Captured Ethiopian government soldiers and allied militia members sit in rows after being paraded by Tigray forces through the streets in open-top trucks, as they arrived to be taken to a detention center in Mekele, the capital of the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia Friday, Oct. 22, 2021.

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Something is going wrong in Africa. Nigeria and Ethiopia, the two most populous countries on the continent, are both stumbling towards disintegration. There are now 54 sovereign African countries, which really ought to be enough, but in a few years there could be 60.

Ethiopia is closer to the brink, so close that it could actually go over this month. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s attempt to force the northern state of Tigray into obedience began well in late 2019, when federal government troops occupied it against only minor resistance, but the Tigrayans were just biding their time.

The military occupation of Tigray didn’t last. The Tigray Defence Force (TDF) came down from the hills last June and cleared federal troops out of the state practically overnight. Then it pushed south into the neighbouring state of Amhara along Highway One, which links Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, with the only port accessible to the landlocked country,  Djibouti.

In July the TDF stopped at Weldia, still in Amhara state and about 250 miles from Addis Ababa, to await the great Ethiopian counter attack – which didn’t start until about Oct. 10. It takes time to organise tens of thousands of half-trained volunteers, which was about all Abiy had left after the June-July debacle.

The battle raged for two weeks, with the attacks of Amhara militia and volunteers from elsewhere failing against the trained, experienced  Tigrayan troops. About a week ago the Ethiopian troops broke and started fleeing south, although you probably didn’t hear about that because Abiy began bombing the Tigrayan capital, Mekelle, to distract your attention.

The TDF has already captured Dessie and is advancing on Kombolcha, which is halfway from Mekelle to Addis Ababa. Will the Tigrayans actually go for Addis itself? It’s not impossible. They’re arrogant enough, and they may be strong enough.

Nigeria is not that close to the edge, but the signs are bad. The huge gap in income, education and simple literacy between the very poor Muslim north and the mostly Christian south is a major irritant. The desperate lack of jobs for the young is destabilising even the south, as last year’s failed youth rebellion clearly demonstrated.

In the north east, the jihadist Boko Haram has become the local authority in some places, collecting taxes and digging wells. In the north west, banditry is out of control, with dozens or even hundreds of schoolchildren being kidnapped for ransom almost every week. The region is awash with arms, and one gang recently shot down a military jet.

In the ‘middle belt’ of states, farmers and herders are often at war, and in the southeast Igbo secessionists are raising the call for an independent Biafra again. Along the coast piracy is flourishing, and the oil multinational Shell is offloading its onshore Nigerian oil assets in the face of insecurity, theft and sabotage.

“This is an exposure that doesn’t fit with our risk appetite anymore,” said Shell CEO Ben van Beurden, and most major investors, whether foreign or Nigerian, feel the same way. Nigeria, like Ethiopia, is full of clever, ambitious young people with the education and skills to transform the country if only it was politically stable, but that is asking for the moon.

It would be a catastrophe if these two countries, containing a quarter of Africa’s total population, were to be Balkanised, but that may be coming. If the Serbs and the Croats can’t live together happily, why should we expect the Igbo and the Hausa, or the Tigrayans and the Amharas, to do so?

The old Organisation of African Unity rule said the former colonial borders must never be changed, no matter how arbitrary they were, because otherwise there would be a generation of war and chaos. That’s why for a long time there were fifty African states and no more, but recently the rule has begun to fray. Somaliland, Eritrea, South Sudan…who’s next?

Will the dam burst if Ethiopia breaks up into three or four different countries? Nobody knows, but it would be preferable if we don’t have to find out. Better the borders you know than the borders you don’t.


Gwynne Dyer, Opinion columnist

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose commentary is published in 45 countries.