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Why raging conflict in Ethiopia should worry East Africa states

By Babere Kerata Chacha | November 16th 2021
A tank damaged in fighting between Ethiopian government and Tigray forces is pictured near the town of Humera, Ethiopia, March 3, 2021. [Reuters]

The ongoing conflict in Ethiopia continues to raise concerns in the region and beyond. Peace experts in the region are especially worried about how this conflict would impact the wider East African regional security in both long and short terms.

A combination of the civil conflict, an increased flow of refugees and ecological challenges and the Covid-19 pandemic, seem to present immediate and serious concerns for the region’s stability, as well as human rights concerns for those caught up in the middle of this growing crisis.

Serious fears are growing that the fighting in Tigray has the potential to not only deal one of Africa’s most populous and wealthy countries a serious setback, but also destabilise the wider Horn of Africa. Such consequences may come in several ways.

First, Sudan has already started feeling the heat as a result of this conflict since many of those fleeing the violence are already headed west to the Sudanese border. The influx of such big numbers of refugees from Ethiopia will inevitability increase further pressure on the existing humanitarian efforts in this country that has for long hosted refugees from South Sudan, where camps are crowded and medicine, food, and housing are urgently needed.

Kenya, like Sudan would also want to see a quick resolution of this conflict to among others avert an influx of refugees into the country. Kenya has already tightened security along its border with Ethiopia. In addition, numerous roadblocks have been mounted to monitor movement of any illegal immigrants as well as block entry of illegal firearms. These measures come amid fears that the worsening conflict could disrupt trade between the two countries, given that Ethiopia is one of Kenya's key trade partners.

For South Sudan, the conflict in the Tigray region could have ramifications on peace. Ethiopia, has constantly played a major mediating role between the rival groups of President Salva Kiir and First Vice President Riek Machar. As a matter of fact, South Sudan’s two major peace deals, signed in 2015 and 2018, were both negotiated and signed in Ethiopia.

Somalia also directly depends on Ethiopia because of its intricate history of conflict and strategic intervention in this war-torn nation. In fact, the Ethiopian military helped to install the Somali Transitional Federal Government in Mogadishu in 2006 after overpowering the Islamic Courts Union.

Since then, Ethiopia has been determined to assist the Somali forces to contain the Al-Shabaab. But now Ethiopia’s decision to withdraw her troops from Somalia will negatively impact, not only the effectiveness of the Amisom as a stabilising force, but also will severely undermine the mission and may allow Al-Shabaab to gain advantage in the region.

Lastly, the greatest fear of the Tigray crisis for Africa is not the immediate factors mentioned above but the long term implications it may have. The sentiments behind the formation and solidarity of the Tigray rebel movement may help to reignite the dead secessionist movements across the continent. 

In fact, political scientists believe that this conflict could have a domino effect in the region. The success achieved by this rebel group so far can re-energise some secessionist groups in the region as well as trigger rebellion in regions that are marginalised and peripherised by major states in the region. In this regards, Kenya, Tanzania, Nigeria, Angola, Ghana and Cameroon should be worried.

The Tigray conflict has once again freshly brought secessionist movements back to the spotlight in the continent. In fact, the tension in Tigray region is not a new phenomenon. There have been similar tensions in countries such as Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan.

The tensions stem from the complex processes of state formation, what Achile Mbembe as a product of post-coloniality, elite interests, conflicts over natural resources, territorial disputes, contested identities, ethnicity, political domination, security-related interests of external actors, and religious ideologies- all factors for the mushrooming of separatist movements.  

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