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Written by Daniel Edgar
In official statements, Ethiopia’s Federal Government has repeatedly denied reports that two strategic towns in Amhara Regional State have been captured by the TDF (Tigray Defence Forces). Dessie and Kombolcha both lie on the main highway between Tigray and the nation’s capital Addis Ababa, approximately 380 kilometres to the north of the latter. However, reading between the lines of other recent developments – including the declaration of a nationwide State of Emergency, and an appeal by government officials for all Addis Ababa residents with firearms to register with officials in order to defend the capital – it appears most likely that the ENDF has been largely defeated by the TDF and that both sides are preparing for a final assault on the country’s seat of government. With both sides continuing to engage in inflammatory and provocative rhetoric and neither side willing to make the slightest concession in their mutually unacceptable terms and demands, perhaps the only thing that could – possibly – avert or delay a final destructive showdown between the TDF and the Federal government in and around Addis Ababa over the next couple of weeks would be a major offensive from the north and west by Eritrea and the Amhara regional forces.
While the country continues to sink further into the quagmire of a catastrophic civil war which, if not halted through negotiations, could end up tearing the country apart completely, all indications suggest that the Federal government’s military forces (ENDF) have suffered more heavy defeats on the battlefield at the hands of the TDF. Earlier this week the Council of Ministers of the Federal government declared a nationwide State of Emergency for six months, and government officials have also appealed to residents in the capital city to take up arms to defend their neighbourhoods against the rapidly approaching TDF forces. The State of Emergency was ratified by the the House of Peoples’ Representatives (the lower house of the Federal parliament), controlled by prime minister Abiy Ahmed’s ‘Prosperity Party’, on Thursday. LINK
As the clashes have intensified over the last two weeks, the vitriolic ‘hate speech’ and inflammatory rhetoric of both sides has continued to degenerate. After designating the TPLF/ TDF as a terrorist group by government decree earlier this year, over the last few months Federal government officials have repeatedly referred to the TPLF as a ‘cancer’ and a ‘weed’ to be eradicated from Ethiopian society. Meanwhile, a recent statement by TDF spokesman Getachew Reda described the Federal government (specifically ‘Abiy’), Amhara regional government and the Eritrean government (‘Isaias’) as an ‘axis of evil’.
Even as official spokesmen continue to speak ‘tough’ and either deny recent strategic losses on the battlefield or refuse to comment, the Federal government is making frantic preparations for a last ditch defence of the seat of government in Addis Ababa.
Media reports noted that the prime minister has urged citizens to “take up arms and defend the capital.”
“Our people should march… with any weapon and resources they have to defend, repulse and bury the terrorist TPLF,” Abiy was quoted as saying while declaring the state of emergency.
In another statement on Facebook the government claimed that the Federal government forces are near victory and that the Tigray People’s Liberation Front “and its puppets are being encircled by our forces” and that “a rat that strays far from its hole is nearer to death.”
“This is not a country that crumbles under foreign propaganda!” the statement added. “We are fighting an existential war!” …
“Ethiopia will not collapse. Ethiopia will prosper,” Abiy said, speaking in Addis Ababa on Wednesday. “Ethiopia will forever exist with her honour by defeating all who test her through the blood and bones of her children.” LINK
On Thursday (4 November) the New York Times reported:
Ethiopia’s embattled prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, announced a state of emergency on Wednesday that granted him draconian powers. And he spoke in such inflammatory language that Facebook deleted one of his posts on Thursday. Hours later, the Ethiopian government issued a new post with similarly stark references,also on Facebook.
“A rat that strays far from its hole is nearer to its death,” said the statement, referring to Tigrayan leaders and their supporters. LINK
Maybe the prime minister’s affirmation of his continued steadfast willingness and determination to sacrifice Ethiopia’s youth on the altar of a ferocious, catastrophic and largely avoidable war (up until the last month or so this has been a war of choice for the Federal government), even as it appears that large parts of the ENDF have been destroyed in combat, sounded heroic and inspiring to his staffers and advisers. Maybe it could have that effect for some of his audience too. At least, it might if he were willing to join them in the front line.
It is possible, though appears more than a bit farfetched, that the ENDF has conducted a massive tactical retreat in order to give the TDF a false sense of opportunity and lure them into a devastating ambush. Such a possibility cannot be ruled out completely. In particular, the possibility of a major offensive from combined Amhara and Eritrean forces from the north and west must weigh heavily on the TDF leadership as their defensive and supply lines become more and more extended and exposed.
The large Eritrean military presence in Ethiopia remains a bizarre anomaly. Kenyan media outlet the Star recently commented of the Eritrea factor:
For months, Addis Ababa and Asmara flatly denied the presence of Eritrean troops in Tigray, despite persistent eyewitness testimony to the contrary.
Abiy finally acknowledged their presence in March and said their departure was imminent.
But they remain in Tigray and it is unclear whether Abiy could make them leave – or afford to let them go.
