[Burning Issue] Ethiopian Crisis and the Geopolitics


Ethiopia has been on the brink of a civil war. On Nov 4 2020, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared war on the country’s Tigray region. The Tigray region is ruled by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The war was declared in response to the TPLF’s attack on a federal military base in Tigray.

The Ethiopian Crisis: A backgrounder

  • The animosity between Tigrayans and Eritrea goes back to the Ethiopian-Eritrean war that occurred between 1998 and 2000.
  • It occurred approximately two decades ago was extremely brutal and resulted in the deaths of thousands of soldiers.
PC: Indian Express
  • The roots of this crisis can be traced to Ethiopia’s system of government. Since 1994, Ethiopia has had a federal system in which different ethnic groups control the affairs of 10 regions.
  • The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) – was influential in setting up this system.
  • It was the leader of a four-party coalition that governed Ethiopia from 1991, when a military regime was ousted from power.
  • Under the coalition, Ethiopia became more prosperous and stable, but concerns were routinely raised about human rights and the level of democracy.

How it escalated into a crisis?

  • Eventually, discontent morphed into protest, leading to a government reshuffle that saw Mr Abiy appointed PM.
  • Abiy liberalized politics, set up a new party (the Prosperity Party), and removed key Tigrayan government leaders accused of corruption and repression.
  • Meanwhile, Abiy ended a long-standing territorial dispute with neighbouring Eritrea, earning him a Nobel Peace Prize in 2019.
  • These moves won Abiy popular acclaim, but caused unease among critics in Tigray. Tigray’s leaders see Abiy’s reforms as an attempt to centralize power and destroy Ethiopia’s federal system.

The clouds of a Civil War

  • The conflict came to a head in September, when Tigray defied the central government to hold its own regional election.
  • The central government, which had postponed national elections because of coronavirus, said it was illegal.
  • The rift grew in October, when the central government suspended funding for and cut ties with Tigray. Tigray’s administration said this amounted to a “declaration of war”.
  • Tensions increased. Then, in what the International Crisis Group termed a “sudden and predictable” descent into conflict.

Abiy accused Tigrayan forces of attacking an army base to steal weapons. His government, he said, was therefore forced into a military confrontation.

Its’ repercussions

  • If the conflict intensifies, there are fears it could spill over into neighbouring countries.
  • There have already been reports of missiles fired into Eritrea and 27,000 refugees fleeing to Sudan.
  • There is also a concern that the conflict could exacerbate ethnic tensions elsewhere in Ethiopia.
  • There have been reports of blocked roads, with internet and communication lines being cut off in Ethiopia.
  • Now, this latest conflict has only increased the number of displaced people and may lead to a humanitarian crisis.

The larger conflict: A new ‘Afghanistan of Africa’ in making

  • The US and China have several strategic military bases in that region, the closest being Djibouti.
  • In November 2020, it was reported that President Vladimir Putin had approved the creation of a Russian naval facility in Sudan.
  • This would be capable of mooring nuclear-powered surface vessels, clearing the way for Moscow’s first substantial military foothold in Africa since the Soviet fall.
  • If these military bases and facilities were to be impacted in any way, it may cause foreign powers to get militarily involved in the region’s conflict.

A crisis beyond a country

  • The Horn of Africa is also a short water crossing away from the crisis torn Yemen and the rest of the Arabian Peninsula.
  • Earlier, in the midst of Ethiopia’s long-standing conflict with Egypt over the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam over the Blue Nile, Sudan had already found itself forcefully involved in the spat.
  • Sudan and Egypt were engaged in joint military exercises in what observers said was an indication of deepening ties between the two countries.
  • With Ethiopian civilians escaping in large numbers to Sudan, the country may find itself inadvertently drawn into the war.  
  • If the conflict were to spill outside Ethiopia’s borders, it may potentially destabilize the Horn of Africa region.

