Ethiopia’s civil war a threat to regional security
As Ethiopia this month marked the first anniversary of the start of its latest civil war, the UN warned of dire political and humanitarian consequences. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said “the stability of Ethiopia and the wider region is at risk.”
Undersecretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs Rosemary DiCarlo also tweeted that “the possible consequences of a spiraling conflict on the country and the region are frightening to contemplate.” Other UN agencies expressed alarm at the worsening humanitarian situation and are scaling up their emergency assistance to northern Ethiopia, where tens of thousands of people are believed to have been killed or injured and millions are on the run.
In addition to the humanitarian toll of the civil war, with reported atrocities on a wide scale, especially in the Tigray region, the conflict is sapping the country’s resources and, as such, contributing to possible long-term stunted development. Poverty and hunger levels are already rising and famine might not be far behind, as has happened in previous decades. The country’s population of 115 million is at risk. Ethiopia is a poor country and can ill afford a protracted civil war. The annual per capita gross domestic product was a miniscule $936 in 2020, according to World Bank figures. It also has one of the lowest development levels in the world, according to the UN Human Development Report of 2020, with an index of only 0.485, ranking 173rd in the world.
The civil war is likely to drain Ethiopia’s economic development financial allocations as the country attempts to recover from COVID-19. According to African Development Bank estimates, Ethiopia’s economy is expected to shrink by 2 percent in real terms in 2021. Its growth prospects for 2022 are uncertain, depending on the extent and duration of the civil war and on the pace of its post-pandemic recovery.
On top of virus-related travel restrictions imposed by Saudi Arabia, the Kingdom this month instructed its nationals to leave Ethiopia. Similar measures were taken by fellow Gulf Cooperation Council countries and others after Ethiopia declared a nationwide state of emergency as the civil war spread, approaching the capital Addis Ababa.
Last week, Saudi Arabia also issued a rare statement expressing its deep concerns about developments in Ethiopia. It urged a return to dialogue to search for political solutions. The statement called for de-escalation, a halt to all “military and hostile acts,” protection of the civilian population, and access for humanitarian organizations to deliver badly needed assistance to civilians.
Saudi Arabia enjoys close relations with Ethiopia going back hundreds of years. In September 2018, the Kingdom was instrumental in mediating an end to the Ethiopian-Eritrean conflict in a move described at the time by Guterres as a “historic event.” King Salman oversaw the signing in Jeddah of a peace deal between Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed that ended decades of conflict between the two countries.
If things get out of hand in either of the country’s conflicts, there could be unspeakable repercussions in the region and beyond.
Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg
Saudi Arabia has also made significant contributions to Ethiopia in terms of humanitarian assistance and development aid, as well as thriving trade and investment in the country.
Fighting erupted in November 2020, initially limited to the Tigray region, but it slowly engulfed other parts of the country. Initially, the fighting involved mainly the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, but then other groups joined too. Most important was the recent announcement by the militia known as the Oromo Liberation Army that it had joined the fight against the central government. The French news agency AFP last week reported that the militant group’s fighters were “near the capital and preparing a new attack, promising an end to the conflict ‘very soon,’” quoting one of its leaders.
The Oromos are the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, accounting for about 35 percent of the population. It would represent a major threat to the status quo if they withheld their support from the government. According to Ethiopian experts, the country has more than 90 ethnic groups, but the Oromos and Amharas account for more than 60 percent of the population.
In addition to its internal instability, Ethiopia has engaged in a regional conflict over its construction of the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a large dam project on the Blue Nile that could restrict the amount of water flowing to its downstream neighbors, Sudan and Egypt. Several bilateral and multilateral agreements, especially an agreement from 1902, govern the matter, together with related principles of international law.
For example, in the 1902 Anglo-Ethiopian Treaty, Britain (the colonial power in Sudan and Egypt at the time) agreed to concede significant territory to Ethiopia, while the latter agreed not to “construct or allow to be constructed any works across the Blue Nile, Lake Tsana or the Sobat, which would arrest the flow of their waters into the Nile, except in agreement with His Britannic Majesty’s Government and the Government of the Sudan.”
Negotiations over the matter have failed to secure an agreement, while Ethiopia has continued its unilateral filling of the GERD reservoir, in clear violation of the 1902 agreement. The impasse could spark an armed regional conflict if talks continue to stall.
The civil war represents a serious threat to Ethiopia’s national unity, territorial integrity and social cohesion. Meanwhile, the regional conflict over Nile waters is upsetting centuries of peaceful coexistence and shared history between the three riparian states — Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan. If things get out of hand in either conflict, there could be unspeakable repercussions in the region and beyond. Ethiopia is already a major source of human trafficking and illegal migration, but if it stays in this state of multiple conflicts, there may be millions more refugees and illegal migrants seeking shelter in neighboring countries and farther afield.
The world is counting on the wisdom of the Ethiopians to listen to international and regional voices that are counseling restraint and de-escalation to spare their country and the region unspeakable suffering.
- Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the GCC Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs & Negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent GCC views. Twitter: @abuhamad1