Long-simmering tensions between Ethiopia’s federal government and the northern state of Tigray have escalated into all-out conflict. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on Nov. 4 ordered the military to respond to an alleged raid on an army camp in the restive region and placed it under a six-month state of emergency. Tigrayan leaders hit back by banning flights and warned they’ll react to any acts of aggression. The Ethiopian government said its forces killed at least 550 fighters loyal to the Tigrayan ruling party in the first week of clashes. A failure to de-escalate the situation would be a grave setback to efforts to maintain national unity and keep a lid on ethnic violence in Africa’s second-most populous nation.

1. What sparked the conflict?

Abiy said Tigray People’s Liberation Front forces assaulted a military base and were defeated by the army. The TPLF, which governs Tigray, didn’t acknowledge responsibility for such an offensive, saying only that the federal government attacked it with the help of foreign forces and that it would defend itself. It was unclear whether those killed were part of the TPLF’s special forces or militia fighters supporting the party.

2. Why are ties so tense?

Relations between Tigray and Abiy’s administration have been strained since he took office in 2018 and set about consolidating power under his newly formed Prosperity Party. That sidelined the TPLF, which had been the nation’s pre-eminent power broker. Tensions ratcheted up after Tigray staged regional elections in September in defiance of a directive to postpone them because of the coronavirus pandemic, and the federal parliament retaliated by ordering the Treasury to halt direct budget support to the regional administration. Tigray’s leaders have also been angered by the federal government’s attempt to reshuffle the military leadership stationed in their territory and calls by the nation’s House of Representatives to designate the TPLF as a terrorist organization.

3. What’s the background to the animosity?

Africa’s oldest nation state, Ethiopia has long been plagued by discord between its more than 80 ethnic groups. The country was an absolute monarchy until the 1974 socialist revolution that deposed Emperor Haile Selassie. It became a multi-ethnic federation in 1991, when a TPLF-led alliance of rebels overthrew the Marxist military regime that followed Selassie. The Tigrayans, though comprising just 6% of the population, dominated national politics, infuriating the bigger Oromo and Amhara communities. Hailemariam Desalegn quit as prime minister in 2018 after failing to quell violent protests that began in late 2015 and claimed several hundred lives. The ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front named Abiy, an Oromo, as his successor.

4. How has Abiy handled the situation?

The prime minister’s rule started off with a bang. He scrapped bans on opposition and rebel groups, purged allegedly corrupt officials and ended two decades of acrimony with neighboring Eritrea -- an initiative that won him the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize. He also put out the welcome mat for foreign capital to maintain momentum in one of the world’s fastest-expanding economies. But he’s struggled to keep the peace. Besides the dissent in Tigray, he’s had to contend with violent protests after the June killing of popular Oromo musician Hachalu Hundessa, which claimed about 200 lives. Inter-communal fighting in the western Benishangul-Gumuz region in September left at least 140 people dead and drove more than 25,000 others from their homes. Ethnic conflict continues to simmer in the Amhara region, and attacks and abductions perpetrated by militia groups in parts of the central Oromia region show no sign of letting up. A number of key opposition leaders have been arrested.

5. What’s at stake for the economy?

Ethiopia’s $107 billion economy has expanded more than 9% a year over the past decade as investment flooded in, making it one of the world’s top performers. The International Monetary Fund expected the growth rate to slip to 1.9% in 2020 due to the pandemic. Investor sentiment took a hit from the protests after Hachalu’s slaying, dimming the prospects of a rebound, and a military showdown in Tigray would make a bad situation worse. There’s also a risk that the government could be distracted from its plans to open telecommunications and state-dominated industries to outside investors. Unilever NV, Diageo Plc and Hennes & Mauritz AB are among the companies with operations in Ethiopia.

6. How ugly could this get?

Very. The Tigray region is already heavily militarized because of its proximity to Eritrea, which fought a war with Ethiopia from 1998 to 2000. The Northern Command that’s situated in Tigray comprises more than half of the armed forces’ total personnel and mechanized divisions, according to the International Crisis Group. The Ethiopian government said dialog with the Tigray region would only be possible once all its military equipment has been destroyed and key members of the regional government brought to justice. By mid-November, almost 7,000 refugees had arrived at Ethiopia’s border with Sudan, some of them combatants.

7. What are the regional implications?

The Tigrayan authorities have undermined the peace deal Abiy struck with Eritrea, refusing to ensure the removal of troops from disputed territory. And there’s a risk the showdown between the regional and national governments, which has already spilled across the border, could further undermine the already shaky detente. There could also be repercussions for other Horn of Africa nations. Ethiopia is a major power broker in the region, with peacekeepers in Sudan and South Sudan and troops in neighboring Somalia fighting militants linked to al-Qaeda, and it could redirect military resources to quell internal dissent.

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