Ethiopia at war
From a state of insecurity, mass displacement and ethnic conflicts for about two years now, Ethiopia has entered a new level: a state of war. Conflicts and attacks that followed the assassination of the prominent artist Hachalu Hundessa as well as attacks on civilians in Benshangul Gumuz, Oromia as well as the Southern Region claimed lives, inflicted injuries on survivors, displaced thousands and destructed property. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) has been repeatedly accused of taking part in these attacks along with the Oromo Liberation Front’s armed wing.
For about a year now, analysts, observers and institutions have been predicting that the political tensions between the federal government led by the Prosperity Party (PP) and Tigray Regional State government led by the TPLF would result in military confrontations.
Despite the decision by the House of Federation and the House of Peoples’ Representatives to postpone general elections on account of the Coronavirus pandemic, Tigray region went on to hold regional elections in defiance of the central government. TPLF won the election in landslide and elected Debretsion Gebremichael (PhD) to the regional Presidency.
The situation further escalated tensions between the two sides that started since the TPLF walked out of the merger of the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) into Prosperity Party (PP). The two federal houses finally decided to cut ties and budgetary subsidies to Tigray region because of TPLF’s refusal to recognize them as legal entities after October 5, 2020, despite constitutional interpretations that extended their term.
Getachew Reda, Executive Committee member of the TPLF, told The Reporter at the time that the decision by the houses is equal to declaration of war on Tigray and added that the leaders at the federal level are illegal since October 5, 2020 as they did not renew their legitimacy through elections.
Although PM Abiy Ahmed (PhD) said in June 2020 to the state affiliated Fana Broadcasting Corporate in Tigrigna that military action is not an option to resolve the differences between the TPLF and PP, the two sides are now at war.
In a televised statement to the Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporate (EBC), Abiy announced that he had ordered the Ethiopian National Defense Forces to take action on forces led by the TPLF that, he said, attacked the Northern Command of the ENDF stationed in Tigray.
A statement the Office of the Prime Minister issued on November 4, 2020, said that the TPLF attacked the Command’s base and attempted to loot artillery and equipment.
“The attack on the Northern Command has been premised on TPLF viewing the Ethiopian National Defense Forces as a foreign Army rather than an army that has been protecting the people of Tigray for more than twenty years,” the statement accused, adding that TPLF also waged war in Danshah, a town bordering Tigray and Amhara regions.
The statement also indicated that the TPLF has been manufacturing military attires that resemble that of the Eritrean military forces, aiming to implicate Eritrea in “false claims of aggression against the people of Tigray.”
“The last red line has been crossed with this morning’s attacks and the Federal government is, therefore, forced into a military confrontation,” the statement read. It further disclosed that the ENDF “have been ordered to carry out their mission to save the country and the region from spiraling into instability.”
Just a day before the disclosure, the President of Tigray region, Debretsion Gebremichael (PhD) stated to the regional state media Tigray TV that they are fully prepared for war come any aggression from the federal government. On November 5, 2020, in a statement to the same media, he said that the federal government was mobilizing forces to attack Tigray. Debretsion further accused PM Abiy of collaborating with the Eritrean President to attack Tigray.
But all this seems to happen at a snap of fingers and everyone woke up to the shocking news on the morning of November 4, 2020.
Observers like Kjetil Tronvol that have been following the development since TPLF avoided the merger of the four-party coalition EPRDF, say that they have been warning that the military confrontation between the TPLF and the federal government was imminent.
Following the news of military action in Tigray, Tronvol tweeted, “As warned about for close to a year now, armed conflict is breaking out in Ethiopia. PM Abiy Ahmed Ali has ordered National Defense Forces to ‘start military offensive against TPLF.”
Crisis Group’s Africa Briefing titled “Toward an End to Ethiopia’s Federal Tigray Feud” released in August 2020, indicated that there is a possibility that the situation may escalate to military confrontation between the two sides and the international community needs to play its role in deescalating the tensions through negotiation. The Briefing recommended prominent institutions and leaders like the European Union and President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa mediate between the two.
As worrying as it is, no official efforts to mediate between the two have been made by any outside force. Local efforts to do so by religious fathers and the elderly including the legendary athlete Haile Gebreselassie bore no fruit. The Inter-Religions Council expressed its concern and said it is disappointing that their efforts to broker peace between the two failed. The Council called for an immediate end of hostilities.
Experts who have been following the developments see wider implications of the military confrontation to the Horn of African region in general. The August Crisis Group Briefing, for instance, warned that “hostilities between the federal government and the Tigray region could also have regional implications. Already, it has infected Ethiopia’s peace deal with Eritrea.”
For Ann Fitz-Gerald, a professor of International Security and the Director of the Balsillie School of International Affairs at Waterloo, Canada, although the aftermath of the conflict may pull off some personnel dispatched to some African nations for peacekeeping purposes, Ethiopia could still continue to support peace and security in the region.
“ENDF has been spread across the region for years now, assisting neighboring states with their own tensions. Some troops may need to be pulled back. However, Ethiopia has a number of other tools of national power at its disposal including economic, social, diplomacy, information and its system of alliances - so these instruments of national power can also be leveraged to continue supporting peace and security across the region,” She explains.
