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Ethiopia’s conflict intensifies: ‘This is not a war in Tigray any more’

Days after Ethiopia’s army began a “law enforcement” operation in the northern region of Tigray, Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s prime minister, tried to allay fears that hostilities with local forces could drag on or morph into a full-blown civil war.

“Concerns that Ethiopia will descend into chaos are unfounded,” he said last November, telling a shocked international community — which in 2019 celebrated him as a peacemaker worthy of the Nobel Prize — that he expected the exercise to “wrap up soon”.

A year on, and war is still raging. Worse, from Abiy’s perspective, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and its allies are advancing towards the capital, Addis Ababa. Far from winning the war easily, as he predicted, Abiy is staring at the possibility of defeat and even loss of power. Jeffrey Feltman, the US special envoy to the Horn of Africa, arrived in Addis Ababa on Thursday for what looked like a last-ditch attempt to stop the war spiralling further out of control.

The TPLF, which recaptured Mekelle, the Tigrayan capital, last June and then started moving south towards Addis Ababa may now calculate that nothing short of total victory will ensure its survival.

The federal government has blockaded Tigray and stands accused of hampering the delivery of food aid supplies, which it denies. It has designated the TPLF, which dominated power for 27 years until 2018, as a terrorist organisation that must be wiped out.

“If you want to save the Tigrayans you have to topple the government,” said a TPLF official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “This is not a war in Tigray anymore, it is an all-Ethiopia war now.” 

Nor is the TPLF fighting alone. A group of nine opposition rebel groups, including the Oromo Liberation Army from the country’s most populous state, as well as from Afar, Gambella and Somali regions, on Friday formed a “United Front”, a political alliance — with armed units on the ground — aimed at establishing a transitional government.

Analysts say that could simply set off a new phase of the war, with the 21m people from Amhara unlikely to accept a return of hated TPLF rule. Some of the fiercest fighting in the war has taken place between Amhara and Tigrayan forces over disputed land.

Tigrayan fighters have fought not just federal troops but also an assortment of other forces, including from Eritrea and Amhara. Leaders said late on Wednesday that their forces had reached the town of Kemise in the Amhara region, 300km north-east of the capital, after it had joined forces with the OLA — an outlawed splinter group of the Oromo Liberation Front.

A day earlier, they said they had captured the strategic towns of Dessie and Kombolcha, also in Amhara, with the OLA saying it could depose Abiy in months, even weeks. “There’s an assumption they could launch an assault on the capital. If that happens it would have devastating consequences,” said Comfort Ero, Africa director at Crisis Group.

The fighting is the culmination of a feud between the TPLF and Abiy who took office in 2018 and purged the government, army and security services of many Tigrayans. Relations worsened after the TPLF, which Abiy accused of fomenting terrorist attacks, defied the central government by holding regional elections in September 2020. Tensions escalated into armed conflict last November when Abiy said he was left with no choice after the TPLF attacked the federal military base of the Northern Command.

Since then, thousands of people have died in the conflict, according to foreign diplomats in Addis Ababa. Hundreds of thousands face famine-like conditions and millions have been displaced in brutal fighting in which there have been widespread reports of civilian massacres, sexual violence and indiscriminate shelling.

Ethiopia: unrest in Amhara and Tigray, from Oct 16 2021

“Nobody is winning this reckless war which is engulfing increasing parts of the country. Every day more people are suffering and dying,” said Michelle Bachelet, the UN human rights chief, this week, after releasing a disputed report that blames all parties for committing atrocities. In a media briefing, she reserved most criticism for Ethiopian and Eritrean forces. Abiy said the report cleared his government of deliberately blockading food as a weapon of war, though some relief agencies have accused him of precisely that.

In a speech on Wednesday at the military’s headquarters in Addis Ababa, Abiy said he would fight on. On Thursday evening, the federal government issued a statement saying that “Ethiopians from all corners of the country are heading to the war front,” adding that the “TPLF and its puppets are being encircled by our forces”.

One problem, say analysts, is that Abiy has consistently underestimated the fighting power of the Tigrayans, who have a long history of fighting against governments in Addis Ababa. They did so in the 1940s against Emperor Haile Selassie in the so-called Woyane rebellion. Forty years on, they led a successful guerrilla war against the Marxist Derg regime, coming to power in 1991 after marching into the capital.

The parallels are not exact. Thirty years ago, it was the Tigrayans fighting alongside the Eritreans. This time Eritrea, now an independent country, is fighting with the Ethiopian government.

Back then, the Tigrayans were victorious against a hated Derg regime. This time, the TPLF is itself unpopular with many Ethiopians after running the country for so long. As recently as June, Abiy cruised to victory in a general election, although it was not held in Tigray and other parts of the country.

Abiy came to power promising to heal the ethnic wounds that he said had festered under TPLF rule. Instead, tensions, suppressed by the previous regime, have risen violently to the surface. “We have gone from a very confident prime minister to one asking the population to rise up and take arms,” said Crisis Group’s Ero. “This is a very dangerous turn.” 

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