The armed clashes that broke out on Wednesday November 4 between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and Federal Government forces in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia have spread and intensified. Ethiopia’s prime minister remains confident that the military operation (which he insists on calling a ‘law enforcement operation’) will be successfully concluded in short order and has rebuffed all suggestions for negotiations and offers of international mediation. However, the TPLF could prove to be a very formidable opponent on the battlefield, and there is the additional risk that the conflict could spread to other parts of the country and perhaps even draw in other countries in the region.
The background of the latest armed clashes in the north of Ethiopia is the multiple political and social crises that have plagued the ethnically-based federal system created in 1994, mostly generated by persistent ethnic rivalries and clashes and the incessant disputes between regionally-based elites (particularly from the Tigray, Amhara and Oromo regions) for control over the Federal Government, institutions and finances.
The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which controls the Regional State of Tigray, has been in a bitter conflict with the central government for the last two years. The deepening of this dispute over the last few months is the immediate cause of the outbreak of civil war in the country, and the leadership of Tigray has declared that it is ready for a protracted military confrontation with the central government if necessary.
The outbreak of armed conflict between the TPLF and the Federal Government threatens to tear the country apart, and poses a grave threat to regional security – with the collapse of the constitutional arrangements that sought to resolve ethnic and political rivalries and disputes pacifically, Ethiopia has been experiencing the politicization of ethnicity with increasingly deadly consequences, fuelling the growth of mass protests, armed insurgency, massacres, ‘ethnic cleansing’, acts of terrorism and separatist sentiments.
Among these, in the Regional State of Oromo, 167 people died in July of this year during the suppression of mass protests and riots and over 4 thousand people were arrested, including prominent opposition politician and media mogul Javar Mohammed. There is the additional risk that Eritrea may become involved in the civil war that has broken out in the north of Ethiopia, and the conflict also greatly increases the ever-present potential for explosive conflict in the south between the Federal Government and the Somali clans of the Regional State of Somali and adjacent areas, which in a worst case scenario could provoke or incite a new round of confrontation with neighbouring Somalia.
Mass protests and ethnic nationalism had been kept ruthlessly in check under the Marxist Derg regime (1974-1991) installed after a military coup that ousted long-time Emperor Haile Selassie, as well as during the more than two decades of Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) rule that followed, during which the ruling coalition controlled all 547 seats in Ethiopia’s Federal Parliament.
The TPLF was for most of this time the dominant party in the EPRDF coalition, the other members being the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM), the Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation (OPDO), and the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM), each representing political factions from the most important regions of the country.
Meles Zenawi, the country’s leader from 1991 until his death in 2012 – first as President of the Transitional Government of Ethiopia from 1991 to 1995, then as the Prime Minister of Ethiopia from 1995 – also served as chairman of the TPLF.
However, the frequency and intensity of disputes and armed clashes between rival ethnic groups and regional elites have steadily increased over the last decade, and it appears that some groups within the political elites from the three main ethnic groups in the country – the Tigray, Omoro and Amhara nations – are attempting to take advantage of the escalating violence and chaos to further their own objectives, namely, consolidating their control over their respective regions as a base for securing control over Federal institutions and powers.
Social mobilization and mass protests in 2015 and 2016, in which security forces killed hundreds of people in the Oromia and Amhara regions and thousands of people were arrested, transformed Ethiopia’s political landscape. A resurgence in social mobilization and protest in 2018 led to the resignation of then prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn (who assumed the office in 2012), paving the way for a definitive rupture in the balance of forces within the Federal Government.
The protests which erupted in 2015, initially in Oromia before spreading to Aramha and other regions, were triggered by a decision by the Federal Government to expand the boundaries of Addis Ababa, encroaching on the territory of the Regional State of Oromia and prompting demands for greater provincial control over land and resource management, which were soon followed by additional demands to open the political space to other political parties and release all political prisoners.
Another factor behind the scale and persistence of the mass protests was a growing determination among other ethnic groups – particularly the Amhara and Oromo – to end the dominance of ethnic Tigrayans over Federal institutions and powers. Tigrayans had controlled most key government positions since the formation of the EPRDF in the early 1990s, including the national intelligence agency, the military, the foreign ministry and until 2012 the office of the prime minister.
The new government installed in April of 2018 in the aftermath of the protests initiated a wide-ranging program of political reforms including lifting the ban on the formation of political parties, and releasing journalists and other political prisoners. It also began to prosecute or dismiss some of the government and military officials accused of human rights abuses and/ or corruption.
The sweeping political (and economic ‘liberalization’) reforms that have been pushed through by Prime Minister Ahmed Abiy since 2018 have been widely praised internationally, and together with the peace agreement concluded with Eritrea shortly after he assumed power won him the Nobel Peace award last year (this fact is almost always mentioned in international media reports on current developments in Ethiopia – what is almost never mentioned is that he spent much of his career in military intelligence, and effectively directed the national intelligence agency for 2 years prior to becoming a politician, where he rose from being a federal parliament ‘backbencher’ to the head of the government within a matter of years).
However, the most recent program of political reforms have failed to end mass unrest and protests among several of Ethiopia’s most numerous ethnic groups, and major clashes and massacres have continued in several regions, while in almost all cases the regional and Federal authorities have been unable to conclusively identify much less capture and prosecute the perpetrators.
