Tigray conflict will be short-lived but long-term impacts significant

  • Africa
  • Political and Economic Risk Monitoring
Patricia Rodrigues

Patricia Rodrigues

Tigray conflict will be short-lived but long-term impacts significant

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on 25 November said the army would begin an assault on the Tigray regional capital Mekelle, after the 72-hour deadline for the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) to “surrender peacefully” lapsed,
  • We maintain that the conflict is likely to remain largely confined to Tigray regional state and that military action will come to an end in the coming months.
  • Nonetheless, the security environment in Tigray has sharply deteriorated and is likely to remain volatile over the coming years.
  • Although the conflict is unlikely to severely destabilise the government, it will likely drive increasing centralisation efforts by Abiy, resulting in persistent political uncertainty.
  • The conflict will undermine both Abiy’s international image and his reform agenda, reducing Ethiopia’s attractiveness as an investment destination.

“Final offensive”

Prior to the 72-hour ultimatum, Abiy had previously announced that the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF – army) was preparing a “final offensive” in Tigray in the coming days. The ENDF has reportedly captured the towns of Axum and Adawa, and military spokesperson Col Dejene Tsegaye said that it was in the process of encircling Mekelle with tanks.

The UN has urged the federal government to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure, but humanitarian organisations say that are unable to access Tigray. The African Union (AU) has appointed envoys to mediate in the crisis. However, federal authorities have insisted that negotiations are not taking place with Abiy asking international actors not to “interfere”. Both sides continue to report military successes, but information has been hard to verify amid a telecommunications blackout across the Tigray regional state.

Drivers of conflict

The TPLF has experienced a dramatic fall from power since Abiy’s inauguration in April 2018, having formerly been the dominant party in the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition. It was unable to prevent Abiy signing a peace agreement with Eritrea in July 2018 that ceded parts of Tigray regional state to Eritrea. Its subsequent refusal to participate in the transformation of the EPRDF into the Ethiopian Prosperity Party (EPP) in November 2019 – a move it declared was illegal – left it outside the federal government for the first time since 1989.

Tensions escalated further after Tigray held regional assembly elections on 9 September despite the federal government’s decision to delay national general elections, originally due in August, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The federal government refused to recognise the outcome of the Tigray elections and suspended the disbursement of funds to the region. A more direct trigger for the conflict came on 29 October, when the regional government blocked an ENDF officer from taking up a posting in Tigray and announced that it would not accept any troop movement or appointment by the federal government.

Abiy justified ordering the ongoing military action – or “law enforcement operation” as he terms it – by alleging that Tigrayan regional security forces had attacked an ENDF base in Tigray and were engaging in illegal militia activity. Although the Tigrayan government disputes these claims, the wider driver of Abiy’s actions is a desire to reassert federal government authority over a region that has been increasingly asserting its autonomy amid fears that Tigray’s actions could threaten the unity of a country already facing significant ethno-regional tensions and violence.

Security implications

The impact of the Tigray conflict has been significant. Although a communications blackout means that reliable information is scarce, there are reports of hundreds of fatalities and thousands of refugees fleeing to Sudan. TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael on 13 November called the prospect of a quick ENDF victory over his forces a “daydream”.

Nonetheless, we expect most fighting to conclude in the coming months. Although not all ENDF claims of strategic victories can be verified, Tigray’s formal and informal paramilitary forces and militias are formidable – estimated to be up to 250,000-strong – but significantly disadvantaged by their lack of air support. Meanwhile, the ENDF is supported by militias from other regional states and could potentially call on Eritrea – which borders Tigray region and has maintained an antagonistic relationship with the TPLF even as it has improved relations with the Abiy administration – for support. Despite Debretsion’s bravado, repeated calls for the international community to facilitate peace negotiations suggest that he is not confident of a military victory.

