• Owen Swift

Episode 48. The Shattering of Ethiopia - The War in Tigray

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Rundown:

With the attention of the world focused elsewhere, a conflict that threatens the stability of an entire continent has slipped under the radar. Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict has rapidly spiralled out of control, decimating their Armed Forces and sending the country toward the brink of collapse. With few options left, the now desperate Ethiopian Government is recalling their peacekeepers from dozens of hotspots across Africa, opening the door for conflicts throughout the continent to reignite.

Guests:

Kjetil Tronvoll

  • Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Bjorknes University in Norway.

  • Director of the think tank Oslo Analytica

  • Renowned author on East African issue and conflicts

Alan Boswell

  • Senior analyst for the Crisis Group specialising in the Horn of Africa

  • Associate at the London School of Economics' research program

  • Host of the East Africa focused podcast The Horn

Alex De Waal

  • Executive Director of the World Peace Foundation

  • Professor at the Fletcher School in Tufts University

  • One of the leading experts on East Africa, trusted by organisations from the BBC to the US government.

Part 1: The Mosaic (2:50)

  • Tronvoll takes us through the make-up of the mosaic country that is Ethiopia, looking at the states and various cultural and ethnics groups that constitute it, including how it remained the only uncolonised African state, and its communist revolution and period.

  • We look at Ethiopian history as it relates to this conflict, tracking the historical events and trends that have played a part in the situation as it stands today, and the enormous role that Tigrayans and the TPLF have played in the leadership of the country.

  • Focusing in on the conflict itself, we analyse the build-up, beginning, parties involved, and the nature of each of these factors and how they've impacted the conflict as it has progressed.

  • Abiy Ahmed has been an unusual leader for the country, being not Tigrayan, instituting a series of radical reforms, and ending the 20 year conflict with Eritrea. We look at his rise to power, his successes, and his failures, as well as the extent of responsibility he bears for this conflict.

  • We nail down the details of how the conflict began, from Abiy's peace treaty with Eritrea that would lead them to get involved in the fight against the TPLF in Tigray, to the nitty gritty of the political battle and constitutional details over the October 2020 election.

  • Zooming out, Tronvoll also helps us understand the regional impacts of the conflict. The Ethiopian-Eritrean Peace Treaty created the ground for the two governments to work together to try and defeat the TPLF. The failure of this plan however has weakened the central government in Ethiopia to the extent that it can no longer effectively control its own territory, which may lead to various other insurrections and attempts to redraw borders from other states within Ethiopia.


Part 2: In Denial (44:53)

  • Alan Boswell takes us through the international involvement in the conflict, or lack thereof. We look at the potential actors who could get involved, and what their respective alignments, interests, and capacities are.

  • We look at the regional interests of Egypt and Sudan, particularly their tensions over dams like the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Western nations are focused on humanitarian aid only. Eritrea has unclear goals and alignments, but are heavily involved.

  • Boswell analyses the potential consequences of Ethiopia's collapse. The East Africa region has a history of proxy conflicts, porous borders, and instability, and if Ethiopia shattered the consequences would be deeply felt not only in the immediate region in countries like Somalia, Sudan, and South Sudan, but also throughout the continent.

Part 3: It Can Only Get Worse From Here (58:45)

  • Alex De Waal provides us with extensive details of the horrendous situation on the ground. The Ethiopian people have suffered tens of thousands of casualties, widespread rape, homelessness, and now starvation. The war crimes committed by both sides are horrific, and show little sign of slowing down.

  • De Waal outlines that in his decades of experience studying famine and conflict, the situation in Tigray and Ethiopia over the last eight months is the worst he has ever seen. The widespread, systematic abuses by the Ethiopian Government against the people of Tigray are horrific, and in his view verge on genocide.

  • To understand the conflict better, we go through the three stages of the conflict so far. First was a conventional assault by combined Ethiopian forces, Eritrean forces, and likely UAE drones. This was followed by a mass mobilisation and militarisation by Tigrayans in response to the territorial losses and atrocities, and an extraordinary turnaround of the conflict which saw them defeat and destroy the majority of Ethiopia's armed forces. The phase which we are currently in sees the Ethiopian government attempting to siege the region, and the Tigrayans seeking to control critical infrastructure near them that will give them leverage over the government.

  • The situation now is coming to a head, and will likely either result in a rapidly negotiated settlement in the next few weeks, or a full escalation that could result in the collapse of Ethiopia as a country.

  • We analyse the difficulties the Tigrayan forces are facing - primarily a lack of arms and fuel, and a lack of international support. De Waal helps us understand their tactics, and the potential avenues they have to deal with their lack of resources. If Sudan were to side with them and help them out, it could potentially escalate the conflict region-wide, which may not be to their advantage.

  • We look at the wider consequences of the conflict and Ethiopia's potential collapse. This includes Ethiopian peacekeepers being recalled, which threatens to reignite conflicts throughout Africa, and the abuses committed by the Ethiopian army likely means they will no longer qualify as peacekeepers. Replacing them is no easy task, particularly on a short time scale.

  • Finally we analyse the end game for each side, the other states within Ethiopia, and the role of the international community in the conflict.

The Red Line's Tigray Conflict Reading List:

We’ve put together some further reading for those of you looking for more resources to help you get across the geopolitics of Ethiopia and the War in Tigray.


Books:

Ethiopian-Eritrean Wars

Tom Cooper


Evil Days: 30 Years of War and Famine in Ethiopia

Alex De Waal


The State of Africa

Martin Meredith


Articles/Journals:

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This episode is dedicated to Patreon members Bryan Sorenson, Paul Erik Frivold, and Zach Peretti.