ONE afternoon, almost 20 years ago now, I stood on some parched land in northern Ethiopia as local farmer Endris Abtu pointed to some birds circling in the sky above us.

“We call them the undertaker birds, ­because of both the way they look and go wherever there is death,” Abtu told me, as the huge macabre-looking marabou storks rose and fell on the scarcely noticeable breeze that offered the only respite from the crushing heat that enveloped us.

For a long time now in Ethiopia and elsewhere in Africa the presence of these ugly birds that will eat almost anything, has served as an ominous scavenging ­reminder of how fragile existence can be for so many across the continent.

Back on that occasion, it was drought that had come to plague the land, killing livestock and crops as well as those Ethiopians who depended on them for their ­survival. In those African countries where drought and hunger often take their toll such threats are sometimes joined too by war, combining to create a ‘perfect storm’ of suffering with devastating results.

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These past weeks the prospect of yet more widespread hardship, pain and death has once again cast its shadow over Ethiopia as conflict between its government and forces in the northern Tigray region threaten to engulf Africa’s second-most populous nation in all out civil war.

Already the humanitarian fallout is stretching across borders with up to 30,000 Ethiopians estimated to have crossed the frontier into neighbouring Sudan these past two weeks, the largest influx of refugees there in 20 years.

This could be just the start of a giant exodus in a war that has the potential to draw in other regional players and prove catastrophic for countless civilians.

So how has it come this? What factors lie behind this latest outbreak of hostilities between the government of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and forces loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)?

Also, should this crisis deepen, as looks likely, how would such a war play out and what too might the consequences be for the Horn of Africa?

This is a conflict that has deep roots and apportioning blame for starting the current round of hostilities very much ­depends on whom you ask. That said, ­essentially it’s a power struggle that goes back to 2018, when a popular uprising brought Nobel Peace Prize winning Abiy to power.

The crisis also has its roots in Ethiopia’s system of government in a country comprising a complex mosaic of ethnic groups. If figures from the country’s 2007 census are accurate then these groups, the Oromo (34%), Amhara (27%), Somalis (6.2%) and Tigray (6%), make up the population respectively.

It was after almost 20 years of a brutal military dictatorship, that a new coalition government in Ethiopia came to power in 1991. Ostensibly that government oversaw a federal system, although critics have always maintained this was just a facade behind which the Tigray minority dominated affairs through its party the TPLF that was disproportionately influential in running the political system.

When Abiy, who is half Oromo, half Amhara, came to power in 2018, he promised to hold elections by 2020 and ushered in democratic reforms, all the time insisting his government were working hard to incorporate the TPLF by providing them with positions such as the speaker of the national parliament and a handful of ministerial positions.

But the Tigray region was never convinced of Abiy’s political largesse or placements and tensions continued to grow. All this acrimony culminated in September this year when the TPLF defied the federal government by deciding to hold parliamentary elections, even though general elections were postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

A bitter tit-for-tat has since ensued with Ethiopian politicians last month voting to cut funding to the region, a move that ­incensed the TPLF who in turn ­responded by blocking Abiy’s appointment of a new head of the Northern Command.

But some analysts believe that the fundamental causes of the conflict remain largely misunderstood and that outside observers are only too willing to see “the proximate cause” as this recent disagreement between the regional leaders and the federal government.

Among such analysts is Kassahun Melesse, assistant professor of applied economics at ­Oregon State University who lived in Ethiopia for over 25 years, who says this is mostly about money and resources.

“This war is ultimately a battle for control of Ethiopia’s economy, its natural resources, and the billions of ­dollars the country receives annually from ­international donors and lenders,” wrote Melesse last week in the influential US- based magazine Foreign Policy.

“In other words, this is not a conflict over who gets to rule Tigray, a small ­region whose population accounts for a mere 6 % of Ethiopia’s more than 110 million people,” Melesse continued.

“It is a fight over who gets to dominate the commanding heights of the country’s economy, a prize that Tigray’s regional leaders once held and are determined to recapture at any cost.”

Whatever the motives behind the escalation in hostilities, it was just as global eyes were looking the other way towards the US presidential election, when Abiy declared war on the TPLF, launching a military offensive in response to what his government says was a Tigrayan military strike on the Northern Command, the most powerful in Ethiopia and headquartered in Tigray’s capital Mekelle.

Since then the prime minister has ­insisted that what in essence was ­effectively a “law enforcement” operation would “wrap up soon”.

But things have only gone from bad to worse with many security experts saying hostilities are building to what could end up a full blown civil war.

“The TPLF is an ex-guerrilla military … that knows this game extremely well,” says Rashid Abdi, a former project director for the think-tank International Crisis Group (ICG) and now an independent analyst.

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“They are being attacked on their home ground and everyone who knows the ­geography of Tigray knows it is difficult, mountainous and rugged, ideal guerrilla territory,” Rashid Abdi told The Financial Times last week.

OTHER analysts agree with his assessment of the TPLF’s military prowess and capability. Writing last week UK-based journalist and military historian Gwynne Dyer, detailed how Tigrayans, though only a small proportion of the population, are over-represented in the armed forces. Much of the Ethiopian army’s heavy weapons and equipment, too, which were based in Tigray because of the border war with Eritrea, has fallen into the TPLF’s hands.

