Last month, Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict resumed after months of truce, once again bringing desperately-need humanitarian aid flows to a halt and drawing in neighboring Eritrea’s armed forces. The return of outright hostilities in Tigray has prompted more intense international efforts to get a peace process on track, including the deployment of U.S. Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa Mike Hammer to the region for intensive talks with the parties to the conflict. External actors who desire stability in the Horn recognize that neither of the main antagonists can decisively defeat the other.
The setback in Tigray came in the context of escalating civil conflict in multiple parts of the Ethiopian state, from Afar and Oromia to Benishangul Gumuz and Gambella. Questions about the capacity of the Ethiopian government to provide security throughout the country have grown more urgent. An incident in July in which al-Shabab fighters crossed into Ethiopia from Somalia to stage attacks, suggests that they perceived Ethiopia to be both weakened and distracted. It’s difficult not to get a sense that the government in Addis Ababa, which has little economic room to maneuver, has no real long-term strategy for coping with these multiplying crises.
Ironically, Prime Minister Abiy initially rallied domestic and diaspora support for his scorched-earth tactics in Tigray by framing the conflict as one in which Ethiopia’s sovereignty and right to self-determination was a stake. But as his government becomes overwhelmed by security and economic struggles on multiple fronts, it becomes an ever-more appealing target for international opportunists of all stripes, from organizations like al-Shabab to governments that can offer some short-term relief in the form of economic support and weapons, even as they build long-term leverage and influence. In the geostrategically vital Horn of Africa, Ethiopia has gone from a power that shaped the contours of regional dynamics to a state cobbling together reactions to the forces affecting it. The outcome is precisely the opposite of the one that Ethiopian nationalists seek. If the state can avoid collapse, it may be far more beholden to outsiders than just two years ago.
The circumstances look similarly grim for actors like the United States, which seeks to avoid regional contagion and aims to build solid African support for a rules-based international order. Instead, the Horn of Africa grows more unstable, malign actors like Eritrea are emboldened, and the horrifying human costs of a manmade famine in Tigray lay bare the international system’s dysfunction. In the face of fierce Ethiopian resistance to UN Security Council involvement, the supposed guarantors of international peace and security have been unable to meaningfully address the Tigray issue, despite its interstate dimensions and collective international efforts to place humanitarian siege strategies beyond the pale of acceptability globally.
A ray of hope emerged on Sunday, when Tigrayan forces indicated they were prepared to enter into a mutual cessation of hostilities agreement and participate in African Union-led talks without delay. This announcement creates a new opportunity to build positive momentum toward an end to the Tigray crisis. Whether real progress toward lasting peace will materialize remains to be seen, but what is not in doubt is just how difficult the outlook for Ethiopia will be without it.