The conflict currently raging in Tigray region of Ethiopia is rooted in the historical role of the “Deep State” consisting mainly of the members of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). What is Deep State? The expression is actually a translation of the Turkish phrase derin devlet. As historian Ryan Gingeras has explained, it arose as a way of describing “a kind of shadow or parallel system of government in which unofficial or publicly unacknowledged individuals play important roles in defining and implementing state policy.” (1). According to the Ethiopian government, the war which led to an all out offensive on Nov. 4 was in response to an attack early that morning by the TPLF controlled security forces on a military base in Tigray. As fighting erupted, Tigray officials declared that soldiers from the Northern Command of the Ethiopian military had defected and sided with them. Mr. Abiy bolstered his forces by deploying militia fighters from Amhara, a region south of Tigray, who swept into western Tigray amid accusations of attacks on civilians (2). Tensions began in earnest after the national government ordered the postponement of federal elections which were suppose to be held in Tigray region in November 2020. The national government of Ethiopia instructed the postponement of the elections due to COVID-19 pandemic. The government led by the TPLF ignored the instructions and went ahead with the electoral process in defiance. The outcome of the elections were not recognised by the national government. Since, thousands of civilians have been killed and millions displaced by the war. About 2.2 million people have been displaced within Ethiopia’s Tigray region since fighting erupted there in November with about half fleeing after their homes were burned down, a local government official in Tigray said (3).
When Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed assumed office on 02 April 2018, there was a sense of optimism that there was going to be development in general in Ethiopia. The release of jailed journalists and improvement in media laws added to that optimism. Ethiopia has long had a reputation as one of the worst jailers of journalists in the world, reportedly holding 18 reporters at one time in detention. Yet as of Dec. 1, the country was recorded as not having any imprisoned journalists. This comes after a number of political and economic reforms undertaken by the newly elected reformist leader of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front party. (4). Ahmed’s personal background is probably the most reflective of Ethiopia’s diverse society, so his election to premiership also suggested changes in Ethiopian political infrastructure. He is a son a Muslim father and Christian mother; his lineage is Oromo, the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia. The Oromo have been accusing government authorities of economic and political marginalisation, therefore the election of Ahmed was viewed by many Oromo as a moment of hope. Moreover, Ahmad’s acceptance and approval by most countries around the world, his popularity within Ethiopia and Africa in general brought a semblance of pride to many in Ethiopia. Young, handsome and clever, Ahmed won the Noble Peace Price in 2019 for his role in negotiating a peaceful settlement between Ethiopia and Eritrea. His ambitious plan to reconfigure regional and coordinate economic and political efforts in the Horn of Africa also won him a number of accolades. On January 27, 2020 the leaders of Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia — President Isaias Afwerki, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo, held their third trilateral meeting. trilateral meeting. They proposed to form a new regional bloc, which has been referred to as the Horn of Africa Cooperation. (5)
However, what perhaps raised international attention to Ahmed’s premiership was his undertaking to tackle corruption and redress the human rights record in Ethiopia. But, as it has became apparent, addressing these two main challenges has not been smooth sailing. After taking office, Ahmed instituted arrests of those accused of corruption and violations of human rights. Most of those arrested were members of the TPLF. In November 2018, at least 79 security officers, officials, businessmen and women, many of them Tigrayan, have been arrested since last week — under what the government said was a clamp-down on corruption and mistreatment of prisoners (6). Unlike in other parts of Africa where similar campaigns of fighting corruption were implemented, it was harder in Ethiopia due lack of credible democratic institutions. Consequently Ahmed has been accused of pursuing his own personal political agenda. Take South Africa for an example; “When President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa assumed office he engaged on a similar political trajectory as Ethiopia. However his work was made easy by the existence of democratic institutions in that country. South Africa has a strong independent judicial system for starters, active multiparty parliament and effective opposition. Ahmed on the other hand had to implement these changes without any of these essential structures. “It was a tall order, a main huddle from the onset” (7). Ahmed had to personally intervene in rooting out corruption, he had to fire and hire ministers and restructure politics in his government without a support of any independent structure. He called into account many members of his own coalition, many of whom were his colleagues in parliament and within the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). The EPRDF was disbanded in 2019. It consisted of four political parties, namely Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), Amhara Democratic Party (ADP), Oromo Democratic Party (ODP) and Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM). EPRDF led a movement which eventually overthrew the Communist People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia in 1991.
