emperor Haile Silassie, who intensified centralization. After the overthrow of the monarchy in 1974 and the coming to power of the Marxists led by Lieutenant Colonel Mengistu Hailemariam, who carried out massive repression, voluntaristic experiments in the economy and enjoyed the support of the USSR and Cuba, they created the People's Liberation Front of Tigray and demanded the self-determination of all peoples of Ethiopia. The Tigray played a decisive role in the defeat of the Hailemariam regime in the 15-year civil war. From 1991 to 2018, the party dominated the political arena as part of the Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front bloc, which included almost all left-wing parties of ethnic groups.
Meles Zenawi established an authoritarian regime in Ethiopia, which was an explosive mixture of Marxism and liberalism. He alternately served as president and prime minister until his death in 2012. Zenawi federalized Ethiopia, introduced an article to the 1995 constitution on the right of peoples to secede from the state. His merit was economic reforms, the development of a market economy, the privatization of collective farms, and the attraction of investments. Ethiopia has become one of the most developed countries in Africa, one of the world's largest exporters of coffee, producers of corn, livestock products and flowers. From 2011 to 2016, the poverty rate fell from 26% to 15% in urban areas and from 30% to 26% in rural areas. A construction boom began in the country, the production of building materials, light and food industries, and car assembly were developing. Over the past 10 years, economic growth in the country has exceeded 8-10% per year.
The flip side of Ethiopia's "economic miracle" was rampant corruption, human rights violations, and the persecution of the opposition. In 2019, Ethiopia was ranked 96th in the world in terms of corruption susceptibility, according to Transparency International. It is less corrupt than Ukraine, which is in 126th place. In 2019, 36 of 41 million Ethiopian children lacked access to basic social services and essential goods. About 7-9 million people in the country are undernourished. The standard of living of ordinary residents of Tigray province leaves much to be desired, while their fellow tribesmen are fattening in the Revolutionary Democratic Front of the Ethiopian Peoples. The tigrays have a difficult relationship with the Amhara people, from whom they have taken part of the land. In relations with the Afar people, there are territorial disputes on the administrative boundary line.
In 2018, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn resigned in the wake of anti-government protests, and instead of him parliamentarians appointed a representative of the Oromi people - Lt. Col. Abiy Ahmed Ali, one of the participants in the civil war. He went even further than Zenawi: he prioritized the fight against corruption, embarked on neoliberal reforms, pardoned political prisoners, and made peace with the leaders of opposition parties, including political émigrés. The new leader settled the border territorial disputes with Eritrea (gained independence in 1993). Ethiopian-Eritrean conflict 1998-2000 killed almost 200 thousand people.
The prime minister helped to reduce the mistrust between Ethiopian Christians and Muslims, to achieve peace with the Oromo Liberation Front separatist group, which has been seeking independence for the Oromia region since 1973. He transformed the political bloc into one "Prosperity Party". All these transformations and the settlement of political conflicts were needed to improve the investment climate. In 2019, the German company Volkswagen signed a memorandum with the government of Ethiopia on the creation of a car assembly plant in the republic, which is a signal of stability, in which Western investors are interested.
Russian media have compared the crisis in Ethiopia to the ongoing conflict in Donbas. Such a comparison is inappropriate. While Russia is taking part in the conflict in eastern Ukraine on the side of the separatists, some Ethiopians have turned out to be outcasts and resemble the Iraqi Sunni Arabs who, during the presidency of President Saddam Hussein, held leading positions in the government, the army and the ruling Baath party. After the US armed intervention in Iraq in 2003, they lost their privileges and were left out of business. In 2014, the Iraqi Sunnis supported the terrorist organization ISIS, which seized part of Iraqi territory and created an unrecognized caliphate there. Having lost power in Ethiopia, the tigrays chose to play the separatist card.
