Guest Blog: How Ethiopia’s Tigray Conflict is Threatening East Africa’s Regional Security

11 December 2020


As the conflict between the Ethiopian federal government and the Tigray regional government continues, serious concerns are arising about how it will impact East Africa’s peace and security in both long and short terms. The combination of civil conflict, increased flows of refugees and environmental challenges, all being faced whilst in the midst of a global pandemic, present serious challenges for the region’s security, as well as for the human rights of those caught up in the violence. With December representing Universal Human Rights Month, bringing attention to injustices and obvious human rights abuses is more pertinent than ever.


What’s happening in Ethiopia?

In the country’s northern Tigray province, the Ethiopian military are engaged in an ongoing conflict with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the governing force of the region.

It has been only one year since Ethiopia’s prime minister Abiy Ahmed won the Nobel peace prize for his peace deal with Eritrea, however, his recent actions have taken a somewhat more offensive tone. In early November he launched military operations against Tigray after accusing the TPLF of attacking a military camp and attempting to seize military hardware – a charge the TPLF denies.

Last Thursday, the Ethiopian military launched its ‘final offensive’ against the Tigray capital of Mekelle, describing it as a law enforcement operation to restore central authority within the country. Over the weekend, Abiy Ahmed announced that Mekelle had been captured by Ethiopian national forces, claiming that this marked the ‘last phase’ of the conflict[1] – although the most recent updates are that TPLF forces intend to keep fighting against government troops.

Whilst Abiy Ahmed claimed that great care would be taken to protect innocent civilians, it is almost certain that this offensive will prompt a greater exodus of Tigrayan refugees trying to escape the violence. Recent reports suggest that hundreds, possibly thousands, have died in the conflict so far, with up to a million people displaced[2].

Because of restricted access and communications blackouts, very few outsiders know precise details about how the conflict is unfolding and there are few first-hand accounts other than those coming from refugees. It is therefore difficult to assess the true extent of the violence, though concerns have been raised about serious human rights abuses being committed, with the UN warning that recent reports of mass killings, if confirmed, would equate to war crimes[3].


How Sudan is being impacted

Particular focus has fallen to Sudan, as many of those fleeing the violence in Tigray have headed west to the Sudan border. This influx has been greater than expected and the UN is planning for the arrival of around 200,000 more refugees over the next six months[4].

Even before violence began in Ethiopia, Sudan was already home to over one million refugees, mainly from South Sudan. The influx of refugees from Ethiopia will inevitability put further pressure on the existing humanitarian relief efforts in Sudan, where camps are overcrowded and food, medicine and shelter are urgently needed.

On Friday, the first of four UN humanitarian air drops landed in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital[5], and UNICEF have begun coordinating responses to support the millions of vulnerable children who have been caught up in the conflict[6]. Such efforts are certainly much needed and are testament to the quick response of humanitarian agencies in times of crisis. However, with violence continuing to escalate in Ethiopia, it is likely that more Tigrayans will seek refuge in Sudan, and it is doubtful that existing aid provision will keep up with these increased numbers.


The impact on regional security

The conflict is expected to have a major impact on the peace and security of East Africa, particularly for Ethiopia’s neighbours in the horn of Africa.

The conflict has already become regionalised, principally through Eritrea’s implication in the violence. The US embassy in Eritrea reported six explosions in the capital Asmara on Saturday[7] and whilst these have not been confirmed as part of the Tigrayan conflict, this is a high possibility since Tigrayan forces have previously fired rockets at Eritrea and the TPLF accused the Eritrean government of supporting the Ethiopian army’s attacks on Mekelle.

What’s more, Ethiopia has been one of the UN’s largest contributors to peacekeeping missions and has a particularly strong presence in the UN mission in Somalia. If the conflict continues, these missions will likely be reduced and the UN’s capacity to deliver humanitarian assistance and support with post-conflict transitions will be damaged. It is also possible that troops will be reallocated to help mitigate the violence in Ethiopia, or to provide relief to refugees in neighbouring countries, potentially threatening the progress of other missions within the region.

There are also major concerns about how the conflict will affect the already fragile food insecurity within the region. For Sudan in particular, recent floods have threatened food security by submerging hundreds of kilometres of the country’s agricultural land just before harvest. The UNOCHA reported that flooding had caused a shortage of critical goods and pushed up prices, leading to one of the highest levels of food insecurity reported in Sudan in the last decade[8]. This adds to the pressures of Sudan’s fragile ongoing peace process and its own economic crisis, and the influx of refugees ‘is something it cannot afford’, explains UNICEF’s representative in Sudan[9]. With only one year since Sudan’s revolution, observers fear that the pressures from this new conflict could lead to renewed chaos in both Sudan and South Sudan.


An end in sight?

Few believe there will be an end to hostilities any time soon, as both sides seem intent on seeing the conflict through. The chairman of the TPLF, Debretsion Gebremichael, recently announced in a statement that they would continue fighting the Ethiopian army ‘to the last’, adding that the conflict was about defending the TPLF’s right to self-determination[10].

Some observers fear that the Tigray conflict could turn Ethiopia into the ‘Libya of East Africa’[11], an unfortunate nod towards the true scale this conflict could take on. Hundreds have already been killed and thousands displaced, but regardless of how much longer the violence lasts for, what is certain is that the impacts on the wider region will continue long after the cessation of hostilities, whenever that may occur. It remains to be seen how this will affect Sudan in particular, though one unavoidable fact is that increased flow of refugees will put further pressure on the country’s already-fragile situation, particularly in terms of food insecurity.

A coordinated and effective response at local, regional and international levels will be required to cope with the onset of challenges to the region, with particular focus on the urgent provision of further humanitarian assistance for refugees and those stuck inside the Tigray region.

There is still uncertainty around when and how the conflict within Ethiopia will end, but given the current trajectory, it is possible that the AU or UN will have to invoke their respective principles of non-indifference or responsibility to protect as the only way to protect innocent civilians whose human rights are threatened by the ongoing violence.














By Amelia Twitchen

Although all blog posts are reviewed by an editorial team, our blog authors all write in a personal capacity and the views expressed are not necessarily those of HART.

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