Signal Risk on Ethiopia – My enemy’s enemy

PUBLISHED: Tue, 31 Aug 2021 15:27:50 GMT
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*This analysis was produced by the team at Signal Risk 

On 26 August, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) published details on a wave of deadly violence that occurred in the East Wollega zone of Oromia region on 18 and 19 August. According to the commission, more than 210 people were killed in a series of ethnic-based attacks in the Giga Kiremu area of East Wollega, which is home to ethnic Oromo and Amharan communities.

Ethnic animosity

The violence reportedly began when federal and Amhara forces withdrew from Gida Kiremu for unknown reasons. Shortly thereafter, militants affiliated with the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) – a splinter from the Oromo Liberation Front political party – targeted Amharan settlements in the area; 150 people were killed in the incursion. This triggered a series of reciprocal attacks between Amharan and Oromo civilians in the area on 19 August, which resulted in a further 60 fatalities.

It is unclear how the conflict cycle came to an end, and facts around the violence have been disputed by Amhara interest groups and the OLA.

The Amhara Association of America (AAA) – one of the largest Amhara diaspora collectives – corroborated the account by the EHRC, noting in a circular that “at least 135 Amhara were killed and hundreds of homes destroyed in the 18 August attack by suspected members of OLA militias”. In contrast, the OLA has accused both organisations of grossly distorting facts regarding the incident. As per the OLA, the fatalities in Gida Kiremu were a result of clashes between OLA fighters and Amhara militias, as opposed to incursions against civilians.

Convenient allies

The violence in East Wollega comes exactly a week after the OLA formally confirmed its partnership with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). As per an 11 August statement by OLA leader Kumsa Diriba (also known as Jaal Marroo), the allegiance was cemented “a few weeks ago” following a proposal by the TPLF.

In terms of the nature of the cooperation, Diriba noted that the two groups share battlefield information (and fight on different fronts) with the goal of overthrowing the administration of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed militarily. More significantly, Diriba alluded to the possibility of new political alliances against the incumbent regime, echoing earlier remarks by TPLF spokesperson Getachew Reda. However, both figures withheld further information on the political and military arrangements of their accord.

Calling for backup

The federal government has not been idle in the face of this synergistic threat. Shortly after the statement by the OLA leader, government spokeswoman Billene Seyoum denounced the ties between the two groups. She also accused the dissident movements – which are designated as terrorist organisations – of “leading destructive activities against the stability of the nation”.

More concretely, Prime Minister Ahmed has undertaken efforts to bolster the federal counteroffensive. First, on 10 August, Ahmed called on “all capable Ethiopians” to join national and regional armed forces to combat the TPLF and its armed wing, the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF). Ahmed went to note that “now is the right time for all capable Ethiopians who are of age to join the defence forces, special forces, and militias and show your patriotism”.

The most significant counter-response though, came from the United States (US) and European Union (EU) in a series of communiques. EU officials published an internal memorandum on 20 August stating that Eritrea was sending reinforcements across the border into Tigray. The memorandum, which was seen by the Reuters news agency, claims that Eritrean troops had already deployed to western Tigray, and had taken up defensive positions, armed with tanks and artillery, near the towns of Adi Goshu and Humera. The EU memorandum was echoed on 23 August by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who noted in a statement that the US is concerned that large numbers of Eritrean forces have re-entered Ethiopia after withdrawing in June.

Eritrea’s re-entry into the Tigray conflict follows a meeting between Ahmed and his Eritrean counterpart, Isaias Afwerki, in Asmara, while the Ethiopian prime minister was en route to Turkey on 17 August.

