Tigray crisis in Ethiopia: Federal government marches towards war with TPLF

By Samuel Getachew
Posted on Wednesday, 4 November 2020 18:37, updated on Thursday, 5 November 2020 15:26

Ethiopia sends army into opposition Tigray region
A still image taken from a video shows Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed addressing the nation in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia November 4, 2020. Ethiopia Broadcasting Coporation/Handout/Reuters TV via REUTERS

Ethiopia's Council of Minister has declared six months of state of emergency in Tigray after war broke out between the forces of the federal and regional governments.

This comes just hours after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered the military to take action against the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF), which he accused of attacking the military base of the national army.

In a statement released earlier on Wednesday by the Prime Minister’s Office, it said the situation with the TPLF has reached a level where it cannot be prevented and controlled through the regular law enforcement mechanisms.

“The army is now controlling some areas and working to enforce rule of law after the attack carried out against it by forces of TPLF,” says Redwan Hussein, spokesperson for the task force established to lead the operation.

For their part, the Tigray authorities have banned flights from its airspace, reports Reuters.

Immediate cause for war

The regional governments of Oromia and Amhara regions, as well as members from the federal parliament, claim that the TPLF played a big role in the massacre over the weekend of 54 people in the western part of Ethiopia by giving arms supplies to members of the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA).

READ MORE Ethiopia: Defining Amhara nationalism for a better country

“TPLF has been arming the Oromo Liberation Front-Shene group and supporting its act of violence against civilians,” says Shemelis Abdisa, President of Oromia, the largest among the ten autonomous regions of Ethiopia. The deadly violence  included the execution-style death of dozens of people belonging to the Amhara group in the Oromia region. Amnesty International has called it a “senseless attack”.

This accusation was echoed by members of parliament in a heated session held on Tuesday.

Then Wednesday morning, the military attack was launched against the forces of the National Army in Tigray and areas in the neighbouring region of Amhara, according to the Ethiopian government.

READ MORE Ethiopia: PM Abiy orders military attack against the TPLF

“TPLF attempted to rob artillery and military equipment from the Northern Command Post that has been stationed in the Tigray region for more than two decades in services and protection of the people of Tigray from any threats, said Prime Minister Abiy, in a televised address early Wednesday morning, in which he referred to them as “traitors”.

What we don’t want is a war, but we might be forced to do so. We defend ourselves if there are people who want to violate our rights – Debretsion Gebremichael, President of Tigray region

Earlier this week, Debretsion Gebremichael, the President of the Tigray region had called for a dialogue and accused the federal government of working with the Eritrean government to destabilise the region. He warned that the federal army was preparing to wage war against the region.

“What we don’t want is a war, but we might be forced to do so. We defend ourselves if there are people who want to violate our rights. We will use whatever necessary means to this end,” he said.

International community

Mausi Segun, the Africa director at Human Rights Watch is calling for the Federal government to restore the communication network within the Tigray region.

“Ethiopians throughout the country have faced daily violence and abuses over the last year. There is no quick fix to Ethiopia’s unfolding crisis, and federal and regional authorities should respond to the unraveling security situation in a manner that protects the rights of all Ethiopians. Their international partners – largely silent until now – should send this message”, says Segun.

“Disrupting the communications network in the Tigray region also restricts critical reporting on the impact of events on the civilian population and people’s access to information affecting their health and safety. It also undermines their right to question the government’s account of events. Authorities should immediately restore access”.

READ MORE Ethiopia: Federal solidarity is needed to solve Tigray dispute

But, Kjetil Tronvoll, a professor of Peace and conflict studies at the Bjorknes University College in Norway and a recent observer of the recent Tigray state election, says the conflict hard to solve.

Residents cast their votes in a local election in the regional capital Mekelle, in the Tigray region of Ethiopia Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020. (AP Photo)

“For TPLF, and the majority of the Tigrayan people, this is an existential issue; something they have fought and sacrificed for during 17 years of struggle. The new policies of PP [ruling Prosperity Party] seem to challenge this understanding of what Ethiopia ‘should be’”, he tells The Africa Report.

“Hence, this is not a conflict over technicalities but on the conceptualisation to Ethiopia as such and which consequently makes it very hard, if not impossible to solve on the negotiation table”.

The US Embassy, in a statement released Wednesday afternoon called for calm, adding: “The US Embassy urges an immediate de-escalation of the current situation in Tigray and a measured response by both sides. We strongly encourage all parties to prioritise civilians’ safety and security”.

When did things go sour?

TPLF, one of the four coalitions of Ethiopia People Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), has been dominating Ethiopia’s politics for almost 27 years. Its dominance ended after Prime Minister Abiy assumed power two and half years ago following public unrest that led to the resignation of his predecessor, Hailemariam Desalegn.

READ MORE Abiy Ahmed and the struggle to keep Ethiopia together

Last year, Abiy disbanded the EPRDF and established the Prosperity Party, of which TPLF refused to take part. Since then, the relationship between the federal government and ruling party of Tigray has been walking a tightrope, while the two point fingers at each other.

The regional governments of Oromia and Amhara, the two dominant ethnic groups in Ethiopia, claim that the TPLF provides military supplies to rebel groups which have been attacking civilians in their respective region.

The already fragile situation was further weakened after the Tigray government conducted an election that ended with an overwhelming support for the TPLF. Ethiopia’s House of Federation had called the election “null and void” and threatened to cut its budget subsidy to the regional government in Tigray, which in turn responded by declaring the federal government illegitimate.

The International Crisis Group, in its latest briefing published five days ago, had called on all the parties to embrace comprehensive dialogue. “To kickstart such a process, the federal government should suspend the budgetary measures for now and Tigray should water down its preconditions for talks, particularly that all jailed leaders must participate and a transitional government assume power,” it recommended.

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