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Storm Clouds Over Ethiopia Storm Clouds Over Ethiopia
by Rene Wadlow
2020-12-02 10:34:12
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The armed conflict which began on 4 November 2020 between the central government of Ethiopia and the semi-autonomous province of Tigray - bordering Eritrea and Sudan - has raised fears of a wider conflict. Hundreds of people have already been killed, and the United Nations has warned of a massive refugee flow which has already begun toward Sudan, some 50,000 persons. Other persons have been displaced toward other provinces of Ethiopia Details are difficult to confirm as the central government has cut off all means of communication.


Ethiopia is a federal republic structured in 10 semi-autonomous provinces, largely organized along ethnic lines. Ethnic Tigrayans are some six percent of an estimated 110 million citizens. However, Tigayans, organized as the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), have played an important role in national politics during the last three decades and are relatively well off in a country with a stagnant and disorganized economy. In addition, Tigray has an estimated 250,000 military troops well trained and for some hardened by battle in the war with Eritrea. Thus an armed conflict with the central government could be long and bloody. The U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called for the de-escalation of the fighting and a start to efforts for the peaceful resolution of the conflict as has the African Union However, as of now, there have been no signs of a willingness to negotiate.

The Federal trops have advanced quickly and are reported to have taken the Tigray capital Mekelle., with a population of 500,000 before the fighting began It is thought that the Tigray authorities and most troops had left the city before tha arrival of the Federal troops. As communications have been cut and no foreign journalists are present, information comes indirectly from refugees in Sudan. Some observers believe that the Tigrey forces will attack in small groups, creating possibly long-lasting insecurity.

The conflict arises from a classic issue in highly diverse federal governments: the division of political and economic power between the central government and the provinces or states. The central government is led by Abiy Ahmed who came to power in 2018. The Tigray leadership is critical stating that the central government wants to centralize power in its own hand and that it has neglected Tigray. Some of the leaders of the other provinces agree and are also making demands for greater autonomy.

Tensions came to a head in September 2020 when elections for the parliament of Tigray were held against the wishes of the federal government who wanted all elections postponed due to the Coranavirus-19 health crisis. Thus, the central government said that the elections were "illegal" . Tigray replied by saying that it was claiming independence and wanted to leave the Ethiopian federation, a possibility, depending on the interpretation of the Ethiopian constitution.

Obviously, war is not the best way to deal with finding a balance of authority within federal structures. But we have seen the violence that grew out of the same issues in former Yugoslavia and in the breakup of the former Soviet Union. At this stage, we can only support the call of the U.N. Secretary-General and the African Union for a ceasefire and the start of negotiations in good faith.


Rene Wadlow, President, Association of World Citizens

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