Ethiopian Turmoil: Security Ramifications on the African Horn and the Red Sea


Wed, 05-01-2022 06:20 PM, Aden

Dr. Eman Zahran (South24) 

It seems that the capital "Addis Ababa" constitutes the decisive round of the current conflict between the government's Forces and the Tigray Defense Forces since November 2020. This could push for one of the following three scenarios:

The first scenario: is based upon the possibility of Tigray Forces' success to control the capital and overthrow Abiy Ahmed to take back power. In spite of the indirect American messages rejecting this scenario, it remains standing due to the accelerating developments of events and the shifts in  field positions and political calculations.

The second scenario: It is related to a military matrix based upon the possibilities of  the Governmental troops’ success to thwart Tigray Forces and prevent their accession to the capital. This scenario relies on a number of pillars, top among them are the possible political pressure by the international community and the USA on all Ethiopian parties for ending the conflict, reaching a cease-fire and engaging in an all-out settlement phase with a possible African-American back in addition to polarising high number  of supporters to defend Addis Ababa in the face of Tigray Front.

The third scenario: is the appeasement scenario which aims at paving the way for pushing the diplomatic path and seeking for making dialogue negotiations between the Federal Government and the Tigray Front. This scenario is relevant with the inability of both parties to resolve the armed battles along with the growing international pressure, especially from the USA, to stop this conflict and avoid the extension of its negative ramifications to the Horn of Africa and the subsequent threats against their strategic interests there.

Accordingly, the conflict between the Federal Ethiopian government and the Tigray Liberation Front reflects various implications beyond the Ethiopian borders to include the African Horn states, especially The countries of the Red Sea Region as well as the regional and international powers. This is due to the big geopolitical importance of this region in the international plaza. The most dangerous among these ramifications are the security turmoil within the regional environment of the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea on various levels, top of which are related to the refugee file, the escalation of extremism and terrorism, obstruction of navigation in the Red Sea and the decline of investment waves and the inter-economy, etc.. . This could be detailed through the following points:

Transformations of the Ethiopian scene

In November 2021, The Ethiopian scene accomplished its first year which has witnessed  a number of radical transformations. The war, which began as a limited operation for “law enforcement” turned into a comprehensive one  in which all kinds of weapons have been used including the aerial bombardment. This could be illustrated through the following points:

The field transformations: the operation theatre was supposed to be limited on Tigray Region, located in the Far North of the country, but the conflict field has been extended with the exit of the Tigray Liberation Front outside its region to attack the neighboring Amhara and Afar as well as the exploitation of the fragile security situation by various armed factions in order to reactivate various fronts in each of Oromia and Benishangul-gumuz in addition to the violent clashes between Afar and Somalis to settle their border conflict away from the state.

Time shifts: as the duration of the conflict has witnessed a large  transformation especially after Abiy Ahmed's declaration that the ongoing conflict is a lightning war that will end in numerous weeks. Furthermore, he was keen to make an early victory announcement less than 4 weeks after the outbreak of the battles. This contradicts what has been monitored in the field reality within the existing conflict. The developments suggested  to what extent the Ethiopian conflict could turn into an extended conflict with no clear end. The two parties exchanged positions after about 7 months on the conflict when the Tigray Liberation Front was capable of regaining the capital mikele to shift from defence to attack on several fronts and through more than one axis.

Structural transformations: Although the momentum surrounding the scene of Ethiopian conflict, the most prominent among those structural transformations is  what was declared on Nov. 5th 2021 about the establishment  of the United Front of Ethiopian Federalist and Confederalist Forces which thwarted all Abiy Ahmed’s attempts to produce and export a “stereotype”  about the goals and contexts of the conflict claiming that it targets illegal terrorist group that takes the Northern Borders of the country as its fortress. It is worth mentioning that the establishment of the Front came as an attempt to revive the experience of establishing the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) which emerged during the armed clashes among  a number  of armed factions with exclusive ethnic bases and Mengistu Hailemariam's Army at the end of the the end of the 1980s of the 20th Century. EPRDF emerged  as an extended organisation that includes a number of movements and fronts each of which represents one ethic group of  the main groups in Ethiopia. In Early 1989,  the coordination between Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM) kicked off. In the following year, Oromo People’s Democratic Organization - OPDO joined the two movements. Thus, the three groups became the most effective in Ethiopia, represented in the frame of the Revolutionary Democratic Front. Subsequently, the Front’s leaders encouraged  the establishment of ethnic movements and organisations to represent underrepresented groups. Therefore, Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Front (SEPDF) emerged and joined EPRDF in 1993. 

