Even as the prime minister was being feted in Oslo last year, the seeds of this conflict were being sewn. (Kumera Gemechu/Reuters)
At about 2am Ethiopian time on Wednesday morning, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took to his Facebook page to make a grave announcement. “The Ethiopian Defense Forces, run by a command post, have been tasked with saving the country,” he said. He said that the regional government of Tigray, a northern province, was guilty of “crossing a red line” and that Ethiopian troops had been ordered to take action. “I call on Ethiopians to remain calm, be on high alert and back the military effort.”
Several commentators have described this as tantamount to a declaration of war against one of Ethiopia’s own regional states.
About an hour later — still in the early hours of the morning — Abiy appeared on state television. He said that the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the party that governs the Tigray region, was guilty of “treason”. According to Abiy, Tigray regional security forces had assaulted Ethiopian military bases in the towns of Mekelle and Dansha, killing and injuring soldiers based there.
The Ethiopian army’s Northern Command, one of four regional commands, is based in Mekelle, the Tigrayan regional capital which is more than 700km north of the country’s capital, Addis Ababa. Tigray’s regional government has announced an airspace closure, according to AFP, and has claimed that the Northern Command will “stand with the Tigray people and the regional government”.
Tigray is home to about six million of Ethiopia’s population of 110-million people, and is located in the north-east of the country, along the border with Eritrea.
Tensions between the federal government in Addis Ababa and Tigray’s regional government have been running high for some time, and relations had soured considerably in recent months. Although this escalation remains shocking, analysts have warned for months that conflict loomed large.
Efforts by the Mail & Guardian to contact residents in Tigray were fruitless, because internet and phone lines were not functioning. Later, internet-service-tracking organisation Netblocks revealed that there was a considerable drop in Ethiopia’s internet usage that began about an hour before the prime minister’s announcement. As such, the Abiy’s claims remain difficult to authenticate, and the region is virtually cut off from the outside world.
BBC journalist Desta Gebremedhin, from the BBC’s Tigrigna language desk, was able to make contact with a relative in Mekelle. “My cousin in Mekelle could hear the raging gun battles,” he said. This indicates that the fighting is within the vicinity of a major urban centre.
Despite the prime minister’s claims that his soldiers were ambushed and pushed into the war, preparations for the eventual escalation had been made at least days in advance. Large-scale movements of Ethiopian troops heading northwards were reported in recent days. Meanwhile, on Sunday, Tigray regional president Debretsion Gebremichael announced that his forces were prepared for conflict, stating that “if war is imminent, we are prepared not just to resist but to win”.
A year ago, few could have predicted today’s events, when the prime minister of Ethiopia posed for cameras in Oslo at the award ceremony after receiving the 2019 Nobel peace prize. Hailed for bringing two decades of military hostility with neighbouring Eritrea to an end, the peace deal in 2018 sparked wild celebrations in both countries and was a rare feel-good story from the often conflict-ridden region. Yet already the seeds of conflict with Tigray had been sown.
A widening rift
Prior to Abiy’s appointment as prime minister in 2018, the TPLF led a governing coalition that had monopolised power in Ethiopia for 27 years, ever since its armed wing helped to overthrow Ethiopia’s brutal communist junta in 1991. The coalition was called the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Party (EPRDF), and it ruled Ethiopia largely uncontested for three decades. This included the 21-year-rule of Meles Zenawi, who was himself from Tigray and a TPLF leader.
But the TPLF-led government’s authoritarian rule precipitated popular protests that began in 2015, and eventually led to upheaval within the governing coalition. In 2018, Abiy Ahmed — a relatively unknown leader from the Oromia region — and his allies usurped the ruling clique and took control of the EPRDF.
This was bad news for the TPLF. It lost its grip on power in Addis Ababa, and many of its former strongmen were declared persona non grata and detained or forced to flee the capital. But it remained in control of its home base in Tigray, where its armed wing is based. Initially, it also remained part of the country’s coalition government, but no longer enjoyed political dominance.
The rift between the TPLF and Abiy’s federal government in Addis Ababa widened, with officials in Mekelle openly expressing dismay with decisions made by the federal government. In late 2019, Abiy dissolved the EPRDF and merged its constituent entities into a single party he dubbed the Prosperity Party. The TPLF criticised the merger and decided against joining the new party, severing ties with Abiy and his allies — leaving the TPLF outside national government for the first time in three decades.
