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Ethiopia at risk of another long-term war

Kjetil Tronvoll
By Kjetil Tronvoll

Professor of peace/conflict studies at Bjørknes University College and Director of Oslo Analytica. Political anthropologist, Africa analyst, conflict advisor

Posted on Wednesday, 3 February 2021 15:39

Refugees from the Tigray region of Ethiopia region arrive to register at the UNCHR center at Hamdayet, Sudan on Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020. (AP Photo/Marwan Ali)


The Ethiopian federal government’s “law enforcement operation” in Tigray aimed to capture the rebellious rulers in the northern regional state.


This article was first published in Ethiopia Insight. 

Thus far, however, the core leadership is at large, and the campaign has further exposed the country’s political fragility, pushing it into the abyss of a likely long-term war.

Reports of military recruitment and reinforcements sent to the northern front to battle the rebels are again heard in Ethiopia, reminiscent of the recurring news headlines of the 1970s and 80s. With the Tigray war now in its third month, the contours of how a drawn-out conflict may evolve are emerging.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in Ethiopia, other armed insurgencies are evolving. As conflict lines deepen, pressure increases on the state’s security forces and capacity. The surge in violence worsens the dire humanitarian situation across the country, weakens the economy, and diverts government attention, resources, and funding from economic development to warring.

The Tigray war will therefore impact politics, social cohesion, and development all over the country, just like the 1974-1991 Tigrayan struggle.

The military campaign on Tigray will be remembered as Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s “crossing the Rubicon” moment. No matter the outcome, or how long it will take to reach a victory or settlement, Ethiopia will likely never return to the status quo ante.

Steps to war

This war has been long in the making. For years, the cohesion within the ruling government coalition of the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has withered, accentuated by the widespread disturbances during 2015-2018 instigated by the Qeerroo (Oromo) followed by the Fano (Amhara) youth protest movements.

The youth protested against government abuse and maladministration, as well as TPLF dominance within the EPRDF. The Qeerroo demanded an ‘Oromo First’ policy, that the Oromo should exercise self-rule in Oromia and be the dominating force at the federal level, due to their demographic size.

The internal power-struggle culminated with the ascent of Abiy to the helm in April 2018. Representing the Oromo faction of the coalition with the support of the Amhara party, Abiy’s rise undercut the longstanding Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) dominance of the EPRDF.

In December 2019, initial tensions between the factions of Abiy’s EPRDF morphed to open hostility when he dissolved the coalition and crafted the Prosperity Party from its ashes.

The TPLF leadership declared the dissolving of the EPRDF as illegal and regrouped in Tigray, where they started to design their own development policies and political visions of a Tigray “de facto state” with a looser relationship with the federal government. Subsequent attempts by, inter alia, religious leaders to pacify the increasing tensions failed.

The decisive breach of relations between the federal government and Tigray’s rulers began with Addis Ababa’s decision to postpone the 2020 general elections due to the pandemic. TPLF, believing it was because Abiy feared losing at the polls, characterized the postponement beyond government term limits unconstitutional.

The TPLF decided to proceed with elections in Tigray, which the federal government condemned as unconstitutional. Addis warned of sanctions and possible intervention if the regional poll went ahead. Tigray did not budge, however.

During the 9 September elections, in my interviews with dozens of people from across the region, it was clear that for them, this was not an ‘ordinary election,’ but a referendum on their security and self-determination. In this respect, it was a plebiscite on TPLF’s role as the protector of Tigrayan people and the spirit of woyane (Tigrinya for ‘rebellion’)—the resistance against centralized rule and outsized outside influence on Tigray.

Even local opposition members threw their support to the TPLF. One told me: “As the situation is, even I will vote for the TPLF. They are the only one who can offer us protection against the threats from the federal government. The way PM Abiy Ahmed has handled the issue has paradoxically made him the best campaign manager TPLF could have imagined.”

In the aftermath of a TPLF landslide win, both governments denounced each other as unconstitutional, leading to the formal breach of political relations. From there, it was just a matter of time before the political conflict would explode into armed confrontation.

Three-fronted offensive

In mid-October, contacts in Amhara and Tigray observed deployment of federal and Amhara special forces on the southern and western borders of Tigray, apparently preparing to attack Tigray. The Amhara police commissioner later confirmed that federal and Amhara forces had planned the attack, but needed time to build sufficient military capacity to tackle the considerable Tigrayan security forces. Likewise, Sudanese military leader Abdel Fattah al-Burhan recently confirmed that Abiy notified Khartoum in advance of the attack, asking Sudan to help “prevent any infiltration to add from Sudan by the TPLF fighters.”