Whether the two sides have done enough to avoid military confrontations that could have a wider implication to the Horn of Africa region, and as some suggest to the Gulf region too, is a debatable subject. TPLF says that it has exerted the maximum effort to avoid the crisis. Similarly, PM Abiy repeatedly said his administration was patient enough to avoid such confrontations.
“I believe that Prime Minister Abiy's administration has made numerous gestures for dialogue with the TPLF, but the error on the part of the new administration was perhaps in underestimating the impact that downsizing TPLF representation across senior levels of the security forces would have on the securitization of the Tigray region which followed,” Professor Fitz-Gerald says. She added: “lessons from the past have shown that when skilled and experienced personnel become demilitarized without support for a productive and progressive national reintegration and reconciliation strategy, this can serve to undermine peace and stability. After ‘securitization of the region’ - which, left over time, would not provide a conducive foundation for dialogue once gestures of dialogue became extended.”
She stresses “As a result, these heightened tensions between the TPLF and the PP were inevitable. This would also not be conducive to a foundation for dialogue and would result in very wide starting points that would be difficult to reconcile. With little relationship with the federal government, and a highly securitized culture, it was also inevitable that any decisions concerning the defense reforms, the northern command, and talks with Eritrea would become highly sensitive and be interpreted as being targeted towards the TPLF. I also believe that there was perhaps a view from the TPLF that they had been singled out and that the government was doing little to address different forms of nationalism within other ethnic groups represented within the security sector.” She further noted that it seemed unreasonable that the TPLF did not recognize the Prime Minister's proposal, and the Electoral Commission's decision, to postpone the elections for a period of up to one year.
At the time, Ann Fitz-Gerald argues ‘the Coronavirus was sweeping across Africa and no one knew the magnitude of its impact. Ethiopia was following precedent that had been set elsewhere around the world. Both Tigray's geographic distance from the capital city and its reduced region-center interactions - which led to a low COVID-19 infection rate - would have further hardened its position on the need for a national election. But with high numbers elsewhere in Ethiopia and the rest of the world, and a debilitating impact being felt by countries worldwide, not to recognize the government after October 5 and to insist that the PM steps down before dialogue can be considered was not helpful.’
Within all this, however, she is optimistic that the clashes won’t have any impact on the future people to people relations as well as the strength of the military. She is of the view that the conflict does not concern the wider people but rather “differences between two political groups with an unnaturally wide gulf between their respective positions.”
Unlike other experts that recommended for the involvement of foreign mediators to resolve the issue between the two, Fitz-Gerald is rather unconvinced in involving any external forces in the resolution.
“This is an Ethiopian issue and, to the greatest extent possible, should be left to Ethiopia to resolve, certainly at the first instance. The fact that Ethiopia has played a frontline role in stabilizing the wider conflict-ridden region of the Horn of Africa - and maintains culture-specific practices which drive persistence and commitment to resolving differences - should mean that, in time, should Tigray wish to remain part of Ethiopia, differences will be worked out,” she asserted.
She also adds that “This incident, and the ensuing violence that has followed, will continue until both sides agree to a ceasefire - but any eventual ceasefire agreement may also come with holding certain individuals to account. I don't see any other scenario aside from Tigray voting to secede; independence which, I do not feel, its small economy could sustainably support.”
To convince both sides reach a ceasefire negotiation, she recommends the involvement of traditional and religious leaders to play roles. Also saying that the Ministry of Peace has an important role in this as it has been working on “foundations and approaches for constructive dialogue,” the African Union and the International Community should play a role in encouraging both sides not only on the development of a ceasefire agreement but also in observing and implementing its provisions.
“Following the clashes, an immediate ceasefire is needed and an agreement to end all hostilities,” she stated.
Although not much is known about what is going on at the battlefield where the Ethiopian National Defense Forces along with the Amhara Region Special Forces are fighting the Special Forces in Tigray, the sides do not seem ready for dialogue and both sides speak of getting rid of the other.
Temesgen Tiruneh, President of Ahmara region, said that they will work to get rid of “Amhara’s arch enemies” once and for all. On the other hand, Tigray’s President Debretsion repeatedly said that Tigray would be a place of burial for anyone who would fight them and undermine their right to self-determination.
Many international as well as local human rights groups are calling for the protection of civilians in the conflict.
A statement the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission sent to The Reporter on November 5, 2020, said that it “is gravely concerned and closely monitoring the fast-developing security situation in Tigrai region and other parts of the country.” It quoted EHRC Chief Commissioner, Daniel Bekele (PhD), as saying “ [the] EHRC urges both federal and regional security forces to ensure the safety and security of civilians and respect human rights at all times.”
He also called for all concerned forces to consider that Tigray hosts thousands of refugees.
Berhanu Jula (Gen.), the Deputy Chief of Staff of the ENDF, in a press conference held on Thursday November 5, 2020, stated that forces are being mobilized to go to the front in the North.