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4th Dec 2020

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EU fears 'unravelling' of Ethiopia

  • Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed (l) and EU foreign relations chief Josep Borrell (r) in Addis Ababa in October (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

The "unravelling" of Ethiopia, millions of new refugees, and warfare spilling as far as the Red Sea coast - this is what the EU and its regional allies fear, a leaked report says.

"Both sides do not give sign of stepping back and the risk of spreading violence and the unravelling of the Ethiopian state is present should the current crisis endure," the internal EU report, seen by EUobserver, said.

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  • TPLF celebrations in the Tigray-region capital of Mekelle in 2015 (Photo: Paul Kagame)

"Critical questions to observe will be the cohesion of the national army and the reaction in other [Ethiopian] regions (especially the Southern region and Oromia)," it added.

The seven-page report was drawn up by officials in the EU Council, who help to prepare EU diplomats' talks.

It was dated 10 November, but fighting between the 250,000-strong rebel forces of the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), in northern Ethiopia, and the Ethiopian army has only escalated in the past nine days.

EU foreign ministers will discuss the crisis by video-link on Thursday (19 November).

Europe and most African states have been calling for a ceasefire since fighting broke out in early November.

But "the recent axis [of] Ethiopia/Eritrea/Somalia emerging in support of a military solution needs to be watched carefully," the EU report warned.

"While there are no indications that Eritrea is involved militarily, close security cooperation between the two neighbours is ongoing," it said.

And the violence broke out shortly after the TPLF's refusal to follow federal orders had "pushed the prime minister's patience to breaking point," it added, referring to Ethiopian leader and 2019 Nobel peace prize winner Abiy Ahmed.

"It is unclear, as yet, who started this confrontation. There has been a military build-up on the Tigray side; and recent meetings between Ethiopian and Eritrean leaders could indicate a planned, coordinated preparation," it said.

Inside Ethiopia, there was "high likelihood" of a "spill-over" and "intensification effect" on "other Ethiopian regions already affected by increasing instability, ethnic violence, and conflict," the report said.

It mentioned the areas of Wollegas, Gujis, Harargues, Metekel, and Gambella as being at risk.

It also gave an insight into EU diplomacy, saying EU foreign relations chief Josep Borrell had phoned the Ethiopian leader, the Sudanese prime minister, and Saudi and Emirati foreign ministers.

"Both the Emirates and Saudi Arabia are worried that the crisis could spread to the region and the Red Sea," the report said.

And it gave an insight into US diplomacy, saying the "United States appeared ... divided".

US secretary of state Mike Pompeo had been "mentioning the unilateral responsibility of TPLF and supporting [Ethiopian] PM Abyi's action", the EU report noted, but the US ambassador in Addis Ababa had been "more neutral, calling both sides to respect [a] ceasefire, appease tensions via dialogue".

Refugee crisis

"A humanitarian crisis is the most foreseeable and imminent impact of the conflict," the EU said.

Tens of thousands of people have already fled to Sudan.

But the TPLF-held Tigray region was home to "approximately 2 million people dependent on humanitarian assistance" even before the fighting began.

It was also home to another "1 million newly vulnerable people (Covid-19 impact) ... in need of assistance".

And if Ethiopia was to unravel, refugee flows could increase exponentially.

"Without factoring in new needs in Tigray, there are 15.2 million people in need of humanitarian assistance in Ethiopia," the EU report noted.

In terms of regional spill-over, the Tigray conflict had already begun to create "a security vacuum in Somalia, as Ethiopian forces fighting Al-Shabaab outside Amisom have been recalled," it said.

Al-Shabaab is a jihadist force in east Africa, which has, in the past, massacred civilians in Kenya and attacked US military bases.

The African Union Mission to Somalia (Amisom) is a UN-mandated peacekeeping force.

But if things kept getting worse, there could be "possible extension of the conflict to Eritrea (hence reaching the Red Sea), [and] economic blockage of Djibouti, Ethiopia's access to the sea," the EU report said.

EU action

Meanwhile, EU officials and countries had a hard time getting information on what was going on in the conflict zone.

"At least six member states have reported the presence of EU citizens in Tigray (139 citizens presumed to be in Tigray, according to latest info on 10 November), with no way of communicating with them," the report said.

The EU had been preparing to pay out €90m in humanitarian assistance to Ethiopia by the end of this year before the violence broke out.

But international donors ought to show caution on "budget support operations where funds are fungible", the EU report noted, highlighting the risk that Ethiopia could divert aid money to its war effort.

"It is paramount to safeguard the neutrality and impartiality of relief operations and to avoid instrumentalisation of access or politicisation of aid by either party to the conflict," the report also said.

"Access [to aid] should not depend on or be organised by parties to the conflict (avoid for example humanitarian corridors, armed escorts etc.)," it said.

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