With nearly 2.5 million people displaced by ongoing ethnic conflict and violence throughout the country, several outbursts of mass protest in 2019 and 2020, and deep divisions within the ruling elites including an alleged coup attempt against the Amhara Regional State government in 2019 (LINK) which killed the province’s President and the Army’s chief of staff (General Seare Mekonnen) – both key allies of Abiy Ahmed – the prime minister’s position and the future of his reforms appear much less secure.
If immediate steps are not taken to de-escalate the conflict it could end up posing an existential threat to the Federal Democratic State of Ethiopìa, as the TPLF has a large force of paramilitaries and a substantial reserve of battle-hardened veterans of the war with Eritrea (1998-2000). Moreover, the loyalty of many of the soldiers and officers from the powerful Northern Command (which has its headquarters in Mekele, the capital city of Tigray) is in question, and there are indications that a substantial part of the well-armed Northern Command troops have taken the side of the TPLF.
The establishment of ‘Ethnic Federalism’ in Ethiopia
Following the overthrow of the military-communist regime led by Mengistu Hailemariam in 1991, Ethiopia’s new constitution (adopted in 1994) recognized the right to self-determination of every nation, nationality, and people in Ethiopia, including the right to secede from the federation (pursuant to a procedure instigated by a Regional State’s legislative assembly). All State functions, powers and institutions were divided between the Federal Government and Parliament and nine linguistic-ethnically denominated Regional States, as well as two self-governing cities (Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa), with each Regional State enjoying significant autonomy in security matters (including possessing their own security forces), taxation, land use, and natural resource exploitation.
The Federal Parliament consists of the 108-member House of Federation (appointed by the Regional State legislative assemblies for a five year term) and the 547-member House of People’s Representatives (elected directly, also serving a five year term). Both houses of parliament vote jointly to select the President (who serves for a six year term but serves a largely ceremonial role), while the prime minister is selected by the House of People’s Representatives.
The nine original Regional States are Afar, Amhara, Benishangul Gumuz, Gambella, Harari, Oromia, Somali, Tigray, and Southern Nations, Nationalities and People (SNNP), with the boundaries of each based on ethnic majorities among the inhabitants of each region. A tenth – Sidamo – was constituted earlier this year following a referendum in 2019.
The system of government was designed to incorporate and resolve disputes between three competing forces: those seeking independence or secession from Ethiopia, those in favour of a centralized unitary state, and those who wanted to maintain Ethiopia’s cohesion and territorial integrity by adopting a federal system of government which provided a substantial degree of autonomy for the country’s distinctive ethnic groups and regions. It was also an attempt to redress centuries-old structural imbalances and historical injustices between the major ethnic groups in the country.
While Ethiopia is home to more than 80 ethnic groups, throughout the last century and up until the election of current Prime Minister Ahmed Abiy (a native of Oromia), State power had been controlled either by ethnic Amhara or Tigrayans.
The most damaging and deadly disputes and conflicts between rival regional and ethnic groups have been those between the Tigray, Amhara, Oromo and Somali nationalities. The Oromo people make up 35% of the Ethiopian population (most of whom live in Oromia, however there are also many Oromo inhabitants living in other regions), the Amhara people 27%, and the Somali and Tigray communities both comprise around 6% of the total population.
Armed insurgent groups (liberation fighters) proliferated in Ethiopia after World War II as the country changed from a federal State to a unitary State, and the central government ended all forms of regional and ethnic autonomy and self-determination. The Eritrean Liberation movement was the first to form, in 1958, however it was superseded by the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front which was formed in the 1970s and won de facto independence for Eritrea in 1991.
Many other armed groups were formed in other parts of the country, including the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Oromia, the Sidama Liberation Front, the Somali Abo Liberation Front, the Gambela People’s Liberation Front, the Beni Shangul Liberation Front, the Afar Liberation Front and the Tigray Liberation Front. While none of these groups achieved a large armed force, they had one thing in common:
“All of them developed as a result of grievances against the central Ethiopian government and organized on the basis of a particular ethnic group and/or region of the country.” LINK
Substantial insurgent movements with powerful armed militias did emerge in three regions apart from Eritrea however: Tigray (the Tigray People’s Liberation Front – TPLF, created in 1975), Oromia (the Oromo Liberation Front – OLF, created in 1973) and the Ogaden/ Somali region (the Ogaden National Liberation Front – ONLF, created in 1984).
The TPLF demanded autonomy and self-determination for the Tigrayan people, without however seeking to secede and establish an independent State. The ONLF formed the government in the Somali Regional State from 1991, and in 1994 the State Council organized a referendum for independence which was overwhelmingly approved. The Federal Government responded by dismissing the regional government and legislative assembly and militarizing the region, a situation that has persisted since then with fluctuations over time in the scale and intensity of armed conflict. Particularly after 1998 the ONLF also received military assistance from Eritrea. The ONLF’s main weapons include AK-47 rifles and other small arms, RPGs, land mines and other small explosive devices.
