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Conflict in the Tigray region is raising the risk of other major political and security crises in Ethiopia. Tigrayan rebels, the TDF (often also called the TPLF), are pushing into border areas of Afar and Amhara regions, while the federal and local governments scramble to organise a counter-offensive.

This assessment was issued to clients of Dragonfly’s Security Intelligence & Analysis Service (SIAS) on 21 July 2021.

The longer fighting in Tigray and adjacent areas continues, the more likely it is becoming that other armed violence will escalate, such as in Oromia. The prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, is already losing political support. And should the situation further worsen in the near term, he would probably not be able to remain in power.

TDF heading south

The TDF appears to have caught the government and its allies off guard with its recent military operations. There were significant troop build-ups in western Tigray last week in anticipation of a TDF offensive there. But the group has instead pushed southeast towards the Afar region. Poor communications out of the region and official censorship mean it is unclear where the frontline stands currently. But a trusted and well-connected journalist source in Addis Ababa told us on Monday that Tigrayan forces had seized areas in the Wag Hemra and Kobo districts of Amhara, as well as nearby locations in Afar.

A ceasefire is highly unlikely anytime soon. The TDF appears to have been ready for negotiations after it took Mekelle last month. And we suspect the release of a thousand federal prisoners yesterday was probably meant as a sign of goodwill to precede talks. But the premier has been pushing an inflammatory nationalist anti-Tigray narrative; in a statement issued over the weekend he compared the group to a ‘cancer’ and a ‘weed’. He vowed to defeat it ‘once and for all’.

Such language both reflects and is likely to deepen state hostility to ethnic-Tigrayans, who already face arbitrary arrest and violence in Ethiopia. Based on reports from Amnesty International, the authorities in recent days have carried out widespread detentions of ethnic-Tigrayans in the capital, as well as of local journalists. Our source in the city added that Addis Ababa was ‘a scary place for Tigryans’ and that people ‘were packing their bags’.

Despite the premier’s fighting talk, the federal army is in tatters. The federal government is mobilising regional forces from across the country including paramilitary and police from Oromia, Benishangul-Gumuz, Afar, Somali, Gambela and Harari. In a further sign of its military weakness, in Amhara, the government is mobilising local militias. Our journalist source told us this is creating major logistical and coordination challenges. And in an audio clip leaked in the press on 18 July, the president of the Amhara region also said many militia groups are unwilling to fight the TDF.

In our analysis, the TDF is seeking to cut supply routes to Addis Ababa, rather than actually take the capital. The government alleged last week that the TDF bombarded one of the main roads leading to Tigray, prompting the closure of a checkpoint on the A1 route linking Addis Ababa to Djibouti. This is one of the key supply lines for imported goods, including fuel, into Ethiopia. The TDF has not commented on the government claims, and the A1 road is over 150km away from Tigray. But if the group was able to cut or even disrupt traffic on the road, it would have a major impact on the availability of primary goods in the capital.

In such a scenario, the already high risk of protest and unrest, including in the capital, would almost certainly rise. Socioeconomic conditions have worsened significantly in Ethiopia since the beginning of the pandemic. The currency has declined steadily over the past year, and anecdotal reports suggest it has drastically worsened in the past few weeks. Inter-communal and political tensions are also high. Shortages of basic goods would probably prompt widespread protests and unrest, including in Addis Ababa.

Irrespective of whether the TDF meets this objective, we anticipate that armed violence, including insurgencies, clashes between rival militias and attacks on civilians, will worsen in the coming weeks and months. Such incidents have become much more frequent since 2019, mainly in Oromia, Benishangul-Gumuz and Amhara, where serious incidents of armed violence occur on a weekly basis. The federal government pulled thousands of troops from such regions to fight in Tigray, leaving them exposed to local armed groups that they had already been unable to rein in.

The likely worsening of all these socio-economic and security challenges would have significant implications for regime stability. Our journalist source who has good access to political circles told us yesterday that some government officials are already ‘very worried’ about the escalation in Tigray, describing the prime minister and his allies as ‘delusional’. A senior Western diplomat in the capital told our source over the weekend that this was the PM’s ‘last roll of the dice’ and that he ‘won’t last the year’.

The opacity of political dynamics in Ethiopia means changes have often been unpredictable, and so while we agree with our source that the premier’s position is weakened, we have less confidence in forecasting exactly how this might play out. Still, we have listed below a list of indicators that would, in combination, probably make the position of prime minister untenable in the coming months.

  • TDF forces continue to gain territory in western Tigray
  • TDF forces start mounting regular attacks against government-aligned troops in Amhara and Afar
  • TDF is able to disrupt and cut the main supply route from Djibouti to the capital, leading to major shortages of primary goods
  • Armed groups in Oromia and Benishangul-Gumuz mount large or coordinated attacks against the government, capitalising on troop withdrawals
  • The mobilisation of regional armed forces starts causing rifts between regional governments and the federal government

Even if members of the ruling party feel that Mr Abiy’s position has become untenable over the coming months, we do not assess that an overt coup would be a likely scenario. The army has never been a key player in Ethiopian politics and has been weakened by the setbacks in Tigray. And given the electoral commission recently declared that the ruling party won a general election in a landslide, the political and security elite would probably try to maintain an illusion of stability. In our view, the most likely scenario would instead be a palace coup. Another scenario that we consider to be credible, based on precedent, is an assassination.

Image: Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed speaks during the inauguration of the newly remodelled Meskel Square on 13 June 2021 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Photo by Jemal Countess via Getty Images.