There has been growing concern over the past year that a military conflagration could engulf the Horn of Africa, including Eritrea and Sudan. The Egyptian army has already begun making preparations, and Cairo has even warned that if Ethiopia follows through with its plans to open the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (the al-Nahda Dam), which would cut off the Nile River’s water flow to Sudan and then Egypt downstream – it will have no choice but to respond with force.
Ultimately, war has already erupted in Ethiopia. Not a head-on collision between Cairo and Addis Ababa, but rather a domestic fight between the Ethiopian government and the Tigrayan ethnic minority in the country’s north. Similar to the Alawites who currently hold power in Syria, although the Tigrayans comprise just six percent of Ethiopia’s population of 100 million, they ruled Ethiopia until 2018, when the current government, led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali, seized power and disenfranchised them.
Ethiopia is not an artificial country whose borders were drawn up by clerks in London or Paris irrespective of the realities on the ground. Therefore, one cannot blame the West, as is often customary these days, for the country’s current predicament. Its calamity is the doing of the country’s leaders, who failed to create a national identity unifying the various ethnic groups.
Ethiopia is split between the Oromo people, who represent about one-quarter of the population and live in the country’s center and south, the Amharas, who comprise some 20 percent of the population, and finally the Tigrayans. These groups are mired in constant strife that occasionally turns violent. At least one war has already been decided – after Ethiopia recognized Eritrea’s independence and withdrew its forces from its territory. Abiy received a Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for that initiative. Other tensions and conflicts, however, have remained unresolved.
It’s possible the government in Addis Ababa will survive, but it’s clear that the country once seen as the “economic miracle” of Africa is descending into chaos, the price for which its people are now being forced to pay. After all, even in good times, there was an inexplicable gap between the country’s rich center and other regions, where people were dying of starvation, without water to feed their herds and cultivate their crops.
Despite the geographical distance, Israel is finding itself involved in the war in Ethiopia. First, due to the Falash Mura community, who have ties to Judaism and want to immigrate to Israel. The realities of civil war, as we have seen play out in other parts of the world, motivate many people to suddenly rediscover the Jewish roots – putting Israel in a complicated position.
Second, because of Ethiopia’s strategic location along the Red Sea: on one side of the sea Iran is establishing a menacing military presence in Yemen; on the other, Israel has managed to forge alliances with Ethiopia, Eritrea, South Sudan, and recently, with Sudan as well. All of this is now in jeopardy due to civil wars and internal conflicts afflicting these countries. Finally, it’s worth bearing in mind that although the rising flames between Cairo and Addis Ababa threatened to consume Israel, both countries have asked the Jewish state for help and support.
Restoring peace and stability to Ethiopia is a supreme interest for the country’s own people, its neighbors in Africa, and for far-flung Israel.
Eyal Zisser is a lecturer in the Middle East History Department at Tel Aviv University.