All sides in the war have been accused of atrocities but the role of Eritrean forces in mass rape and murder has been well documented. LINK
TDF and OLA claim to have joined forces and to be marching towards the capital
Following the reports that Dessie and Kombolcha were captured by the TDF earlier this week, the TDF and OLA forces now say that their forces have joined up on the battlefield and recent reports suggest that they are proceeding southwards towards the townships of Bati and Habru along the main A2 highway which goes from Kombolcha to the capital Addis Ababa. The capture of Kombolcha is particularly significant, as it is on the transport corridor between Addis Ababa and Djibouti along which over 90% of Ethiopia’s trade with the outside world passes.
The ENDF has reportedly withdrawn what remains of its forces towards the south, presumably to prepare for a last ditch defence of the seat of government. According to some reports, contingents of the ENDF are also massing and preparing defensive positions around Shewa Robit, located on the main highway towards the capital approximately 100 kilometres south of Kombolcha.
Not surprisingly given their string of military victories and the convergence of their forces in the field, the TDF and OLA are brimming with confidence and are continuing their advance towards the capital. Earlier in the week the groups declined to state whether capturing the capital was the ultimate objective of the advance.
“We are both moving forward with a unified coordinated military strategy to conclude this war as quickly as possible to prevent further bloodshed,” OLA spokesman Odaa Tarbii said. “This will become clearer over the coming weeks.”
Neither he nor Getachew Reda, spokesman for the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), would say whether marching on Addis Ababa, which hosts the headquarters of the African Union, was part of their strategy to wrest control of the country from Mr Abiy’s government, although Mr Getachew said: “I can’t rule out marching to Addis together.” LINK
Yesterday, however, media reports stated that it has now been confirmed that the stated objective of the ongoing advance is to capture the capital city.
Tigrayan forces … say they are advancing on the capital, Addis Ababa, and that it could fall within months or even weeks…
Debretsion Gebremichael, leader of the Tigray region, blamed the Ethiopian government and its allies for causing the suffering in the past year.
“The warmongers decided to continue with the war, and we entered into this war because the only option we had is to destroy our enemies by force.” LINK
However, even if the TDF and OLA are able to capture the capital city, this will not mean the end of the war or even the liberation of Tigray Regional State, the western part of which remains occupied by a large number of Amhara regional security and Eritrean military forces, both of which have proven to be formidable opponents. Irrespective of developments in and around Addis Ababa, if the Amhara regional leadership is not willing to negotiate and continues to rely on its tactical alliance with Eritrea against the TDF the war would be set to continue into the foreseeable future notwithstanding a possible dramatic shift in the alignment of other forces.
Over the last couple of days the OLA and TDF have declared that a “United Front of Ethiopian Federalist Forces” is being formed to formalize and broaden an alliance with seven other armed and opposition groups committed to removing the current Federal government controlled by the ‘Prosperity Party’ and establishing a transitional government. According to media reports, the groups intend to formalize the alliance at a meeting to be held in Washington DC today (Friday, 5 November).
According to spokesmen for the TDF and OLA who spoke with the press, the new alliance is both military and political, and it seeks to establish a transitional arrangement in Ethiopia so that the prime minister can go as soon as possible. When asked whether it intended to force Abiy out of office, OLA spokesman Odaa Tarbii replied that it depended on Ethiopia’s government and events over the coming weeks. Of course we prefer if there’s a peaceful and orderly transition with Abiy being removed, he said.
He further claimed that the goal of the alliance is to be as inclusive as possible. We know this transition requires all stakeholders, he added. But as for members of the prime minister’s Prosperity Party, there would have to be a process. Many members would have to go through investigation, possibly be prosecuted for crimes related to the war… LINK1, LINK2
The other groups that are said to have joined the coalition are the Afar Revolutionary Democratic Unity Front, Somali State Resistance, the Gambella Peoples Liberation Army, Agaw Democratic Movement, Benishangul Peoples Liberation Movement, Global Kimant People Right and Justice Movement/ Kimant Democratic Party, and Sidama National Liberation Front.
Although the newly created ‘united front’ provides a basis for the expansion of the coalition of groups and sectors determined to overthrow the Federal government, it may also serve to push some other groups and sectors closer to the Federal government. The respective groups will have to work very hard to convince other regions, groups and sectors of Ethiopian society that they do not intend to take over completely and henceforth dominate both Federal institutions as well as the country more generally.
The Oromia factor
As argued in a previous report, ongoing developments in Oromia Regional State will be crucial over the next few weeks and beyond. Apart from being the most populous region with around a third of Ethiopia’s total population, the regional state surrounds the capital and therefore whether the region’s security forces and inhabitants more generally decide to support, oppose or refrain from actively participating in the conflict between the Federal government (allied with Amhara Regional State and Eritrea) and the TDF (for over a month in an open alliance with the OLA) will have an important impact on the resistance faced by the TDF and OLA as they march towards Addis Ababa.
Kenyan media outlet the Star commented of the OLA:
The Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), an insurgent group bent on overthrowing Abiy, has linked up with the TPLF on the battlefield and claims control of territory in Amhara and Oromia, including near Addis Ababa.
