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Ethiopia: With Tigray under rebel control, what next for Prime Minister Abiy?

By Nicholas Norbrook, Patrick Smith
Posted on Wednesday, 30 June 2021 19:18

Demonstrators hold Tigray's flags as they gather by the sea at Gyllyngvase beach after a Tigray protest in Falmouth, during the G7 summit in Cornwall, Britain, 12 June 2021. REUTERS/Tom Nicholson

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed may have hoped that the announcement of a unilateral ceasefire on Monday 28 June in Tigray would stop the crisis in northern Ethiopia spiralling out of his control. Instead, it raises tough questions about the authority of his government amid growing dissension in the regions.

A week ago, as many Ethiopians were voting in the 21 June national elections, Abiy’s government launched what it called a final offensive against resistance forces in Tigray.

The Tigray conflict started in 2020 when the leaders of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, a party that was influential under the government of former premier Meles Zenawi, challenged Abiy’s authority and regional elections without Addis’ approval.

The plan was to announce a sweeping election victory for Abiy’s Prosperity Party and declare total victory in the Tigray region. With the Tigray Defence Forces (TDF) retaking Mekelle – the regional capital – on 28 June and federal forces retreating, the government in Addis Ababa will have to rethink, fast.

Hard choices

The losses in Tigray, along with international opprobrium that the military campaign has attracted, present the government with some hard choices; and the widely expected victory of the Prosperity Party, due to be announced this week, will not make it any easier.

The UN and international relief organisations have been moving quickly this week, to use the opportunity from the ceasefire, to get supplies of food and medicine to the hardest hit areas of Tigray.

Outside Mekelle, there is little electricity and telecoms service: relief organisations are dependent on satellite services. Their efforts to deliver supplies to people in the countryside are stymied by fears that fighting could escalate in the north and west of the region.

Strategic miscalculation

Abiy seems to have underestimated the resolve of the TDF, who now are looking to push Eritrean troops out of the north of Tigray region.

At the same time, Abiy must contend with Amhara politicians who want to hold on to farmland that their militias have seized in western Tigray. Abiy’s declaration of a ceasefire in Tigray also risks emboldening his opponents in Oromia.

Speaking to AP, a TDF spokesperson called the ceasefire offer a “sick joke”.

Abiy now has a tricky balancing act with the forces that propelled him to power, especially the Amhara, his major backers in the current political dispensation.

“We’ll stop at nothing to liberate every square inch,” said Getachew Reda, adding that the TDF would chase Eritrean forces out of the country and federal forces loyal to Abiy back to Addis Ababa.

Far from Abiy’s ceasefire marking a pause in the conflict, there could be a new phase with the TDF launching hot pursuit operations into Eritrea. President Issayas Aferwerki’s government in Asmara is yet to react to Abiy’s ceasefire declaration.

Neighbourly challenges

Asmara is almost certain to launch a counter-offensive if the TDF move into Eritrean territory. The last eight months of war between Eritrean and Tigrayan forces have intensified a bitterness that has not been resolved since the border war two decades ago.

“The withdrawal of the Ethiopian federal military and administrators from Tigray’s capital, Mekelle, is a major victory for Tigray’s armed resistance, William Davison, senior analyst for Ethiopia at the International Crisis Group tells The Africa Report.

“It shows that the TDF not only consolidated its position in recent months but also strengthened so it could launch a major counter-offensive last week,” he says. “It did this mainly through mass popular support and capturing arms and supplies from adversaries.”

Response from Amhara

Abiy now has a tricky balancing act with the forces that propelled him to power, especially the Amhara, his major backers in the current political dispensation.

“Among the Amhara ethnic political elite, [the Tigray offensive] it is seen as a war to regain territories lost in 1991,” says Kjetil Tronvoll, a Norwegian academic.

“[The Amhara] being the second-biggest ethnic group in the country, the Amhara militia and special forces had been pivotal in the war campaign,” says Trovoll. “Western and southern parts of Tigray are thus currently being integrated under Amhara administration and control despite protests from the meantime nearby government in Tigray.”

The TDF are likely to push back on this land grab. Any loss of control for the Amhara in Tigray “would create pressure on Abiy from the Amhara”, says Davison.

Oromia emboldened

With federal Ethiopian military forces seemingly in disarray, other regions that have been pushing back against the centre could take this as their cue to step up opposition.

The most worrying of these for Abiy is in Oromia, his home base. Some areas have swung against him in recent months.

The Oromo Liberation Army rebel group, which argues that Abiy is not the country’s legitimate leader, is also stepping up its activities.

The weakness of the federal army “will embolden opponents … such as the Oromo Liberation Army and those supporting them who are fighting against the Oromia regional security forces and the federal military”, concludes Davison.

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