Ethiopia Tigray armed conflict which started in November 2020 continues without any respite. A much-asked question is: Why is Tigray not announcing independence?
Though Tigrayans, as an ethnic group, constitute around 6% of the total Ethiopian population, from 1991 till 2018, Ethiopia was ruled by TPLF led coalition. Tigray-based TPLF (Tigray People’s Liberation Front) was the main political force back then. But in the wake of a massive uprising, TPLF was removed from power in 2018 and it was restricted to the Tigray region only. Since then tensions have been simmering between the Ethiopian Federal Government and the TPLF-led Tigray regional government, which led to the start of armed confrontation in November 2020.
Does TPLF want to rule Ethiopia once again? Does TPLF have political ambitions to reach Addis Ababa? A few months ago, Tigray Defence Force was threatening to remove the Ethiopian government led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmad. Tigray forces were less than 200 km away from the capital.
But after the introduction of Chinese and Turkish combat drones by Ethiopian government forces, battlefield balance tilted significantly in favor of federal forces. After suffering military setbacks, in late October and November last year, Tigray forces had to retreat from neighboring Amhara and Afar regions back into Tigray.
It would be quite fair to say that now Tigray forces and Tigray People’s Liberation Front are fighting for survival. They do not seem to be having ambitions to reach Addis Ababa.
If Tigray leadership is not interested in ruling Ethiopia again, does it want to remain part of Ethiopia or does it want independence?
Recent interviews and articles by Tigray President Debretsion Gebremichael and TDF General Tsadkan Gebretensae indicate that Tigray is not announcing independence. The next question would be: Why is Tigray not announcing independence?
There are two main hurdles in the way of the announcement of independence by Tigray:
International Community is not expected to recognize Tigray as a country. In its several sessions on the Ethiopia-Tigray conflict last year, UN Security Council remained divided. With Russia, China, and Middle Eastern countries backing Ethiopian Federal Government and US & Western Countries supporting Tigray, there does not seem to be a likelihood that International Community will accept Tigray as a sovereign state. Even US and Western Countries, in their recent statements, backed Ethiopian territorial sovereignty.
Most members of the International community are against the creation of new states along ethnic lines. One of the reasons behind African countries’ support of PM Abiy’s government is that African countries are by and large against the creation of a new country along ethnic lines. Such a development would send shockwaves into the entire Horn of Africa and East Africa and demand for more countries along ethnic lines will grow.
The 2nd point for Tigray to consider before the announcement of secession would be viability. Can Tigray survive as a country in present circumstances? Tigray does not have a coastline. Like Ethiopia, Tigray is landlocked too. Presently Tigray is literally under siege. On all sides of Tigray, regional governments and countries are aligned with the Ethiopian Federal government.
To the east of Tigray is the Afar region of Ethiopia. Fighting is still going on in some places between Tigray forces and Afar fighters in some border areas. To the west of Tigray is the disputed territory called Western Tigray. The Amhara region has its claims over this western part of Tigray consisting of Himora, Welkait, Tsegede, etc. Tigray’s neighbor Amhara region claims that these areas are part of Amhara but were annexed by TPLF when it was in power at the center. Western Tigray is under the control of Amhara regional forces supported by Ethiopian Federal forces. Some sources confirm the presence of Eritrean forces too in western Tigray.
The situation is not very different in northern and southern directions too. To the south of Tigray is the Amhara region. Tigray and Amhara regions have been involved in disputes for years. Intense fighting is going on between Amhara and Tigray forces on Tigray Amhara border areas like Abergele, Waja, Adi Arkay etc. To the north of Tigray is Eritrea. Tigray and Eritrea have fought at least two times within the last 3 decades. There are outstanding border disputes between them like the Badme border dispute. Eritrean forces have been actively participating in support of Ethiopian Federal Government forces against Tigray since the start of the Ethiopia Tigray conflict in November 2020.
With no coastline and no land corridor with any country or region not hostile towards Tigray, it would be next to impossible for Tigray to survive as a state.
3 ways to gain independence
Tigray can gain independence in 3 cases. The Ethiopian constitution allows secession to regions. If the Tigray region and the Ethiopian Federal Government part their ways peacefully and through dialogue, Tigray would be an internationally recognized sovereign state.
The second option for Tigray would be to capture western Tigray and open a land corridor with Sudan. Tigray forces are trying to take back the western part of Tigray which shares a border with Sudan. Intense fighting is going on in this area. Amhara regional forces are defending their control of the area. In the case of Western Tigray coming under Tigray control, Tigray’s chances of viability as a country would increase tremendously.
The third option would be international intervention. Military intervention does not seem very likely. But if some international bodies determine that genocide of Tigrayans is being committed and the survival of the people of Tigray is at risk, Tigray could get international backing for secession.
So far Tigray government is playing with its cards close to its chest. It has not announced secession. The announcement would not go well international community. Tigray forces are presently focused on taking back western Tigray to open a land corridor with neighboring Sudan.