Tigray is the last position for TPLF, a bastion of protection for its members from possible persecution by the national government for human rights crimes and corruption. Ahmed’s political intervention in fighting corruption was essential in order to achieve desired socio-political changes in Ethiopia. This paper will look at the role of the Deep State in the conflict in Tigray, how TPL’s insistence to hold on to power and entrench itself in regional politics triggered the tit for tat military actions between its forces and the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) in Tigray. It will argue that Ethiopian Deep State consists by and large of members of the TPLF. It will also look at the role and impact of external actors in the conflict. The paper will conclude by putting forward scenarios that will likely occur as it has become clear that TPLF will be engaging in protracted guerilla warfare. Former president of the TPLF Debretsion Gebremichael warned, “let our enemies and friends know that until we get our victory we will not go anywhere.”
The role of the Deep State in the Tigray conflict
Abiy Ahmad had serious sociopolitical and economic challenges to address as he started embarking to tackle corruption and human rights violations in Ethiopia. He has to bring to book those accused of corruption as a matter of urgency. There was however one big huddle. Most of those accused of widespread corruption and past human rights violations are members of the TPLF, a leading party within the EPRDF coalition. TPLF is also accused of forming part of the deep state based in Tigray. The TPLF led the armed struggle to topple the brutal Derg regime in 1991 and controlled the ruling coalition that took over. But since Abiy took office, Tigrayan leaders have complained of being unfairly targeted in corruption prosecutions, removed from top positions and broadly scapegoated for the country’s woes (8). TPLF created the EPRDF in the late 1980s. The first leader of EPRDF and former Prime Minister after the revolution in Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi was from Tigray ethnic group. Although he, to an extent, managed to bring back political stability in Ethiopia, his leadership is accused of further entrenching the deep state in Tigray. Members of TPLF continued to occupy senior positions in his cabinet, the army, business and other government apparatuses. Zenawi passed away in Brussels, Belgium in August 2012. Haile Mariam Desalegn replaced Zenawi; he was a Prime Minister of Ethiopia from 2012 to 2018. Desalegn was forced to resign after sustained protests in Oromo region of Ethiopia. Given the history and influence of the TPLF inside the EPRDF, Ahmed would have struggled to achieve his objectives within the current political parametres. Therefore, he had to establish an alternative platform, the Prosperity Party (PP), to implement necessary reforms.
The Prosperity Party (PP) has done away with the four-part ethnic coalition structure which made up the EPRDF. It will instead be a single organization spanning the entire country. (9). The dissolution of EPDRF has ushered in a new form of politics in Ethiopia. It also presents new challenges for smaller parties formerly within the coalition in Ethiopia. Most of these parties were cushioned by their membership within the coalition into participation in the national politics of the country and indeed inclusion into parliament. “PP is therefore by all accounts a true national political party that will seek to move away from tribal identity politics into truly national politics in Ethiopia according to senior members in the party” (10). The party gives Abiy Ahmed a new mandate to make decisions instead of being prevented, as it were, by consensus within the EPDRF. The inner machinations inside the EPDRF will have certainly impeded certain proposed transformation particularly in addressing past injustices and corruption. The dissolution of EPDRF introduces perhaps for the first time after the revolution in Ethiopia a national organisation whose membership will be open to all irrespective of their tribal background as earlier alluded. The EPRDF had long depicted Ethiopia’s ethnic groups as victims of forced assimilationist policy — under a nation-building project that began in the 19th century and ended in 1995 with the introduction of the Ethiopia’s federal constitution, which granted the “nations, nationalities and peoples” the right to self-determination. Abiy formulated an alternative history that de-emphasized ethnic oppression and instead focused on ethnic harmony and national unity. (10). However the formation of PP presents another challenge for Ahmed. Past politicking in Ethiopia created a culture of tribal patronage e.g. most Oromo thought their time had arrived to benefit when Ahmed was elected to office. The formation of PP dashes those ambitions for other ethnic groups as he prioritizes the sociopolitical urgencies of all Ethiopians.
The Deep State in Tigray has been enabled by a number of factors including TPLF’s historical role in the politics of Ethiopia. These factors have influenced a level of entitlement in terms of national leadership and played a role in militarization of Tigray. Moreover, when Eritrea gained independence, Tigray became a new buffer between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Fast — forward to the time when the boarder dispute between the two countries ensued, it was TPLF in Tigray which held the frontier. The defiance by TPLF to go ahead with elections notwithstanding the disapproval by the national government was not a coincidence; it was a political reminder to the national government of the role and significance of TPLF in Ethiopian politics. It was also an attempt meant to further entrench and protect their political positioning in Tigray. Importantly, it was an act meant to avert and shield TPLF members from persecution from alleged corruption and violations of human rights. The TPLF was hoping to have elections, which would have further entrenched itself in the region and build up strong politics and military which would have helped protect its interests, importantly build an independent state. (11).
