What If Ethiopia Collapses?

Israelis should be concerned about events in this crucial East African nation.
Ethiopia’s Republican Guard in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on September 10.
AMANUEL SILESHI/AFP via Getty Images
From the December 2020 Watch Jerusalem Print Edition

Ethiopia is verging on civil war. This deeply concerns Israel, for many reasons. In a nation with a population of 108 million, a civil war could create a massive refugee crisis in the region, which would put pressure on its neighbors.

More significantly, political tumult and civil war would give Iran and radical Islam an opportunity to expand its sphere of influence and gain a strategic foothold in this vital territory. If Tehran somehow gets control of Ethiopia, it will have easy access to the Red Sea, a crucial sea lane that leads directly to the Jewish state.

Civil War Imminent?

On November 4, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed deployed troops in a military operation in the Tigray region. He said the deployment was instigated by “months of continued provocation and incitement” against the federal government by the Tigray regional government.

The main “provocation” leading to Mr. Abiy’s decision was an apparent attack on an army base located in Tigray, allegedly to steal military supplies, by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (tplf).

The tplf is a political organization that helped overthrow Ethiopia’s Communist government in 1991. It had ruled Ethiopia for decades under what was effectively a one-party dictatorship, despite the Tigray ethnic group representing only about 7 percent of the country’s population of over 100 million. The tplf lost power in 2018. Ethiopia has since been ruled by Abiy, who is of the Oromo ethnic group, which represents roughly 35 percent of Ethiopia’s population.

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The attack on the military base remains unconfirmed. Some suspect that the story was a fabricated pretense to give Abiy the excuse he needed to militarily snuff out tplf opposition.

The tplf politically controls the Tigray region, which has a higher standard of infrastructure than the rest of the country and well-organized security forces independent of the national army.

Internal conflict is nothing new to Abiy’s administration. The splintered factions and tribes that make up the national mosaic are constantly at odds. Often, these disagreements end in violence and bloodshed. But a war with the Tigray region could have nation-shaking consequences.

Losing its disproportionate amount of power and influence has not made the Tigray elite happy. Ethiopia was supposed to have parliamentary elections earlier this year, but Abiy postponed them for another year due to covid-19. The Tigray region defied the order and held its own parliamentary elections against the federal government’s wishes while calling Abiy’s actions dictatorial. In retaliation, the Ethiopian Parliament cut off all federal funding for Tigray.

More and more, the Tigray government is outright rejecting the orders and leadership of the federal government. For example, on October 30, a general appointed by Abiy to be stationed in Tigray couldn’t get to his post; the Tigray government notified him that it wouldn’t recognize his appointment since it viewed Abiy’s mandate to rule as illegitimate.

Ethiopians call for the end of the government’s military actions in the northern Tigray region on November 9.
NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images

At the outset of the crisis, foreign-policy analysts predicted the worst. Dr. Yohannes Woldemariam told the Telegraph that this “is an existential crisis for Ethiopia. It could mean state collapse. The whole region will be affected, from refugees to destabilization” (November 4; emphasis added). Tsedale Lemma tweeted on November 4 that Abiy’s military venture “isn’t ‘a surgical operation’ which will quickly end tplf, but an epistemic rupture of the [Ethiopian] Federation as we know it.” One senior Tigrayan official told Agence France- Presse, “I think when it comes to military mobilization, it’s not child’s play. It can trigger all-out war. … What they are doing is playing with fire. … A small spark can ignite the whole region. [A]nd I can assure you we are capable of defending ourselves” (November 5).

A six-month state of emergency has now been declared, with the Ethiopian military fully engaged in the Tigray region. Government forces—at least those who haven’t defected to the tplf—are marching their way to the Tigray capital, Mekelle. Critical Threats reported that the Ethiopian Army is stationed in Eritrea, which borders the Tigray region. Meanwhile, the tplf launched a rocket attack at the airport in Asmara, Eritrea’s capital.

Conditioned for Collapse

Ethiopia’s population of 108 million people is extremely diverse ethnically. The Oromo, the largest ethnic group, barely tops a third of Ethiopia’s population at 35 percent. The next largest, the Amhara, makes up 28 percent of the population. The Tigray come in third with 7 percent of the population. Ethiopia is also extremely diverse religiously: Roughly 44 percent of Ethiopians follow the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, 31 percent are Muslim, and 23 percent belong to Protestant groups.

As small as the Tigray population is compared with the rest of the nation, the territory hosts much of the nation’s military. One reason is it shared border with Eritrea, a flashpoint for conflict in recent years. According to the Guardian, “Some analysts estimate that Tigray could muster more than half of the armed forces’ total personnel and mechanized divisions …” (November 6).

The Tigray crisis comes at a time of serious social and economic problems for Ethiopia. Though the nation has enjoyed robust economic growth in recent years, its poverty rate remains still at 23 percent, almost a quarter of the population, as of 2016. Ethiopian troops are also currently involved in the civil war in Somalia. The country frequently experiences drought, and last year it had the worst locust infestation in 25 years. Ethiopia also harbors about 800,000 refugees from other African countries.

Analysts worry that these factors are creating the perfect storm for Ethiopia to collapse and dissolve into different warring factions based on ethnicity, similar to what the former Yugoslavia went through in the 1990s.

Ethiopia also has serious problems with its neighbors. It is in a major squabble with Egypt over the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which promises to bring a gigantic source of power to Ethiopia but threatens to dramatically diminish the flow of the Nile into Egypt. Many believe this could turn into a major conflict.