Assessment

The formal declaration of ties between the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) and Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) confirms long-held suspicions that the Oromo militant group serves as a proxy for the Tigray organisation. Allegiances between groups from rival ethnicities to challenge a mutual enemy are relatively common in Ethiopia’s history, and have been a strategy used to some success by the TPLF. The most significant among such alliances was the country’s former ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). This was the outcome of an alliance between myriad ethnic organisations – including Tigray, Oromo and Amharan entities – pieced together in the 1980s by the TPLF to challenge the Marxist Derg regime of former dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam. After being dislodged from power in 2018, the TPLF also relied on proxies in the Somali region to destabilise the erstwhile nascent administration of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. However, the insurrection – by the region’s Liyu police and other security bodies – was successfully snuffed out by the federal government.

The attack by the OLA may portend an uptick in the group’s activity following the confirmation of ties with the TPLF, while giving some indication of the strategy that it is likely to deploy in its insurgency. For one, it is common among insurgent groups to commemorate new ties with “spectacular” attacks. Moreover, as per its apparent agreement with the TPLF, the OLA is likely to open a new front in its operational strongholds in western Oromia, southern Amhara, eastern Benishangul-Gumuz and the northern SNNPR administrative regions. Here, it may use guerrilla tactics to target federal, regional, and civilian interests. There is a marginal concern that it may undertake a campaign of economic sabotage, manifest as an attack on key infrastructure linked to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which is situated in the Benishangul-Gumuz region. However, the group has yet to include such tactics in its modus operandi. Most concerningly, it may seek to exacerbate ethnic cleavages between the Oromo, Amhara and Gumuz people in its areas of operation through targeted attacks that are intended to catalyse a more organic cycle of violence, especially between the Amhara and Oromo communities. In addition to further destabilising western Ethiopia, such violence could compromise ties between the Oromo-led federal government and Amharan regional authorities.

In the political realm, the OLA and TPLF will seek to establish ties with groups from other regions that share a common enemy in the federal government. In Oromia, they may reach out to the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF); and in Amhara, they may reach out to the National Movement of Amhara (NAMA). At the outset, the OFC, OLF and NAMA will likely be sceptical of any allegiance with the TPLF given the fact that the leadership of all three groups was persecuted under the TPLF-led EPRDF. Nevertheless, precedent suggests that the groups could be brought together by common grievances with the leadership of Ahmed – whose perceived authoritarian slant is seen as increasingly similar to that of the EPRDF – and a shared ideology in ethnic federalism. In the event that such a coalition is formalised, the groups could lead a civic campaign in their respective regions of Oromia and Amhara, akin to the anti-government protests of 2016. Their engagement in more combative resistance can also not be ruled out.

The decision by the federal government to authorise the return of Eritrean forces indicates that it is struggling to contain the TPLF-led insurgency; however, Eritrean forces could shift the battleground initiative. The offensive by the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF) – codenamed Operation Alula – has seen the organisation reclaim large swathes of territory in Tigray that were held by federal forces. Frontlines have also shifted from deep within Tigray to the doorsteps of Amhara and Afar. Given the prospect of an uptick in activity by the OLA, the federal government and its allies may struggle to contain the plurality of threats. In light of this, the redeployment of Eritrean forces is strategically sound. As was the case in the early stages of the conflict, Eritrea’s entry will force the TDF to fight on multiple fronts against two state armies and a plurality of regional armies. While the Tigray group has demonstrated significant battleground prowess thus far given the success of Operation Alula, it may not be able to withstand the multipronged assault. In the immediate term, rather than sue for peace, it is more likely to abandon its conventional offensive and return to more guerrilla tactics.

While Eritrean forces could shift the balance of the conflict in favour of the federal government, it will come at a political and diplomatic cost. Given deep-seated animosity towards the Eritreans, especially in Tigray, their reinforced presence will further dampen public perception towards Ahmed and his administration. Accordingly, it may be leveraged by the TPLF as a recruitment mechanism and a means to persuade other groups to join its cause. Diplomatically, it will reignite concerns over human rights violations, given Eritrean forces’ reputed disregard for international norms. Depending on the nature and scale of violations – and the degree to which Ethiopian forces are complicit – this could result in the imposition of bilateral sanctions on the Ethiopian government and hamper engagement with multilateral institutions.

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