Accordingly, There are a number of indicators that signifies the specific shift of the conflict’s structure and its paths to a more advanced level. This directed impacted moving towards the establishment of The United Front of the Ethiopian Federal and Confederation Forces, top of which are as follow:

1- The alliance included the TPLF, along with the Oromo Liberation Army, as part of a qualitative transformation  whose indicators began to follow several months ago by announcing joint coordination of military operations and exchanging information between the two sides, each in its area of deployment. This alliance is crucial on the field and political levels in light of the political interactions in Ethiopia in recent decades revealing the fragility of major political transformations that prompted the consensus between two of the three main groups (Oromo, Amhara and Tigray) similar to the decisive transformation that preceded the resignation of Hailemariam Desalegn In February 2018, after the protest movement united in the Oromia and Amhara regions. However, one can't ignore the  qualitative weight of the alliance represented in the fact that the Tigray Liberation Front and the Oromo Liberation Army are among the strongest and most experienced Ethiopian armed factions among the various Ethiopian armed factions.

2- The alliance led to destabilizing the solidarity in a number of heavy weight regions in East Ethiopia, mainly Afar and Ethiopian Somalia through  the joining of Afar Revolutionary Democratic Unity Front and the Somali State Resistance as members of the Alliance. This transformation indicates significant field changes, especially since the "Afar Region" is adjacent to the Tigray region, as the Tigray Liberation Front Forces seek to cut off the road linking Addis Ababa with the ports of Djibouti, which prompted Abi Ahmed to lead the battles himself on the Afar Region Front at the end of November although it raged similarly in the front of the Amhara region. This shift comes to greatly diminish the importance of the regional government's support in both the Afar and the Somali region to the military operation launched by the Ethiopian Federal Government in the Tigray Region last year.

3- There are qualitative indicators which reveal the scale of social and political rift inside the Amhara Front after the "Alliance Front'' including two of internal minorities in the Amhara Region including Agaw and Kimant through their two organizations, Agaw Democratic Movement and Kimant Democratic Party. The most prominent of these indications are first what directly affected  the decline in the chances of the Amhara's steadfastness in the face of the growing military and political pressures led by the Tigray Front.  The second indicator is related to   the international swap through the export of “mental perceptions” of the components of the Alliance, given the accession of the “Kimant minorities,” which constitute the main component of the Jewish community in Ethiopia.

4- The indications carried by the anti-Abbiy Ahmed front after its success in making important penetration within the western region.particularly in “south west”. Although Sidama Group established a federal independent region in 2020 based upon a grassroots referendum in the previous year, this did not prevent the continuous resentment by the southwestern groups in Ethiopia. This pushed Sidama National Liberation Front to join the anti-Abbiy Ahmed  alliance amid the growing violence during the last year as well as the joining of Benishangul People’s Liberation Movement’s to the the United Front of Ethiopian Federalist and Confederalist Forces along with the ongoing tension between the region’s residents and the Amharic groups settled there. 

It is worth mentioning that one can’t rely on the establishment of the United Front of Ethiopian Federalist and Confederalist Forces alone as a decisive variant for the future of the war on ground, as its influence should be assessed with much carefulness Taking into account many of the factors governing field and political developments. The groups allied with the Tigray Liberation Front do not have much to offer on the ground in terms of political and military terms, so the Tigray Liberation Front has had to rely on its own capabilities in the first place. The announcement of the establishment of the front from within the United States of America provided an opportunity for Abi Ahmed’s government to draw a mental image to  the international and regional African community, depicting the alliance as being a tool of international war aimed at overthrowing his regime by which it seeks to restore some of its fragile popularity. Moreover, the division of forces within the front between pro-federalists and pro-confederations raised many doubts about two points: the first, regarding the unity of the strategy, and the second, the future of the Ethiopian state in the event of a victory by the front.