One has to ask then, if Ethiopia falls into a bloody crisis, who will fill the power vacuum? A potential answer can be found looking across the border to another country in the Horn of Africa embroiled in a civil war: Somalia.

watch jerusalem/Edwin Trebels, Reese Zoellner

Opportunity

Since 2009, Somalia has been embroiled in a three-way civil war between the government, the breakaway region of Somaliland, and the Islamist terror group al-Shabaab. The faction to watch is al-Shabaab, which controls a sizable amount of Somali territory. While primarily based in Somalia, it operates around the world. Ethiopia currently has peacekeepers in Somalia fighting against al-Shabaab.

If Ethiopia were to fall into chaos, it might give al-Shabaab opportunity to extend its tentacles across the border into a country that is just under a third Muslim. Islamic extremists within Ethiopia are already taking advantage of the current conflict. Ethiopia’s security agency reported apprehending 14 people on November 14 for plotting terror attacks. The militants apparently had connections to the Islamic State and al-Shabaab. But al-Shabaab isn’t the ultimate concern here. While the terrorist group has historically been associated with al Qaeda, what is most alarming is its deepening relations with Iran.

Tehran has sponsored al-Shabaab attacks on United States targets in Somalia. It has also used Somalia to send weapons to its proxy, the Houthis, in Yemen, and to other vulnerable countries such as South Sudan and the Central African Republic.

Iran has also been using Somalia as an entry point to smuggle oil into Africa and from there sell it to other African countries under the radar of American sanctions.

Most significantly, al-Shabaab has been mining uranium from the territories it controls and sending it to Iran, almost certainly to be used in its nuclear program.

Ismail Qaani, commander of the Iranian Quds Forces, has a history of work in Africa.
Anadolu Agency / Contributor

The Quds Force, Iran’s elite foreign military unit, has been actively sponsoring al-Shabaab and maintains cells throughout Africa. The current leader of the Quds Force, Ismail Qaani, has a history of work in Africa. And everywhere from Iraq to Lebanon to the Palestinian Territories, Iran has taken advantage of political instability to sponsor armed groups that eventually take over the government.

Today, Islam is the second-largest religion in Ethiopia, behind Ethiopian Orthodoxy. A large portion of the population would likely embrace a Muslim government. Abiy, while a Christian, belongs to the majority-Muslim Oromo ethnic group. His father was a Muslim. And while the majority-Christian Tigray are historically hostile to Muslims, Abiy has been making overtures to Ethiopia’s Muslims. He has released radical Muslim activists imprisoned by the tplf. He also undid the anti-Muslim propaganda the tplf sponsored when in power. Muslims are freer and have more voice under the current government.

There is a dubious legend that Mohammed once made a visit to Ethiopia and successfully converted its king to Islam. This makes Ethiopia, in the eyes of some, a dar al Islam (“land of Islam”). Because of this, some think Ethiopia should be reclaimed as a “land of Islam.” Writing for Religion Unplugged, Dr. Desta Heliso of the Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology warned of “radicals within and outside Ethiopia, who are creating Ethiopia’s imagined past as a land of Islam in order to turn it into an Islamic state.”

For many years, Watch Jerusalem editor in chief Gerald Flurry has warned that Ethiopia will eventually fall into Iran’s sphere of influence. Mr. Flurry bases this forecast on the end-time prophecy in Daniel 11. “And at the time of the end shall the king of the south push at him; and the king of the north shall come against him like a whirlwind, with chariots, and with horsemen, and with many ships; and he shall enter into the countries, and shall overflow, as he passes through” (verse 40).

Request our free book, The King of the South

In his free booklet The King of the South, Mr. Flurry explains in detail that the “king of the south” in this prophecy is an Iran-led radical Islamist axis of Middle Eastern countries. Verse 40 says Iran and radical Islam will instigate a major conflict with Germany and Europe (the “king of the north”), who will descend on the Middle East and conquer Iran and its allies.

But notice verse 43: “But he shall have power over the treasures of gold and silver, and over all the precious things of Egypt; and the Libyans and the Ethiopians shall be at his steps.” This verse identifies some of the countries that will be allied with the king of the south and that will be destroyed. These include Ethiopia and Eritrea (a country that was part of Ethiopia until 1991).

In Libya and Ethiopia in Prophecy, Mr. Flurry writes: “Why did God inspire the mentioning of Libya and Ethiopia? Every word in God’s inspired Bible has significance. God placed two nations in the same verse as Egypt for a definite reason. This verse states that Libya and Ethiopia are also going to be closely allied with Iran!

Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon defines [‘at his steps’] as ‘in his company.’ The Moffatt translation reads this way: ‘following in his train.’ So you need to watch Libya and Ethiopia. They are about to fall under the heavy influence or control of Iran, the king of the south. That is why they are subdued in the king of the north victory.”

As Mr. Flurry explains, the presence of Libya, Ethiopia and Egypt in the alliance with Iran shows that Tehran’s strategy is to control the entire Red Sea passageway leading into the southern Mediterranean. Interestingly, the current flashpoint in the brewing civil war is the Tigray region, the northernmost province of Ethiopia.

Directly to Tigray’s north is Eritrea, one of the gatekeepers of the narrow choke point of the southern Red Sea. Rumors abound that Eritrea will join the Ethiopian government in its fight against the Tigray. This could destabilize Eritrea, which would give Iran the opportunity to interfere. (Iran is already firmly embedded in Yemen.)

Time will tell whether Eritrea will get involved in the fight, whether al-Shabaab will gain a foothold in Ethiopia, or whether the conflict in Tigray will lead to regime change—but we need to watch the Horn of Africa closely.

While Ethiopia is predominantly Christian, Bible prophecy foretells of an Islamic takeover in the near future. Once that happens, the stage will be set for a spectacular clash of civilizations. This clash is a major part of the Bible’s forecasts of future events—and is a sign the Messiah is coming!

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