The counter-offensive of the anti-government forces in Ethiopia is invigorated by the constitution of a common front that unites many of the political and military formations opposing the government of PM Abiy Ahmed.
The hypothesis of a bloody urban battle for the conquest of Addis Ababa seems unlikely at the moment, in favor instead of the possibility of a sort of regional siege aimed at economically strangling the federal government.
If the government of the Prosperity Party of Abiy Ahmed were to be defeated, however, it would open a further phase of crisis determined by the desire of Tigray to hold a referendum for its independence, which would most likely be opposed by most of the regional states, and therefore also by the current allies of the TPLF.
Last but not least, it cannot be excluded that Tigray intends to definitively settle accounts with Eritrea, in order to avoid the risk of new conflicts but also to be able to count on a friendly government that will open its borders allowing the future independent state of Tigray not to risk isolation.
A coalition challenge Premier Abiy Ahmed
Nine opposition groups to the federal government led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced last November 4 that they have formally formed an alliance called United Front of Federalist and Confederalist Forces of Ethiopia (UFEFCF), in order to intervene in the ongoing crisis in the country and to stop what they define as the “genocidal government” in Addis Ababa.
The organizations that have created the alliance pact to overthrow the government of the Prosperity Party of Abiy Ahmed are partly composed by regional political formations and partly armed militias expression of specific regional ethnic groups, united by a common aversion first against the centralist and nationalist model of the government of Abiy Ahmed and then by the serious crisis caused by the conflict in Tigray.
The primary objective of the new political opposition formation is to remove the Prime Minister, whose legitimacy they no longer recognize and whom they intend to replace with a transitional government charged with guiding a process of democratic reform of Ethiopian federal institutions.
The nine formations that have adhered to the constitution of the UFEFCF are in fact led by the governing party of Tigray, the TPLF, which represents the political and military formation (through its TDF army) of greater weight within the alliance. Also, part of the union are the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), which has long been at the side of the TDF in the military effort, the Afar Revolutionary Democratic Front for Unity (ARDFU), the Benishangul People’s Liberation Movement (BPLM), the Gambella People’s Liberation Army (GPLA), the Kimant People’s Global Movement for Law and Justice – Kimant Democratic Party (KDP), the Sidama Liberation Front (SLF), and the Somali State Resistance. On November 7, however, the Gambella People’s Liberation Army leadership announced that it disavowed the authority of the person who signed the agreement, effectively placing itself outside the coalition’s perimeter.
The news of the formation of a united front of opposition to the federal government in Addis Ababa was downplayed by government authorities. The Minister of Justice has described the various components of the alliance as highly unpopular in the eyes of Ethiopian society, while for days government spokeswoman Billene Seyoum has been accusing the foreign press of spreading false and biased information on the conflict, ordering the national press not to report information produced by the foreign media.
In the substance of military capacity, the new anti-government alliance remains dominated by the political and military structure of the TPLF and – to a lesser extent – that of the OLA, which represent the two numerically and qualitatively most significant formations in the military effort against Addis Ababa. The other organizations are characterized by relatively modest size and not all of them have a real military capacity, thus representing more of a symbolic element of political and military cohesion against Abiy Ahmed rather than a real element of operational capacity building.
In spite of their small size, however, the main threat represented by these satellite organizations is their peripheral location with respect to the current front line, and therefore they have the capacity to launch attacks where the federal forces’ defensive capacity is clearly lacking.
What the central government fears most, therefore, is the ability of the anti-government organizations of the new alliance to provoke unrest and violence in the various federal states, especially in the most peripheral areas of the country, leading to instability that would be impossible to manage from the point of view of military capabilities, today strenuously concentrated along the front line in the Amhara state and in defense of the capital Addis Ababa, in Oromia.
What are the short and medium term scenarios for the evolution of the conflict?
The possibility that the TDF and OLA forces would want to launch into the conquer of Addis Ababa, embarking on what would most likely turn into a bloody urban conflict, is far from obvious.
Notwithstanding the proclamations of the TPLF, the military option directed against the federal capital of Ethiopia seems – at least at the moment – difficult to implement. Because of the cost in terms of human lives and material damage that it would entail, but also because of the logistics that would be required, which the forces of the TDF and allied militias do not seem to have at their disposal in sufficient measure.
