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Ethiopia: Abiy declares national state of emergency as rebels advance south

By Fred Harter
Posted on Tuesday, 2 November 2021 19:51

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed campaigns in Jimma
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed attends his last campaign event ahead of Ethiopia's parliamentary and regional elections scheduled for June 21, in Jimma, Ethiopia, June 16, 2021. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

Ethiopia declared a nationwide state of emergency on Tuesday evening 2 November after rebel groups claimed they had captured a series of strategic towns in the country’s Amhara region, bringing them closer to the capital, Addis Ababa.

The new measures, which the government said were needed to stave off “imminent threats against the existence of the nation”, grant the authorities sweeping powers to impose curfews, revoke media licences and arrest individuals without a warrant if they are suspected of aiding terrorist groups. They are due to be in place for six months but can be terminated by the federal parliament before then.

The announcement came after the city administration of Addis Ababa urged residents to organise in defence of the capital and ordered them to register firearms with the police. It also said searches would be carried out at private homes.

Amhara state already imposed emergency measures on Sunday as the war escalated, including orders for civilian vehicles to be requisitioned for military use and an order for all government offices to cease daily business. The same day, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed renewed his call for all able-bodied citizens to join the fight.

This week marks one year since the conflict broke out. For months it was confined to Tigray, but Tigrayan rebels pushed into the neighbouring regions of Afar and Amhara after recapturing much of Tigray in June.

Push-back

In October, the government launched a major offensive aimed at forcing them back. That effort has faltered, with the Tigray rebels claiming over the weekend that they have taken the strategic towns of Dessie and Kombolcha. Both towns are located on the main road to Addis Ababa and their reported capture has heightened tensions across the Amhara region, upon whose elites Prime Minister Abiy has previously relied for support.

Insurgents from the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) also claimed to be in control of Kemise, some 54km south of Kombolcha, and the Tigray rebels said they had linked up with the OLA, with whom they announced an alliance in August. Reports suggested fighting was ongoing in both Kombolcha and Kemise as of Tuesday evening.

“Amharas are feeling betrayed,” said a member of the Amhara regional parliament for Abiy’s Prosperity Party. “We are no longer looking to the federal government for support. Instead we are mobilising ourselves. If Abiy ever wants to be accepted again by Amharas, he will have to make sure the Tigrayans leave Amhara completely. Until then, he will be rejected.”

The lawmaker added: “A full-scale assault on Addis is possible. It depends on how quickly the Amhara can mobilise. If we do it as fast, we can cut the Tigrayans off. Maybe thousands will die, maybe hundreds of thousands will die, but we must try and stop them.”

Management problems

William Davison, senior Ethiopia analyst at the International Crisis Group think tank, said the Tigray rebel advance had been aided by dysfunctions within the Ethiopian military, which had to regroup after withdrawing from Tigray in June.

“The Tigray forces have gained momentum after capturing equipment and territory,” he said. “They have met a lot of resistance, but the military and its allied forces are full of fresh recruits and in a certain amount of disarray. There seems to be significant command and control problems, and also problems with morale among the troops.”

For the past three years, the OLA has been waging a low-level insurgency against government forces and regional security services in Oromia, Ethiopia’s biggest state, as well as Amhara, and it has been accused of massacring Amhara civilians.

The group claimed this week that it is attempting to encircle Addis Ababa, but it is not clear whether it has the military capacity to take and hold territory on its own. So far, the OLA has mainly succeeded in launching hit-and-run attacks and disrupting roads.

Unknown strength

“We don’t know their strength,” said a security source. “They had experience – in the west – of fighting and, if they join together with another force, they could be strong.”

Davison from the International Crisis Group said it is still unknown whether the alliance between the Tigray rebels and the OLA will have any impact on battlefield realities. “This is a nascent and evolving military cooperation arrangement,” he said. “Just because they have an Oromo partner, it doesn’t mean it will be any easier for the Tigray forces to take Addis Ababa and maintain any semblance of law and order there.”

“They may prefer to focus on the Djibouti corridor in order to put pressure on the government, rather than marching on Addis,” Davison said.

Meanwhile, humanitarian agencies have ceased operations in Tigray, where the United Nations says 400,000 people are experiencing famine.  Several agencies have also started pulling staff out of Amhara. A health official the Tigray capital’s flagship Ayder hospital said staff were reusing surgical gloves and treating patients with expired medicines due to shortages.

No evacuation plans, yet

Despite the reported rebel gains, a senior aid worker said his organisation is not planning to evacuate staff from Addis Ababa. “We regularly update our security and evacuation plans,” he said. “That’s all prepared and ready to go. This week we’ve taken those plans out of the file and dusted them off, but we are far from implementing them.”

He added: “We’ve all underestimated how organised the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) were and how far they are willing to go. The last couple of months has taught us to be prepared for a lot of things we hadn’t thought about, including the possibility they may get to Addis. I think it’s unlikely, but that may be wishful thinking.”

The TPLF once dominated Ethiopia’s politics but was forced out by protest and replaced by Abiy’s administration in 2018.

Amid the escalating conflict, Abiy’s international isolation increased after US President Joe Biden announced on Tuesday that he would suspend Ethiopia from the African Growth and Opportunity Act over “gross violations” of human rights during the conflict. His administration has already threatened officials with visa restrictions and suspended assistance worth millions of dollars.

Also on Tuesday, the US embassy barred its staff from travel outside Addis Ababa and warned its citizens to “consider making preparations to leave the country”.

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