Ethiopia: Armed groups announce alliance to topple Abiy as US introduces sanctions bill

By Julian Pecquet
Posted on Friday, 5 November 2021 21:05

Smoke billows from the scene of an air strike, in Mekelle, the capital of Tigray region, Ethiopia 20 October 2021. REUTERS/Stringer

A coalition of nine Ethiopian groups led by Tigrayan rebels and their Oromo allies announced the formation of a multi-ethnic alliance to topple the government on Friday amid reports that they’re closing in on the capital.

The signing ceremony at the National Press Club in Washington DC comes as US special envoy Jeffrey Feltman is in Addis Ababa to try to negotiate a ceasefire. The rebel groups said they wanted to usher in a transitional government after a year of war that has killed thousands of people and displaced millions across northern Ethiopia.

“We are forced to defend ourselves,” former foreign minister Berhane Gebre-Christos, a Tigrayan official, told reporters. “Definitely, we will have a change in Ethiopia before Ethiopia implodes.”

Alliance members

The alliance includes the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), a splinter group of the Oromo Liberation Front that formed a military alliance with the TPLF in August. Also signing on were the Afar Revolutionary Democratic Unity Front, the Agaw Democratic Movement, the Benishangul People’s Liberation Movement, the Gambella Peoples Liberation Army, the Global Kimant People Right and Justice Movement/ Kimant Democratic Party, the Sidama National Liberation Front and the Somali State Resistance.

The Ethiopian government shrugged off the alliance, with attorney general Gedion Timothewos calling it a “publicity stunt” and casting doubt on the popularity of some of its members.

Even Ethiopian groups critical of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed were taken by surprise by the announcement.

Ibrahim Aden, a senior representative of the Somali region’s Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) in the US, tells The Africa Report that the alliance was news to his group and that he was unfamiliar with the Somali State Resistance. He said Abiy’s policies have antagonised many people, but that the ONLF stands by its 2018 ceasefire with the federal government.

“I wouldn’t be surprised seeing new formations … come up” as violence continues to spread, he said.

US diplomacy suffers a blow

The announcement comes as a blow to the Joe Biden administration as it steps up its efforts to get all sides to lay down their arms.

Feltman, the special envoy for the Horn of Africa, met with several officials including the deputy prime minister and the ministers of defence and finance on Thursday following this week’s announcement that Ethiopia is at risk of losing lucrative trade benefits. And secretary of state Antony Blinken on Thursday called on all parties to open ceasefire negotiations “without preconditions”.

“With the safety and security of millions in the balance, and more than 900,000 facing conflict-induced famine-like conditions, we prevail upon all forces to lay down their arms and open dialogue to maintain the unity and integrity of the Ethiopian state,” Blinken said on the one-year anniversary of the conflict.

He continued: “We call on the government of Ethiopia to halt its military campaign, including air strikes in population centres in Tigray and mobilisation of ethnic militias. We call on the government of Eritrea to remove its troop from Ethiopia.  We call on the forces of the TPLF and the OLA to immediately stop the current advance towards Addis Ababa.”

Time for talk?

Pressed on whether the alliance announcement undermines the administration of President Joe Biden’s peace overtures, the rebels in the group made it clear that it thought the time for talking with Abiy had passed.

“Our message to Biden is we are Ethiopians fighting to bring real democracy in the country,” Okok Ojulu Okok of the Gambella Peoples Liberation Army tells The Africa Report. “The Biden government has to unite with us. They have to stand behind us. They have to support us in every direction.”

Meanwhile, the senate foreign relations committee introduced bipartisan sanctions legislation late Thursday in a bid to bring all sides to the negotiating table.

The bill from chairman Robert Menendez (Democrat [D], New Jersey), Chris Coons (D-Delaware) and Jim Risch (Republican-Idaho) notably calls for sanctions against anyone who “undermines efforts with respect to a peaceful negotiated settlement to end hostilities in northern Ethiopia,” does business with them or sells them weapons. It would also suspend security assistance and help from the International Development Finance Corporation, while seeking to block loans or other assistance to Ethiopia and Eritrea from international financial institutions.

The United States and broader international community cannot turn away from the people of Ethiopia as staggering reports of extrajudicial killings, murdered aid workers and use of mass rape and sexual violence as weapons of war continue to pour out of the region,” Menendez said in a statement.

“I am committed to continue working with my colleagues to secure this legislation’s passage and demonstrate that the United States will match our words of support with unflinching, definitive and robust action. A year in, we must confront this raging conflict head-on and hold perpetrators of heinous abuses responsible,” Menendez concluded.

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