More than a year ago, I argued that a history of ethnic conflicts and a political structure that gives too much regional autonomy threatens the peace the country achieved under Abiy Ahmad, a 2019 Nobel Peace laureate. Indeed, as 2020 draws to a close, the Ethiopian federal government is on a military offensive against Tigray, a northern region whose ruling political party was once behind the political force behind the authoritarian regime that Abiy and his allies worked hard to overthrow. With the federal government cutting off electricity, water, and internet to Tigray and a large number of locals fleeing across the border to Sudan as refugees, the war threatens to destroy Abiy's hard-earned international reputation as a peacemaker.
Perhaps more worryingly, the war between Tigray and the Ethiopian federal government threatens to quickly draw in other regional and global players seeking to settle their own scores or enhance their own personal interests. Tigray is not in dire straits as a simple comparison of its military capabilities versus those of the central government would suggest. The region, having been in the front-lines of the war against Eritrea for decades and as rulers of a country with international support to some extent, can leverage resources beyond the borders of Ethiopia to make the invading federal forces very difficult.
The involvement of regional players in the civil war can take many forms. To the north, Tigray has allegedly already fired rockets into the capital of Eritrea, seeking to draw in military interventions from the Eritrean military to complicate the matters on the ground within Tigray. To the west, Sudan not only hosts ten of thousands of new Tigrayan refugees but also a fragile new government still seeking to establish authority after overthrowing the decades-long dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir. Even other African states further away are bound to pay attention to a country that hosts the headquarters of the African Union.
But more dangerous is the involvement of global powers how may cement their positions in the region at the expense of both Abiy and the Tigrayans. Recent news of Russia's establishment of a permanent military base in Sudan puts it in direct competition for influence with the US, France, and China, which all maintain military bases in Djibouti, strategically the primary conduit for sea-based international trade for a landlocked Ethiopia. Many other participants in anti-piracy operations in the coastal waters of Somalia would be loathed to see Ethiopia, a major contributor of military resources to prop up the fragile Somali government, and itself host to a large Somali minority, become distracted by the civil war.
The six-week war that just came to conclusion in the Caucasus shows that these global powers have no qualms about making deals among themselves that benefit them at the expense of the direct participants in the war. It is not difficult to see the global powers taking a similar approach in Ethiopia and the larger Horn of Africa region that it is part of. The West hesitates for deep involvement after two central governments it actively sponsored, Somalia and South Sudan, destroy themselves through endless civil strife. It would be humiliating to see Abiy go the same route after being awarded the West's most prominent human rights award. Its resulting willingness to negotiate for a limited role open up opportunities for other players.
Russia and China may fill in the vacuum the West leaves behind. Russian military base in Sudan, and Sudanese hosting of Tigrayan refugees, may see Russian military support pour in for Tigray, forcing Ethiopia to negotiate on pro-Russian terms as the war becomes more expensive to continue. China, with its presence in Djibouti, and its control over the Chinese-built Ethiopia-Djibouti railway and various industrial zones along the way, may nudge Ethiopia to conduct the war in a way that increases Chinese economic and political leverage in the long-term. Both, ultimately, seeks to play a bigger role in shaping the regional order in the Horn of Africa for decades to come.
For Ethiopia to not sacrifice its interests under the pressures of regional and global powers will require the country's leadership to think beyond its borders and those of the region. With most of the African continent signed up for a continent-wide free trade area in recent weeks and months, there is a real opportunity for African states to speak in one voice and pool together their political resources on the international stage. And with a war still raging in Yemen just across the Red Sea, there is an opportunity to draw in Gulf powers and money to stabilize the region and prevent any military link-up among combatants in Yemen, Ethiopia, and Somalia.
But such creative thinking can only start when both sides of the civil war sit down and, together, come to the realization that their spat is being used by major powers to twist the larger geopolitical picture for their own benefits at the expense of the Ethiopians'. If the war continues within Ethiopia, it would not matter much whether Tigray or the federal government comes out victorious in military terms. By the time one side surrenders in military defeat, the country's strategic initiative would have been lost. With non-Ethiopian players forming new political alliances in the background and the country nursing the economic costs of the war, Ethiopia may have little ability left to prevent foreign players from coming in and establishing influence over the country that may not benefit the Ethiopian people.