Ann Fitz-Gerald is the director of the Balsillie School of International Affairs. She is a professor of international security and has supported internationally-sponsored peace talks in the Horn of Africa.
Just six months ago, during Canada’s final diplomatic push to bring African nations behind its bid for a seat on the United Nations Security Council, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau paid a week-long visit to Ethiopia. The PM spent considerable time with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for brokering an end to a tense stalemate between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 2018, and promised to strike an investment agreement with him.
Today, the eyes of the international community are now fixed on Ethiopia for other, more dire reasons. Mr. Abiy’s Ethiopian Prosperity Party (EPP) is locked in conflict with its former coalition-government partner, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). This domestic dispute has potential international consequences, because for the past 20 years, Ethiopia – the second-most populous country in Africa – has played a critical role in stabilizing the Horn of Africa. Nestled in a difficult area that shares borders with conflict-ridden states such as South Sudan, Sudan, Somalia and Eritrea, Ethopia serves as the main gateway to the African continent’s diplomatic community, making Ethiopia’s complex tensions with the TPLF important for its allies – including new ones, such as Canada – to understand.
Following the 1987 overthrow of the Derg military regime, Tigrayans led the coalition government that was created in its wake – the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) – for 28 years. Its “ethnic federalist” governance model, which acknowledged that Ethiopia was home to more than 80 ethnic groups, was underpinned by a heavy central rule, proxy satellite parties, a strong central security apparatus and a developmental state-building model that often prioritized rapid economic growth over democracy. Starting in 2015, protests ripped through Oromia and Amhara, the two most populous ethnoregional states, and the EPRDF acknowledged responsibility for the unrest. Then-prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn resigned, and the party voted in the Oromia state party’s chairman, Mr. Abiy, who then purged the TPLF from the senior ranks of the security sector.
Many TPLF members returned to their roots in Tigray – a region that had remained relatively armed since its insurgency campaign against the Derg decades before. This, combined with an absence of reconciliation and reintegration efforts, sparked the growth of a regional security apparatus led by experienced and disgruntled former officials.
In 2019, Mr. Abiy rebranded the EPRDF coalition as the EPP, leading the TPLF to sever all ties. Then, when the government postponed the 2020 federal elections, citing COVID-19, the TPLF deemed that decision unconstitutional, refused to recognize Mr. Abiy’s legitimacy and forged ahead with elections in Tigray. After a landslide victory, the TPLF demanded that a caretaker government, without Mr. Abiy as its leader, oversee talks. The EPP, which had in turn declared Tigray’s elections unconstitutional, refused to co-operate on these terms, and redirected regional funding around the Tigray regional government to local authorities. On Oct. 24, the TPLF refused to allow for a change of command in the federal military’s northern command in Tigray. Mr. Abiy declared that a red line had been crossed, and deployed forces to “restore the rule of law” to address “rogue political actors.”
As the national military draws closer to Tigray’s regional capital of Mekelle, hundreds have reportedly been killed. It is likely that the TPLF will face resource shortages – which is perhaps why TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael has publicly mulled the idea of “negotiations”. The TPLF will now be counting on friends made over 28 years of global networking to insist on externally sponsored negotiations; the challenge here, however, is that states normally engage with states, not breakaway political groups.
Amid growing concern for thousands fleeing into neighbouring Sudan, airstrikes reportedly targeting weapon stores and fuel depots continue. TPLF claims concerning Eritrea’s involvement, and planes being shot down, have been denounced by the government. The only lever left for the TPLF may be to accuse Mr. Abiy’s government of civilian atrocities which, whilst still unknown, may be difficult to verify amid allegations of weapons pilfering and halted networks. But Mr. Abiy’s government will regard itself as legitimate, entrusted with upholding constitutional commitments and the rule of law.
If Canada does not involve itself in these tensions, Canadians would be right to question Mr. Trudeau’s words from earlier this year. A protracted conflict in Ethiopia would pull the troops it has deployed across the Horn region, which could dangerously undermine stability. Ottawa should support Ethiopians and the Horn of Africa more broadly by calling for an immediate ceasefire between both sides, and for national dialogue to start in earnest.
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