Today, we unpack a civil war in Ethiopia, brace for Brexit, count votes in Moldova, and sign the world's biggest trade deal.

Thank you for reading.

Carlos Santamaria


Today, we unpack a civil war in Ethiopia, brace for Brexit, count votes in Moldova, and sign the world's biggest trade deal.

Thank you for reading.

Carlos Santamaria


Ethnic tensions between Ethiopia's federal government and nationalist forces in the northern Tigray region have erupted into a full-blown armed conflict. Are we on the brink of yet another civil war that could upend the Horn of Africa?

The back story. Tigray, despite accounting for only 5 percent of Ethiopia's population, has long punched above its weight in federal politics. After a coalition led by the radical Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) helped end the brutal reign of dictator Haile Mengistu in 1991, Tigrayan Meles Zenawi led the country for twenty years.

Although Ethiopia largely prospered during this time, other ethnic groups resented Tigray's stranglehold over the government, the economy, and the military. It all ended two years ago, when a wave of popular discontent brought to power the reformist Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia's first ethnic Oromo prime minister.

In a deeply fragmented country with more than 80 ethnic groups, many of them traditionally marginalized from the political process, Abiy was a breath of fresh air: he moved quickly to release political prisoners, and won a Nobel Prize for making peace with Eritrea. But the flip side of these reforms was opening a Pandora's box by allowing many long-simmering ethnic tensions to boil over. (Earlier this year, Abiy faced a bloody popular uprising from his own Oromo people over the murder of a nationalist singer.)

The trigger. On November 4, Abiy launched a military offensive in Tigray over an alleged TFLP attack on a federal army base. The move was widely viewed as payback for Tigray holding a regional election that was postponed elsewhere in Ethiopia due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Since then, things have rapidly spiraled. Both sides have accused each other of killing hundreds of civilians, although such claims are hard to verify with the Tigray region now completely shut off from the internet.

Spillover effects. In less than two weeks, the conflict has spread beyond Ethiopia's borders. Over the weekend, TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael said the Tigrayans had fired missiles into neighboring Eritrea in response to Asmara's alleged support for the Ethiopian army's invasion of Tigray.

If that is true, it would pit two former enemies against a common foe. Eritrea's authoritarian leader Isaias Afwerki despises the TPLF, which was heavily involved in the 1998-2000 border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Meanwhile, the crisis has already sparked the exodus of tens of thousands of civilians fleeing the conflict to neighboring Sudan. Sudan's ailing economy is in no shape to cope with such a massive influx of refugees, a humanitarian catastrophe in the making. And all of this comes as Khartoum and Addis Ababa are already at odds over a controversial Nile dam that the Sudanese worry will deprive poor farmers of water resources.

No end in sight. With such high stakes, the war in Tigray has rapidly escalated. Both sides are unwilling to back down, and the Ethiopian army faces in the TLPF a battle-hardened rival with little to lose now that they no longer call the shots in Addis Ababa.

Abiy is unlikely to accept further defiance from Tigray, while the Tigrayans are wary of the prime minister's planned transition from a federal to a unitary state. As the conflict deepens, stability across the Horn of Africa will be at (higher) risk.



The UK has benefited from EU trade pacts with more than 70 countries. But if Britain can't reach agreement with the EU on a new trade deal before it formally leaves the EU on January 1, it could lose its preferential access to those markets. In preparation for such a scenario, the UK has signed dozens of new trade agreements, allowing countries to boost trade with the UK even after its departure from the European Union is finalized. It has also tried to prepare ground for a trade deal with the US, a process that's become more difficult with the election of Joe Biden. Here's a look at which countries and blocs have signed deals with the UK and the total value of each trade relationship.