Officials from the two sides have since regularly traded barbs and accusations. Federal government officials accuse the TPLF of attempting to assassinate the prime minister at a rally in Addis Ababa in July 2018. A grenade was thrown near a podium where Abiy had been addressing a crowd, the explosion left five people dead and more than 140 injured. Abiy escaped unharmed. TPLF officials, meanwhile, have accused the federal government of discrimination against ethnic Tigrayans.
Tigray’s elections: the point of no return
In June, Ethiopia’s parliament confirmed that the national elections scheduled for August 2020 would be postponed for up to a year because of the Covid-19 pandemic. The decision was heavily criticised by opposition critics, with many accusing the prime minister of using the pandemic as an excuse to unlawfully extend his mandate. The TPLF in Tigray denounced the decision, labelling it “unconstitutional”, and declared that it would unilaterally hold its own regional elections as scheduled.
In the meantime, a war of words broke out: state media outlets regularly broadcast anti-TPLF material to audiences nationwide, and the TPLF pushed its own line with its own broadcasters. Both sides also held military parades, which were interpreted as thinly veiled attempts at antagonising or intimidating each other.
In addition to the propaganda effort, Abiy’s friendship with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki has been contentious. The Eritrean president loathes the TPLF. His enmity dates to the 1998-2000 war between Eritrea and Ethiopia which left 70 000 people dead. TPLF officials now accused Afwerki and Abiy of conspiring to destabilise Tigray. In February, one irate Tigrayan official accused Eritrea of meddling in Ethiopia’s internal affairs, going as far as threatening to “cut off [the president’s] hands” if Eritrea’s long-time dictator refused to refrain.
Last month, a televised broadcast showed Abiy giving his Eritrean counterpart a tour of Ethiopian air-force base installations. This only served to exacerbate tensions, which were not helped a few days ago when the Eritrean embassy in Ethiopia taunted the Tigray state leadership in a Facebook post, stating that it was “game over” for them. This led to suggestions that Eritrea could intervene militarily on Abiy’s behalf. The social media war of words continued with TPLF party official Getachew Reda tweeting on Tuesday that his party would prevail over the governments in Addis Ababa and the Eritrean capital Asmara, who he labelled “terrorists”.
The regional election in Tigray eventually went ahead on schedule, in defiance of the federal government, with the TPLF overwhelmingly defeating domestic opposition in Tigray. Abiy mocked the elections, calling them “hollow”, but at the time stated he did not intend to send troops to Tigray. Instead, the Ethiopian government stated it would not recognise the newly elected regional government and retaliated by slashing the budget allocated to the Tigray region.
For its part, Tigray announced that as of 5 October it would consider Abiy’s rule as illegitimate. This is the date that Abiy’s term would have ended if the national elections had gone ahead as planned.
On 30 October, perhaps with potential hostilities in mind, Abiy ordered Brigadier-General Jemal Mohammed to take up a post as deputy commander of the Northern Command at its base in Mekelle. But the brigadier-general never reached his new office: he was intercepted by Tigray regional government officials on arrival, and told to return to Addis Ababa.
Getachew Reda, the adviser to the Tigray state president, later clarified in a tweet that the officer was told to return because “any appointment after October 5th is unacceptable in Tigray”.
The consequences of conflict between Addis and Tigray are already being felt in the rest of the country. On Sunday, 54 ethnic Amhara civilians were brutally massacred at a school compound in Oromia. The Ethiopian government promptly accused the TPLF of involvement in the massacre, although it is yet to present evidence. The killings happened a day after Ethiopian soldiers based in the district suddenly vacated the region on Saturday, leaving residents at the mercy of armed militants. Some reports suggest that those soldiers were headed towards Tigray, giving weight to claims that the war was planned well in advance and not triggered by incidents that took place on Tuesday night.
These reports are difficult to confirm. Given the internet shutdowns across the region in which war is suspected of breaking out, and the government’s increasingly thin tolerance for independent journalism, verifying what has transpired in recent hours in Tigray is virtually impossible.
Neither side has heeded calls from both the African Union and the European Union to commence dialogue that would de-escalate the situation.
One of the poorest countries in the world, already struggling to contain the Covid-19 pandemic and grappling with deadly outbreaks of communal violence, is now on a war footing.