EU and the War in Tigray
Written by George Meneshian, member of the Libertas Editorial Team
This article briefly describes the situation in Ethiopia and argues that the European Union should be a major geopolitical actor in Sub-Saharan Africa, as well as a peace mediator and the guarantor of human rights in Third World war-torn regions.
Since November 2020, Ethiopia, the most populous and diverse country in the Horn of Africa, has been experiencing a bloody civil war between pro-government forces and the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF). This ethnic conflict has both humanitarian and geopolitical impact: the war has led to an immense humanitarian crisis, mainly in the Tigray Region, while it has politically affected neighbouring countries as well. The European Union, although concerned about the situation in Ethiopia, had taken no major initiatives to mediate between the belligerents and has imposed no sanctions to those who have committed war crimes or/and crimes against humanity.
Background and events
Following the 1991 Ethiopian civil war and the fall of the communist regime, the TPLF-dominated ‘Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front’ (EPRDF) emerged as the dominant political force in the country. The rule of the EPRDF, although authoritarian, was based on an ethnic-based federalist system which ensured, to some extent, balance between the various ethnic and tribal forces of Ethiopia.
In 2018, the TPLF was ousted from the federal government and Abiy Ahmed was elected as chairman of the ERDF. Ahmed released thousands of political prisoners and stopped oppressing the opposition. He invited exiled media outlets to return and implemented economic reforms, while trying to limit the military’s role in politics. He also successfully mediated between rival factions within the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. In 2019 he invited opposition parties to merge with the ERDF and he founded the ‘Prosperity Party’. Ahmed was praised by the West as the leader who will bring democracy and peace in Ethiopia. His foreign policy was also praised by the international community; he agreed to fully implement the peace treaty signed with Eritrea in 2000 thus ending the conflict between the two countries. For his role in the resolving of the Ethiopian – Eritrean conflict he received the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize. Ahmed also tried to ease tensions with Sudan and Egypt.
Nevertheless, Ahmed left the hardliners of the TPLF outside the political system and refused to negotiate with them. His ‘Prosperity Party’, even though it initially advocated political and economic reforms, it promoted a centralised government, neglecting ethnic federalism thus leading to ethnic competition and eventually conflict; as a result, ethnic violence erupted in several regions of Ethiopia. In addition, following the establishment of the ‘Prosperity Party’, Ahmed’s government started acting less democratically: it initiated internet shutdowns, started arresting activists and journalists, closing domestic media outlets and suspending the press licence for certain international media outlets.
Ahmed’s government postponed the scheduled 2020 general elections citing COVID-19. The TPLF accused Ahmed of violating the Constitution, refused to recognise his legitimacy, and announced that regional elections in the Tigray Region will be held soon. Despite Ahmed’s attempts to cancel the electoral process in Tigray, elections were eventually held in September 2020. Pro-government parties boycotted the elections while the government declared the electoral process as unconstitutional and illegal. In order to face the TPLF’s defiance, Ahmed deployed forces of the federal military in Tigray. As a result, clashes erupted between the two sides.
In the beginning, pro-government forces advanced and threatened to capture Mekelle, the regional capital of Tigray. The TPLF resisted and started pushing back. It could not, however, expel the federal forces from the Western part of the region. In 2021, the TPLF forged an alliance with anti-government ethnic armed movements from other regions and managed to advance in the neighbouring regions of Amhara and Afar. In November, the TPLF forces and their allies were just 220km away from Addis Ababa, but government forces managed to repel the attack and recaptured several cities in Amhara. In late December, the TPLF announced that it would withdraw its forces from Tigray’s neighbouring regions and requested a ceasefire, while the government forces announced that they will not advance any deeper into Tigray. They continued, however, conducting airstrikes and drone attacks in Tigray.
The humanitarian aspect of the conflict
Both sides have committed war crimes in Tigray, according to the United Nations. Various human rights-affiliated groups, like the Genocide Watch, and even the Ethiopian Orthodox Patriarch argue that an on-going genocide is being directed against the country’s Tigrayan minority. The EU special envoy to Ethiopia, Pekka Haavisto has also accused several government officials of pledging to wipe out the Tigrayans.
At least 283 massacres have been reported in Tigray since the start of the war. Even after the unilateral proclaimed ceasefire by the TPLF, government forces have conducted several airstrikes and drone strikes against civilians and IDPs. Moreover, the conflict has led to a humanitarian crisis in the region; because of the limited humanitarian access to Tigray, hundreds of thousands of people are in famine condition in certain parts of the war-torn region; more than five million people have faced hunger and lacked basic supplies for more than a year. Food insecurity and violence (including sexual violence against women) have also led to internal displacement and emigration from Tigray to neighbouring regions as well as to Eritrea and Sudan.
In addition, many sources claim that, from November 2020 onwards, Tigrayans are discriminated against by state institutions and the military. Ethnic profiling against the Tigrayan minority has increased online hate speech against the community by several pro-government groups and individuals. More importantly, the government has implemented a de facto travel ban to Tigrayans, has fired state officials and public servants of Tigrayan heritage and has purged hundreds of Tigrayan soldiers participating in the Ethiopian-led African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia.
The Tigray War destabilises Eastern Africa
Apart from the human tragedy the conflict has caused, the geopolitical impact of the war is also important; Ethiopia is the largest and most populous state in the Horn of Africa, an already unstable region: two of Ethiopia’s neighbours, Somalia and South Sudan, are facing long standing conflicts.