Consequently, the Ethiopian war in its second year appears more complex and turbulent, especially with the inability of the legislative elections that took place in June and September to re-establish a firm legitimacy of the Abiy Ahmed regime, along with the exacerbation of successive humanitarian crises in several regions, especially the Tigray region. The external factor also complicates the crisis in light of the ambiguity and lack of resolution of international positions on the war, the fluidity of the regional surroundings, with the complex crises that Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan are witnessing, and the escalation of the threat of terrorist threats in Kenya and Uganda in a way that paints a more foggy picture about  the future of the conflict in Ethiopia.

The Ethiopian turmoil’s ramifications 

There are a number of possible ramifications on the Middle Eastern countries and the interests of Red Sea states as well as the Horn of Africa's countries if the ongoing conflict led to “Ethiopian disintegration” and the variation of turmoil waves within Addis Ababa as mainly illustrated below:

1- The division about the entity of the regime: the internal political elites are divided into 2 trends each of which opposes the other regarding the  nature and the entity of the Ethiopian political regime. The first trend believes in the importance of restoring the central regime in the country under the slogan “Make Ethiopia Great Again”. This trend believes that Federalism is a main reason behind all political problems and instability within the country, and that the Federal Constitution led to the decline of a project about building a unified Ethiopian nation. The Amharic and the civil elites come on top of this trend, especially that they are strong allies to Abiy Ahmed after he shifted away from the Oromo to which he belongs and which supported his rise to power. The second trend believes it is important to continue the Federal State. It sticks to granting the regional governments more Autonomy, self-determination and independence from the central authority if necessary. If necessary. It believes that the stability and unity of the country depends on adhering to the Federal Constitution and the Federal System. It builds its hypotheses that the first trend’s supporters aim to make Ethiopia another Amhara.  

2- Border conflicts: Those conflicts are highly monitored and have much influence smif the escalation of dispute between the two regions of Afar and Ethopian Somalia about some areas, as well as other conflicts such as Tigray. This causes the outbreak of armed clashes between them. Moreover, there is a historic struggle between Oromia and the Ethiopian Somali Region on resources and land in west and southeast of Tigray during the latest war. Additionally, Kemise conflict broke out In the special Oromo Region in Amhara rin January 2021, and the consequent successive military clashes in each of Kemise, Ataye and North Shewa zone.

3- The ethnic disputes: top of which were monitored in Oromia, Tigray, Benishangul-gumuz, Afar, Ethopian Somalia and Amhara especially in the areas located south of “Wolu'' and the special Oromo region as well as Northern Shewa. Such conflicts contribute to exacerbating political tensions and humanitarian crises. 

4- The increase in armedextremist movements: This impacted the Ethiopian arena leading to a tangible escalation of a number of armed movements in some areas, such as the Oromo Liberation Army, which is classified as a terrorist organization by the Federal Government, the Moro Islamic Liberation Movement. and the Oromo Liberation Army. 

5- The sectarian disputes: They were documented amid the increase of the religious violence movements across Ethiopia. For example, attacks against churches and mosques and the competition regarding building Building places of worship and religious ritual celebrations increased. This prompted the Ethiopian Orthodox Church to call for organizing large-scale protests in the north of the country in September 2019 in response to the escalation of sectarian violence by some armed movements in some areas such as Oromia and Tigray. 

6- The political exclusion: as the ruling regime sought to politically isolate and neutralise its rivals, except for its allies from Amhara. The regime also eliminated some of its opponents such as the Tigray Liberation Front along with arresting some symbols of the political opposition in the country such as Oromo leaders as well as tightening grip around some political parties with federal tendencies such as Oromo Liberation Front and the Oromo Federal Conference which decided not to participate in the latest elections in Oromia. This deepens the state of polarisation in the Ethiopian political scene. 

7- The Autonomy dilemma: one of the reasons behind Ethiopia’s troubles emanates from Article 39 from the Federal Constitution which gives the Ethiopian regions and nationalities the  autonomy right and  to secede in some cases. For example, Welayta, located in South Ethiopia, calls for autonomy especially after Sidama’s success in establishing its Autonomous region. The Welayta Council of Representatives voted unanimously in favor of self-rule on December 19th, 2018, but the federal government ignored it and it was not referred to the National Electoral Council, leading to the outbreak of some demonstrations  that witnessed some violence acts which pushed the security authorities to arrest a number of protesters and local officials in the region.  The same applies to the separatist demands of Qemant, an ethnic minority in western Amhara.