But Tigray would attack first. On the eve of 3 November, Tigray security forces, in cooperation with Tigrayan federal military officers, carried out what they called a “pre-emptive” strike against the Northern Command of the federal army in Tigray. Tigray’s leaders claimed it was a legitimate exercise of self-defence against advancing enemy forces. Abiy’s government, however, considered it treason.

Almost immediately, the ENDF and its allies launched a massive, three-pronged offensive against Tigray. Tens of thousands of federal troops, supplemented by Amhara militia and regional special forces, attacked Tigray’s west and south, while the Eritrean military swept in from the north. Meanwhile, the Ethiopian air force bombarded Tigrayan positions and cities.

On the western frontline of the area known as Welkait, Amhara forces, backed by ENDF mechanized brigades, made rapid advances across the difficult-to-defend flat, lowland terrain. TPLF military sources, as well as civilians and staff in Amhara region hospitals treating injured troops, told me that the attackers used an overwhelming “human wave” tactic, where hundreds of troops rushed head-on towards entrenched TDF positions, forcing Tigrayan forces to retreat to higher elevations.

The fighting on the southern frontline of Raya proved to be a tougher challenge for the ENDF, as the escarpment provided better terrain for defensive positions. After assuming control of the lowlands, federal forces were soon bogged down in intense fighting when trying to advance into the Tigrayan highlands, leading to more mass fatalities.

The third and perhaps most decisive front was to the north. Eritrea supported the Ethiopian offensive from day one by assisting the federal troops who fled the Tigrayan assault on the Northern Command, and by shelling the city of Humera on the western front. Soon, however, Asmara turned its military complex against its longtime foes.

Eritrean troops, together with Northern Command units, battled the TDF at several points along the Eritrea-Tigray border. In the second week of November, Eritreans living in the border city of Senafe told me Eritrean forces were fighting TDF. Increasing evidence from international sources confirmed the Eritrean involvement, although Abiy has repeatedly denied this. Yet even his own military leadership later confirmed Eritrean participation.

READ MORE Eritrea’s involvement in Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict ‘is a tragic but explainable option’

Tigray’s leaders claimed Eritreans also lost countless soldiers, but the onslaught and heavy shelling of cities forced Tigrayan forces to retreat from the urban areas along the main road towards Mekelle and mountainous central Tigray.

Initially, Abiy believed the operation would be completed in a short time with the arrest of the top leadership. Still, it took three weeks of intense fighting, with likely thousands, if not tens of thousands, of fatalities, before the allied forces reached the outskirts of Mekelle, Tigray’s capital.

In order to spare its destruction and heavy civilian losses, Tigray’s leadership left the city for the mountains together with their troops and other elites, allowing the ENDF to enter on 28 November when Abiy declared “mission accomplished.”

Mission far from accomplished

At that point, Abiy would make the world believe that everything was back to normal. An ‘interim government of Tigray’ of handpicked representatives was established and Abiy asserted ludicrously that not a single civilian died in the capture of Tigray’s cities. The reality could not be more different: there have been mass atrocities against civilians and the war continues.

Abiy has yet to achieve one of the publicly stated goals of the offensive: neutralizing the TPLF leadership to bring the whole Tigray region back under Addis Ababa’s sway. To be sure, Abiy has scored significant victories: his forces have captured prominent TPLF leaders, including Sebhat Nega, Abraham Tekeste and others, and killed founding members Seyoum Mesfin and Abay Tsehaye.

But most of the executive political and military leadership, including chairperson Debretsion Gebremichael, spokesperson Getachew Reda and the top military leaders, such as Tadesse Wereda and Tsadkan Gebretensae, are still at large. In a stark indicator of the ongoing struggle for territorial control and popular support, federal authorities have offered over a quarter of a million dollars for any information which could lead to their capture.

READ MORE Is Ethiopia coming together or falling apart?

Above all, the violence has not stopped. The TDF appears to be standing their ground in central Tigray, with TPLF-aligned media reporting targeted attacks on the enemy. There are recent reports of clashes around Mekelle, particularly along its supply routes, against Eritrean forces in the northern part of the region, as well as on the western front around Dansha. The UN said that by 19 January, “active hostilities” continued across almost all of the region.

So, it seems Tigray’s leaders preparing for a long-term campaign. In early January, the ‘Tigray Regional Government” vowed that its “struggle will continue until the enemies of people of Tigray are completely made to leave Tigray.”

While a worsening humanitarian situation and blocked supply routes may inhibit an effective resistance, the TPLF may instead still enjoy the upper hand in terms of the hearts and minds of Tigray’s population. There have been many recent reports of youth leaving urban areas to join the resistance, particularly after atrocities have been committed.