This means it could potentially disrupt supply routes to the capital [from Kenya, the only other viable transport corridor albeit with much reduced capacity]…
Ethiopia declared the TPLF and OLA terrorist organisations in May, helping nudge the historic foes towards an unlikely military pact against their common enemy…
Believed to number in the low thousands, it is fighting for self-determination for the Oromo, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group… LINK
Although the Oromia regional government (controlled by prime minister Abiy’s Prosperity Party) has stated its unequivocal support for the Federal government, it is uncertain to what extent the members of the region’s security forces and civilian population share this attitude. On Wednesday 3 November the OLA claimed that over one thousand members of the Oromia Special Forces are no longer taking orders from the regional government and that many of them (around 400) have joined up with OLA forces in the vicinity of Laga Tafo (close to the capital city). LINK
Another critical factor is that almost the entire leadership of the main Oromo opposition parties are political prisoners, having been arrested by the Federal government over a year ago. Irrespective of the course of events on the battlefield over the next few weeks, securing their release and active involvement in future political developments and negotiations will almost certainly be crucial if there is to be any possibility of de-escalating the current hostility and tension and stabilizing the political and social situation in the country.
Developments in other Regional States
State-affiliated Fana TV has stated that the governments of four of the country’s ten regions have also called upon Ethiopians to mobilise to fight against the Tigrayan forces.
According to a journalist from the Somali region, on Wednesday 3 November Somali state media reported that the government of the Somali Regional State passed a resolution ‘to protect the self-rule’ of the region and declared that it would defend the region against any incursion by the TDF. LINK
If this is correct, it is significant for at least two reasons. The first, it is clear that many regions and sectors of society are either not in favour of or are decisively against any attempt by the TDF to take over the Federal government and any extension of its rule over other regions. The second, it appears that the Somali Regional State is, at the same time, not willing to get entangled in the fratricidal war between the TDF and the Federal government, and will keep its regional security forces deployed within its own region for defensive purposes against any attempt at incursion by outsiders.
International efforts towards a ceasefire
As noted in a previous report, up until now the international community has been completely ineffectual and impotent in terms of providing an international environment conducive to persuading or pressuring the respective belligerent factions to work towards de-escalation, a ceasefire and negotiations. Although some individual State and regional actors strongly criticized the Federal government for preventing humanitarian assistance from reaching Tigray region, ultimately they were powerless to persuade or force a change in policy, and many States pointedly refused to take any action claiming the armed conflict was a purely internal matter and that they were respecting Ethiopia’s sovereignty and right to self-determination.
Given this fact and recent developments on the battlefield, they cannot now expect the TDF to heed any calls for a ceasefire or other demands that might be made. In this context, the release on Wednesday (3 November) of a joint report by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (Michelle Bachelet) and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (whose impartiality and credibility has been rejected by the TDF) on possible war crimes and crimes against humanity is largely irrelevant, and may at best be considered a preliminary and inconclusive analysis pending the possible formation and deployment of well-resourced and empowered investigative teams in the future. Similarly, the US efforts to increase economic and financial pressure on the belligerent factions to agree to a ceasefire are very unlikely to have any effect.
Events on the ground have made international efforts irrelevant to the future course of events in the immediate future, as the TDF and its allies are unlikely to relinquish their current military advantage (according to all indications, though any prediction as to ongoing developments must be treated with a great deal of caution due to the rapidly changing situation and information blackout).
No threat or inducement from the ‘international community’, individually or collectively, is likely to deter the TDF and its allies from attempting to capitalize on its recent strategic victories and capturing the seat of government. In this context, the key factor is whether the ENDF retains sufficient combat capability to defend the capital and surrounding areas, and if so for how long? And, as noted above, whether a major combined offensive by the Amhara security and Eritrean military forces could force the TDF to divert its forces from their push towards the capital. The newly conscripted neighbourhood defence militias are unlikely to provide a substantial resistance to the battle hardened and well-armed TDF forces, though if they persist in taking part in the fighting it will greatly increase the damage, destruction and loss of life in the capital.
Even if the ‘rebel’ forces are able to capture the capital city without destroying it and some type of transitional arrangement could be arranged, this would leave the major outstanding problems of whether a ceasefire and mutually agreed conflict resolution mechanism is possible between the Amhara and Tigray Regional Governments, and the ongoing presence of Eritrean military forces in Ethiopia.
The substantial Eritrean military presence constitutes a major ‘clear and present danger’ to the people of Tigray in particular and Ethiopia more generally, and it cannot be ruled out that a desperate and cornered Amhara leadership will continue its alliance with Eritrea even if this sets it against the rest of Ethiopia, particularly if they feel they can thereby hold onto the territories occupied in western Tigray or if there is no prospect for de-escalation and negotiation on a basis that guarantees the future existence of Amhara (and the power of the ruling factions).
MORE ON THE TOPIC:
- Ethiopia’s military commemorates 1 year of war as Tigray’s forces expect Addis Ababa to fall within weeks
- As Ethiopian war set to intensify international community remains divided and impotent
- Ethiopia at the crossroads, or is it the end of the road
- Ethiopia international pressure builds demanding Eritrean troops withdraw from Tigray region