The Tigray region in northern Ethiopia has been embroiled in conflict for the past six months. In early November 2020, war broke out between the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which had been in control of Ethiopia for close to three decades, and the central Ethiopian government, headed by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. After months of political tension between Mr. Abiy and the TPLF, with the TPLF holding elections that were declared as “void and null” by the central Ethiopian government, war was already a distinct possibility. On the 4th of November, 2020, the TPLF allegedly attacked a military base in northern Ethiopia, leading Prime Minister Abiy to declare a state of emergency, and then announce the initiation of a full-scale war. The conflict has seen many human rights abuses, such as rape and massacres, with some even calling the war a genocide.
Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam
While this war has seen large impacts in Ethiopia itself, the ramifications outside its borders are also very significant. Ethiopia has had tense relations with Egypt over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a dam currently under construction near the Ethiopian-Sudanese border. Egypt has claimed that the dam will restrict water flow into the Nile River, which Egypt depends on – around 90% of Egypt’s water supply currently comes from the Nile, and the vast majority of the country’s population, agriculture, and economic activity occurs around the river. Meanwhile, Ethiopia is contending that the dam will have little to no impact on the flow of the Nile River. Instead, Ethiopia focuses on the electricity that will be produced by the dam, as Ethiopia continues to face a large energy shortage.
The Nile is already under threat, even without the Ethiopian dam. As the impacts of climate change worsen, Egypt’s water supply continues to drop. The country is currently at just over half of what hydrologists consider water scarcity levels, and food production has dropped as water shortages restrict the amount and types of food farmers can plant.
It’s important to note that Egypt is not calling for the complete abandonment of the project – the debate is over the speed of the dam’s reservoir filling. The filling of the dam began in July 2020, and Ethiopia wants to see this completed by 2023. However, Egypt prefers a longer process, taking 10+ years to fill the dam.
Previous talks between the two nations have not been fruitful; the latest round of discussions in April 2021 has broken down. The US has now involved itself in the talks, which signifies how much of an international issue this has become. Despite the war and the optics issues it has caused for Ethiopia and its ally Eritrea, Ethiopia has yet to back down on the issue of the dam. This is understandable, as the country faces daily, debilitating power outages which hamper its economic development. According to a 2020 research paper, defensive procedures against power outages were costing Ethiopian households US$14.8 million per month.
War is a distinct possibility in this struggle. The president of Egypt, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, has said that “all options are open” in regards to the dam. Complicating the matter, Sudan, a former supporter of the dam, has now shifted its support in favour of Egypt in wishing for a more firm plan of action from Ethiopia. Although Sudan is not as belligerent as Egypt, as of yet, this change in stance does raise questions of what would happen in the event of a war breaking out over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, especially if the Tigray War continues on.
Eritrea in Tigray: What shifted from the Ethiopia-Eritrea War?
Another curious prospect in this war is the active role that neighbouring Eritrea has played in the war. Eritrea was a part of Ethiopia until the early 1990s when it gained independence after a three-decade-long bloody civil war. Following this, Eritrea and Ethiopia fought another war from 1998 to 2000, with the peace agreement only finalised in 2018. Only three years later, Eritrea is seemingly fighting alongside Ethiopia, its former enemy. What changed?
The answer may lie in the role that Eritrean soldiers have played in Tigray. Although nominally they are fighting in support of the Ethiopian government, Eritrean soldiers are in fact occupying up to 40% of the Tigray region, with some Tigray residents reporting that they had only seen Eritrean soldiers in the duration of the war. Eritrean troops have also been accused of instigating ethnic cleansing and indiscriminate murder in the Tigray region alongside Ethiopian troops.
At this point, it is important to ask: what does Eritrea get out of murdering innocent Tigrayan civilians? Why would Eritrea send its troops into Tigray to conduct ethnic cleansing? Clues can be found by looking at the Eritrean Ministry of Information’s official statements on the situation in Tigray. In them, Eritrea claims that the TPLF has “[led] to widespread violence, conflict, and the unfolding of significant humanitarian challenges.” The use of such harsh language, along with the denial of the human rights abuses, suggests strong Eritrean vitriol against the TPLF. The border conflict of 1998 between the two nations, occuring after the TPLF had taken power in Ethiopia, may be the reason for this rivalry.
The TPLF and the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), who are currently in power in Eritrea, were very amiable towards each other in the 1970s to 1990s, even overthrowing the central Ethiopian government together in 1991. In fact, this 1991 revolution led to the independence of Eritrea. However, the border conflicts put an irreparable rift in between the two nations, and relations between them broke down until 2018, when the TPLF lost power. Since then, the two nations have been friendly once again, united by their acrimony against the TPLF. Thus, the indiscriminate killing may be revenge for the 1998 border war, which left over 100,000 people dead, including up to 19,000 Eritreans.
Regardless of the international impacts, human rights abuses alone have made this war a very important one to watch. Tigray may be a spark for greater international strife – but the human cost of the spark alone may be devastating. The participants in this conflict all seek something different, from water security to revenge on a war that concluded 20 years ago, and Tigray is the unifying factor for all of these geopolitical issues. Ultimately, the winners and losers in this war can only be decided through time, but the Tigray people are suffering the consequences already.