Since the federal government declared ceasefire in Tigray on June 30, 2021, the gains reportedly made by the TPLF forces especially to the southern border towns that are under contention with the Amhara regional state had been at the center of attention among many observers. After reports of TPLF’s control of the Alamata, Korem and Qobo areas, the Amhara regional government called up on the Amhara people to mobilize forces in every aspect to face the “existential threat” posed by the “terrorist TPLF” forces.
However, the TPLF forces still vow to continue their offensives despite the ceasefire from the central government and very recently, they announced to have launched attacks on the side of Afar’s Zone 4. But the military announced that it had reversed TPLF’s moves towards the Afar region, which according to some reports was intended to block the Ethio-Djibouti route that serves as a gateway to 85 percent of Ethiopia’s imports and exports.
Apart from the police, militia and special forces of the Amhara region who went to face the TPLF in various fronts, different regional governments sent armed forces to defend the “sovereignty” of the nation in response to “calls from the government.” Accordingly, forces were mobilized from the Oromia, South, Afar, Gambella, Somali, Benshangul Gumuz, Gambella, Sidama, Harari regions as well as the Dire Dawa City Administration over the week.
But questions have started to be raised concerning the command and order of the war in Tigray as the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) are on ceasefire. Apart from this, the changing nature of the war in Tigray has posed risks of growing to be genocidal because of the involvement of ethnically mobilized forces from ethnically formed regional governments to face forces comprised of a single ethnic group.
Regional security forces that have been receiving military grade trainings and arms, including the Tigray Special Forces, have been at the core of the country’s security concerns even ahead of the Tigray war. While the leadership of these forces argue that they are formed under the constitutional power of regional states to establish police forces, others especially from the Federal Police say this is the use of constitutional loophole as these special forces are not police in any form.
These forces are formed according to article 52 of the Ethiopian Constitution that gives regional governments the power “to establish and administer a state police force, and to maintain public order and peace within the State.”
This challenge of lack of central control on the growing number of special forces with military grade trainings and arms has also prevented the federal government’s initiative to standardize arms across forces in the country.
Some commentators had also been recommending integrating these forces into the federal police or the military with rigorous reorientation as the doctrines these forces are trained with are intended to make them defend the ethnic groups that they represent rather than the nation as it stands.
Now these forces are being mobilized from every regional government to join the war in Tigray. This came in light of the strengthening of forces in the Amhara region to continue its offensive while the federal forces stand down just defending their territories. The Amhara region has also later appointed various military officers to serve into the special forces in various capacities. Accordingly, Tefera Mamo (B.Gen.), Mesele Belete (Gen.), Biset Getahun (Commissioner), Araya Kassie (Commissioner), Mamo Girmay (Gen.), Zewdu Eshete (Gen.), Abebe Tekleyohannes (Gen.), Mesele Degefaw (Assistant Commissioner), and Adamneh Mengistie (Gen.) have joined the special forces in various capacities.
With the new forces from regional governments joining the war, command is going to be an issue as it is not clear which body is responsible for the offensives especially after the declaration of the ceasefire, a security expert who advised the international community in Ethiopia for long observes.
Speaking to The Reporter on the command and order of the forces that are joining the war, the Communications Head of the ENDF Getnet Adane (Col.) said that, as the call was made by the Prime Minister, who is the Commander-in-Chief, “this indicates that the security forces that are coming will be under a single command chain.” He also added that putting these forces under one command respects the constitutional provision as well as the powers of Commander-in-Chief.
Getnet is also bold about this being a modern war where different forces are given specific tasks to perform according to central orders. But he did not say if this central order comes from the military or not.
“The body mobilizing these forces dictates where to place these forces, what they do, and what happens when. And one of the missions of the Defense Forces is working in cooperation with the relevant administrative and security forces. So, it will lead and coordinate this in coordination with others,” he added.
But, on the flip side, says the expert, the mobilization of these forces would open a window of opportunity for the government to integrate these forces into federal forces.