The role of external actors in the conflict in Tigray
The conflict in Tigray is likely to attract opportunistic external forces aiming at exploiting the current standoff between the TPLF and the national government. Sudan has been foremost affected by the conflict in Tigray. Sudan currently hosts a number of displaced people from Tigray, the humanitarian strife has deteriorated inside the country. There are 61,209 refugees registered (14 February, UNHCR) · 35,123 refugees relocated from Hamdayet and Abdrafi and Village 8 to Um Raquba (20,572 people) and Tunaydbah (14,551 people) refugee camps· $157 million needed to respond to the urgent needs of up to 115,000 refugees and 22,000 host communities in Sudan and Djibouti up to June 2021. So far, $40 million has been pledged (12). There are also suspicions that TPLF could use Sudan as a springboard to wage its guerrilla warfare against Ethiopia. War could be profitable; in Sudan there are many who stand to benefit from the war in Ethiopia, particularly the army. Sudan’s military has close ties with the TPLF, including Burhan, stemming from their past experiences during Bashir’s regime. Many Sudanese generals, developed close ties with TPLF during this period. (13). Furthermore, conflict in Tigray has also triggered a long standing boarder dispute between Ethiopia and Sudan which is seen as a smokescreen to hide the presence of TPLF’s bases inside Sudan. Tensions recently reached a boiling point after Sudan accused Ethiopian aircraft of crossing its boarder. On 31 January 2021, Ethiopian forces stationed in the Abdel-Rafi area fired mortar shells towards a Sudanese reconnaissance force crossing the Abu Teyyour Mountains, according to news reports. No casualties were reported. Ethiopian authorities have called for dialogue on condition that Sudanese forces leave the disputed border region. Senior leaders in the Sudanese army, however, have stressed that Sudan will not back down from land that, according to them, constitutes sovereign territory (14). Having said that, although guerrilla warfare is perhaps the next logical plan of action by the TPLF, Sudan itself is battling a number of internal conflicts it might be circumspect in allowing the TPLF to use its territory for a protracted warfare against Ethiopia.
Second, Tigray region shares its entire northern boarder with Eritrea. It is perhaps its geographical location that has made the region of Tigray important to Ethiopia. During political tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea in the 1990’s, Tigray was a buffer zone between the Ethiopian hinterland and Eritrean frontlines. This has therefore meant that although relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia might have altered after peace agreement between the two countries; people in the boarder areas still had to nurse certain tensions after years of conflict. TPLF and Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) had a long history of coordination, fighting the centralized government of Ethiopia. The renegation of coordination by the EPLF after 1991 when Eritrea’s independence was recognised, dashed TPLF’s ambitions of pursuing their own state and independence. TPLF continued, albeit not overtly, to resent Eritrea and arguably still hold a grudge against EPLF. The subsequent peace agreement between Isaias Afwerki and Abiy Ahmed further incensed TPLF’s deep state. It was therefore not a surprise when it was announced that Eritrea has decided to enter the conflict and take sides earlier in the conflict. In a recent address to the Ethiopian parliament, the Nobel laureate revealed that Eritrea, a highly militarised one-party state, had fed, clothed and armed retreating Ethiopian soldiers when the TPLF first attacked them and seized their bases in Tigray, an Ethiopian region which borders Eritrea (15)
Third, UAE operates Chinese produced drones program stationed in the in the Eritrean port city of Assab. This has been confirmed by Wim Zwijnenburg, a humanitarian disarmament project leader for PAX, an organization that studies global conflict and researches the use of military technologies, he has been analyzing satellite imagery collected by the U.S. company Planet Lab. According to Wim, the 20-meter wingspan, Chinese-made drones known as the Wing Loong II are capable of dropping bombs or shooting missiles. Forces in Ethiopia’s Tigray region have accused the federal government of partnering with the United Arab Emirates to use weaponized drones stationed in Eritrea (16). Besides needing spaces to tests its military muscle and new technology, the UAE is involved in a number of conflicts in Yemen, Libya, Eritrea and Djibouti amongst others (17). UAE and Saudi Arabia run military bases in Djibouti and Eritrea which have been used as launching positions against the Houthi rebels in Yemen. If allegations by TPLF are correct, there is certainly going to be a further militarization of the region.
