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[Research Reports] Recent Developments in the Horn of Africa with a Focus on Ethiopia and GERD

Mitsugi Endo (Professor, The University of Tokyo)
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Research Group on 'The Middle East and Africa' FY2021-#5

"Research Reports" are compiled by participants in research groups set up at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, and are designed to disseminate, in a timely fashion, the content of presentations made at research group meetings or analyses of current affairs. The "Research Reports" represent their authors' views. In addition to these "Research Reports", individual research groups will publish "Research Bulletins" covering the full range of the group's research themes.

Developments in Ethiopia

The dissolution of the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the traditional coalition of ruling parties chaired by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, in connection with the Ethiopian general election scheduled for May 2020, and the inauguration on December 1, 2019 of the Prosperity Party as a coalition of inheriting parties, as well as the absence of the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), a key EPRDF player, from the Prosperity Party, created extremely strong tensions between the Ethiopian federal government and Tigray. Riots led by Oromo radical youth organizations erupted after the shooting death on June 29, 2020 of Hachalu Hundessa, a popular singer from Oromo and an anti-government activist, and anti-Abiy groups began to form in cooperation with the TPLF and some Oromo radicals.

TPLF Chairman Debretsion Gebremichael in July 2020 described the tension as "war without bullets". However, a state assembly election held "illegally" on September 9 by the Tigray Region in defiance of the federal government further strained relations between the two, which finally entered a new phase in November. On November 4, Prime Minister Abiy launched a military operation targeting Tigray on the pretext of an alleged TPLF attack on a federal military facility in the region. Shortly before that, he had held diplomatic negotiations with Sudan to check on its stance vis-à-vis the TPLF. Federal forces launched air strikes against Mekele, the capital of the Tigray Region, but the TPLF also launched air strikes against Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, as a countermeasure against Eritrea, which initially entered the war in secret and is believed to have been cooperating with Ethiopian federal forces. On November 28, the Ethiopian National Defense Force declared that Mekele had been recovered and the war brought to an end. a Despite this "conclusion", fighting is still ongoing, and the humanitarian crisis continues to be extremely serious. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that, as of the end of June 2021, 54,000 refugees had arrived in the eastern Sudanese state of Blue Nile from Ethiopia.

The Tigray armed groups, which include senior Ethiopian federal military officers originally involved in the conflict with Eritrea, had established strongholds in "rural areas" constituting four combat zones in the eastern part of the Tigray Region as of December 2020. In response, Ethiopian federal forces were deployed to urban areas, armed groups in Amhara to the west and south, and Eritrean forces to the north, central, eastern, and some southern regions of the northwest. As of February 2021, there were reports of fighting between the Tigray armed groups and Ethiopian federal and Eritrean forces in the central part of the Tigray Region. In March, armed groups in Tigray also attacked Amhara, and there has been no sign of the fighting coming to an end.

Response of the Biden administration

The Biden (Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr.) administration, which was inaugurated in 2021, has made clear its stance of dealing with Horn of Africa issues, centering on the Tigray issue. In January 2021, US Secretary of State Antony John Blinken announced in a US Senate hearing his commitment to the Horn of Africa region, including the issue regarding Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). In order to address the Tigray issue in particular, he sent Senator Chris Coons to Addis Ababa from March 20 to 21 and encouraged the federal government to declare a unilateral ceasefire, but Prime Minister Abiy rejected this proposal. But following this visit, on March 23, Prime Minister Abiy announced Eritrea's involvement and role in the conflict in Tigray at the Ethiopian Federal Parliamentary Assembly for the first time. On March 26, Prime Minister Abiy announced that Eritrea had agreed to withdraw Eritrean troops from Tigray.

On April 23, Secretary of State Blinken appointed Jeffrey Feltman as a special envoy for the Horn of Africa region, and cited the situation in Ethiopia, the Ethiopia-Sudan border dispute, and the GERD controversy as examples of issues to be addressed. Following this, Special Envoy Feltman made a round of visits to four countries in the Horn of Africa (Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Sudan) from May 4 to 13, demonstrating his active involvement.

