Ethiopia and the Conflict in Tigray

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Giovanni Sale, SJ

 Giovanni Sale, SJ / Politics / 20 January 2021


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The government in Addis Ababa views what took place in November 2020 in its rebel province of Tigray as a simple police operation in the north of the country on the disputed border with Eritrea and Sudan. In reality, the clash between the Ethiopian Army and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) was a real civil war. Fighter planes, armored vehicles and thousands of soldiers were deployed. Both sides fought with determination. It seems that the conflict caused more than 1,000 deaths, including those of several hundred civilians; approximately 50,000 fled across the border to Sudan to escape reprisals.[1]

The war in Tigray threatens to cause the “fragile giant of Africa” to implode.  Ethiopia, in fact, is a federal state created in 1991 and composed of 10 regions, divided along ethnic lines. The dominant religion, according to the last census in 2007, is Orthodox Christianity (the ancient Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria in Egypt), practiced by 43.5 percent of the population, followed by Islam (33.9 percent), consisting mainly of Sunnis of Sufi spirituality. There is also a large community of Protestant Christians (18.6 percent) and a small community of Jews.[2]

After Nigeria, Ethiopia is the most populous country on the continent. With 109 million inhabitants, 40 percent of whom are young people under the age of 15, it is a true human investment in the future. Even though it is poor in raw materials, particularly hydrocarbons and does not have access to the strategic Red Sea, it is a reference country for East Africa, essential for maintaining the ethnic-religious balance of the entire region, and a model of democratic values. Ethiopia is at the center of important migratory flows, mainly from Somalia, South Sudan and Eritrea. There are more than 900,000 refugees present in reception camps scattered throughout its territory – many of which are in the Tigray region – constituting a humanitarian emergency.

In addition, this country, which hosts the headquarters of the African Union, should, according to some scholars, be one of the “engines of the longed-for renaissance of the African continent,” if only because of its territorial extension and demographic weight, which is destined to increase.[3]  Through diplomacy and economic aid the international community and Africa need to avoid the “balkanization” of a country that is so ethnically, socially and religiously diverse. In other words, they should do everything possible to put an end to a conflict that for the moment seems to have come to an end, but in reality is still smoldering under the ashes and waiting for the most opportune moment to explode again.

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