Unrest in the ‘Horn of Africa’ is causing international concerns

by Aakash Sharma

Unrest in the ‘Horn of Africa’ is causing international concerns

December 20, 2020

The air of conflict has been brewing in the African nation of Ethiopia ever since the Nobel Peace Prize winner Abiy Ahmed came to power as prime minister in 2018. He won office with the promise of peace in the ‘Horn of Africa’, banking on his record that included brokering peace deals in Eritrea and South Sudan.

But ever since PM Ahmed took power, Ethiopia has witnessed a series of ethnic conflicts and violent outbreaks, including the murders of many high-profile people and dissidents. Most recently, with bombings, assassinations and ethnic strife, the conflict between Abiy Ahmed and the former ruling party- Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), has developed a situation of civil war in the region.

TPLF was the largest party in Ethiopia that led a coalition of governing movements in the country from 1989 to 2018. The TLPF commands a large force of well-armed and experienced fighters who know the mountainous terrains of Tigray very well, owing to their years of experience fighting the erstwhile dictatorial forces in the country.

In 2018, the TPLF refused to merge into the Prosperity Party, the party led by Abiy Ahmed, which promised free elections and press freedom, among many other fundamental reforms. Subsequently, Ahmed’s government side-lined and prosecuted TPLF’s leaders for corruption and human rights abuses, escalating tensions between the government and the TPLF.

What are the most recent developments?

The unrest that festered over months took a violent turn on 13 Nov. 2020. The conflict escalated this week when Tigrayan forces in northern Ethiopia fired rockets across the border into Eritrea- the immediate neighbour of Ethiopia and a former adversary, claiming that the Ethiopian government was using an Eritrean airport to attack Tigray.

According to a BBC report, Tigrayan leader Debretsion Gebremichael is noted to be commanding his troops that are battling 16 divisions of the Eritrean army for past few days. Tigray’s leaders are also accusing Eritrean troops of entering Ethiopia to support the federal government in its fight against Tigray.


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Ahmed, an Ethiopian migrant traveling through Djibouti, has walked for five days straight. He travels mostly at night to avoid the sun’s heat. Photo credit: IOM 2017 / Muse Mohammed.

Why are Tigray and Eritrea so hostile?

The hatred between the Tigrayans and Eritrea has its roots in the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea fought between 1998 and 2000. According to the New York Times, a significant part of TLPF’s current leadership is formed by veterans who participated in the Eritrean-Ethiopian War as part of the Tigrayan Army. The animosity continues to this day.

This war, which took place some two decades ago, was extremely brutal and resulted in the thousands of deaths. In fact, the incumbent Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to achieve peace with Eritrea; but despite these efforts for peace in the region, a perpetual state of hostility remains between Eritrean leadership and the leaders of Tigray in Ethiopia as the war’s bi-product.

Internal Cracks in Ethiopia

In Ethiopia, the Ahmed led Prosperity Party has accused the TPLF leadership of undermining the government’s authority. TPLF’s temerity became apparent when in September 2020, the Tigray region held parliamentary elections despite the federal government’s decision to delay elections until the end of the COVID-19 pandemic in the country. The Prime Minister deemed the election illegal.

International Concerns

What is concerning the international community is that if the conflict were to spill outside Ethiopia’s borders, it may potentially destabilise the Horn of Africa region. And as Eritrea became involved in the conflict earlier this week, it appears that these concerns were not unfounded. The US and China have several strategic military bases in that region, the closest being Djibouti (East Africa).

“The stability of Ethiopia is important for the entire Horn of Africa region. I call for an immediate de-escalation of tensions and a peaceful resolution to the dispute,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres wrote in a tweet last week.

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According to the World Health Organization, drought in developing countries like Ethiopia disproportionately affects the health of women and children due to the lack of access to food and clean water. [Will Baxter/CRS]

Reuters reported on November 16 that Russian President Vladimir Putin had approved earlier this week the establishment of a Russian naval base in Sudan that could “reduce the number of nuclear-powered surface-to-air ships.” This is being done in an effort to create a Russian stronghold in the region that already houses two superpowers, the US and China. This would be Moscow’s first major base in Africa would be clear since the fall of the Soviet Union. If these military bases and facilities were to be impacted in any way, it might cause foreign powers to get militarily involved in the region’s conflict.

With many Ethiopians fleeing to the neighbouring country Sudan for taking refuge from war and assets of international superpowers strategically placed in the region, the country could inadvertently be drawn into a war. Earlier this year, Sudan had already participated in a dispute between Ethiopia and Egypt over the construction of Ethiopia’s largest Renaissance dam on the Blue Nile, indicating the widening of cracks in the Horn of Africa.

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