Ethiopia Risks Descent Into Civil War as Tensions Flare
(Bloomberg) -- Ethiopia’s leader ordered the military to respond to an alleged attack on an army camp in the restive Tigray region, escalating a standoff between the federal and state governments.
Military operations began in Tigray overnight and a six-month state of emergency has been declared in the northern region, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s spokeswoman Billene Seyoum said by phone on Wednesday. The intervention came after Abiy on Tuesday accused the region’s ruling Tigray People’s Liberation Front of orchestrating the raid on the camp.
“Our defense forces, under the command of the Command Post, have been ordered to carry out their mission to save the country,” Abiy said on Facebook.
The impasse comes as the central government struggles to end ethnic violence shaking Africa’s second-most populous country. It risks deteriorating into a full-blown conflict that could draw in neighboring states including Eritrea, whose president has long been at odds with Tigrayan leaders.
The Tigray region is already heavily militarized because of its proximity to Eritrea, which fought a war with Ethiopia from 1998-2000. The Northern Command that’s situated in Tigray comprises more than half of the armed forces’ total personnel and mechanized divisions, according to the International Crisis Group.
“The developments overnight are truly terrifying,” said Nic Cheeseman, a professor of democracy at the University of Birmingham. “If we do not see a de-escalation of tensions and moves toward outright military confrontation, Ethiopia is heading for a civil war that could easily escalate beyond Tigray, calling into question the country’s very existence.”
The yield on Ethiopia’s Eurobonds due 2024 jumped 68 basis points to 6.93% by 12:11 p.m. in London, the biggest increase in six months.
Relations between Tigray and Abiy’s government have been strained since Abiy took office in 2018 and sidelined the TPLF, once the pre-eminent power broker in Ethiopia. Last month, the federal parliament ordered the Treasury to halt direct budgetary support to the Tigrayan administration for defying an order to postpone regional elections. Tigray’s leaders said the withholding of funding was unconstitutional and tantamount to a declaration of war.
Ethiopian government officials this week accused the Tigray People’s Liberation Front of supporting a militia group, the Oromo Liberation Front-Shane, that it accuses of a massacre in which at least 32 people died. The TPLF has denied any involvement. On Tuesday, members of the nation’s House of Representatives called for the designation of the TPLF and the OLF-Shane as terrorist groups.
Tensions were further exacerbated last week when the federal government attempted to reshuffle the military leadership stationed on the Eritrean border, where a considerable number of troops are based.
While the upper house of Ethiopia’s parliament warned that a military intervention against Tigray could be justified, Abiy had said he wouldn’t resort to force to quash dissent.
With Abiy ordering the military to intervene, phone lines and the internet were cut off in Tigray as of 1 a.m. local time, according to Netblocks, which tracks Internet disruptions globally. The Tigray Regional Administration banned flights in its airspace and all other forms of transport, warning it would respond to any acts of aggression, according to a statement read on state-run Tigrai TV.
“This conflict is not between the Tigray region and the federal government,” State Minister of Foreign Affairs Redwan Hussein told reporters in Addis Ababa. “This conflict is between a very small group, with narrow vested interests, which is hell-bent on destabilizing the national order.”
Ethiopia, which is divided into 10 ethnically based and politically autonomous regions, has seen sporadic conflict since Abiy took power in 2018 and began opening up the country’s once-tightly regulated political space. He welcomed rebel groups and opposition members and released hundreds of political prisoners, and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019.
But violence increased in recent months following the killing of Hachalu Hundessa, a songwriter and activist from the Oromia region, the nation’s largest and most populous, and home to the capital Addis Ababa. In September, unidentified gunmen in the Benishangul-Gumuz region of western Ethiopia killed dozens of people and displaced hundreds.
Another dozen civilians were killed in the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ Region in October, and several others lost their lives in the Afar region in the same month, according to the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission.
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