The optimal scenario for the Tigrayan forces and those of the anti-government alliance, therefore, is that of a capitulation of the government of Abiy Ahmed without having to engage his army in a battle to conquer the capital. This objective is apparently within reach and can certainly be accelerated through some military operations of encirclement, which are in fact already underway.
The most effective instrument to force the federal government to surrender – or at least to negotiate – is to isolate the capital making it difficult to obtain supplies. This result can be achieved by taking control of the main land access routes to the capital, isolating it from the supply network with the intent of provoking a social and political crisis capable of forcing the Prime Minister to surrender. The geographical areas within which the Tigrayans and their allies must try to move are those on one side of the road junction of Mile, in the Afar region, along the A1 highway that connects Addis Ababa with the vital port of Djibouti, and on the other side the A3 highway section north of Addis Ababa, which TDF and OLA forces could reach in the coming days, near the border between the regional states of Amhara and Oromia, in an area apparently already under the control of anti-government forces. The blockade of the A3 highway would result in the isolation of the Amhara region and reduce the capital’s land connection options exclusively to the south and southeast, to sparsely populated areas far from land transport routes.
The only options for supplying Addis Ababa, therefore, would remain those related to the control of the railway network towards Djibouti (towards the east, through Dire Dawa) and the A7 and A8 highways, in the south-west towards Kenya. The railway line is difficult to control – it is also subject to frequent attacks by criminals for some time, for the purpose of looting – and in this area could be decisive the offensive capacity of even small units of the Somali State Resistance forces.
The option of connecting with Kenya – which closed its borders a few days ago because of the fear of having to manage flows of refugees from Ethiopia – is problematic from the point of view of road practicability, as both A7 and A8 freeways end near the province of Arba Minch, while the road that continues in the direction of the border post with Kenya, in Moyale, is a provincial artery that is not easily practicable.
The real risk for the federal government, therefore, seems at the moment more connected to the possibility of finding itself isolated in the defense of the capital, strangled in supplies and constantly threatened in the immediate periphery.
If in the short term the scenario appears largely favorable to the ambitions of the TPLF and its allies, however, the picture is likely to change profoundly in the medium term, opening up unknowns that are difficult to predict.
The TPLF, in fact, makes no secret of the fact that it is strongly considering the possibility of a referendum on the independence of the regional state from the Ethiopian federation. Referendum that, to date, after the dramatic interlude of the conflict, would almost certainly see the desire for separation from Addis Ababa.
The independence of Tigray, consequently, would open two further variables at high risk for regional security. First on the domestic front, where most of the political formations of government in the regional states, while strongly defending the autonomy of individual government authorities, do not welcome the possibility of a breakup of the Ethiopian federation fueled by the precedent of a secession of Tigray. The resulting federation, without Tigray, would in all likelihood be severely penalized economically, making the individual federal states vulnerable and destined for a progressive loss of autonomy to the central state. Today’s allies of the TPLF, in this way, could be quickly becoming the opponents of its race towards independence, with the possibility of a further and bloodier phase of instability.
The second risk factor related to the hypothesis of independence of Tigray is instead regional. In fact, there are good reasons to believe that the TPLF, once resolved the problem with Abiy Ahmed, intends to settle the score with Isaias Afwerki’s Eritrea.
The resentment generated by the violence and brutality of the Eritrean occupation of Tigray is certainly an important factor in the determination to get rid once and for all of the regime in Asmara, especially in the knowledge that it is even more hostile than in the past. A military operation aimed at bringing down the regime of Isaias Afwerki, however, would also be motivated by political and economic reasons related to the hypothesis of independence of Tigray from the Ethiopian federation. The autonomy conquered with a referendum, in fact, would transform the country into an internal state, with no outlet to the sea and – presumably – with conflicting relationships along most of its borders. It is therefore quite likely that a non-hostile Eritrea, or even an ally, will become an urgent priority for the future state of Tigray, ensuring a secure outlet to the Red Sea.
In this framework there is a debate that has been going on for a long time about the possibility of a political or administrative synergy with Eritrea that, although characterized by different positions, does not make a mystery of the Tigrian vision of a solution of its relationship with Asmara. A solution that, politically as well as peacefully, is impractical with the current government regime of Isaias Afwerki.
The scenario of a future conflict between Tigray and Eritrea is thus possible and highly probable, determining a framework of medium-term regional stability that is highly critical.