Ethiopia: PM Abiy claims pending victory, but TPLF say it’s taking a ‘strategic retreat’

By Fred Harter
Posted on Monday, 6 December 2021 19:33, updated on Tuesday, 7 December 2021 09:25

Ethiopia's PM Abiy Ahmed at the frontlines
Screenshot of Ethiopia's PM Abiy Ahmed at the frontlines (Twitter)

Ethiopia's military and its regional allies have scored a series of victories against rebels from the northern Tigray region, regaining control of large swathes of territory and apparently reversing the tide of the country's more than year-long civil war.

In November, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPF) rebels were advancing towards Addis Ababa, capturing several key towns and coming within 220km of the capital. Their offensive sparked an exodus of foreign nationals and diplomats from the city, who feared its potential fall.

But after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed went to the frontline to direct troops fighting the TPLF and its ally, the Oromo Liberation Front, federal forces inflicted a string of defeats on the rebels, reversing one month of rebel gains towards Addis Ababa in little over a week.

The first major territory the government retook was the town of Chifra in the Afar region. On Wednesday 1 December it announced the recapture of Shewa Robit on the main road to Addis Ababa, and a day later the military and allied militia retook Lalibela, an historic town famous for its 13th rock-hewn churches. on Monday evening (6 December), the government claimed it had recaptured the strategic towns of Dessie and Kombolcha, whose fall one month ago had prompted widespread alarm.

‘Decisive military victory’

“The government of Ethiopia has achieved decisive military victory over the terrorist group and regained control of areas, as has been witnessed over the past few days,” Billene Seyoum, the prime minister’s spokeswoman, told a press conference last week. “Measures against the terrorist group will continue until the TPLF no longer becomes a threat to the peace and security of the country.”

It seems the Tigray forces were not able to maintain adequate supply lines because of this intensified drone threat.

The recapture of these areas marks a stunning turnaround in Ethiopia’s civil war, catching some observers off guard. “The fighting is very difficult to follow. We don’t have a clear picture of what is going on,” a foreign diplomat told The Africa Report last week as the government pushed the rebels back towards Tigray.

However, the government has always claimed the rebel gains were overstated, accusing foreign embassies and journalists of alarmism. Last month it appeared to ban independent reporting on the conflict under the recent state of emergency, with a directive stating that “it is prohibited to provide or disseminate any information about military activities, combat operations and the results on any media, except those authorised by the state of emergency command.”

Weakening Tigrayan forces

A combination of mass mobilisation and the deployment of newly arrived drones appear to have swung the balance in the federal coalition’s favour for now, says William Davison, senior Ethiopia analyst at The International Crisis Group, who adds that the Tigray forces supply lines were becoming overstretched and vulnerable to attack as it pushed south.

“It seems the Tigray forces were not able to maintain adequate supply lines because of this intensified drone threat,” says Davison. “Combined with the impact of popular mobilisation, this likely prompted the Tigray command to reorganise its forces, halt their southward advance, and engage in withdrawals.”

‘Law enforcement operation’

Despite initially casting the conflict as a limited “law enforcement operation” designed to swiftly round up the TPLF leadership, who had allegedly orchestrated an attack on a federal army base, Abiy has repeatedly called on able bodied citizens to join the fight against the rebels.

It is not clear what role the prime minister is playing at the frontline, but his decision to go there prompted messages in support of the war effort from celebrities including Haile Gebrselassie, the renowned former long distance runner and two-time Olympic Gold medallist. His televised appearances at the Chifra and Gashena front, dressed in combat fatigues and dark sunglasses, may have also boosted morale.

Ethiopian distance-running great Haile Gebrselassie, center, attends an event in support the country’s military forces, in front of the city hall in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021. (AP Photo)

“The war is over,” he said in comments reported by state media last week. “The terrorist TPLF has been completely defeated, and it is a matter of short time to conclude the struggle successfully.”

However, the Tigray rebels insist their withdrawal is a strategic retreat, rather than the consequence of heavy battlefield defeats, with Tigray leader Debretsion Gebremichael claiming over the weekend: “Until the enemy is completely buried, the heavy fighting will continue, and we will eventually finish what we started.”

Prolonged war?

Davison says the federal government’s recent gains may lead to prolonged war, since the rebels will likely seek to regain the initiative rather than concede.

“It is hard to tell, but recent developments indicate this war will continue for at least a few more months,” he adds. “The key element is whether the Tigray forces are able to hold positions in Amhara and, if they can do that, whether they then regain the capacity to go back on the offensive.”

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