8- Tigray dispute: The conflict between the Abiy Ahmed regime and Tigray has led to many negative repercussions and prompted more strikes inside, most notably: the varying losses that contribute to the decline in the regime’s popularity, and doubting the capabilities of the Ethiopian army, in addition to the scale  of international pressures that the Ethiopian regime is subjected to due to the accusations leveled against it of violating human rights in the region. All of these factors could contribute to the escalation of the conflict on the part of the Tigray Liberation Front, and the matter may develop towards the official demand for secession from Ethiopia in the event that a political solution is not reached or the conflict continues between the two parties.

9- The dilemma of hybrid security: It is represented in the growing phenomenon of the formation of “paramilitary” forces and “local militias” in the Ethiopian regions, which act as parallel armies in the country that could pose a clear threat in the event of a conflict between the central government and regional administrations such as the Tigray crisis, as well as the problem of armed movements  in the country, such as the Oromo Liberation Army, the Moro Islamic Liberation Movement, and the Qeerroo Youth Organization.

10- The local communities militarization: This is related to the ruling regime’s  growing tendency towards establishing emergency command centers across the country so that military forces can be deployed on a large geographical scale in order to quell any future protests or disturbances. In addition, some government officials such as Demeke Mekonnen, Deputy Prime Minister, called  to arm civilians in conjunction with the escalation of political tensions and armed movements, which represents a new chapter of turmoil that may lead to the outbreak of civil war in the country. 

Accordingly, The aforementioned factors could push for “Ethiopian disintegration” which in turn could lead to more turmoil, political and security threats against the Red Sea Region, regarding fears from the following threats:

1- threats targeting the direct foreign investment in Ethiopia:

There are several threats emanating from the danger of escalating the war in Ethiopia and the scenarios of its extension in a way that pushes for the disintegration of the country and threaten to undermine the political and the economic Middle Eastern investments inside Ethiopia. Such moves are based on some considerations First of which is related to Turkish  projects for expending the geopolitical influence emanated from Somalia. The second one is what both the UAE and the KSA have sought to balance their influence in the region through sponsoring the Eritrean-Ethiopian peace agreements, and the economic support of the two countries’ governments. The third consideration is related to  the investments of the Gulf bloc in the Ethiopian agricultural sector and the impact of  prospects of possible  “Ethiopian disintegration” which threaten these countries’ food security strategies.

2- Fears of growing turmoil in the Horn of Africa:

The interactions of the African region are clearly intertwined which gradually and successively could move the total negative repercussions of the turmoil from the Ethiopian interior to the Horn of Africa region as illustrated below:

- Fear of the deterioration of the Eritrean-Ethiopian relations: There are Eritrean fears that the conflict - especially in the absence of negotiated settlements between the two disputing parties- could extend  to the Eritrean territory, which prompted the latter to deploy its forces inside the Ethiopian borders to help Abiy Ahmed in his war against The Tigray People's Liberation Front. This is based on Eritrea’s alliance with the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, after the signing of a peace agreement between the two sides in 2018, which ended the border conflict between them.

- The border Sudanese-Ethiopian dispute: The "Tigray War" brought the crisis of the Sudanese region of Fashaqa to the forefront of  regional interactions in the Horn of Africa. This is in light of the Ethiopian government's demands to withdraw Sudanese forces from the border areas - a length of 744 km - before resuming bilateral talks to demarcate the common border. It is worth  mentioning that the armed clashes along the border between Sudan and Ethiopia since the end of 2020, represented the latest development in the history of the regional rivalry between the two countries for several decades, and the disputed area is known as "Al-Fashqa" where  northwest of the Ethiopian Amhara meets with Gedaref State in Sudan . Ethiopia has previously recognized Sudanese sovereignty over the Al-Fashqa agricultural area, but stopped short of taking practical steps to demarcate the border.

