Often it is all about history when conflict erupts in the Horn (or anywhere else for that matter). The narrative of the start of the conflict is a frequently rehearsed one: allegedly the TPLF had attacked a federal military base. This may or may not be true, who can tell? But it is a similar narrative to one when the 1998-2000 war between Eritrean and Ethiopia started: Then, allegedly, in a disputed border area, Ethiopian troop had killed Eritrean soldiers – and this required a firm military response. Ultimately, here were the Tigrayans again, in the form of the TPLF now, who were pushing above their weight and needed to be put into their place.
This time, it comes at the back of three decades of TPLF-dominance of the whole of Ethiopia, a dominance that sort of ended with the death of Meles Zenawi, but its real end came from April 2018 when Abiy took office. Much has been written about the dynamics since, the ways in which the TPLF increasingly challenged federal government orders and withdrew its engagement – in some ways a rehearsal of a sort of strategic retreat to its heartland. More generally, Tigrayans have a proud, even if often unsuccessful, history of contesting the power of the centralised Ethiopian state, a state that in fact has been in flux for much of its history.
The immediate reaction of the international community, as in most such cases, centred on calls for a ceasefire and some form of national dialogue. But such calls seem to fail to understand the underlying dynamcis behind the Abiy’s decision to call in the army. A national dialogue was already passé once the TPLF declined to stay in the fold of the new party Prosperity Party Abiy formed to replace the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the coalition that had emerged in the war against the Derg and had been the vehicle for the Tigrayan (de-facto TPLF) grip on power.
The TPLF was never likely to respond kindly to being purged from key positions of influence. At the same time, Abiy used a similar rhetoric as TPLF arch-rival Eritrea, in accusing it of treacherous behaviour. It now seems in the same way as Eritrea and Ethiopia would not have made peace under the old TPLF-dominated leadership of the EPRDF, the same is likely to be true between the TPLF and Abiy. The TPLF (or most of it) does not want secession but rather remain a respected part of the future of Ethiopia – but believe this cannot be achieved as long as Abiy is in power, which makes negotiations with him pointless, from their perspective.
Abiy may hope the federal army’s military power will be enough to win the day, and that federal troops will manage to topple the TPLF this time, unlike when they fought the Derg and prevailed. Then, of course, the TPLF could partly draw on EPLF support, even if the relationship between both movements was always characterised by complex contradictory dynamics. Now, Eritrea is perhaps the only power in the region welcoming Abiy’s move, as both are united by a deep distrust or even hate of the TPLF. Whether Eritrea plays an active role in the current military action is hard to verify, as claims and counter-claims circulate on social media and in other networks, claims that speak more to the ideological beliefs of those who put them out than the truth. What seems likely that at least the Eritrean side allows federal Ethiopian army staff access to its territory to recuperate.
But even if on the surface the federal troops prevail and march into the regional capital Mekelle, this is unlikely to be the end of the story. Not only does Tigray have battle-hardened regional forces, but the TPLF has reportedly also taken control of some of the Ethiopian National Defence Forces Northern Command in Tigray, plus military hardware. One can easily imagine how some of those forces may withdraw to remote locations in the province, ready to strike again in future, at a suitable time, even if Mekelle was taken. Thus any victory now may simply be the pause for the next battle. And as could have been seen from relations with Eritrea and the deep hatred that now connects the TPLF and the EPLF, former brothers in arms often become the deepest and most intransigent enemies.
While other regional forces may all be horrified by the prospect of a wider civil war in Ethiopia, what way Sudan may respond seems less clear. For now, Sudanese forces at the border seem keen not to get involved, but refugees from Tigray are allowed across the border. They come in large numbers and bring horrible stories of random killings with them. And history may repeat itself in other ways again: With crops failing and a locus pest already prevalent in Tigray, a famine-like situation may be on the horizon. For those old enough to remember, memories of the 1984 famine will resurface, a time when the EPLF hindered food supplies to the TPLF, one of the epicentres of that famine, and salvation came with a new road the TPLF built to Sudan. Today, the Ethiopian federal government is depriving Tigray of resources, a move likely to deepen animosity against that government.
Already an immediate toxic buy-product of the military campaign is a sense of deep insecurity for Tigrayans wherever they live, as all now seem to be regarded as a kind of fifth column of the TPLF. When speaking to Ethiopian colleagues and friends in the diaspora who are of Tigrayan background, they are all deeply worried about relatives and friends back home. Even those who have few links to Tigray but were actually born or lived most of their lives in Addis Ababa seem now reduced to an ethnic identity they often have little connection to. For the future of Ethiopia as a federal state where everybody can live in dignity, this is a bad omen indeed.