It’s estimated that the Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF) has around 140,000 active personnel, the vast majority of them in the army, according to the Janes security data group. The TPLP in turn has around 140,000 active personnel many described as battle hardened and ­although it has no air force it can match the Ethiopian federal army in everything up to and including mechanised divisions. But there are also significant wild cards that could come into play in this military standoff. Not the least of these is the question of how much of the federal military’s hardware was in Tigray’s capital Mekelle when fighting broke out.

“The importance of the armour in ­Tigray cannot be overstated,” was how one military source in the Horn of Africa summed it up to Reuters’ news agency last week.

The other two military wild cards also starkly highlight this conflict’s potential capacity to mesh into an ethnic and ­regional war.

The first of these is the extent to which Prime Minister Abiy had increasingly fallen back on support from forces from Tigray’s southern neighbour Amhara in ground fighting, raising the risk of ethnic violence.

The second wild card concerns ­Tigray’s northern border, Eritrea where ­President Isaias Afwerki, a long-time foe of the TPLF, controls a vast standing army which the United States CIA puts at 200,000 ­personnel. His government has dismissed TPLF reports that Eritrean troops have ­already crossed the border, but should such an intervention occur it could tip the Tigray fighting into a ­regional war.

Making sense of what is actually ­happening on the ground right now is far from easy. As myself and other journalists or aid workers can attest from past experience, this is not an easily ­accessible ­region either physically or politically, with the coronavirus only adding to the challenges.

Right now, a near complete communications blackout imposed by the central government means that accurate and corroborated reports from the region are sparse, giving rise to a dramatic spread of misinformation.

Manipulated photographs emerging ­ recently have included one purporting to show an S-400 Russian missile defence system, claiming it is in use in the Tigray region to ward off Ethiopian air attacks. Another was said to show a downed ­Ethiopian fighter jet. Both were fakes.

But despite the difficulties in piecing together truthful accounts some detailed reports are surfacing and stand up to scrutiny.

This is especially true of the humanitarian and human rights situation in a region that for decades has long been vulnerable to humanitarian crises and rights abuses.

Last week human rights group Amnesty International reported of atrocities said to have been committed on November 9 and that “scores, and likely hundreds, of people were stabbed or hacked to death in Mai-Kadra (May Cadera) town”.

Amnesty said it had seen and ­“digitally verified gruesome photographs and ­videos of bodies strewn across the town or being carried away on stretchers”.

Soon after the reports surfaced, the human rights chief at the UN, Michelle Bachelet, said that if it could be verified, this “would of course amount to a war crime”.

Elsewhere, in Tigray’s capital ­Mekelle, which has a population of between 400,000 and 500,000, there are already ­reports of a shortage of flour, fuel and worst of all, water, which was already ­rationed.

Amidst the ongoing reports of atrocities and ongoing fighting an average of 4,000 women, men and children have crossed the border into eastern Sudan every day since November 10, according to the ­United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

“Refugees fleeing the fighting continue to arrive exhausted from the long trek to safety, with few belongings,” said UNHCR spokesperson Babar Baloch at a news conference in Geneva.

“UNHCR, with its partners, is supporting the Sudanese government in its response, ramping up humanitarian assistance at the borders as the needs continue to grow,” Baloch added.

BUT the UN agency also warned that inside the Tigray region, restricted access and the ongoing communication blackout have left an estimated 2.3 million children in need of humanitarian assistance and out of reach.

As the crisis deepens it’s this humanitarian threat and the fear that the conflict could trigger other wars in a country riven by ethnic rivalries that is of most concern to Western diplomats.

Shishay Adane, a Tigrayan activist ­living in Mekelle, said he feared that ­Ethiopia would “become another ­Yugoslavia”, a reference to the break-up of that ­country in the 1990s along ethnic lines. He urged the international ­community to put pressure on the Ethiopian federal government and Abiy whom he called an ­“authoritarian”.

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Concerns that the conflict might spread beyond Ethiopia’s borders only further heightened these past days after ­Tigrayan leaders accused Eritrea’s ­government of siding with Addis Ababa and responded by firing rockets over the border at ­Eritrea’s main airport in the city of ­Asmara.

Debretsion Gebremichael, the leader of the TPLF, claimed Asmara’s airport was a “legitimate target,” because Ethiopian forces were using it.

On every level the massive dangers of this war spreading are becoming increasingly obvious while the international community remains almost entirely disengaged. Yet another symptom perhaps of how the coronavirus pandemic has curtailed diplomatic activity among other things.

As the war daily takes grip, it is only adding to pressures on a region already reeling on other fronts. Last week the UN warned that the threat of “uncontrolled diseases and desert locust infestation,” reaching other parts of Ethiopia and neighbouring countries is already high, with new swarms arriving in the coming weeks.

Yet even before these dual threats of war and locust infestation began to bear down some 600,000 people in Tigray – roughly 10% of the population – already relied on food aid and across Ethiopia around seven million people face food shortages.

Preoccupied with the problems of the pandemic it would be all too easy for the international community to ignore this ­potential looming catastrophe ­until it’s too late.

Just like those ominous ­"undertaker birds", the reminders of how fragile ­existence can be for so many across the Horn of Africa once again sit menacingly before our gaze.