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Tigray: a precedent for more conflict?

Updated: Mar 10, 2021

Border Tensions and Migratory Implications for the Region


By: Chiara Longmore and Kasper Veltman

The northern parts of Ethiopia recently have been home to a worrying conflict. President Abiy Ahmed Ali of Ethiopia has sent federation troops to the region of Tigray, where troops of the Tigrayan 'People's Liberation Front (TPLF) attacked several Ethiopian military positions. Human rights advocates remain very worried about developments within the region, as the region remains largely locked-off. With several large organisations like the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reporting that there is a full-scale humanitarian crisis developing within the region.1

Why Does This Happen?

The TPLF was one of the parties that came out on top after the Ethiopian civil-war in 1991. Since then, the TPLF shaped the Ethiopian federal system in such a way that Tigrayan minority-rule was ensured up until 2018. In 2018 Abiy Ahmed Ali managed to merge all the ruling coalition partners in 'The Prosperity Party', except the TPLF, who vehemently rejected the idea. The merging of the coalition ended Tigrayan hegemony over the Ethiopian federation.

The new division of power did provide for a new power imbalance. With the federation now ruled mostly by elites of the Amhara ethnic group, the Tigrayan people were facing new problems, as grievances from their governance period did not disappear. Currently, Tigrayan autonomy, which they enjoyed in their long period of governing, is now at stake.

After the Ethiopian government cancelled regional elections in Tigray because of COVID-19, the TPLF had seen enough. They organised regional elections themselves. The federal government subsequently did not acknowledge the results of these elections. As a result, fights broke out between the TPLF and the federal forces on 4 November 2020. TPLF forces attacked several Ethiopian positions. Following these attacks, the Ethiopian government reacted quickly and opened fighting with the TPLF and has so far almost achieved victory.

Now the federal troops are close to victory, the regional administration has been dismissed and is being purged. The regional administration is primarily run by TPLF supporters or members, making them untrustworthy in the federation's eyes. This is where the accusations of human rights violations largely stem from, as a manhunt for TPLF members is taking place.2

Border Tensions with Sudan

Misery loves company. As the humanitarian crises in Tigray worsens, tensions along the Ethiopian-Sudanese border have also escalated. On 10 February 2021, it was reported that there had been violent clashes when an Ethiopian border patrol engaged a Sudanese patrol. Reportedly, there were severe casualties on both sides. A Sudanese officer is said to be killed, with Sudan claiming to have killed the Ethiopian assailants.3 This is one of multiple instances of violence which have erupted along the Ethiopian-Sudanese border since late last year, which threatens to lead to a dangerous escalation.

The Ethiopian-Sudanese border is an area that has long been disputed. Characteristic of border dynamics in the African region, the lines demarcated by past colonial rulers do not reflect realities on the ground.4 The Ethiopian-Sudanese border region of al-Fashqa is an example of this, where local communities have cultivated fertile farmland from both Sudan and Ethiopia for many decades. Despite Sudanese sovereignty being historically acknowledged in the region, Ethiopian farming groups have established themselves in regions such as Al-Fashqa, establishing agricultural projects in the region. Any violence along the Ethiopian-Sudanese border has therefore historically been related to local level skirmishes over the rich agricultural land.5

The Sudanese government has largely ignored border regions such as Al-Fashqa, yet recent surges of intercommunal violence in Sudan6 have placed the 'country's internal peace and stability in a precarious position. There have been reportedly 250 deaths and 100,000 people displaced in 'Sudan's Darfur region since January 7, and last week (11 February) East Darfur declared a state of emergency due to violent clashes8. As such, the external strain of tens of thousands of Ethiopian refugees spilling across the Sudanese border, as well as an increased presence of Ethiopian Amhara militias, has pushed the Sudanese government to assert greater military presence on the border with Ethiopia, which resulted in the border-clash of 10 February.

A Deteriorating Relationship

Since tensions have erupted across the border, relations between the two states have deteriorated further, with Sudan accusing Ethiopia of trying to infringe on their sovereignty. The states have since begun escalating the conflict.

The increase in political attention to the border has serious potential to escalate what were traditionally localised instances of violence to a potentially critical standoff between the two states. This February, Sudan pulled its ambassador to Addis Ababa following the violent border clash that was mentioned earlier. As a result, further escalating politically, Ethiopia signed a military cooperation treaty with South Sudan on 19 February, which has historically abysmal relations with Sudan.9

While both states' internal struggles make it unlikely that further military escalation will follow, the measures taken are following a pattern that is normally befitting of a situation that will escalate in such a manner. Especially since Sudan has stated that military deployment to the region is permanent, and withdrawal is out of the question for them.10 The region is definitely one to watch at the moment, as tensions are rising, and the risk of conflict is high.

This article is a publication of the Dyami Early Warning for International Security (DEWIS) Working Group.

For source references, please download the PDF version.

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This article was featured in Leiden University’s ISSA Podcast. Follow the link below to listen to full episode:


About the Authors:

Chiara Longmore is originally from Scotland; however, she has moved to the Netherlands to complete a master’s at Leiden University in International Relations and Diplomacy. With an interdisciplinary background, her bachelor’s was in Liberal Arts, she has analysed situations of violence and conflict with a multi-disciplinary framework, in particular with Political Science, Anthropology, and Sociology.

Kasper Veltman is a MA graduate in International Relations from Leiden University. During his master’s he followed the specialisation “Global Conflict in the Modern Era”, analysing rebel groups, insurrections and private warfare. Furthermore, he took a keen interest in the Horn of Africa, writing his thesis on Somaliland.

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