“Tigray today is a living hell”

Information about the widespread assault, rape, and killings of civilians all over Tigray are mounting from media and social media stories, human rights researchers, interviews with local people and refugees, and satellite image analysis.

An Ethiopian contact with years of experience as a human-rights monitor across Africa recently told me after escaping Mekelle: “I have seen the devastating effects of war and atrocities in many countries, but never had I thought this would happen to us. Tigray today is a living hell.”

READ MORE Can Ethiopia heal after the TPLF killings? ‘We cannot bury everyone’ says ENDF

Like many, he requested anonymity. Such is the level of fear in Abiy’s Ethiopia. Several hundred people were brutally killed in Maikadra around 9 November during the offensive in western Tigray. The government-appointed Ethiopian Human Rights Commission blamed it on Tigrayan forces, but witness accounts have been mixed. Those who fled Maikadra to Sudan said Amhara forces were culpable. As with the entire conflict, an independent investigation is needed.

While it appears to have been a horrific example of tit-for-tat ethnic killing, the Maikadra incident was used to rally support for revenge by Amhara nationalists and reinforced Amhara support for the war.

There is little doubt that widespread and systematic war crimes and crimes against humanity are being perpetrated against the civilian population. Particularly gruesome atrocities are attributed to Eritrean forces and the Amhara militia, as in witness testimonies from refugees who tell of killings, rape, and torture.

Both the UN special advisors on the ‘Prevention of Genocide’ and the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ warned about the escalating ethnic tensions and profiling in the country. The EU has done the same several times.

In November, Genocide Watch, a reputed international NGO, classified the situation as the “extermination phase” in the stages of genocide. “Extermination” is followed only by “denial,” which seems to correspond with the current position of the Ethiopian government which rejects any allegations of wrongdoing in Tigray. An independent tribunal will be needed to determine whether genocide occurred.

The war has also contributed to the worst humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia since the biblical 1984 famine. Even the interim administration admits that people are dying of starvation. In a humanitarian assistance meeting on 8 January between UN agencies, international NGOs and regional and federal authorities, the PP-appointed administrator of the Central Zone of Tigray stated: “if urgent emergency assistance is not mobilized, hundreds of thousands might starve to death.”

In a January report, the interim government estimated the conflict has displaced 2.2 million people, half from western Tigray. They may now mostly be in TPLF-controlled central areas. Close to 60,000 more Tigrayans have fled to neighbouring Sudan as refugees.  That number may have been considerably higher, but the Ethiopian and Eritrean forces blocked the border, preventing refugees to cross to safety.

READ MORE Egypt and Ethiopia blame Sudan for latest impasse in GERD talks

The regional healthcare system has been destroyed. Hospital, clinics, ambulances have been looted. Basic services across Tigray are extremely precarious. The interim government estimates that about 4.5 million Tigrayans, out of a population of about six million, will depend on humanitarian assistance in 2021.

Although the Ethiopian government agreed with the UN in early December to allow “unimpeded humanitarian access” to Tigray, this has not happened, which led to the EU aid cut. The top EU diplomat Josef Borrell also cited “reports of ethnic-targeted violence, killings, massive looting, rapes, forceful returns of refugees and possible war crimes.”

While the EU is preparing to dispatch the Finnish foreign minister to push for unfettered humanitarian access to Tigray, it appears so far that Addis Ababa is not willing to budge. This may be out of fear that free access will expose the political resistance against the intervention, the atrocities committed against civilians, and the full involvement of Eritrea.

Regional conflagration

The international dimensions of the conflict were present from day one with Eritrea’s involvement. The Eritrean army allegedly controls and administers several Tigrayan towns in the northern part of the region, with fresh reinforcements reportedly deployed earlier this month.

It seems that the Eritrean army’s involvement was part of a plan hatched by Abiy with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, and is thus not considered a belligerent force to Ethiopia.

The Ethiopian federal government has not even acknowledged that there are any Eritrean forces on Ethiopian soil. However, the head of ENDF’s Northern Command, Major-General Belay Seyoum, described the Eritrean deployment as “an unwanted foreign force [which] entered into our territory….by itself.”

READ MORE Ethiopia: Understanding Oromia’s mayhem after Hachalu’s murder

Representatives of the interim government of Tigray also claim that the Eritrean forces were not invited to take part in the war and are asked to pull out.

It thus rests with the UN Security Council to determine whether Eritrea is acting outside of international law in Tigray. But the internationalization of the war is not limited to Eritrea. It is still unfolding.

