What does the conflict in Tigray mean for Ethiopia’s travel risk?

Liliana Martinez, Security Manager, Dubai

 

Early on the morning of 4 November, Nobel-Prize-winner Abiy Ahmed, Prime Minister of Ethiopia, released a statement on Facebook. An army base in the country’s northern Tigray state had been attacked by forces loyal to the Tigrayan regional government. This attack had crossed ‘the last red line’ and it was necessary to deploy troops to ‘save the country,’ he said.

 

As Ethiopia awoke that day, news coming out of Tigray was scarce. Telecommunications and internet services were cut off. The region’s airspace was closed, and there were reports that movement within the region was severely curtailed. Speculation was rampant, but reliable information was impossible to confirm.

 

The government’s military operation in the region represented a significant escalation in tensions that had been simmering between the Tigrayan regional administration and the federal government for years. Tigray’s ruling party, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), resented Abiy’s appointment as Prime Minister in 2018. They feared that he would continue to sideline the TPLF, which had ruled Ethiopia since the overthrow of the Derg regime in the 1990s.

 

 

 

Abiy, the first Prime Minister from the Oromo ethnic group, had promised to open the country, create political space for dissent, and pursue peace in the region. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for his achievement in making peace with Eritrea, and in the first year of his premiership, he unblocked news sites, released political prisoners, and appeared to be taking the country down the road towards a more open democracy. But the new political openness also created space for significant dissent and exacerbated longstanding ethnic tensions, leading to increased insecurity, ethnic clashes, and widespread unrest. 

 

Over the past year, two major campaigns of unrest broke out in Oromia state, causing dozens of deaths. Abiy reacted to them harshly, arresting hundreds and closing down independent media outlets in Oromia. The era of political and journalistic freedom, it appeared, was nearing its end.

 

The federal government’s operation in Tigray has now been ongoing for nearly a month, and the scant information that has emerged on its progress has not been encouraging. The federal government has reportedly launched airstrikes on Tigray’s regional capital, Mekelle in preparation for an offensive on the city, and is advancing from the west and the south through key towns, taking control of territory and clashing with the TPLF’s regional forces. Tens of thousands of refugees have fled across the region’s northern border into Sudan, which has set up temporary reception centres and shelters to house them.

 

The government has arrested or shut down a number of independent media outlets in the capital Addis Ababa and appears to be targeting Tigrayans in high government and military positions for arrest. For the TPLF’s part, it has launched rockets at Eritrea’s international airport in Asmara; struck two airports in nearby Amhara state, and launched additional strikes on Bahir Dar town in recent days. There are unconfirmed reports of clashes between Tigray and Amhara regional forces, leading some to fear the conflict could spill into other regions of Ethiopia.

 

While most analysts believe the federal government will prevail in this conflict, the TPLF have a formidable history as a guerrilla force in the region, and could prolong low-level fighting for weeks, if not months, increasing the possibility that Ethiopia could become precariously unstable. Major roads through the country could become impassable, or inundated with checkpoints and barricades, making overland travel prohibitively difficult.

 

Security issues in other regions – militia attacks in Benishangul-Gumuz, ethnic clashes in Oromia and SNNPR, violent unrest in Somali – will worsen as the government focusses on Tigray, and federal government responses to these issues will be slower to come. Anti-government unrest may also emerge as the conflict drags on and Ethiopians become weary of another civil war when they are already facing severe economic aftereffects of COVID-19 restrictions, a locust outbreak, and the possibility that the leader they once welcomed as a peacemaker may be going the way of his predecessors.

 

When communications are finally restored to Tigray, the world will be able to assess what effect the federal government’s military campaign has had on the region. But even before that happens, companies operating in other rural parts of Ethiopia should look to what occurred there as a warning. Telecommunications and internet services can be shut off at any time in Ethiopia, without advance notice. Those who possess alternate means of communication, such as satellite phones, may at least be able communicate with employees on the ground sporadically during these outages, and convey advice and information to them so they can make decisions about evacuation. Without this contact, arranging assistance for employees stranded in regions cut off from communications becomes challenging, if not impossible.

 

It is also important to ensure employees have access to their own transportation, as bringing in vehicles from other urban centres, such as Addis, becomes impractical when the location is ten or fifteen hours away by road. Access to a reliable contact network in your area of operations is vital. These contacts can help with communication, acquiring basic goods or arranging transport, navigating the country’s ethnic and political landscape and give advice on local conditions and staying safe.

 

These considerations should be all accounted for in emergency response and crisis management planning at the country office level. Regional and headquarter level crisis management teams in particular should expect and prepare contingencies for communications challenges with teams in country and difficulties in evacuation by overland movement.  While the government continues to maintain that the Tigray conflict is nearing an end, the country’s recent past signals that it is critical to prepare for further disruption and uncertainty in Ethiopia in the coming months and years.

 

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