The conflict is unlikely to spill over substantially into other regions or countries. Although the TPLF has fired rockets at the airports in Asmara (Eritrea) and cities in Amhara, it is unlikely to have the capability to engage in significant actions in neighbouring territories, given it is already fighting on multiple fronts. Meanwhile, although the government has accused the TPLF of carrying out attacks in the capital Addis Ababa, the TPLF is unlikely to find support for its actions in other regional states. Its previous political and economic dominance has left it unpopular in much of the rest of the country.

However, even if the Tigray conflict comes to a formal close in the coming months, the security environment in the region will remain volatile for years to come. Although Abiy has been keen to present the ENDF operations as an attempt to “liberate” the Tigrayan people from the TPLF “junta”, the TPLF’s narrative that he is launching an attack on Tigrayans has traction in the region. It is likely to become a fertile recruitment ground for secessionist or otherwise anti-government ethnic militias.

Political ramifications

Abiy has reshuffled the top ranks of the military since taking office – and again since the start of the Tigray conflict – to bolster his control over the armed forces, and we maintain that the conflict is unlikely to severely destabilise his government. Nonetheless, the conflict will have significant political ramifications, particularly as Abiy is increasingly reliant on a narrow set of allies amid pushes for autonomy by different ethnic groups elsewhere in the country. The federal government is still likely to move ahead with planned general elections in 2021. The government’s narrative around the Tigray conflict has been aimed at fuelling nationalist sentiment, from which Abiy likely hopes to benefit. But hopes that the polls will open up Ethiopia’s political landscape and cement democratic reforms are fading. They will likely be heavily securitised, while the likely lack of TPLF participation will further undermine the legitimacy of the outcome.

In the longer term, the Tigray conflict may have been caused by battles for political influence, but it also speaks to a deeper ideological divide over Ethiopia’s system of governance. The TPLF was arguably the primary architect of the current system, in which regional states are delineated along ethnic lines and have substantial autonomy. By contrast, Abiy is pushing for a more centralised state in which ethnicity – at least formally – plays a far less prominent role. The current conflict is likely to prompt a renewed focus on this goal, with Abiy likely to use a mandate from the upcoming elections and the justification of the Tigray conflict to argue that regional state authority should be restricted.

This push for greater centralisation is likely to lead to further violence and political uncertainty over the coming years. Ethnicity is a central feature of Ethiopian politics, with regional states and many political parties based around ethnic groups. This will not dissipate in the foreseeable future, despite Abiy’s push for centralisation. The hardline stance Abiy has taken against the TPLF may discourage other regional states from strongly asserting their autonomy. However, efforts by other ethnic groups to take advantage of the TPLF’s fall from grace to increase their influence in the federal government have been a key driver of ethnic tensions and violence since Abiy took office. Military defeat of the TPLF would only exacerbate this trend.

Impact on business

The conflict has caused a sharp deterioration in the operating environment in Tigray region. Not only have security risks increased, but the federal government has also cut off internet and phone lines to the region, and blocked transport routes. Beyond these immediate impacts, the conflict is also likely to slow or stall wider reforms by the Abiy administration aimed at encouraging investment. 

The military action has already damaged Abiy’s international image as a reformer. A likely scenario of widespread human rights abuses and a humanitarian crisis would further tarnish his government’s reputation. Some reports estimate that more than 1m people have already been displaced by the conflict. There are already concerns that at least 600,000 people could be left without food relief because of disruption caused by the conflict, while on 12 November international rights group Amnesty International reported a mass killing of civilians in the region. Although blame for this incident is contested, the use of regional militias by both sides and the prevalence of inflammatory rhetoric raise the threat of further such abuses. 

This is all likely to deter investors and thereby diminish the attractiveness of Abiy’s planned reforms designed to attract foreign capital, including the liberalisation of sectors such as telecommunications and finance. However, federal authorities appear to be pushing ahead with reforms. For example, Head of the Ethiopian Communications Authority (ECA) Balcha Reba is expected to begin the tender process for two new telecoms licenses to foreign operators in December. Although the government has pledged that the Tigray conflict will not affect the liberalisation process or wider business environment reforms, there will likely be some delays as senior government officials are distracted by concerns in Tigray.   


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