The OLF leadership was divided between those that supported political or armed struggle, with another point of disagreement whether they would pursue complete independence or regional self-determination and autonomy with an Ethiopian federal State. The OLF briefly joined the transitional government in 1991 but withdrew from the ruling coalition in 1992. Several factions of the OLF then resumed the armed struggle, and formed alliances with other armed insurgent groups. During the 1990s the group received training, weapons and other assistance from Eritrea, which after 2000 was the only neighbouring country willing to host and assist the armed insurgent group. Up until its agreement to disarm following the death of prime minister Meles Zenawi in 2012:
“The OLF [recruited] fighters from Oromo communities inside Ethiopia, Oromo refugees outside the country and Oromo defectors from the Ethiopian army. The OLF has both long and medium range radio sets and trained radio operators. Military equipment includes Kalashnikov and G-3 assault rifles, RPGs and anti-tank mines. The OLF frequently uses small remote-controlled explosive devices. Eritrea has provided some military training to OLF fighters and may provide military advisers and land mine experts. Eritrea [has been] the primary source of arms.” LINK
The Omoro Liberation Army (OLA) is still operative: it split from the OLF around the same time, and probably has similar military capabilities.
By devolving power to autonomous Regional States (each with their own constitution), the new system sought to address longstanding demands for self-rule by the majority Oromo people and other major ethnic groups – particularly overwhelmingly Muslim-majority regions in the south of the country.
Although the new Constitution succeeded in conferring a substantial degree of autonomy on the major regions and ethnic groups, it has largely failed to resolve the problem of inequalities in the representation of distinct regional and ethnic groups at the level of the Federal Government and within Federal institutions more generally.
Also, in some areas the boundaries between Regional States are disputed, contributing to ongoing ethnic tensions which have resulted in localized armed conflicts, massacres and ‘ethnic cleansing’ (particularly between the neighbouring Tigray and Aramha regions, and the Oromo and Somali regions respectively).
The Amhara region has approximately 21 million inhabitants, Oromia region has 35 million. The Somali region has around 9 million inhabitants, and is the most homogeneous of the Regional States in ethnic and religious terms, with over 97% of the inhabitants of the Somali nationality and over 99% Muslim.
Most Orthodox Christians in Ethiopia are Amhara and Tigray, which together constitute more than 40% of the population (in total, over 50% of all Ethiopians are Christian). Muslims constitute around 40% of the population. The ethnic group most associated with Islam is the Somali, however a large proportion of the Muslim population also live in the adjacent Oromia region.
While in the current conflict in Ethiopia’s north ethnic affiliation is of much greater significance (especially the rivalry among the Tigrayans, Oromo and Amhara), relations between Ethiopia’s Christian and Muslim communities have also been extremely problematic at times, deteriorating to dangerous levels following Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia in 2006 and increasing involvement in the US-led ‘War on Terror’ more generally, greatly exacerbating and complicating the multiple internal and external armed conflicts that persist throughout many parts of Ethiopia and neighbouring countries.
Prior to the 2006 invasion, Ethiopia and Somalia had engaged in several major clashes in border areas since the 1960s, including a war from 1977-1978 (the ‘Ogaden War’), eventually won by Ethiopia after receiving substantial support from Cuba and the Soviet Union. It is estimated that both sides suffered over 6,000 soldiers killed, and that over 25,000 civilians also died during the war, and Ethiopia’s Somali Regional State has endured a heavy (and largely unwelcome) Federal military presence and ‘low intensity conflict’ for much of the last two decades.
Tigray Regional State
The Tigray National Regional State is located in the far north of Ethiopia. It has over 5 million inhabitants (about 5% of the 115 million people in Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous country after Nigeria), most of whom are dedicated to agricultural activities, and it covers just over 50,000 square kilometres (about 5% of Ethiopia’s territory). According to the last official census conducted in 2007, over 95% of the inhabitants are Tigrayan (there is also a substantial Tigray population in Eritirea, where they account for about a quarter of the population). Its capital city, Mekele, with around 320,000 inhabitants, is the third or fourth largest city in Ethiopia. LINK
The State Council of Tigray (the region’s legislative assembly), which has 152 members, appoints the President of Tigray (currently Debretsion Gebremichael).
Tigray is bordered by Eritrea to the north, Sudan to the west, Amhara Regional State to the southwest and Afar Regional State to the east. Located on the northern side of the central highlands of Ethiopia, much of the area consists of rugged mountainous terrain which would make large-scale offensive military operations by Federal Government forces difficult. The highlands located in eastern and central Tigray are the most densely populated and heavily defended areas. Up to now the main land offensives by Federal (and Amhara) forces have taken place in the lowland plains, which cover about half of the Tigray region.
Escalating confrontation between the TPLF and the Federal Government
The confrontation between the Federal Government and the TPLF leadership escalated dramatically this year. For 30 years, the TPLF led the country at the head of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front coalition (EPRDF, comprised of four powerful regionally-and ethnically-based political parties as noted above), until the large-scale protests in 2018 brought Abiy Ahmed to power. In 2019, Ahmed dissolved the ruling coalition and formed a united Prosperity Party, which the TPLF refused to join.
Many representatives of the TPLF have since been accused of ‘State terrorism’ or corruption and arrested or dismissed from their positions in the government, the armed forces and intelligence agency, while other Tigrayans – such as businessmen and traders – claim that they have been discriminated against. In some areas pogroms and ‘ethnic cleansing’ have occurred, in particular in the neighbouring Regional State of Amhara, and animosity and tensions between the two regions are extremely high.
The leadership of the TPLF, once the architects of ‘ethnic federalism’, have accused the new prime minister of discrimination against the Tigray people and oppression. The downward spiral towards civil war steepened when Prime Minister Ahmed announced that national elections which were due to be held in May this year would be postponed until 2021 due to the pandemic.
The authorities in Tigray vehemently opposed the decision to postpone the national elections, claiming they were a political manoeuvre by the prime minister to illegally prolong his hold on power, and proceeded to hold regional elections in Tigray on September 9 (which resulted in an overwhelming victory for the TPLF) without the consent of the Federal Government.
The constitutional term of office for the Federal Parliament and Government expired on 6 October 2020, and the authorities in Tigray subsequently recalled all of the region’s representatives and officials at the federal level and announced that all subsequent federal legal enactments and political decisions would not be applicable to Tigray.
On October 7, the Federal Government decided to end all cooperation with what it alleged was the illegitimate State Council and Government of Tigray, and refused to disburse budget payments to the region as well as halting most federal social programs and services in the region and cutting off access for international aid programs.
After the outbreak of hostilities, the UNOCHA office in Ethiopia called to ensure unrestricted access to the affected areas recalling that Tigray region is home to approximately 600,000 people dependent on food relief assistance, in addition to 1 million people who receive safety-net assistance. LINK
The remaining Federal lawmakers in Addis Ababa have sided with the prime minister and backed the decision to block further financial transfers to the Tigray region.
After the outbreak of hostilities last week, on Saturday (November 7) the House of Federation – the upper house of the Federal Parliament – voted to dissolve the State Council and Government of the Tigray region, claiming the Tigray leadership had “violated the constitution and endangered the constitutional system.”
The House of Federation has a wide-ranging power in this respect, Article 63 of the Constitution providing that: “It shall order Federal intervention if any State, in violation of this Constitution, endangers the constitutional order.”
Consequently, the intention of the Federal authorities is that a new caretaker administration would executive all legislative and executive powers and functions in the region and “implement decisions passed on by the federal government.”
“Adem Farah, Speaker of the House of Federation, said that one of the measures the HoF will implement was the establishment of a regional transitional government, which will be accountable to the federal government. The other constitutional measure the speaker said was dispatching federal security forces to control the regional state’s actions that have endangered the constitutional order.” LINK
Immediately prior to the outbreak of hostilities the President of Tigray, Debretsion Gebremichael, challenged the Federal Government’s authority to control military facilities in the Tigray region. On 30 October, Abiy Ahmed ordered Brigadier-General Jemal Mohammed to take up a post as deputy commander of the Northern Command at its base in Mekele. But the brigadier-general was intercepted by Tigray regional government officials on arrival, and told to return to Addis Ababa.
Getachew Reda, the adviser to the Tigray state president, later clarified in a tweet that the officer was told to return because “any appointment after October 5th is unacceptable in Tigray”. LINK
The TPLF had threatened to secede from Ethiopia earlier in the year, citing Article 39 of the Ethiopian Constitution which guarantees 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…
“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 recently. LINK
The military balance: major weaponry of the Ethiopian armed forces
The Ethiopian military possesses a wide variety of weaponry from different sources, reflecting its many abrupt shifts in relations with other countries as governments fell and were replaced, or as sitting governments abruptly changed course in foreign relations due to changes in internal or external conditions.
During the reign of Emperor Selassie most equipment was obtained from the United States, then from the Soviet Union during the Derg regime. Since the early 1990s the Ethiopian has diversified its sources of weapons and military and technical assistance between Western and Eastern Europe and the United States. Last year Abiy Ahmed travelled to Israel and reportedly signed several agreements, including in terms of ‘cyber’ security and operations
According to available information, the air force is small and not well equipped notwithstanding a small number of powerful ground attack aircraft and helicopters, organized in seven fighter and ground attack squadrons, one transport squadron and one training squadron. All air force units are reportedly under the control of the Federal Government.
Aircraft include the Sukhoi Su-27 air superiority and ground attack multirole fighter jet, the Sukhoi-25 Grach close-air support ground attack aircraft, the Aero L-39 Albatros advanced jet trainer and light attack aircraft, the Mikoyan-Gurevich Mig-23 fighter jet, Antonov An-26 transport aircraft (and a small number of other Antonov variants and C-130 Hercules), the Mil Mi-24 (Hind) armed assault gunship, and the Airbus Helicopters SA 330 Puma medium transport and attack helicopter. LINK
Major components of the military’s land assault and defensive weaponry include the 2S19 MSTA-S self-propelled artillery, Norinco Type 89 tracked Armoured Personnel Carriers, 2S1 Gvozdika 122mm self-propelled artillery, 2S3 Akatsiya 152mm self-propelled artillery, BMP-1 armoured vehicles, BM-21 (Grad) multiple rocket launch systems, M109 (Paladin) 155m self-propelled artillery, the T-72, T-62 and T-55 main battle tanks, M60 (Patton) main battle tanks and BTR-60 armoured personnel carriers. LINK
There are several classes of anti-tank weaponry including the AT-4 (Spigot)/ 9M111 (Fagot) anti-tank guided missile system, the Hughes/ Raytheon BGM-71 TOW/ TOW2 heavy anti-tank weapon system, and the AT-3 (Sagger)/ 9M14 (Malyukta) anti-tank guided missile system.
In terms of air defence systems, these include units of the HQ-64/ LY-60 medium range surface to air missile, the SA-9 (Gaskin)/ 9K31 Strela-1 mobile anti-aircraft missile system, the ZSU-23-4 (Shilka) and ZSU-57-2 self-propelled anti-aircraft guns, the SA-3 (Goa)/ S-125 Neva/ Pechora surface-to-air missile defence system, and the SA-7 (Grail)/ 9K32 Strela-2 portable surface to air missile system. There are also reports that the armed forces may have obtained several units of the Pantsir anti-air missile system.
The course of early developments on the battlefields
Following the first reports of fighting on Tuesday night and Wednesday of last week (November 3-4) for control over the military facilities and armouries of the Northern Command located in the Tigray region, the clashes have spread rapidly and intensified. On November 6, the prime minister confirmed that Federal forces had conducted multiple air strikes in the region:
“Prime Minister Ahmed has said that there were airstrikes on Friday (November 6) to destroy missiles, radar equipment and rockets, and that these will continue. The TPLF respond that they have modern weapons…
There are reports that the fighting is spreading along Tigray’s border with the Amhara region, which is backing the federal government. There have also been reports of clashes near the border with Eritrea and Sudan, which has partially closed its frontier with Ethiopia…
In a statement earlier on Friday, Ahmed insisted that the military operation in Tigray had “clear, limited and achievable objectives”.
Earlier in the week he declared a six-month state of emergency in the region and gave a new military taskforce the powers to “restore law and order”.
Tigrayan leader Debretsion Gebremichael previously accused Mr Abiy’s administration of plotting to invade the state…” LINK
The following day (Saturday November 7), Egypt-based Al Ahram reported of the rapidly intensifying conflict:
Tigrayan forces are battle-hardened and possess significant stocks of military hardware, experts say. Their regional troops and associated militias number up to 250,000 men, according to the International Crisis Group…
One of the biggest risks is that the Ethiopian army will splinter along ethnic lines, with Tigrayans defecting to the regional force. There are indications that is already happening, experts said.
Tigrayan forces were in control of the federal military’s Northern Command headquarters in the city of Mekelle, according to a United Nations internal security report dated Friday and seen by Reuters.
The Northern Command is one of the four military commands of the country and controls the border with Sudan, Djibouti and Eritrea.
Tigrayan forces have seized “heavy weapons” from several of the command’s depots, the report read. It said that the command is the most heavily armed and contains “most of the military’s heavy weapons including the majority of the country’s mechanised and armoured units, artillery and air assets.”
The government is mobilising troops from around the country and sending them to Tigray, risking a security vacuum in other parts of the country where ethnic violence is raging… LINK
According to another report, four of Ethiopia’s six mechanized divisions are attached to the Northern Command. LINK
Heavy fighting continued on Monday (November 9), media reports indicating that the clashes may have already claimed hundreds of casualties and seemed set to continue.
A military official in Amhara, on the side of the federal troops, told Reuters that clashes with Tigrayan forces in Kirakir had killed nearly 500 on the Tigrayan side.
Three security sources in Amhara working with federal troops said the Ethiopian army had also lost hundreds in the original battle in Dansha.
Reuters has been unable to verify numbers, though a diplomat also said hundreds were believed to have died…
The army said it was intensifying attacks and that large numbers of Tigrayan special forces and militia were surrendering. It denied a TPLF claim of downing a jet…
A senior diplomat working on the Ethiopia crisis said Abiy had increasingly fallen back on support from Amhara – raising the risk of more ethnic violence – after parts of the military’s Northern Command went over to Tigrayan control.
Amid growing international concern, the TPLF has sought mediation by the African Union, according to a letter seen by Reuters. The United Nations wants Abiy – a former soldier who fought alongside Tigrayans against Eritrea – to start dialogue. LINK
This week, TPLF forces have reportedly captured four S-125 Pechora air-defence units, located in Aksum, Adigrat and Alula Aba Nega Airports near the region’s capital, Mekele. In one of the airports, TPLF forces also captured a 36D6 “TIN SHIELD” radar system, which has a range of 180 to 360 kilometres.
Available information – in the midst of a complete media, telecommunications and transport blackout imposed by the Federal Government – suggest that Federal soldiers and Amhara regional militia forces have advanced rapidly in several areas up until now in the west of Tigray region to occupy towns and security installations in the area (including the Humera Airport) and cut off the border with Sudan.
However, this is one of the most arid and sparsely occupied parts of the region, well away from the TPLF strongholds. It is also an area that has been disputed between the authorities of Amhara and Tigray, and the Amhara authorities lost no time in taking advantage of the opportunity to occupy the disputed areas.
While if this is true Tigray is now cut off and surrounded by hostile forces on all sides, and therefore facing tremendous difficulties, this does not necessarily mean the end of the conflict. A possible scenario is that civilians will be forced to flee the area (possibly in the millions), causing a massive humanitarian catastrophe, and the soldiers and militias will stay behind to take the fight to the Federal Government, Amhara, and also the Eritreans if they also try to take advantage of the conflict to occupy the disputed border town of Badme and perhaps other border areas.
The prime minister made some remarks this week after the initial advances in western Tigray, claiming the war is almost won and will soon be over, however this seems very unlikely. There are reports that the Federal Government has also attempted to open an offensive in Tigray’s east to advance towards the regions capital, and that the attacks have been successfully repelled up to now.
There are also reports of an explosion in Addis Ababa, and of hundreds of alleged TPLF agents and provocateurs/ saboteurs being arrested in other parts of the country, indicating another tremendously destructive path the conflict could take. Moreover, this would risk creating a multiplier effect for the already explosive ethnic and regional tensions in many parts of the country, as the TPLF could supply arms from its well-stocked arsenals to armed insurgent groups in other parts of the country.
Nonetheless, the prime minister continues to rebuff all suggestions of a negotiated settlement to the conflict and has adopted a decidedly casual and dismissive tone, expressing confidence that the ‘rule-of-law operation’ will be successfully concluded within a short period of time:
“Concerns that Ethiopia will descend into chaos are unfounded and a result of not understanding our context deeply,” Abiy wrote on Twitter, adding the operation “will wrap up soon by ending the prevailing impunity.”
“Ethiopia is grateful for friends expressing their concern. Our rule-of-law operation is aimed at guaranteeing peace and stability once and for all by bringing perpetrators of instability to justice,” Abiy said. LINK
Ongoing regional and ethnic conflicts and competing narratives
Unresolved territorial disputes and consequent hostility between Tigray and the neighbouring Regional State of Amhara are another destabilizing factor. The armed intervention by the Federal Government in the Tigray region was preceded by sporadic clashes between Tigrayans and Amhara communities amid heated threats and recriminations for several years. On Saturday (November 7), a video of a column of troops advancing towards Tigray from the Amhara region was posted on Facebook with a taunting and triumphalist message presaging the defeat of the TPLF:
“The Amhara regional forces are advancing!!!
Wolkait and tegede are under the federal government control after the ragtag TPLF soldiers retreated, reports coming out of the region. The #Amhara regional forces are advancing to control the western side of #Tigray region to block #TPLF from escaping to #Sudan!!!
The Amhara have been claiming this territory (Welkat & Raya) since 1991, so they have some motivation here!!!” LINK
According to another media report on November 4, Federal Government forces were already being redeployed towards the north several days before the first confrontations and clashes were reported, leaving a security vacuum in other areas:
“Despite the prime minister’s claims that his soldiers were ambushed and pushed into the war, preparations for the eventual escalation had been made at least days in advance. Large-scale movements of Ethiopian troops heading northwards were reported in recent days…
16 buses where used to ferry the troops out and its not clear where there being sent to.
There is a high level of tension between the federal gov't and Tigray state. pic.twitter.com/79dA1djqW6
— Faysal Shilaabo (@Ofaysal1984) November 1, 2020
The consequences of conflict between Addis and Tigray are already being felt in the rest of the country. On Sunday (November 1), 54 ethnic Amhara civilians were brutally massacred at a school compound in Oromia. The Ethiopian government promptly accused the TPLF of involvement in the massacre, although it is yet to present evidence.
The killings happened a day after Ethiopian soldiers based in the district suddenly vacated the region on Saturday, leaving residents at the mercy of armed militants. Some reports suggest that those soldiers were headed towards Tigray, giving weight to claims that the war was planned well in advance and not triggered by incidents that took place on Tuesday night (November 3)…” LINK
In this instance, although Federal authorities have accused the TPLF of collusion in the massacre, regional officials said the main suspects were members of the Oromo Liberation Army. According to a report by The Guardian:
“Earlier on Monday (November 2), the Oromia regional government said the perpetrators belonged to the OLA, a group blamed for kidnappings and bomb attacks in western and southern Ethiopia.
A survivor from Wollega said the violence erupted after security forces stationed in the area abruptly and inexplicably left, allowing OLA fighters to round up civilians…
The OLA, believed to number in the low thousands, broke off from the Oromo Liberation Front, an opposition party that spent years in exile but was allowed to return to Ethiopia after Abiy took office in 2018.
Separate attacks on Amhara civilians have recently been reported in two other regions. Authorities last week barred the National Movement of Amhara (Nama), an opposition party, from staging demonstrations denouncing the killing of Amhara civilians.” LINK
One week later, on Saturday November 8, Oromia’s Police Commissioner announced that a joint security operation had been successfully launched against the suspected perpetrators of the massacre:
“Ararsa Merdasa, Commissioner of Oromia Police Commission, said 24 Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) rebels were killed in a joint federal-regional security forces operation, reported state media outlet Ethiopia Broadcasting Corporation (EBC).
“The 24 deceased OLA rebels were believed to have participated in a recent massacre in Guliso zone, Western Wollega zone of Oromia regional state,” he was quoted as saying. Merdasa further said another 49 OLA rebels were captured during the military operation…
Federal authorities blamed the Oromo Liberation Army of carrying out the attacks. The OLA is a breakaway faction of an ex-rebel group Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). The OLF was designated as a terrorist group by the Ethiopian parliament in 2011. It was removed from the terror list in July 2018 to help facilitate negotiations and foster reconciliation.” LINK
The regional governments of Oromia and Amhara regions, as well as members from the federal parliament, are now claiming that the TPLF has been behind most if not all of the massacres and social unrest in recent times, including by giving weapons to members of the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA).
After the most recent massacre in Oromia which claimed at least 54 lives, Shemelis Abdisa, President of Oromia claimed that the “TPLF has been arming the Oromo Liberation Front-Shene group and supporting its act of violence against civilians.”
This accusation was echoed by members of the Federal Parliament in a heated session held last Tuesday (November 4, the day prior to hostilities breaking out in the Tigray region).
In contrast, an earlier media report, from September 2018, had claimed that in the Somali region it appeared that some Oromo militia groups had also been operating against Somali communities, in some cases with the tacit assistance of some local authorities and federal security forces:
“Somali Muslims were facing a “well coordinated programme of ethnic cleansing” by Oromo militias, tacitly sanctioned and at times openly backed by the Ethiopian military…
Up until recently, the chief perpetrators of crimes against Somalis in Ogaden was the Ethiopian ‘police force’ stationed in the area known as the Liyu Police.
Notorious for their brutality, the Liyu Police were essentially a paramilitary force operating under the guise of a counter-terrorism outfit, which up until recently was funded and trained by the UK…
Now, it seems the violence against Somalis is being spearheaded by Oromo militias, who are also affiliated with the local authority in the Ogaden region…
The Ogaden region has always been a conflict zone since the mid-20th century, however violence on the scale currently being witnessed has not been seen since the height of the Ethiopian military’s counter-insurgency campaign against the separatist Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) in 2007…” LINK
Ethiopia is also one of the many countries in Africa that have hosted secret detention sites where suspected or alleged terrorists illegally detained by US military and intelligence operatives have been held under the broad and indiscriminate ‘rendition’ program of the US-led war on terror. LINK
In 2017 Global Security noted that the US has followed an inconsistent course in its relations with Ethiopia, which improved considerably after 1991. Particularly after 2001:
“US criticism of Ethiopia [for human rights abuses] was muted, because of the country’s importance in combating Islamist militants in the region, especially Somalia’s al-Shabab…
The United States had displayed a kind of split personality when it comes to Ethiopia, working closely with its government to fight designated terrorist groups like al-Shabab, while denouncing the same government for arresting journalists, suppressing dissent and making it impossible for opponents to win even a single seat in parliament…” LINK
Other potentially significant external actors are Sudan and Egypt, which have been locked in a long-standing dispute with Ethiopia over the construction of the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Egypt and Sudan are concerned that the massive hydroelectric dam that Ethiopia is building on the Nile River will greatly reduce their share of the river’s flow. In October 2016, the Ethiopian government accused Egypt of supporting rebels and forcing Addis Ababa into declaring a state of emergency. LINK
Sudan has closed its border with Ethiopia and has offered to help mediate the dispute, and senior officials of the two countries have been in constant contact in an effort to preserve ‘border security’ and ‘regional stability’. However, Sudan and Egyptian military officials also held extended meetings late in October, emphasizing their intention to cooperate closely in all security matters.
The October meetings followed a recent agreement by the head of Sudan’s Sovereign Council Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on the development of military and security cooperation. According to an official statement following the discussions:
“It was agreed to implement many training activities for all branches of the armed forces during the coming period with intensifying cooperation in the fields of rehabilitation, training, exchange of experiences, border security, combating terrorism, technical insurance and military industries.
Egyptian chief of staff, Mohamed Farid emphasized that the Egyptian military capabilities are an asset for Sudan and that the Sudanese military capabilities are an asset for Egypt, according to the statement.” LINK
The Eritrea factor in the deepening dispute
Tension has also been raised by the partial normalization of relations between the Federal Government and Eritrea since mid-2018, a rapprochement which, according to some estimates, was in part intended to consolidate the position of the government of Abiy Ahmed in the event of a military solution to the conflict with Tigray, as Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki and the TPLF leadership remain bitter enemies.
Eritrea has a single-party presidential system, where the President officially serves as both head of state and head of government. The People’s Front for Democracy and Justice is the only political party permitted to exist, and Afwerki has been president since he led the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) to victory in May 1991, ending the 30-year-old war for independence from Ethiopia. The National Assembly of 150 seats, formed in 1993, elected the current president, Isaias Afwerki, and last met in formal session in 2002.
After the war ended in 1991, another devastating war erupted between Ethiopia and Eritrea between 1998-2000 due to an ongoing dispute over the demarcation of the border, and in particular over the town of Badme. A United Nations commission subsequently determined that the town belongs to Eritrea, but it remains under the administration of authorities of Tigray Regional State notwithstanding the peace agreement of 2018 between Ethiopia’s Federal Government and Eritrea.
An extended analysis of Ethiopia’s relations with the Gulf States published by Al Jazeera in 2017 noted several significant factors which could have implications for future developments:
“Eritrea has established strong relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE after a brief collapse of relations between Djibouti and the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen that occurred on 29 April 2016, which led to the expulsion of Gulf troops from Djibouti…
President Afewerki met with King Salman and reached a security military partnership agreement with the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen offering basing rights in Eritrea. The UAE and Eritrea reached a 30-year lease agreement at Port Assab with a 3500-metre runway capable of landing large transport aircraft including the huge C-17 Globemaster. The UAE also agreed to assist in modernising Asmara International airport and build a new infrastructure…
[In terms of Eritrea’s relations with Ethiopia, what] adds to the tension is the Eritrean government’s support for the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). The OLF is a political organisation pushing for the independence of the Oromo people, the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia. The political marginalisation of the Oromo people has heightened tensions in the country. Ethiopia worries that the strengthening of Eritrea both militarily and economically through outside investment particularly from the Gulf countries might encourage what its calls Eritrea’s “promotion of instability inside Ethiopia.” LINK
Since 2018 the Federal Government’s concerns in this respect have substantially declined, to the extent that it appears possible that there may be some degree of cooperation or implicit understanding with the Eritrean authorities over the confrontation with the Tigray region. On November 4 the Mail & Guardian reported:
“Abiy’s friendship with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki has been contentious. The Eritrean president loathes the TPLF. His enmity dates to the 1998-2000 war between Eritrea and Ethiopia which left 70 000 people dead. TPLF officials now accused Afwerki and Abiy of conspiring to destabilise Tigray…
Last month, a televised broadcast showed Abiy giving his Eritrean counterpart a tour of Ethiopian air-force base installations. This only served to exacerbate tensions, which were not helped a few days ago when the Eritrean embassy in Ethiopia taunted the Tigray state leadership in a Facebook post, stating that it was “game over” for them…” LINK
In summary, over the last two years the long-standing hostility between Ethiopia’s Federal Government and Eritrea rapidly diminished after the TPLF was ousted from the governing coalition. Whether or not there is a formal agreement or unofficial understanding as such between the current office holders in the Federal Government and Eritrea, it is clear that both consider the TPLF a mortal enemy.
While such an alliance or understanding, if it exists, would substantially shift the military balance against the TPLF, since at least the early 1990s Eritrea’s president has maintained his power through systematic authoritarian practices – all media, State and civil society institutions and organizations are strictly controlled by the ruling clique, education is minimal and tightly controlled, and any signs of resistance or protest are immediately quashed – and there is a risk that if Eritrea does become heavily involved in the armed confrontation, the Eritrean people (almost a quarter of whom are ethnic Tigray) may take the opportunity to attempt to depose the ruling clique.
While Federal Government officials have had substantial influence over the narrative at the national and international level (and have cut off all access to the region to further tighten its control over all information related to the conflict, as well as arresting several journalists in Addis Ababa for reporting developments not in accordance with the official narrative), media outlets and commentators in the Tigray region are seeking to contest the official narrative of the causes behind the conflict and the course it is taking.
One commentator from the region argues that the governments of Ethiopia and Eritrea are now working together against Tigray, his assertions also reflecting the deep animosity that has been building between the Amhara and Tigray regions over much of the last ten years:
“Ethiopia’s Ex-Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, in coordination with Eritrea’s global pariah, Isaias Afewerki, have ordered a military offensive against not only the democratically elected government of Tigray but also against the people of Tigray…
It is to be recalled that during the Desalign administration (2012-2018), Tigrayans were murdered and ethnic-cleansed by the tens of thousands from Gondar and elsewhere in the Amara Regional State. It is also to be recalled that at the time of the murders and ethnic cleansing, some of the key Amara Regional State power brokers were the current but Ex-Deputy Prime Demeke Mekonen and Foreign Minister Gedu Endargachew. Appallingly, these individuals along with the Ex-PM Abiye Ahmed, are the protagonists of the current war campaign against the State of Tigray!” LINK
Statements by Federal Government officials last week added further confusion to the latest developments, the Sudan Tribune reporting on November 4 that officials from the prime minister’s office have accused the TPLF of disguising its fighters as Eritrean soldiers to “implicate the Eritrean government in false claims of aggression against the people of Tigray”. LINK
Abiy Ahmed has also accused the TPLF playing “a leading role in the systemic abuse of human rights and massive corruption” in the country, and of seeking to derail his reformist agenda since he became prime minister.
Following the outbreak of armed clashes, he has further claimed that the TPLF has “sponsored, trained and equipped any force that was willing to engage in violent and illegal acts to derail” the democratic transition he has pursued. LINK
While both sides have accused the other of instigating the armed clashes, it is clear that they did not come as a surprise to either the Federal Government or the TPLF leadership, and there are many indications from the preceding weeks that both sides had been making preparations for such an eventuality.
While Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has been widely praised for the sweeping political reform programs he implemented after taking over power, all reforms have been conducted by processes tightly controlled by the executive rather than by more broadly-based and transparent mechanisms, and appear to have had the primary objective of securing his personal control over key institutions and State functions.
This lends some credence to the TPLF allegations that their leadership has been selectively targeted and discriminated against, particularly when it is taken into account that Abiy Ahmed was himself a senior military/ intelligence officer and even served at the head of the national intelligence agency immediately before entering politics in 2010.
More disturbing is the continuation of armed clashes and even massacres in many regional areas in which the identity of the perpetrators and wider circumstances remain shrouded in mystery in most instances.
Beyond the most urgent need to call an immediate ceasefire and establish confidence-building measures to stabilize the situation before the country collapses into a devastating and probably irreversible civil war scenario, and elaborate a comprehensive plan for peace and reconciliation, is the need to establish a broad-based, transparent and independent ‘truth and justice’ commission to investigate the causes behind and details of the multiple persistent ethnic and regional disputes, conflicts and massacres that continue to plague the country and clearly identify the material and intellectual authors of the numerous massacres that have occurred to prevent similar attacks in the future.
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