Belligerent rhetoric between Sudan and Ethiopia increases nearly daily, threatening to erupt into yet another war. The row stems in part from the territorial dispute between Sudan and Ethiopia in the al-Fashga triangle. Continued pushing by Amhara nationalists claiming territorial ownership of the triangle, may compel Khartoum to take a more active stand on the Tigray war, as it seeks to preoccupy ENDF.

The TPLF has allies in Kassala in Eastern Sudan, as well as old friends in Khartoum, who may find it opportune to help them with supply routes in order to hit back on Addis Ababa’s stand on al-Fashqa. (It would also be a throwback to Sudan’s TPLF-friendly policies in the 80s and 90s when the Derg controlled Ethiopia.)

The chilly reception given to Sudanese Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok during a recent visit to Addis Ababa, as well as a statement by al-Burhan, indicate that any goodwill gathered by Abiy in the early phase of his tenure is now spent political capital. The other major regional player is Egypt, which has long sought to pressure Addis Ababa over the use of Nile waters.

The Arab nation already backs Sudan against Ethiopia on the Nile issue. While Cairo had long used Asmara as a proxy to pressure Addis, now that Isaias and Abiy are in cahoots, Egypt may shift its support to the TPLF to divert Ethiopia’s attention from finishing the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. The TPLF leadership may look differently at the GERD as a consequence of the war, and the prospects of Tigray possibly seeking secession from Ethiopia.

History aside, Sudanese and Egyptian support for the TPLF would be a game-changer. Such foreign backing could secure the Tigrayan forces with a steady source of supplies, safe havens for exiled leaders, and transit points for travel in and out of TDF-controlled areas. This explains the current TDF offensive on the western fronts in Tigray, as informed by interlocutors close to TDF, in order for the Tigrayan forces to create a corridor to the Sudanese border.

Elsewhere, armed groups in South Sudan and Somalia – both mired in conflicts of their own – may also see opportunities in Ethiopia’s quagmire. The Somali federal government has recently been questioned about the possible involvement of 3,000 Somali troops in the war on Tigray, of which 2,800 reportedly have been killed. Both Somalia and Ethiopia reject such claims, however.

Amid this worrying situation, Abiy has rejected all international offers to mediate the conflict. While Tigray’s leaders welcomed such initiatives, Abiy has made it clear to all envoys that he will not negotiate with the so-called “junta.”

IGAD and the AU, the two multilateral organizations with the authority to mitigate conflict in the region, seem paralyzed. Ethiopia and Abiy dominate IGAD, while the AU – headquartered in Addis Ababa – has long been under the sway of the Ethiopian authorities.

Diplomatic denials

So far it seems only the EU is willing and capable of taking a principled stand on the crisis, issuing repeatedly stern statements and, as noted, suspending 88 million Euros of budget support. The UN system has, with some few exceptions, played a pusillanimous role.

Most of their in-country agencies offices are not willing or able to influence the dire political and humanitarian situation in Tigray. At the same time, UN sources tell me that Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, weak at best and a craven Abiy apologist at worst, tries to keep the emergency at arm’s length.

Many of the bilateral diplomatic missions to Ethiopia have likewise so far turned a blind eye to the crisis and kept quiet, or issued general statements of concern for the humanitarian situation without criticizing the Ethiopian government for blocking relief.

Over three decades of working in the Horn, I have seldom seen so much diplomatic positioning to claim “plausible deniability” regarding apparent atrocities. One wild card in the international scene is a re-energized US.

READ MORE The war in Tigray: Abiy, Isaias, and the Amhara elite

After stumbling in its regional diplomacy over the GERD negotiations, Washington has played only a minor role in the international discourse on the conflict. The little it did say was in support of Abiy. Washington stood with the Prime Minister in the initial phase of the military campaign.

Ambassador Tibor Nagy, Trump’s top diplomat to Africa, blamed the TPLF for seeking to internationalize the conflict by launching rockets at Asmara – even praising Eritrea’s regime for its “restraint” as it marauded across northern Tigray.

However, the Biden administration is expected to change course. Incoming Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed concern about the level of violence and lack of humanitarian access to Tigray. Blinken may even appoint a special envoy to the region to push to pacify the conflict and secure political accountability. A more assertive US engagement may enable the UN Security Council, which so far has been quiescent, to take an active stand.

Into the Abyss again

In December 2019, Abiy declared: “War is the epitome of hell for all involved. I know because I have been there and back.” He was in Oslo at the time, delivering his Nobel Peace Prize lecture, ironically titled ‘Forging a Durable Peace in the Horn of Africa.’ Yet Ethiopia is once again sliding into the abyss of war – under the Nobel laureate’s watch.

