Ethiopian unity is a growing concern as the conflict in the northern Tigray region escalates.
The nine-month war between Tigray rebel forces and the Ethiopian army and its allies was mostly contained within Tigray itself.
But the fighting is spreading to the neighboring regions of Amhara and Afar.
It is on the backs of the Tigrayan forces who achieved significant territorial gains, including the capture of the regional capital, Mekelle, in June after the Ethiopian troops withdrew and the government declared a unilateral ceasefire.
This is a sign that the Tigray crisis is worsening, but it is by no means the only fight currently unfolding in Ethiopia.
It is the second most populous state in Africa with a history of ethnic tensions. In 1994, a new constitution was introduced which created a series of ethnically based regions intended to solve the problem of an overly centralized state.
Until 2018, the ruling coalition was dominated by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Tigray (TPLF) and was criticized for crushing dissent.
After Abiy Ahmed – who comes from the largest ethnic group, the Oromo – became prime minister in 2018, he took a series of bold liberalization steps to end state repression.
But with this liberalization came a burst of ethnic nationalism, with different groups demanding more power and more land.
“You have a plethora of ethnic wars,” said Rashid Abdi, a Nairobi-based security expert in the Horn of Africa.
One of the hot spots is the western region of Benishangul-Gumuz – which borders Sudan and South Sudan – and described by Mr Abdi as an “eternal flash point”. Around 200 people were massacred in an attack in the region in December.
Last week, regional authorities said security forces killed more than 100 fighters from an armed group whom they accused of ethnically motivated attacks.
The historic border dispute between Sudan and Ethiopia over fertile farmland in an area known as al-Fashaga also puts stability at risk. It is claimed by both states.
The dispute led to skirmishes between the two armies, in the midst of the conflict in Tigray.
“It has the potential to escalate, but it is not yet,” Abdi said.
And in a single day last week, 1,100 refugees from Ethiopia’s small Qemant ethnic group fled to Sudan to escape fighting in Amhara, the Ethiopian region bordering Tigray, Sudanese media reported.
Over the past decade, Amhara regional authorities have accused neighboring Tigray of fueling the ethnic feud, which Tigrayans deny.
Add to this the outbreak of a long-standing conflict between Ethiopia’s Somali and Afar regions, dangerously close to the Djibouti border, and a growing insurgency against the Ethiopian army in the Oromia region, and it’s easy to understand. why Ethiopian observers are worried.
“Ethiopia is going through historic cycles of hardiness then precariousness and this is one of those very, very precarious times,” said Alex de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation in the United States.
Some Ethiopian experts are now talking about state collapse as a real possibility.
“There is no denying that Ethiopia is going through an existential crisis,” Abdi said. “How he is going to handle this crisis in Tigray as well as the multiple points of ethnic warfare that no one can be sure of, but it is a serious crisis and there is a great risk that Ethiopia will collapse.”
But an academic from the Ethiopian University of Gondar, Menychle Meseret, said he did not believe Ethiopia was on the verge of state collapse.
“It is not even appropriate to have a discussion about this in the first place. We have a functioning government that controls the country except Tigray,” he said.
The Tigray crisis has indeed strengthened “national cohesion” between other regions and ethnic groups, which have rallied around the government and the army, Menychle added.
The Tigrayan forces said they would not stop fighting until a number of conditions were met by Mr. Abiy. This includes the end of the blockade of Tigray by the federal government and the withdrawal of all opposing troops – the Ethiopian army, forces from other parts of Ethiopia and the Eritreans fighting alongside them.
The blockade refers to the closure by the federal government of all electrical, financial and telecommunications services in Tigray since the withdrawal from Mekelle in June. International organizations have also struggled to deliver much-needed aid.
General Tsadkan Gebretensae told the BBC’s Newshour on Sunday that the Tigrayan forces will continue to fight – including in Afar and Amhara regions – until their ceasefire conditions are met. are met.
“All of our military activities at this time are governed by two major objectives. One is to break the blockade. The second is to force the government to accept our ceasefire terms and then to seek political solutions.”
The general added that the Tigrayans are not aiming to dominate Ethiopia politically as they have in the past. Instead, they want Tigrayans to vote in a referendum for autonomy.
Ethiopian Democratization Minister Zadig Abraha told the BBC that the Tigrayan rebels have a false sense of power and will be kicked out of every village in the region when the government loses patience.
Zadig denied the rebels’ claims that there was a blockade on Tigray and said it was the government’s obligation to ensure the delivery of humanitarian aid.
As a sign that the conflict is drawing even more fighters, young Ethiopians gathered at a rally in the capital, Addis Ababa, last week, responding to a call from regional leaders to join the fight against Tigrayan rebels.
The conflict has caused a massive humanitarian crisis. The United Nations agency for children, Unicef, said on Friday that more than 100,000 children in Tigray could suffer from life-threatening malnutrition next year, while half of the pregnant and breastfeeding women screened in the region suffer from acute malnutrition.
Food experts say 400,000 people in Tigray are suffering from “catastrophic levels of hunger.”
All aid routes to Tigray are blocked except one from the Afar region where food convoys have recently been attacked, apparently by pro-government militias.
Tigrayan forces say they hope to force the opening of a new aid corridor via Sudan by defeating the Ethiopian army and Amhara troops stationed there.
UN says around 5.2 million people in Tigray are in need of humanitarian assistance, while recent spread of fighting in Afar region has left thousands displaced and in desperate need of food and shelter.
In recent days, diplomatic efforts to deal with Ethiopia’s multiple crises have intensified, de Waal said, with discussions taking place behind closed doors.
Matt Bryden, of the Sahan Research think tank, doubts that a political solution can be found at this stage, especially between two main protagonists.
“The Tigray Defense Forces must weigh the prospect of a political dialogue with the risk of losing the [military] initiative. On the other hand, Mr. Abiy shows no interest or understanding that he might need to engage in political dialogue. He has … unwavering faith in himself and his mission.
“I fear the conflict will continue until Tigray is essentially liberated or – less likely – until both sides find themselves in a painful stalemate,” Bryden said.
Learn more about the Tigray crisis: