For several days now, Ethiopian government forces have been fighting against a powerful regional government in the country’s north and hundreds are reported to have died.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, a Nobel Peace laureate, ordered the government offensive after accusing the rival Tigray People’s Liberation Front of launching an attack against Ethiopia’s military two weeks ago that resulted into the killing of soldiers and stealing artillery and military equipment..
Long-simmering tensions between Ethiopia’s federal government and defiant authorities in its northern Tigray region erupted into military confrontation on Nov. 4 that has now spilled into the wider Horn of Africa region after Tigrayan state militias fired rockets at targets in the capital of neighboring Eritrea over the weekend.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced a military offensive after accusing Tigrayan forces of attacking and seizing a military base in the regional capital, Mekelle – a charge they deny.
September’s election in Tigray, which the federal government had postponed nationwide because of coronavirus, is widely considered to be the cause of the recent rapid deterioration.
But essentially, it’s a power struggle that goes back to 2018, when a popular uprising brought Abiy to power.
The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which was the dominant political party in Ethiopia for decades, has been feuding with Mr Abiy’s government since shortly after he came to power in 2018.
Mr Abiy ushered in democratic reforms and negotiated an end to what had become a cold war with neighboring Eritrea. But he also dismantled Ethiopia’s ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, which had run the country for almost 30 years.
The EPRDF, which appointed Abiy, was a coalition of ethnically based political parties. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front dominated the coalition and had amassed a lot of power as an ethnic minority. Tigrayans make up about 6% of Ethiopia’s population.
When Abiy sidelined them, TPLF leaders retreated to their home region in northern Ethiopia. Since then, Abiy has accused them of trying to destabilize the country.
Elected as a “reformist leader”, the prime minister accused officials in previous governments of corruption and human rights abuses, and removed key TPLF figures from the central government.
This included the former intelligence chief and senior TPLF official, Getachew Asefa, who evaded arrest and fled to Tigray, where he remains as a fugitive.
Mr Abiy’s decision last year to merge the ethnically based parties that formed the governing EPRDF coalition and set up the Prosperity Party (PP) added fuel to the tensions. The TPLF opposed the decision, saying it would divide the country, and refused to join the PP.
Earlier this year, the rift grew even wider after the federal government postponed nationwide elections.
Tigray’s decision to hold its own vote in September was an unprecedented act of defiance against the federal government. The federal parliament termed the process “illegal”.
Since then, both governments have designated each other as “illegitimate and unconstitutional”.
The TPLF had previously made veiled threats of secession, citing an article in the federal constitution which allows the “unconditional right to self-determination, including the right to secession”.
“We will never back down for anyone who is intending to suppress our hard-won right to self-determination and self-rule,” the region’s leader, Debretsion Gebremichael said in August.
There is serious concern that the TPLF could be laying the groundwork for the creation of a breakaway state, with a parliament and government taking office without the blessing of the federal government.
The TPLF maintains that it is committed to keeping the region within Ethiopia, but it will defend “self-rule” and oppose what it calls Mr Abiy’s attempt build a strong “unitary” state.
Early in October, the federal government decided to cut ties with the Tigray region and the upper house of parliament voted to suspend budget aid to Tigray.
Why was the TPLF so significant?
Since the overthrow of Marxist leader Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991 and up until 2018, the TPLF was the main partner in the governing coalition, as well as running Tigray itself.
As a guerrilla army, the TPLF had played a pivotal role in Mengistu’s demise and went on to dominate not just the country’s politics but the economy as well.
Its disagreement with Mr Abiy represents a deep fracture in the very core of power in the country.
Most of the Tigray’s regional leaders, including Mr Debretsion, had served in the central government for long periods of time.
Mr Debretsion, who is a veteran fighter, was at one time the deputy prime minister. His comrades and advisers also held key positions in the country until Mr Abiy came to power.
What does the TPLF want?
The Tigray’s administration sees Mr Abiy’s reforms as an attempt to build a unitary system of government destroying the current federal arrangement.
It also resents what it calls the prime minister’s “unprincipled” friendship with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki.
Mr Abiy won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for his efforts to bring peace with long-standing foe Eritrea. But the TPLF feels that Tigray’s interests have been overlooked and it wants to have more say over future relations with Ethiopia’s neighbour.
On his part, the prime minister believes the TPLF officials are undermining his authority.
Is Eritrea involved in the Tigray conflict?
There is a long-standing rift between the TPLF and the government in Eritrea, which shares a long border with the Tigray region.
The 1998-2000 Ethiopia-Eritrea war began over a dispute about territory along that border, particularly the area around the town of Badme.
The status of Badme remains unresolved but Eritrea wants Ethiopia to abide by a UN-backed border commission ruling to hand over the town.
But this cannot be achieved without the cooperation of the government in Tigray, as it administers the area.
Speaking about the attack on the federal army base, Mr Abiy’s office has accused the TPLF of dressing its soldiers in uniforms resembling those of the army of neighbouring Eritrea to “implicate the Eritrean government in false claims of aggression against the people of Tigray”.
Tigray’s leader, Mr Debretsion, has accused Eritrean forces of joining the fight alongside Ethiopian forces against Tigray. Ethiopia and Eritrea have both denied this.
How serious is the war?
The internet and phone lines have been shut off in the conflict zone, so it has been a hard story to report. But things look grim. The Ethiopian military has said its forces have killed some 550 fighters.
Amnesty International said scores — likely hundreds — of apparent civilians were killed in a town at the western edge of the conflict. Amnesty said it hasn’t been able to confirm who was responsible for the killings, that but witnesses told the group that TPLF-affiliated militias attacked with machetes, axes and knives. NPR has been unable to reach TPLF officials for comment.
The government is also bombing targets across the Tigray region and the United Nations’ refugee agency says that some 7,000 Ethiopians fleeing the fighting have crossed the border into Sudan. The U.N. says that even before this conflict started, there were already about 96,000 Eritrean refugees and another 100,000 people who had been internally displaced in this part of Ethiopia.
“Roads are blocked and electricity, phone and internet are down, making communication nearly impossible,” the agency said in its statement. “There is a shortage of fuel, and banking services have halted resulting in a lack of cash.”
The Tigray regional leader has said his forces are ready to fight to defend the region, which would be “a burial place for the reactionaries”, calling on Tigrayans to understand the situation and make all the necessary preparations. The TPLF has also issued a bond to raise money for its war effort.
“We have prepared our army, our militia and our special force. Our preparation is aimed at averting war, but if we are to fight, we are ready to win,” Mr Debretsion said.
In justifying the military confrontation, Mr Abiy’s office has accused the TPLF of “continued provocation and incitement of violence” and said “the last red line had been crossed”.
He has issued arrest warrants foe the TPLF leaders, appointed a new leader for the region and predicts that the war will soon be over but the TPLF forces are highly trained and experienced so some fear the conflict could drag on.
There is also a concern that the conflict in Tigray, which accounts for about 6% of Ethiopia’s population of over 100 million people, could exacerbate tensions in the rest of this ethnically divided country.
An Ethiopian delegation led by the deputy Prime Minister, Demeke Mekonnen Hassen has met with Uganda’s President, Yoweri Museveni find solutions to the Tigray crisis.
“Our discussion focused on the peace and security issues affecting Ethiopia currently. Being one of the oldest countries that was not colonised in Africa, Ethiopia is the pride of the continent. Africa’s problem is that we never discuss ideology, focusing so much on diplomacy. I totally disagree with politics that focus on ethnic federalism. We must emphasise the issue of oneness and common interests because it is the only way we can prosper,” Mr Museveni posted on his social media platforms.
But a statement from the Emergency Task Force on Tigray, a team put together by the Ethiopian government to manage the crackdown on the TPLF, said the reports were “inaccurate and not substantiated”.
Redwan Hussein, the spokesperson for the task force, said Addis Ababa will continue with the crackdown on errant TPLF members to ensure they face the law.
Claims of mediation emerged on Sunday after some Ugandan officials told AFP news agency that President Museveni had planned to host the two sides for a possible dialogue.
In fact, TPLF President Debretsion Gebremichael also indicated on Monday that he was not aware of an invitation to dialogue in Kampala, although the TPLF itself has not said if it will reject such an offer.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s office had earlier on Monday dismissed claims from Ugandan officials that President Museveni would meet with representatives of both sides in an effort to facilitate talks.
However, Ugandan officials said over the weekend that the mediation meetings would begin Monday in Uganda and would involve Demeke Mekonnen, Ethiopia’s deputy prime minister and foreign minister.
The Ethiopian government has repeatedly said it will not negotiate with TPLF “criminals”, whom it accuses of atrocities on civilians, corruption and other crimes including treason.
Nigeria’s ex-president Olusegun Obasanjo on Monday jetted to Ethiopia to mediate in the conflict between the government and the northern Tigray region.
UJA House, Bombo Rd,
Keti Falawo Zone, Kawempe Division
Kampala – Uganda