The central government has chosen to restore order in the Tigray using military force in order to get rid of the reactionary rival and to prevent an aggressive minority from creating a precedent for the growth of centrifugal sentiment in other regions of Ethiopia. The question of self-determination is being raised by the Sidamo people (3 million people), who proclaimed their state in 1991, but later their lands were included in a separate constituent entity of the federation - the multiethnic Region of the Nationalities of South Ethiopia. The semi-desert region of Tigray is strategically important as its subsoil is believed to contain 4 billion tons of oil, which will reduce Ethiopia's dependence on imports of petroleum products.
The military operation was supported by the Amhara people, the second largest after the Oromi. They reclaimed their lands, captured by the tigrays. Opponents of independence are also among the dissidents who returned to Ethiopia after Ahmed Ali came to power. In case of independence of Tigray, the life of the local population will change for the worse, since in the communal sphere the region is connected with the neighboring provinces of Amhara and Afar. The rebellious region depends on funding from the center and risks losing $ 281 million in subsidies due to the blockade.
The radical party presented itself as a terrorist organization and turned some states against itself. The separatists made the mistake of bombarding the airport in the capital of Eritrea (Asmera) on November 14. They suspected the country's authorities of supporting Ethiopia. Eritrea is really not interested in spoiling relations with Ethiopia following the settlement of a long-standing dispute. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned the attack against Eritrea, accused of trying to make the conflict international.
The Egyptian authorities have expressed interest in maintaining stability in the region. Cairo has remained faithful to its policy of non-intervention in the interethnic contradictions of Africans and refers to the conflict in Tigray as an internal affair of Ethiopia, although relations between the countries are in a state of crisis due to the construction of a dam on the Blue Nile River by Ethiopians (it may reduce the supply of water to Egypt). Eritrea is Egypt's main partner in East Africa and supported Egypt during the war with Ethiopia. This time, the threat to the partner's security comes from the Tigray separatists, because the Egyptian authorities decided not to interfere with Ahmed Ali to put things in order at home. Sudan, which also has claims against Ethiopia over the dam, closed the checkpoints for trucks from Tigray so that Addis Ababa would not be suspicious of supporting the separatists in Khartoum.
UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed, during a telephone conversation with EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell, emphasized that his country supports friendly countries that are fighting terrorism and extremism when it comes to the Ethiopian crisis. According to Getachev Rida, drones from the UAE airbase in the city of Assab (Eritrea) are used in the conflict. The Emirates are protecting their investments in Ethiopia and are interested in keeping Ahmed Ali in power, as he has created favorable conditions for them. The Arabs are involved in 92 investment projects in Ethiopia in the field of agriculture, real estate, health care and the mining industry, have allocated $ 100 million to support small and medium-sized businesses. Ethiopian labor migrants are meeting the UAE's demand for cheap labor.
It is not surprising why Ahmed Ali, acting so decisively, asked the international community not to intervene in the crisis, and refused to mediate the African Union in negotiations with the separatists.
The EU insists on a ceasefire and fears a massive humanitarian crisis. According to UN estimates, another 200,000 refugees from Ethiopia will arrive in Sudan in six months. Before the start of the conflict, Tigray was home to about 100,000 refugees from neighboring Eritrea. There is a shortage of food in Sudanese refugee camps. The situation was exacerbated by the largest locust attack and crop failure in Ethiopia in 25 years, which threatens 600,000 Tigray residents with famine. There is a potential threat that Ethiopian refugees will flock to European borders in search of asylum.
There are fears at the UN that the Ethiopian government will withdraw its military from African countries, where they participate in peacekeeping missions, which could provoke an increase in tensions. In 2016, over 8,000 Ethiopian military personnel, police officers and military experts took part in peacekeeping missions. Ethiopia has already replaced 600 military with police in Somalia, and the terrorist organization Al-Shabab can use this to strengthen its position in an unstable country. Ethiopian peacekeepers have left South Sudan. The destabilization of Ethiopia will provoke long-term negative consequences for East and North Africa and Southern Europe.