- Moving tension to Djibouti: The conflict impacted Djibouti’s economy which largely relies on its being a pathway for Ethiopian foreign trade, and therefore in case the conflict expands, and the Ethiopian economy is negatively impacted , this will negatively impact it. This increases the possibilities of renewing internal turmoil and the growth of opposition to President Ismail Omar or Ethiopian foreign trade, and therefore whenever the conflict expands, and the Ethiopian economy is negatively affected, this will be negatively reflected on it, which increases the possibilities of renewed internal turmoil and the growth of opposition to President Ismail Omar Guelleh, in light of the high rates of poverty in the country. It is worth noting that Abiy Ahmed’s rise to power in 2018 has worried Djibouti due to his rapprochement with its enemy Eritrea, and his adoption of plans to reduce dependence on its ports.  Therefore, some reports spoke of Djibouti’s support for the Tigray Liberation Front, and it is also worth mentioning that there is a role played by Djibouti in The border conflict between Al-Issa militias in the Somali region and the Afar region, a conflict that renewed several months ago, in which Djibouti was accused of supporting Al-Issa militias, which share ethnic affiliation with the ruling regime in light of the high rates of poverty in the country. It is worth noting that Djibouti was not satisfied with Abi Ahmed’s rise to power in 2018, due to his rapprochement with its enemy Eritrea, and his adoption of plans to reduce dependence on its ports, and for this reason some reports spoke of Djibouti’s support for the Tigray Liberation Front, and it is also worth noting that there is a role for Djibouti in The border conflict between Al-Issa militias in the Somali region and the Afar region, a conflict that renewed several months ago, in which Djibouti was accused of supporting Al-Issa militias, which share ethnic affiliation with the ruling regime.

- Weakening the role of the African Union: This has been evident through the failure to deal with the crisis of the conflict between the ruling regime in Ethiopia and the Tigray. This is considered as undermining The AU’s role in making peace, as it has become clear that its  role is limited to small or failed states while having  a limited influence on the major African countries. For example: South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, as the Chair of the African Union, appointed three former African leaders as envoys to mediate an end to the conflict. Officials from the United Nations, Europe and the United States have expressed their support for the AU initiative, but Abiy Ahmed insisted on refusing to negotiate with the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front, describing the military actions as an internal law enforcement task.

- Reducing the cooperation possibilities among Horn of Africa countries: This was directly reflected in what was proposed by "Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia", in January 2020, to form a new regional bloc known as "Horn of Africa Cooperation". This suggests the transition to addressing security challenges in the Horn of Africa from institutional solutions continental to independent processors. Thus, this new proposal entails in essence the exclusion of more companies in the region, and the undermining of the security efforts of other regional organizations, such as the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the African Union and the East African Reserve Force. It is likely that the Tigray crisis and the growing political and security chaos in Ethiopia will prompt a reformulation of the regional alliances map in the region, including the "Horn of Africa Cooperation" alliance. 

3- fears from the security threats against the Red Sea region

There are a number of threats which could be aggravated in case the Ethiopian conflict developed toward state dissolvement. The most prominent points of those fears include: 

- The growing security threats in the Red Sea:

The Tigray crisis pushes for more security threats in the Red Sea regarding the following fears:

1- Fear of an increase in piracy operations, given the rising indicators of the collapse of the Somali state.

2- Fear of an escalation of illegal arms trafficking, smuggling of goods and drugs, human trafficking, as well as unsustainable fishing practices.

3- Fear of the repercussions of security imbalances on global trade and international sea lanes, especially the direct impact on the Suez Canal, which is one of Egypt's most important economic resources.

4- Fear of threatening economic projects in the Red Sea, including, for example: the NEOM city project, on which the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia holds great hopes in the process of diversifying its economy.

- The growing waves of refugees and illegal immigration:

Human trafficking is one of the most significant security threats in the region, as it is notably active between the southern banks of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. According to Human Rights Watch, a combination of factors, including unemployment and other economic hardships, drought and human rights violations, has pushed hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians to migrate over  the past decade, by sea through the Red Sea, and then by land through Yemen to Saudi Arabia, the preferred destinations along with its Gulf neighboring states, due to the availability of job opportunities. The location of Yemen as a strategic point of contact between the Arabian Peninsula and the African continent made it  a destination or transit point for illegal immigration from the countries of the Horn of Africa towards the Arabian Gulf region. For example: The Human Rights Watch monitored the crossing of about 300,000 individuals from African countries through the Gulf Aden to Yemen during 2018-2019, compared to about 110000 who crossed the Mediterranean Sea in illegal immigration towards European countries. This indicates a high rate of illegal immigration there compared to other regions of the world.