Background to the conflict in the Horn of Africa

Behind Eritrea's involvement in the Tigray conflict lies a problem that can be described as "deep-seated grudges" held by Asmara or President Isaias Afwerki. During the armed struggle against the socialist regime in the 1980s, Asmara supported the TPLF. However, Eritrea, which gained independence in 1993, invaded Ethiopia in May 1998 under the leadership of Isaias. Although Isaias is ethnically Tigray, as is Prime Minister Meles Zenawi Asres, Asmara was attacked by the TPLF deployed as frontline forces on the Ethiopian side, and suffered heavy casualties and destruction. It was shocking at that time that the situation ultimately developed into a catastrophe in which as many as 70,000 people were sacrificed in both countries. The territorial dispute, symbolized by the border city of Badme, led to fierce air strikes and other confrontations. However, following the June 2000 ceasefire agreement in which Ethiopia prevailed and the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in December, the armed forces of both countries withdrew.

Eritrea later became increasingly isolated in the Horn of Africa and internationally. Since 2009, the UN Security Council has imposed an arms embargo on Eritrea as well as travel bans and asset freezes on some government officials in connection with their support for Islamist groups, particularly Al-Shabab, in Somalia (UN Security Council Resolution 1907). It is necessary to confirm that Prime Minister Abiy, who visited Eritrea on July 9, 2018, and the Joint Declaration of Peace and Friendship agreed with President Isaias, brought about a drastic change of the situation.

Ethiopia-Sudan border dispute

The conflict over Tigray has also shown signs of impacting GERD, another important issue in the Horn of Africa region. The problem arose in Al-Fashaga on the Ethiopia-Sudan border since December 2020, as the two armies came into conflict while the Ethiopian army was reacting to Tigray. It has been pointed out that the Eritrean army was also involved in this conflict. Al-Fashaga is historically fertile ground with territorial disputes involving the United Kingdom, Italy and Ethiopia, dating back to the Anglo-Ethiopian Treaty signed in 1902. In 2008, a compromise was reached between the EPRDF government led by the TPLF (Prime Minister Meles) and then President Omar Hasan Ahmad al-Bashir. This compromise, based on the concept of a "soft border," recognized Al-Fashaga as Sudanese territory and allowed Sudanese farmers to engage in farming activities, while also allowing Amhara farmers in Ethiopia to engage in farming. At this point, Sudan showed moves to take control of Al-Fashaga, and 6,000 troops were sent to the city as the fighting in Tigray began, forcing the local Ethiopian farmers to leave. This has increased tensions between Ethiopia and Sudan. In December, Sudanese forces made a deeper invasion into Al-Fashaga. On the 15th, the conflict escalated into a battle against the Ethiopian militia. Two days later, on the 17th, Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman Burhan, chairman of the Sovereign Council established in August 2019 in Sudan, was joined by senior military officials on a visit to Gadaref State near Al-Fashaga, where he made a speech indicating that the Sudanese side intends to take control of most or all of Al-Fashaga. The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a subregional organization in the Horn of Africa, brokered a meeting between Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and Prime Minister Abiy on December 20 in Djibouti, where no progress was made in resolving the dispute.

It is believed that the battle continued to be a seesaw one, apparently reaching a deadlock. Beyond concerns about Ethiopia-Sudan relations, it has been pointed out that prolonged fighting and deployment of forces could lead to greater acceptance of destabilization in the region. In response to the growing influence of the Sudanese armed forces, the armed forces in Tigray based in "rural areas" could turn to expanding their combat zones, and the prolonged fighting by Ethiopian federal forces with Sudan could force Ethiopia to rely more heavily on the Eritrean forces already involved in the fighting in Tigray and Amhara armed forces that are cooperative to the federal forces. In addition, some Amhara militants claim land rights in Al-Fashaga, leading to concerns that the situation will become more complicated as they provoke opposition to excessive involvement by Ethiopia's federal government against a background of complex ethnic relations. Separately, on December 23, 2020, one day after PM Abiy visited he Benishangul-Gumuz Region in western Ethiopia where GERD is located, there was a violent incident in the Regiont, killing 100 people. Subsequently, federal forces were dispatched and at least 42 people who were allegedly involved in the incident were killed. Although the truth about this is not clear, the security situation in western Ethiopia became increasingly unstable as the Ethiopian side (a parliamentary investigation committee) criticized Sudan and Egypt for being involved in the violence in the Benishangul-Gumuz Region on May 5, 2021.

