Counting the Cost of Ethiopia’s Tigray Crisis

By Daniel Orogo

The 12-month-long war between Tigrayan Peoples Liberation Forces (TPLF) and the Ethiopian Federal Government’s National Defence Force (ENDF) and allies was majorly contained in the Tigray region. However, recent reports indicate that the rebel groups have steadily gained ground and captured Dessie and Kombolcha in the Amhara region on 30th October 2021. 

With the capture of these strategic cities, the fighting is spreading into the neighbouring regions of Amhara, Afar, and could get into the Oromia region. The rebel forces are reportedly planning to advance towards Kemise, about 325km from Addis Ababa. 

However, what does the ongoing conflict portend to the – socio, the economic, political environment in the region and Africa? And what are the current efforts and actions by Kenya and the international community aimed at stabilizing the region?

The regional and international politics at play 

Ethiopia is a crucial prize in the scramble for influence and power in the Horn of Africa and the broader Red Sea region. With its natural resources, a population of 110 million, and well-equipped military, Ethiopia has become an African power. Moreover, the nation’s capital, Addis Ababa, hosts the African Union headquarters, and the country is one of the few African nations never colonized. Ethiopia has accordingly long played an outsized role in African and sub-regional politics, reports Michael Horton in his publication of the ‘Terrorist Monitor’ 17th December 2020. 

For over a decade, successive Ethiopian governments have navigated treacherous regional and global politics by maintaining relations with diverse geopolitical actors. On the global level, Ethiopia has been—and remains—an important US ally, while China accounts for an enormous volume of foreign direct investment into Ethiopia.  

At the regional level, Ethiopia has avoided becoming entangled in the Gulf’s acrimonious power politics between Saudi Arabia and the UAE and their two main adversaries, Qatar and Turkey. Nevertheless, all four countries provide Ethiopia with financial aid and private investment across multiple areas, especially its crucial agricultural sector. Turkey and the UAE, despite being regional rivals, also both maintain high-level military-to-military relations with Ethiopia.

The ongoing war, which began on 3rd November 2020, will test Ethiopia’s strategy of balancing the interests of outside powers with its own need for domestic investment. It also presents these same outside powers with new opportunities to enhance their relationship with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali (East African, 7th November). 

The economic implications of the Ethiopian war 

According to Redwan Hussein, the Spokesman for Ethiopia’s Tigray Emergency Response Taskforce, a team meant to rebuild the region, the country has lost about $2.3 billion in damaged infrastructure. The loss equals half the cost of the Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam [GERD], which incidentally is supposed to be refilled for the second time.

However, downstream, Sudan and Egypt have protested Hussein’s assertions, terming them misleading and meant to divert the previous agreement made by Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt to contribute to rebuilding the Renaissance Dam for the three countries’ economic gains. 

Meanwhile, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has set inflation at 25%, while Fitch, Moody’s, and S&P have revised the Ethiopian status downwards to the lowest grade, pushing credits away.

Millions of jobs at risk if the US delists Ethiopia from AGOA

Ethiopia is among African countries that qualify for duty-free access to the US market under the African Growth and Opportunities Act (AGOA), a trade deal established by the US in the year 2000. 

On 3rd November 2021, US President Joe Biden indicated plans to remove Ethiopia from AGOA if all actors do not agree on possible interventions to stop the conflicts in Ethiopia. In a letter to the US Congress, he additionally cited “gross violations” of human rights for his decision.  

However, the Ethiopian government has called for the reversal of the decision, saying the US should not punish people for confronting an ‘insurgent force’. Officials had previously said that Ethiopia’s removal from AGOA could put one million jobs at risk. Of note is that the ongoing conflict has blocked crucial trade routes in the region and scared potential foreign investment. This factor might plunge the country further into a more profound economic and financial crisis. 

The social impacts 

BBC Africa News on 3rd November 2021 reported that thousands had been killed and more than two million fled their homes while 400,000 people live in “famine-like conditions in the yearlong violence in the Tigrayan region. 

The conflict has caused a massive humanitarian crisis as well. The United Nations’ children’s agency, UNICEF, reports that more than 100,000 children in Tigray could suffer life-threatening malnutrition conditions. At the same time, half of the pregnant and breastfeeding women screened in the region are acutely malnourished.

Additionally, food and nutrition experts have also alerted that an estimated 400,000 people in Tigray are experiencing “catastrophic levels of hunger. All aid routes into Tigray have been vandalized or blocked except for one road from the Afar region where food convoys were recently attacked, reportedly by the pro-government military. 

The ongoing war has presumed consequences of the refugee crisis in the region. For example, with already 2million displaced persons, neighbouring countries like Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, and Djibouti might be forced to handle an influx of refugees fleeing from conflicts, humanitarian crisis, unemployment estimated, and instability in Ethiopia. 

Is it too late for peace reconciliation in Ethiopia? 

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed should reach an amicable agreement with Tigrayan leaders to avoid further disintegration. 

For example, Abiy should seek a deal with TPLF, which is likely to involve an Amhara withdrawal from western Tigray in exchange for a Tigrayan pledge to have the territorial dispute addressed politically in the future, as recommended by Crisis Group in June 2020, months before the war erupted. Equally, Tigrayan leaders, on their part, should stop their further advances and soften the transitional government demand. 

Kenya remains a strategic regional partner and critical international player in peace and security and must boldly step in to restore peace and stability in Ethiopia. 

On 3rd November, President Uhuru Kenyatta as chair of the East African Community (EAC), President of the office of the Organization of African, Pacific, and Caribbean States (OACPS) and as Africa’s representative in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), appealed to the Ethiopian government and TPLF to stop fighting and end the suffering of the Ethiopians. He termed the war as a crisis that might escalate into civil war. 

He further visited Ethiopia on 14th November and held discussions with the top governmental leadership that included Prime Minister Abiy and President Sahle- Work Zewde, to push for an end to the conflict.

Key international players such as the US and European Union, who share a similar level of alarm over events in Ethiopia, must urgently work in concert to prevent further unravelling. On 17th November, US secretary of state Anthony Blinken, while visiting Kenya as part of a three-country tour of Africa, discussed the Ethiopian crisis and the African effort to resolve it led by former Nigeria president Olusegun Obasanjo, reports VOA news.

While these show a concerted effort, more international actors with direct access to Abiy – such as UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, WFP director Beasley and the United Arab Emirates ruler Mohamed Bin Zayed – should continue to implore him to stop the federal government from sponsoring human rights abuses, grant access for humanitarian aid and media to some areas and initiate dialogue with rebel forces.  

With a commitment to homegrown solutions for reconciliation by all actors, to regional and international joint efforts to restore peace and security, Ethiopia can be pulled back from the brink of collapse to becoming Africa’s beacon of hope.

Mr Orogo is a governance and political expert

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