- The growing “arm trade” activities in the Red Sea:

Arm smuggling networks have been active in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, to and from the Horn of Africa, since the beginning of the conflict in Yemen. The activities of these networks exacerbate instability in the “fragile states” in the region. The  greater  degree of instability within these countries serves the interests of Illicit networks and their expansion based upon the “security chaos” criterion in the region, which further aggravates the state of instability. This threatens that the "arms trade" could enter a new stage of expansion and spread in parallel with the Ethiopian total chaos scenario. For example,  Ethiopia witnessed an increase in the volume of arms seizures during the era of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, as a result of easing the security grip compared with  the government  of the EPRDF coalition that preceded Abiy Ahmed’s. 

- The growth of extremist movements and the reproduction of terrorist organizations:

The fluid situation of “qualitative chaos” in the region, especially with the growth of “Ethiopian disintegration” scenarios, creates a favorable environment for the expansion of extremist armed movements - especially - from Somalia to new regions, especially Ethiopia. This could worsen the situation, as  the movement of groups has actually been monitored Extremist to Ethiopia.

Furthermore, there is a fear of the re-production of terrorist organizations in the region - based on the Yemeni lands with security and institutional fragility - based on the growth of specific threats as a result of "Ethiopian disintegration" scenarios, mainly the escalating arms trade as  well as growing waves of illegal immigration, and refugees. 

 For example, despite the decline of "Al-Qaeda" and the growth of "ISIS" in both media and geographical levels  in the region, the supporters of the AQAP in Yemen still pose a prominent security threat, given the practical and tactical experiences possessed by its leaders. Yemen's geography has always been a safe haven for terrorists, It is exploited in the context of planning and training terrorist operations or to escape from security oversight. This prompted US President Joe Biden to exclude "anti-terror operations" from the decision to stop US military operations in Yemen.

Accordingly, the turmoil scenario in Ethiopia and the repercussions of the "Tigray crisis" along with its extension to its neighbors create a favorable environment for the escalation of all types of security threats in the region. Applying this to the Yemeni case, there are prospects for the growing waves of refugees to Yemeni lands, which may carry seeds extremism and terrorism in a way may push the scenario of “reproduction of Al-Qaeda” along with “arms trade” activities. This could act as  technical support for the Houthi group and make the conflict contexts more specifically unbalanced, which could in turn push for the continuity of the field “no-decisiveness” scenario and its direct impact on the track of a political settlement on the Yemeni issue 

Dr. Eman Zahran

Political science teacher, specialized in international relations and regional security

Photo: Al Jazeera 



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[3] THE ROLE AND RELEVANCE OF RELIGION IN ETHIOPIA’S CURRENT CONFLICTS، Addis Standard، 6 November 2019، available at:  

[4] Mulugeta G Berhe، Ethiopia’s political crisis is playing out in the regions، The Africa Report، 31 August 2020، available at:  

[5] Ahmed Askar, Map of crises and the future of the state in Ethiopia, Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, July 9, 2021,

[6] Nur، Taha Hassan (1971) The Sudan-Ethiopia boundary: a study in political geography، Durham theses Durham University. Available at Durham /E-Theses Online:  

[7] Dr. Hamdi Abdel Rahman Hassan, “The Tigray War and its Effects on the Balances of Regional Powers,” African Readings Magazine, No. 48, (Cairo: April 2021), p. 42. 

[8] HRW, Ethiopians Abused on Gulf Migration Route, August 15, 2019, Available at  

[9] USIP ،Senior Study Group on Peace and Security in the Red Sea Arena، October 29، 2020، p23.

EthiopiaRed SeaHorn of AfricaAfricaSecurityAfrican UnionAbi AhmedDjiboutiEritreaTigray warAddis Ababa