The Ethiopian security situation deteriorated due to the conflict in the Tigray region and this trend seems likely to continue in 2021. In 2020, the number of victims of violent actions was three times higher than in 2019, mainly because of the Tigray conflict (which claimed around 1,100 lives, more than half of the total). The second highest number of deaths was in Oromia (439), followed by Beshangul-Gumaz.
In 2021, the conflict in Ethiopia may not so much increase in quantity as spread further geographically. In this perspective, the general elections scheduled for May 2021 may fuel political, ethnic and social tensions.
The political forces are essentially divided into two heterogeneous fronts: the pan-Ethiopians, led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s Prosperity Party (PP), aim to change Ethiopia’s ethnically based political narrative; the second, instead, is represented by the ethno-nationalist forces, whose objective is to preserve the connection between political parties and ethnicity. These include the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF). However, these parties do not seem to be in a position to challenge the long-promised electoral victory of Abiy Ahmed and the PP. More than the political confrontation at the ballot box, the election will be a critical moment for the country’s security situation. Demonstrations and riots are likely to take place throughout the country before, during and after the polls. Armed clashes will probably involve the armed militias of the opposition parties (OLF and TPLF) clashes with the security forces. Therefore, 2021 will see an increase in security checks and arbitrary arrests, including of non-aligned political leaders. In addition, the general elections, even if postponed, will increase the risk of asymmetrical attacks carried out by terrorist groups of different ethnic or jihadist origin which appear to be affecting especially the capital Addis Ababa (intelligence and counter-terrorism activities have shown increasing effectiveness in recent years). As far as jihadist terrorism is concerned, there is a real possibility of infiltration of members of the Islamic State and, above all, of al-Shabab, two factions in contrast on Somali territory, but potentially allied in Ethiopia.
A greater threat is posed by ethnically motivated terrorism, in particular related to Oromo and Tigrayan irredentism. The growing distance between some Oromo fronts and Abiy Ahmed on the one hand, and the armed conflict in the Tigray region on the other, pose a real risk of asymmetrical attacks with improvised explosive devices. The threat posed by terrorist actions associated with the Tigray faction is interlinked with the evolution of the conflict between the TPLF militias and the federal army. After escalation registered in 2020, this conflict will continue also in 2021 in the form of armed guerrilla war, with raids and looting in smaller urban centres, demonstrative actions against government assets and the launching of missiles against infrastructure and sensitive targets, not only in Ethiopian territory, but also towards Asmara, the capital of Eritrea. The armed clash, in its most tense phase, has already directly involved Eritrea, whose alliance with Abiy Ahemd is, at the moment, not in question. The internal Eritrean political scenario in 2021, will once again be dominated by the figure of President Isaias Afewerki, whose government action, although guaranteeing a certain institutional stability, is characterised by a strong repression of dissent, individual liberties, political rights and by a scarce capacity to manage the food crisis in the Country.
Lastly, the dispute between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) will continue in 2021. Currently, the margins for reaching an agreement between the parties are minimal. New diplomatic tensions and threats of armed intervention are possible in correspondence with the rainy season (June and August), which will inevitably mark further progress in the filling of the dam’s basin.