Bolsonaro allies suffer in local elections: Elections haven't brought great news for Brazil's far-right president Jair Bolsonaro lately. First his gringo pal and ideological trailblazer Donald Trump lost his re-election bid up North. Then, this past weekend, dozens of candidates whom Bolsonaro supported in Brazil's local elections failed to win outright or even make it to runoffs. According to one tally (Portuguese) by the daily Estado de São Paulo, only 9 of the 59 candidates whom the president supported advanced in any way. This is the first Brazilian election to gauge the national mood since the onset of the coronavirus — which has taken more lives in Brazil than anywhere except the US. Overall, incumbent politicians and traditional parties generally fared well. Does that mean the anti-establishment furor that swept Bolsonaro to power in 2018 is fading? It's hard to say just yet — but as Bolsonaro begins to position himself for re-election in 2022, these election results will surely be on his mind, and ours.

Western Sahara conflict flares: For decades, the Sahrawi nomads of the Western Sahara have demanded independence from Morocco, which took control of the region in the mid 1970s after Spanish colonial forces withdrew. A bloody and inconclusive war between Morocco and the local Polisario Front (a Sahrawi rebel liberation movement) ended with a fragile UN-backed truce in 1991. Now, after thirty years, tensions are flaring again as Moroccan forces launched a military operation in a UN-controlled demilitarized zone in response to what Rabat says are recent provocations by Polisario guerillas. The Polisario, for their part, say they are fed up after years of false promises: when the 1991 armistice was declared, the UN created a mission (known as MINURSO) to monitor the ceasefire and facilitate a referendum in which the Sahrawi would choose between independence or unification with Morocco. But no such referendum has ever taken place. Meanwhile, thousands of displaced Sahrawi continue to live in squalor in refugee camps in neighboring Algeria. This conflict now threatens to further destabilize the tumultuous Sahel region, which is already grappling with a deadly Islamic insurgency, a civil war in Libya, and a flare up in Ethiopia that's spilling over into Sudan and Eritrea.

Moldova's new president: Pro-EU opposition candidate Maia Sandu won the presidential runoff in the small former Soviet republic of Moldova, defeating the staunchly pro-Russian incumbent, Igor Dodon, by a staggering 15-point margin. Sandu, a former prime minister and World Bank economist, has called for closer ties to the EU and more serious efforts to tackle the country's staggering level of corruption (an infamous bank fraud scheme totaled almost a fifth of the country's GDP). Moldova, one of the poorest countries in Europe, has long been caught in a tug of war between its former imperial masters in Moscow and the (distant) promise of EU membership. Sandu's upstart victory is something of a black eye for Russian president Vladimir Putin, who had openly backed Dodon. We are watching to see how Sandu navigates her country's foreign relations while trying to make much needed improvements at home.



95: US drug company Moderna announced Monday that its COVID-19 vaccine is 95 percent effective at protecting against the disease. The news follows Pfizer's recent announcement that its own vaccine showed a 90 percent success rate. Cause for optimism to be sure, but the data are still preliminary and the logistics of distributing any successful vaccine remain daunting.

15: After almost a decade of negotiations, 15 countries in the Asia Pacific — including China — signed one of the world's largest free trade agreements, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). Experts say that the pact, which covers 2.2 billion people, could help solidify China's role as the world's dominant economic power after the Trump administration pulled out of the rival Trans-Pacific Partnership in 2017.

2: Did Israel assassinate Al Qaeda's number two leader on the streets of Tehran? A New York Times exposé says Israeli agents on motorbikes, acting on US orders, ambushed Abu Muhammad al-Masri and his daughter in the Iranian capital this summer, killing them both. Iran's foreign ministry said the report amounted to a "Hollywood" story fabricated by the "Americans and Zionists."

63: While the World Health Organization (WHO) has been widely criticized for its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, a median of 63 percent of adults from 14 countries still believe the WHO has done a "good job" dealing with the COVID crisis. While respondents from the US and UK gave the WHO the lowest rating amongst polled countries, Danes and Australians were the most upbeat.



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This edition of Signal was written by Gabrielle Debinski, Alex Kliment, and Carlos Santamaria. Graphic by Gabriella Turrisi. Art by Annie Gugliotta. Spiritual counsel from Santa taking a dip in the Dead Sea.


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