Development of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) issue

Among border issues between Egypt and Sudan, the issue of Al-Fashaga is not the biggest concern for Sudan in relation to Ethiopia at present; that honor naturally goes to GERD. In this sense, Sudan's involvement in Al-Fashaga remains a possible tactic to enhance its negotiating power in connection with GERD. At issue in the GERD negotiations are how long and how far upstream Ethiopia will be allowed to fill the dam and how to develop a binding resolution mechanism in case of problems.

Here, I would like to confirm the development on the GERD issue since June 2020. On June 26, the African Union (AU) chair South African President Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa hosted an extraordinary online summit to discuss the GERD issue. The parties were urged at this meeting to seek out a solution in the spirit of "African Solutions to African Problems". However, no progress has been made in the negotiations since then. The AU-brokered meeting on this issue was a three-party meeting in the Democratic Republic of Congo in early April 2021. However, negotiations at the meeting ended in failure, and Ethiopia indicated that it would reserve water for the second time without any agreement. On April 18, Prime Minister Abiy tweeted that the second phase of water storage would begin around July.

In response, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Saeed Hussein Khalil El-Sisi stated on April 7, 2021, that "No one can take a single drop of water from Egypt[and] all options are open". Therefore, the possibility of Egypt using hardline measures such as airstrikes on the dam as a military option cannot be completely ruled out. As for Sudan, the US government officially decided to remove Sudan from the State Sponsors of Terrorism List (SSTL) in December 2020 upon the lapse of a 45-day congressional notification period following an executive order on removing Sudan from the SSTL. In this context, Sudan has been strengthening its relationship with Egypt, for example, by cooperating in the agricultural sector and by concluding a military cooperation agreement (MCA) in March 2021. On the GERD issue, Sudan has also strengthened its stance of cooperating with Egypt in negotiations.

Regarding the GERD issue, the Arab League basically supported the water rights of Egypt and Sudan and requested UN involvement at the Foreign Ministers' Meeting held in Doha on June 15. In response, Ethiopia criticized the Arab League, saying that it was transforming an "African problem" into an "Arab problem". Thus, a huge gap remains among the parties. The resolution reached at the UN Security Council meeting held on July 8 in response to this request was basically limited to resolving the GERD issue through AU-led negotiations. In addition, the US and EU had requested that water storage only start after a binding agreement on operation of the GERD had been realized. Amid these moves, it turned out that Ethiopia announced the start of the second phase of storage on July 5, 2021 and completed this phase on the 19th, according to a tweet by Ethiopia's Minister of Water, Irrigation and Energy Seleshi Bekele. . This second-phase storage added 13.9 billion cubic meters of water to the 4.5 billion cubic meters stored last year to bring the total to over 18 billion cubic meters. It is expected that two of the 13 turbines scheduled to be built will start operating in September 2021, providing 750 megawatts (MW) of electricity annually. However, it is not clear at present what kind of impact this storage will cause for downstream areas.

Conflict in Ethiopia and the future of Ethiopian general elections

Even as the GERD problem continues, there are other circumstances in Ethiopia that need to be noted carefully. First, Ethiopian government forces unilaterally declared a ceasefire after the TPLF recaptured Mekele, the capital of the northern Tigray Region, on June 28. This ceasefire will continue until the end of the farming season (around the end of September), but it remains to be seen whether it represents any change in the conflict over Tigray.

Secondly, the results of the June 21 general elections were announced on July 11. The Prosperity Party, a coalition of ruling parties, won 410 of the 436 seats contested this time. However, about one-fifth of the 547 single-seat districts have not yet conducted their elections, which are scheduled for September 6. Meanwhile, no new elections are planned for Tigray. Based on these results, the new cabinet is expected to be assembled as a new administration in October.

Given this context, I would like to confirm that the domestic and international circumstances surrounding Ethiopia from September to around October will feature issues of considerable concern.

(This is an English translation of a paper originally published in Japanese on August 10, 2021.)