“This could help centralize the country’s warring capabilities. The special forces were established to control insurgencies in some regions. But they have started to overshadow the defense forces overtime and every region has such forces now. Hence, if there is any move in the future, the current situation could help in the centralization of the forces,” he adds.
However, the recent moves from the Amhara regional government to resolve its security challenges from the Tigray region using its reinforced forces would set unpleasant precedent for other regions, says the expert.
According to him, whenever there is a problem between two regional governments, the federal government should take the lead to arbitrate and the move by a regional government to address its issues by itself without involving the federal government is a serious issue for the federal system as a whole.
While the first round of the war was fought between the rebel region and the federal government, either for lack of capacity or in the interest of seeking a political solution to the conflict, the federal government withdrew from the war, the expert says, but this seems welcomed by the Amhara region.
“Now it seems an ethnic war. Unless this is tamed now, it will become a genocidal war. It does not have rules of war as it stands now,” the expert observes.
Even though the federal government tries to appear neutral, it cannot remain neutral in such situations because it has to lead front and center at times of war. And it seems that the Amhara region has refused to abide by the federal government’s resolve to stop the war and involve in other means of resolving the conflict, the expert opines. Hence, even though the involvement of regional forces in the war could help the government centralize forces, the current moves could distort command and control as well as conduct of hostilities according to international standards.
“Can the government blame one regional security force for any wrongdoing and relieve itself?” questions the expert. “The war has multiple leaders. It is not just the federal government that is involved in the war. But the federal government should have taken the lead at such ties.”
Hence, even though the federal government is part of the war, it is not also clear whether the ceasefire it declared remains in effect or has been lifted, the expert added.
But according to Getnet, the Defense Communications Head, the ceasefire is still in effect although that does not mean “hands up” and the defense forces defend their turfs. Nevertheless, they don’t conduct offensives which only happens with the lifting of the ceasefire imposed on the defense forces.
“The Defense Forces take defensive actions,” he added.
Again, even if the federal government wants to enforce the ceasefire, the Amhara region might not be willing because of the described “threats”. This could lead to a souring of relations between the two.
“The differences between the federal government and the Amhara are widening. There is lack of strong political leadership sometimes making things hopeless. The political leadership is following the drum beats with emotions than reasons,” the expert indicated.
The war in Tigray has caused immense humanitarian crises in the region which the international community as well as some domestic initiatives have been voicing time and again. The Ethiopian government also said it is working to deliver humanitarian aid to the needy in the Tigray region.
A statement released by the Office of the Prime Minister on Thursday July 22, 2021 stated that, “Prior to the June 29, 2021 enactment of a humanitarian ceasefire and related withdrawal of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces from Mekelle and other cities in the region, the National Emergency Coordination Committee, which in three rounds had been providing humanitarian assistance for the past month, had also placed in storage more than 400,000 quintals of wheat and 2.5 million liters of cooking oil for distribution for those in need. In addition, close to 14 million liters of fuel have been left in fuel depots within the region for utilization by citizens prior to the withdrawal of the ENDF.”
Reports from UN agencies including the humanitarian coordination wing and the UNICEF indicate that more than half a million people are living in famine like situations in Tigray. But the government denies this saying there is no condition to declare famine in Tigray according to international standards of doing so.
But with recent developments, the ethnic nature of the war could exacerbate the humanitarian and other crises in Tigray as destructions such wars cause could be immense with high civilian casualties.
“This could drag the country into a non-stop chaos which is a vicious circle the country keeps coming repeatedly into. The nation keeps doing the same thing and failed to change the course. Had it been implemented properly, the ceasefire declared by the federal government would have changed the course. But as always, it requires a winner to end the war than such course changes,” the expert added.
He advises politicians to come to their senses and bring about a lasting solution instead of all sides insisting on mobilizing forces to keep fighting. This is dragging misery in the country which had once started to show a glimmer of hope after so many ups and downs.