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Ethiopia: ‘Mekelle takeover proves Abiy has little control in Tigray’

By Romain Gras
Posted on Friday, 2 July 2021 18:25, updated on Sunday, 4 July 2021 08:56

A member of Amhara Special Forces stands guard along a street in Humera town, Ethiopia July 1, 2021. REUTERS/Stringer

After eight months of conflict, forces loyal to the former Tigrayan Defence Forces (TDF) have retaken control of Mekelle, the capital city of the Tigray Region. Addis Ababa has declared a ceasefire, but the TDF counter-offensive continues in other towns in the region. Roland Marchal, a researcher at the CNRS and a specialist in Africa's civil wars, analyses this turn of events.

Seven months after being forced to leave Mekelle, forces loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) repossessed the city on 28 June. Most of the government troops and administration had to be evacuated earlier that day. This is an undeniable turning point in the conflict that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has led in Tigray since November 2020.

Abiy, who had launched the ‘law and order’ operation after government military bases were attacked and attributed to the TPLF, suffered a major setback with the withdrawal. Fighting has never ceased between the Tigray Defence Forces (TDF, pro-TPLF) and the federal Ethiopian army (supported by troops from neighbouring Amhara regional authorities and the Eritrean army).

Following the recapture of Mekelle, the Ethiopian government announced a “unilateral ceasefire”. The international community had been calling for this for several months, to allow real humanitarian access, while a looming threat of famine has been declared several times by the UN and other organisations.

But will this ceasefire take effect? 10 days after the launch of their counter-offensive called ‘Alula’, the TDF won an important victory in Mekelle and obviously do not intend to stop there. On 28 June, the self-proclaimed government of Tigray National State said in a statement that it was determined to continue its offensive to “liberate” the region from “invading forces”. In this context, peace seems unlikely.

The day after the fall of the provincial capital, Roland Marchal, a researcher at the CNRS and specialist in the Horn of Africa, explained the situation to us.

Why does the takeover of Mekelle mark a turning point for the war in Tigray?

Roland Marchal: First of all, this is certainly a symbolic victory for the pro-TPLF forces. It officially confirms, particularly in the eyes of the international community, that the central government does not control much of this conflict. It shows that all Abiy’s talk of government forces supposedly controlling the war is meaningless.