What can be predicted about the future? Will we see the end of the war with the establishment of an interim government in Tigray or the beginning of a protracted phase of the conflict?

So far, the Abiy-appointed interim administration is a shell: unable to provide basic services, much less to protect the current population from widespread atrocities and an unfolding humanitarian disaster.

READ MORE Abiy Ahmed’s aim to ‘Pentecostalize Ethiopian politics’

It doesn’t even control much of Tigray’s territory. Besides the TPLF-held areas, Eritrean forces watch over the region’s north, while Amhara elements are annexing parts of western Tigray to form two new administrative zones.

Even if the interim government were more empowered, it is unlikely to gain much support because the Prosperity Party, which dominates the new administration, offers little salvation to Tigray’s people.

The ruling party has no organic constituency in Tigray, and prior to the ENDF capture of Mekelle, had no track record in the region, nor local representation. Its few Tigrayan members before the war all lived in Addis Ababa. Although new members have joined Tigray PP after the appointment of the interim government, it is challenging to identify a genuine Tigray PP constituency – although the banning of TPLF and likely prohibition of other Tigrayan nationalist parties will pave the way for PP gains in the region, should an election occur later this year.

Instead, the Tigrayans I’ve spoken to, who include TPLF members, supporters of Tigrayan opposition parties, and others, generally perceive the PP to be arguing for a re-centralization of power to Addis Ababa at the cost of regional autonomy.

Yet the fiercely independent people of Tigray are strong defenders of the right to self-determination. They fear the re-imposition of a strained singular ‘Ethiopian identity,’ which would dilute the cultural and ethno-political rights enshrined in the constitution for themselves and others.

The majority of the Tigray population is thus likely to perceive the interim government as a Quisling regime, and consequently, it is likely that the TPLF will have a solid support base in the region to wage a long-term insurgency. This is also what the TPLF is now communicating to its constituency – to prepare the people once again for the hardships and sacrifices of war.

In the aftermath of the killings of founding members in mid-January, the “National Government of Tigray” issued a statement that invoked atrocities committed against Tigrayan people, and exhorted the region’s youth to “pursue the invading enemy…inflict vengeance upon them, and show that Tigray remains to be the cemetery of invaders.”

READ MORE Residual anger and power politics boil over into conflict in Ethiopia

Such fiery words should not merely be interpreted as the propaganda of rebels on the run. After the news about the arrests and killings were known, a Tigrayan scholar long critical of TPLF, explained to me: “This may in short-term affect the morale of the Tigrayan people, but ultimately it will just add on the anger and resolve to stand together and fight. Anyone who has been in doubt will now be certain about the intentions of the Abiy regime.”

With this in mind, Abiy’s battlefield victories may prove pyrrhic. The history of the region, people’s resolve, and the political context of the country, all suggest that the Tigrayans once again will take up arms to defend their security and self-determination. The conflict is not perceived as a law-enforcement operation against TPLF; it is understood and experienced as a war of annihilation against Tigray. There is thus no other option, many believe, than to fight – ‘woyane’.

Wither Ethiopia

If the conflict in Tigray continues for years, the only certain thing is that a different Ethiopia will emerge. The Tigray population, of which the absolute majority before the war identified as Ethiopians and wanted to remain under the federation, today have lost hope of living in peace with Ethiopia.

One veteran fighter from the 17-year war, who became a TPLF dissenter and served for almost three decades as a federal civil servant, told me: “We have crossed the point of no return. We are now in a situation where we either are exterminated, or we fight. It has increased our determination and awakened us that we will never continue to be part of this empire.”

It seems that the majority of Tigrayans have given up hope of living in peace with the rest of Ethiopia, and they feel betrayed that few other Ethiopians have shown any solidarity or sympathy with the civilian victims of the massive atrocities taking place. Hence, many see secession to create an independent Tigray as solace for their collective grievances.

It may not be too late, however, to reach a negotiated settlement that maintains Ethiopia’s territorial integrity. That would most likely involve a reconfiguration of the federation into a so-called ‘loose federation’ or a confederate mode. This solution may also be supported by the Oromo fronts and other multinational federalist parties in the country. But, first, the fighting must stop.

READ MORE Ethiopia ends 2020 with a bang

I fear that this will only happen when the adversaries are sufficiently weakened on the battlefield, with the tragic loss of lives that entails. The last time, it took 17 years and hundreds of thousands killed before negotiations started a month prior to the collapse of the Derg military junta.

Let’s hope that Abiy may learn from the country’s war-torn history to understand that this political dispute cannot be solved by arms, and open up for negotiations before it is too late.