Regional Dimensions and Imperialist Interests in the Ethiopian Tigray Conflict

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By Abayomi Azikiwe

With the intervention of Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) troops into the northern Tigray region of the Horn of Africa nation, aimed at dislodging the provincial leadership and establishing firm administrative control, various reports indicate that what Addis Ababa has called a “law-enforcement” operation must inevitably be viewed within the context of relations between contiguous states and the role of the United States and its allies.

This northern section has been under the control of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which played a dominant role in the country for 27 years as the de facto leadership within the formally ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).

The EPRDF government which came to power with the support of the United States in May 1991, served as a staunch ally of Washington in its military operations in the region. Ethiopian troops were the first deployed to Somalia in 2006-2007, when the former administration of President George W. Bush, Jr. sought to control political events inside that neighboring state.

Since the intervention of regional forces primarily from Ethiopia and Uganda into Somalia, the country has not yet gained the degree of stability which would allow a withdrawal of forces from the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM). The Somalian occupation which has lasted more than a decade, has been largely funded by Washington and the European Union (EU) with the endorsement of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).

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Although the number of AMISOM troops stationed in Somalia at one time numbered as many as 22,000 over the period in question, the Pentagon through its U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) along with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), EU troops and others remain in an effort to stabilize the federal government in Mogadishu. U.S., European and Canadian oil corporations are involved in the exploration for petroleum in Somalia whose coastline on the Indian Ocean serves as a gateway to the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf of Aden. Both geo-political areas are important in the domination of shipping lanes for energy resources and military positioning.

Since the rise of Ethiopia’s present leader, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali, a major restructuring of the internal political apparatus has been under way. Abiy called for the formation of the Prosperity Party (PP), dissolving the EPRDF and therefore severely curtailing the political authority of the TPLF and its military wing, the Tigray Regional Special Forces (TRSF).

There has been a growing interest in the plight of Ethiopian refugees fleeing to eastern Sudan in response to the clashes between the TPLF and the ENDF. A report surfaced on December 8 noting that the ENDF troops had opened fire on a UN convoy seeking to provide assistance to displaced persons. The Ethiopian government has denied any hostile intentions saying that the UN vehicles had failed to halt at two checkpoints and were on the verge of breaching a third. Officials from the government say that the incident was a reflection of the failure of the UN to abide by its guidelines in the Tigray region.

Redwan Hussein, the spokesman for the Ethiopian government’s Task Force on the Tigray region and State Minister for Foreign Affairs, was quoted as saying:

“The agreement we entered with the UN was in the belief that the UN would coordinate with us but the government would call the shots…. Ethiopia is being run by a strong functional government. It doesn’t need a babysitter.”

A Reuters news agency article cited above described the current humanitarian situation in Tigray emphasizing that:

“The government has said it was delivering aid in areas that it controlled, but relief agencies are increasingly frustrated at the difficult access to Tigray. The Norwegian Refugee Council said it had waited weeks for clearance to deliver food, shelters and other essentials. ‘Children, women and men in Tigray have now borne the brunt of this conflict for more than a month without any emergency assistance from outside the region. These people can no longer be made to wait. Aid must not be left at a standstill.’ The International Committee of the Red Cross said it had begun distributing clean water in Mekelle.”

The Role of Eritrea and Sudan in the Regional Situation

Just two years ago, the Abiy government signed peace agreements with the government of neighboring Eritrea under the leadership of President Isaias Afwerki. The accord signed in mid-2018 resolved a border conflict which had resulted in two large-scale wars in 1998 and 2000. Abiy was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in the aftermath of the rapprochement with Asmara. Both ruling parties in Ethiopia and Eritrea have a common adversary in the TPLF.

Reports indicate that the Eritrean military forces have entered Ethiopia in support of the ENDF and consequently against the deposed TPLF regional authorities. Addis Ababa and Asmara have both denied these allegations.

Nonetheless, western diplomats and refugees who have left the Tigray region say that Eritrean forces are present in Tigray and are carrying out military operations. There are approximately 96,000 Eritrean refugees living in the Tigray province many of whom have grievances against the government of President Afwerki.

Ethiopian and Eritrean refugees in eastern Sudan are the source of many of the reports emanating from the Tigray province. Sudan is undergoing a transitional process where divisions within the recently empowered Sovereignty Council has resulted in serious disagreements within the Force for Freedom and Change (FFC) and between the FFC and Transitional Military Council (TMC). Recently, the Chair of the Sovereignty Council, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, announced the formation of yet another administrative authority in Khartoum much to the chagrin of the other political parties and coalitions which make up the interim regime.

The Ethiopian and Sudanese border dispute in the eastern El Gedaref area has been a source of tension for a quarter century. The conflict over demarcation of the two borders stems from the colonial era when Britain controlled Sudan. Since the outbreak of fighting in Tigray and the relocation of Ethiopian and Eritrean refugees in the area, the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) claims to have taken control of the El Gedaref area around Khor Yabis. Previously, the area was controlled by Ethiopian militias which challenged the authority of the SAF. It remains to be seen if the TPLF attempts to utilize this region as a rear base in its stated objectives of continuing to wage a struggle against the central government in Addis Ababa.

Kenya, Djibouti and the U.S. Military Presence in East Africa

AFRICOM does have troops in Kenya and Djibouti at the Manda Bay Naval Base and Camp Lemonnier respectively. Although the U.S. claims that its principal purpose of being in Africa is to battle groups such as al-Qaeda, ISIS and al-Shabaab, the Pentagon has been on the continent long before these organizations came into existence or were considered a threat by Washington.

The Manda Bay Naval Base was attacked ostensibly by al-Shabaab in January of 2020. Three U.S. troops were reportedly killed in the incident. This base is also known as Camp Simba. The camp is used by Kenyan and U.S. troops and is located on the mainland of Lamu County.

At Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, a description of the U.S. military says that the base:

“[P]rovides, operates and sustains superior service in support of combat readiness and security of ships, aircraft, detachments and personnel for regional and combatant command requirements; and enables operations in the Horn of Africa while fostering positive U.S.-African Nation relations. Camp Lemonnier is a U.S. Navy led installation operated by Commander, Navy Region Europe, Africa, Central via U.S. Naval Forces Africa and Commander, Navy Installations Command. The Base supports approximately 4,000 U.S., joint and allied forces military and civilian personnel and U.S. Department of Defense contractors. Additionally, the base provides employment for approximately 1,000 local and third country nation workers.”

All of these developments involving U.S. military presence in East Africa will have an influence on the efforts to stabilize the situation in Ethiopia’s northern province of Tigray. In order for the AU member-states to bring peace and stability on the continent, there must be the elimination of the occupation by Pentagon forces. Africa must have its own effective mechanism to address internal conflicts and to guard against subversion and terrorism. The groups which are designated as “terrorists” by the U.S. and other political entities have their origins within the intelligence apparatuses of the western imperialist countries. The presence of these organizations in Africa and other parts of the world provides a rationale for the continuation of military operations by AFRICOM, NATO and its allies on the continent.


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