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.

But it is also a situation that needs to be looked at with caution. The government in Addis Ababa has declared a ceasefire, but we should not be misled by this. There have been many requests for such a ceasefire since the beginning of the conflict. This does not necessarily imply a willingness to negotiate with the other side. And, now that the rainy season has begun, the Ethiopian government may well take advantage of this to get more time to reorganise its forces and attack again when the rains subside in a few weeks.

How do you interpret the ceasefire declared by Addis Ababa?

It’s all smoke and mirrors. The argument is that we have to let the humanitarians do their job because the situation is disastrous. The truth is that for months now, humanitarians have had difficulty gaining access to the region. NGOs don’t communicate much about it because they don’t want to be expelled; but we know very well that it’s very difficult to get permits to go to Tigray and that it’s very complicated once they’re there to leave the camp and carry out normal activities.

This call for a ceasefire is more a response to a military reality on the ground. It is the rainy season and it is more difficult to launch offensives. But perhaps we will have the wonderful surprise of seeing it lead to negotiations or talks, probably secret at first, with the Tigrayan forces.

Can this turnaround be described as a surprise, given the way the conflict has developed?

No, it is not necessarily a surprise. The TPLF has always known that its control in Addis Ababa would not last forever and that it needed to take a number of precautions. This was reflected during its reign in extremely generous budgetary allocations to the Tigray region, although unfortunately the Tigrayan people did not always benefit. Some TPLF officials are now very rich.

The TPLF also took advantage of its years in power to build up its arsenal, particularly when it looked like a new prime minister would be appointed who came from the Oromo region. Finally, it should also be remembered that the hostilities began following an attack on the Northern Command. This military base housed a large amount of equipment intended to prevent an offensive by neighbouring Eritrea.

How is it that eight months following the start of the conflict, the TDF still has the means to carry out such an offensive?

There are some numbers circulating indicating how many Ethiopian soldiers have been taken prisoner and the pieces of equipment seized, but it is very difficult to verify these statements. I am very wary about the figures given by both the Ethiopian authorities and the TPLF. These are two organisations that have made misinformation a real policy.

It is important to note that in 2018, when Abiy came to power, the TPLF had lost much sympathy from the Tigrayan people due to the nepotism and corruption claims about some of its leaders. For two years, until the elections in September 2020 – which is one of the reasons for the war – the TPLF worked to rebuild itself politically in the region.

Some of the people of Tigray may not see it as the beacon of hope that should guide the people of the region, but in fact, it has become the sole representative of their interests, hence their success in recruitment. On the other hand, one can also imagine that there are also divisions within the Ethiopian army which is well aware that it is fighting an internal war and that this is not necessarily its purpose.

Will the recapture of Mekelle open the door for negotiations between the TDF and Addis Ababa?

It seems a bit unrealistic in this very polarised climate, but it would be a way to lower the tension. However, for both TPLF and Abiy, the will to reach a compromise is very weak. Since the beginning of the conflict, there has been a tendency to go towards extreme solutions rather than seeking reconciliation. This is true on both sides.

The cost of this conflict illustrates it well. An entire region has been destroyed, the humanitarian situation is dramatic and Abiy is the object of sharp criticism from the international community that blames him for his own ‘blindness’. To move forward in this conflict, Ethiopia will need to develop a climate of trust with international partners. The war in Tigray has sparked ambitions in other regions. Some people think that they can take advantage of it, to repossess territory. This is a dangerous situation.

In order to get cooperation from the international community, Abiy will probably need to meet one of their demands: the withdrawal of Eritrean troops from Tigray. Could this turn of events lead Abiy to reassess his alliance with Eritrean President Issayas Afwerki?

It is important to understand that, for Afwerki, this conflict is revenge for the military defeat of 1998-2000 in the war against the TPLF. Eritrea once dreamed of being the Singapore of Africa and found itself marginalised.

There is therefore a desire for revenge. The Eritrean regime now fears one thing: that the pro-TPLF forces will decide to lead the struggle to claim its independence. Autonomy is provided for in the Ethiopian constitution. However, the Eritreans do not want independence under any circumstances.

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