The conflict in Tigray was long time coming; it was a matter of time before it became an all out war. The regrouping of the Deep State in Tigray started when Ahmed resumed office. Unfortunately the absence of democratic institutions to deal with violation of human rights and corruption in Ethiopia led to Abiy Ahmed using his political power to intervene. He moved swiftly to arrest those accused of graft and human rights violations. These efforts sent a strong message that he was dedicated to transformation; it also earned him respect from across the world. The defiance by TPLF not to postpone elections, was largely criticized by many in the region and indeed inside Ethiopia. Moreover, the insistence to hold elections was not only meant to undermine the national government by the TPLF; it was also meant to take advantage of the state of unpreparedness. TPLF wanted to win elections and then entrench itself in the region. This would have allowed it to call for independence something that could have encouraged similar actions in other regions of Ethiopia, it is something Ethiopia couldn’t have afforded. The continuing hostilities in Tigray could further plunge Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa into further chaos. There are a number of scenarios that could compromise Ethiopia’s strategic positioning if the current situation in Tigray and with TPLF is allowed to deteriorate any further:
First, the geographical positioning of Ethiopia in the politics of the Horn of Africa has made the country a key player in the region and indeed the Red Sea. Al Shabbab and Somali criminals have continued to create a disturbance to business in the Red Sea. Although Ethiopia does not share the coastline of the Red Sea, stable Ethiopia is key to business in those waters, it has the most reliable force in the region and can be called upon whenever necessary to monitor and police the Red Sea. However the conflict in Tigray could add a serious challenge to efforts seeking to improve safety and security in the Red Sea. It is not farfetched that the ousted TPLF could join forces with Al Shabbab and other criminal elements in the coast of Somalia to further destabilise business along the Red Sea. Furthermore, Ethiopian troops have been part of the AU peacekeeping initiative in Somalia African Mission to Somalia (AMISOM). AMISOM has also been key in assisting Somalia National Security Forces in pushing back the advances of Al Shabbab. Therefore, it is not unimaginable that Al Shabbab could find a new alliance in TPLF. Al Shabbab can use that alliance to wage a war and settle old scores against Ethiopia. Second, whilst the advent of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is likely to change the fortunes of Ethiopia as it could enable the country to become energy self reliant, it has also created hostilities for Ethiopia. Sudan and Egypt are opposed to GERD, they claim that it will impact the flow of water into the Nile which their people and economies heavily rely. TPFL could try and exploit this situation by working with these hostile forces to further destabilise Ethiopia. Third, the presence of countries like US, China, some Europeans and Gulf countries in the Horn of Africa has impacted the political fortunes and relevance of Ethiopia. Ethiopia is playing an important role in providing security in the region. Ethiopia is a key ally of the Western world, especially the U.S., which considers it as an important regional security partner in the global war on terror. (18). Moreover, the presence of the headquarters of the African Union (AU) in Addis Ababa has certainly alleviated the political and strategic positioning of Ethiopia. Multitudes of African diplomats and general workers are currently residing in Ethiopia. Ethiopia is a key prize in the scramble for influence and power in the Horn of Africa and broader Red Sea region. With its natural resources, population of 110 million, and well-equipped military, Ethiopia has become an African power. (19). TPLF could engage in terrorism inside the country, this could seriously impact Ethiopia’s strategic position safety and security and reputation. Finally, Ethiopia is probably the most suitable country to coordinate a number of regional functions including supporting tourism infrastructure and regional security. TPLF could disrupt those intentions for all countries in the region. It is therefore in the interest of all countries in the region to press for a peaceful Ethiopia and resist advances to align with TPLF.
In conclusion, besides the pressing political challenges in Tigray, Ahmed has to still address the national economic challenges facing the country. Failure to address these immediate challenges could broaden the anti-government coalition, which could legitimize TPLF and present it as a victim. After all, protests that led to his election into power were as a result of certain promises of economic redress. Almost three years since he became Prime Minister, the economic situation has not made progress and has failed to meet the demands of those who protested for economic changes and inclusion. Ethiopia’s real GDP growth slowed to an estimated 7.4% in 2019 from 7.7% in 2018, caused by social unrest and fiscal consolidation to stabilize the public debt. (20). Lastly, the formation of PP ushered in a new form of political engagement in Ethiopia and also disabled TPLF to call for independence in order to shield itself from persecution. The conflict in Tigray demonstrates the trappings of decades of tribal based politics and the rise of a deep state who sole purpose was to serve narrow political interests.