A quick recap: Horn of Africa

  • The Horn of Africa comprises four countries — Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti and Somalia, but, in its wider political and economic context, the term also includes Sudan, South Sudan, Kenya and Uganda.
  • As a quintessential microcosm of Africa, the area has seen it all: imperialism, neo-colonialism, Cold War, ethnic strife, intra-African conflict, poverty, disease, famine and much else.
  • The sub-region covers a wide spectrum from Ethiopia — an ancient civilization and a nation that retained its independence (except for a short period) — to Somalia, the most failed state on the planet today.
  • Eritrea and Djibouti, smaller neighbours located on the seashore, have had their own share of strife and strained relations with Ethiopia and Somalia respectively.
  • Eritrea emerged as an independent state after a 30-year-long confrontation with Ethiopia, a development that turned the latter into a landlocked country.
  • Djibouti, the erstwhile French Somaliland, has been a beacon of relative stability and prosperity, which has contributed to mediation and peace-making efforts in and outside the Horn of Africa.

Why is Horn of Africa so important?

The turn of such events near the Horn of Africa has direct consequences for the safety and future of all seaports on the Red Sea as well as on the entire security of the Arabian Gulf.

  • The Horn of Africa enjoys an excellent strategic location south-west of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.
  • The strategic importance of this East African region comes from it being the source of the Nile and a gate to the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.
  • Its location on one side of some of the world’s major trade sea lanes and land routes gives it vital importance.
  • The straits of Bab El-Mandeb, which lies at the heart of this region, connects the energy-rich Middle East to Europe and, along with the Suez Canal, is considered a jugular vein for global trade.
  • Djibouti is the choke point on this shipping route.

Geopolitical angle

The area has always been a magnet for international powers because of the sea traffic going by, major ports in the area, tremendous nearby riches, weapons trading, crossing points for people and merchandise and the dangers of piracy.

  • The international importance of the Horn of Africa was boosted after the first war on Iraq and foreign intervention in Somalia.
  • Now, with the war in Yemen, the international and regional competition for control over the Horn of Africa is at its fiercest.
  • Besides positioning for control of the major ports in the area, there is the China competing with the West in Djibouti, and so is the US.

Indian perspective

  • India has been paying greater attention to the region. Since 2017, India has opened embassies in Djibouti and Eritrea and our President has also made a state visit to Djibouti and Ethiopia.
  • India has been always a foremost responder for humanitarian assistance in the Horn of Africa Region through the Indian Navy.
  • Such latest missions underline India’s growing capability and willingness to undertake naval missions and support regional countries in the greater Indian Ocean region.
  • These efforts must be directed to increase Indian leverage and limit Chinese influence in the region.

The China factor and Indian concerns

  • Since 2008, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been present in the region under the pretext of conducting anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia.
  • In fact, it has even sent nuclear submarines to the region and has also conducted naval exercises with the navies of Russia and Iran.
  • In 2017, China opened its first overseas military base in the region at Djibouti and is now firmly consolidating itself as a major player in regional affairs.
  • Furthermore, China has built a spate of large infrastructure projects in the Horn of Africa, including the modern railway line connecting land-locked Ethiopia with the port of Djibouti.
  • It is emerging as a major economic partner for other Red Sea states like Egypt.
  • Hence the steadily growing military and economic footprint of China makes this region increasingly more important from India’s geostrategic calculations.

Thus China has stepped up activity in the African region, which is traditionally within India’s sphere of influence, thereby looking to expand its presence in the Indian Ocean Region.

Way forward

  • The global strategic community should pay more attention to the prevailing conditions and power dynamics in this African region.
  • The world must become more active in examining and discussing the complex problem in-depth with the governments in Eastern Africa, the African Union and others to be able to make a meaningful its resolution.
  • What happens in the region has a direct bearing on India’s security and well-being, and this is becoming clearer and more urgent by the day.

The crisis must be averted

  • Ethiopia in recent years has been achieving respectable economic growth.
  • Regional tensions, however, with Eritrea and Egypt because of Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam project increased until the beginning of 2018.
  • During the past two decades, the region has seen horrible human tragedies because of famines and wars.
  • The world still remembers the tragic famines in Ethiopia and Eritrea and how these two countries depended for a long time on foreign aid.
  • It must also not be forgotten that the 1998 war between these belligerent sister countries caused the death of about 100,000 people and ended any contact between them.







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