The Tigray War immensely affects the Somali conflict, because the Ethiopian Armed Forces play a crucial role in the stabilisation of Somalia; Ethiopian forces are operating under the flag of the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia and the Ethiopians have provided the largest contingent of military personnel serving in the Somali mission which guarantees peace and stability against the jihadist Al Shabaab. Civil war in Ethiopia affects the Somali mission’s efficiency and allows Somali Islamists to operate in large parts of Somalia where Ethiopian soldiers were stationed.
Moreover, the Tigray War has allowed Eritrean forces to essentially invade Ethiopia and occupy parts of the Tigray Region. For the moment, the Ahmed government turn a blind eye on its neighbour’s military intervention because Eritrea is fighting against the TPLF. However, in case the war ends, the Ethiopian government will have to eventually deal with the Eritrean occupant forces, and this could lead to a new Ethiopian – Eritrean conflict.
In addition, the Tigray War has reignited the Ethiopian – Sudanese conflict over the disputed al-Fashaga border region. Despite the war against the TPLF, the Ethiopian government has sent troops to the disputed area. Sudan, which also faces a political crisis, has responded to Ethiopia by force, leading to a small-scale war between the two sides. Despite the al-Fashaga dispute, Sudan has concerns regarding the decision of the Ahmed government to further fill the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), in July 2021. The GERD project threatens Sudan and Egypt with scarcity. Following the start of war in Tigray, the Ethiopian government has taken several arbitrary decisions regarding GERD. The continuation of this policy could lead to severe problems with Sudan and Egypt.
Lastly, the Tigray War brought Ethiopia to the attention of powers such as China, Iran, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates. These states are backing the government, mainly by providing arms including drones. The use of drones helped pro-government forces to push the advancing rebels back to the northern part of the country. They were also used, however, against civilians and IDPs, according to various sources. The influence of powers such as the aforementioned, threatens democratic process and human rights promotion in Ethiopia and minimises EU presence in the Horn of Africa, which is of significant importance as passage from the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea.
The EU response
As already mentioned in the introduction, the response of the European Union in the Tigray war was not decisive; indeed, the EU has highlighted, in several instances, the need for a political instead of a military solution for the ongoing crisis in Tigray. It has also called the conflicting parties to implement a ceasefire and engage negotiations without preconditions, while it vocally supports African Union mediation efforts. Moreover, it has condemned war crimes and human rights abuses, has tried to provide aid to refugees and IDPs, and has suspended budget support for Ethiopia until humanitarian agencies are granted access to people in need of aid in the Tigray region.
Nevertheless, the EU has not used all its available foreign policy tools to push for a political dialogue; in summer 2021, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell announced that the EU was planning to impose sanctions against groups involved in the conflict. Imposing sanctions was again discussed last November. Despite the fragile unilateral ceasefire of last December, the Ethiopian government continues to cut humanitarian access to Tigray, while it continues conducting airstrikes and drone attacks against civilian targets and infrastructure. The EU has urged Ethiopia to lift the de facto blockade it has imposed on Tigray, but government forces continue to keep Tigrayan civilians unreachable. Last December, Mr. Borrell crisitised EU member-states for not imposing sanctions on the involved parties. Imposing sanctions to those who have committed war crimes or crimes against humanity is necessary. Otherwise, in case of renewed clashes, conflicting parties will not hesitate to commit, once again, such crimes.
The Tigray war is an opportunity for the EU to implement an efficient foreign policy towards its southern neighbourhood. Sub-Saharan Africa is quite important for Europe for several reasons: first, many migrants and asylum seekers originate from Africa. Second, this particular region of the world is facing immense problems such as conflicts, human rights abuses, democratic deficit, and crimes against humanity. Third, Africa is quickly becoming a geopolitical arena for powers such as Russia and China, two powers that will try to minimise the West’s presence in Africa.
The war in Tigray is not yet finished. The ceasefire is fragile, and clashes could be renewed, due to the absence of negotiations. This war is very dangerous for peace and stability in Eastern Africa; Ethiopia could disintegrate like Yugoslavia and a spillover in neighbouring states that are already facing conflicts and crises could further destabilise the Horn of Africa. Furthermore, the EU should have a zero-tolerance policy regarding ethnic cleansing and other crimes against humanity. In addition, the EU’s absence has allowed other powers such as China, Iran, and Turkey to intervene in Ethiopia and in an effort to establish a permanent political footprint in the Horn of Africa against Western interests. The EU has the capabilities to become a mediator and an active power that sanctions those groups and individuals that are violating Humanitarian Law. The rights of women, children and minorities in Ethiopia are at stake, and this is why the EU should take action in order to protect these groups of people and secure its presence to a region of strategic importance such as the Horn of Africa.
About the author:
George Meneshian (GR) is a member of Young Liberals Greece and has been selected as one of the Editors of “Libertas”, the online magazine of LYMEC. Currently, he is a Postgraduate Student at the University of St Andrews (MLitt Middle East, Caucasus and Central Asia Security Studies). He holds a bachelor’s degree on International, European and Area Studies from the Panteion University of Athens. He is the Research Coordinator of the Foreign Policy, Defence and Security Task Group at the Centre for Russia, Eurasia and North-eastern Europe (Institute of International Relations). Furthermore, he is a member and study contributor at the Hellenic Institute for Strategic Studies (HELISS). He is also a regular contributor (weekly foreign affairs analysis) to the Greek news website ‘liberal.gr’ and has published several articles and minor studies in various academic publications, electronic newspapers, and blogs. He is co-author of the book “The Greek-Albanian Relations: problems and perspectives”. He speaks Greek, Armenian, English, and French.
November 24 2023
November 20 2023
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