- Rebecca Gordon, Insider, What the American deep state’ actually is, and why Trump gets it wrong, https://www.businessinsider.com/what-deep-state-is-and-why-trump-gets-it-wrong-2020-1?IR=T , 20 Feb 2021
- 2. Declan Walsh and Abdi Latif Dahir, New York Times, Why Ethiopia at war with itslef, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/05/world/africa/ethiopia-tigray-conflict-explained.html , 20 Feb 2021
- 3. Interview, Senior Ethiopian politician, 01 Feb. 2021
- 4. The Africa Report, Horn of Africa cooperation: mixed responses to new regional bloc, https://www.theafricareport.com/40994/horn-of-africa-cooperation-mixed-responses-to-new-regional-bloc/, 20 Feb 2021
- 5. Reuters, Powerful Ethiopian party accuses government of ethnic crackdown, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-ethiopia-politics-idUSKCN1NP1JN , 20 Feb 2021
- 6. Interview, senior Ethiopian politician, 01 Feb 2021
- 7. Al Jazeera, Ethiopian parliament votes to cut ties with Tigray region leader, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/10/7/ethiopia-parliament-votes-to-cut-ties-with-tigray-region-leaders, 20 Feb. 2021
- 8. Tom Gardner, Foreign Policy, Will Abiy Ahmed’s bet on Ethiopia’s political future pay off?, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/01/21/will-abiy-ahmed-eprdf-bet-ethiopia-political-future-pay-off/ , 20 Feb 2021
- 9. Interview, Senior Politician, 01 Feb. 2021
- 10. Golton Gebreluel, Washington Post, Ethiopia’s prime minister wants to change the ruling coalition. Who is getting left out?, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/12/23/ethiopias-president-wants-change-ruling-coalition-whos-getting-left-out/, 20 Feb. 2021 (12)Reuters, Over 2 million people displaced by conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region-local official, https://www.reuters.com/article/uk-ethiopia-conflict-idUSKBN29B1N7, 20 Feb 2021
- 11. Interview, Senior Ethiopian politician, 01 Feb. 2021 (20)
- 12. UNOCHA, Refugee influx from Tigray continue, https://reports.unocha.org/en/country/sudan/card/6D99S5nCTQ/ , 20 Feb. 2021
- 13. Ayin Network, Mail and Guardian, Border tensions between Sudan, Ethiopia, https://mg.co.za/africa/2021-02-03-border-tensions-mount-between-sudan-ethiopia/ , 20 Feb. 2021
- 14. Ayin Network, Mail and Guardian, Border tensions between Sudan, Ethiopia, https://mg.co.za/africa/2021-02-03-border-tensions-mount-between-sudan-ethiopia/ , 20 Feb. 2021
- 15. BBC, Tigray crisis: Eritrea’s role in Ethiopian conflict, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-55295650 , 20 Feb. 2021
- 16. Salem Solomon, Voice of America, Expert: No evidence UAE drones are being used in Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict, https://www.voanews.com/africa/expert-no-evidence-uae-drones-are-being-used-ethiopias-tigray-conflict , 20 Feb. 2021
- 17. Robert Klosowicz, Researchgate, The role of Ethiopia in the regional security complex in the Horn of Africa, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/341830607_The_role_of_Ethiopia_in_the_regional_security_complex_of_the_Horn_of_Africa, 20 Feb. 2021
- 18. Abdi Latif Dahir, Quartz Africa, For the first time in decades, there are no Ethiopian journalists in prisons, https://qz.com/africa/1494561/ethiopia-has-no-jailed-journalists-in-2018-the-first-since-2004/ , 20 Feb 2021
- 19. Michael Horton, The Jamestown Foundation, How war in Ethioipia impacts Red Sea and Horn of Africa power politics: The battle in Tigray and beyond, https://jamestown.org/program/how-war-in-ethiopia-impacts-red-sea-and-horn-of-africa-power-politics-the-battle-in-tigray-and-beyond/#:~:text=Ethiopia%20is%20a%20key%20prize,and%20broader%20Red%20Sea%20region.&text=All%20four%20of%20those%20countries,especially%20its%20important%20agricultural%20sector, 20 Feb. 2021.
- 20. AFDB, Ethiopia Economic outlook, https://www.afdb.org/en/countries/east-africa/ethiopia/ethiopia-economic-outlook, 20 Feb 2021 (10)