Ethiopia at war

This is a chapter from the report: Tigray War and Regional Implications, which you can The Tigray War and Regional Implications – Volume 1.

Ethiopia at war

 

By Antony Shaw[1]

 

  • The Federal Government v Tigray Regional State  

 

Introduction

 

On November 4, 2020, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered federal armed forces, the Ethiopian National Defence Forces (ENDF), into action to carry out a “law enforcement operation” in Tigray.[2] His statement followed a number of overnight attacks by Tigray Regional Special Forces and militia on ENDF bases and offices, in Mekelle, the capital of the region and headquarters of the Northern Command of the ENDF. There were similar confrontations in other parts of Tigray, some close to the border with Eritrea where the ENDF had major concentrations of troops and equipment. [3]  Surprisingly, the ENDF was taken unawares, Prime Minister Abiy said later. He said units were forced to flee into Eritrea without clothes or equipment, while others were surrounded with soldiers killed, some while sleeping.[4] There are two very different explanations of the actual outbreak of war that appear equally unlikely. The first is the story that was offered by the Tigrayan authorities.

 

The Tigray Regional Government originally claimed that the government started the conflict, though even then there was more than one version of what actually happened. One account claimed there had been an unsuccessful Federal government commando raid on Mekelle in the early hours of November 4 to try and seize the Tigrayan political leadership believed to be meeting at the Planet Hotel.[5] The commandos found the hotel empty and then retreated. An alternative account suggested the commandos had arrived in the guise of security forces guarding a transfer of banknotes, airlifted to Mekelle in two helicopters and an Antonov from Bahir Dar, again without finding their target. In these versions, it appears there was no fighting in Mekelle, but TPLF forces subsequently took over the ENDF base near Mekelle airport through which the commandos had come, where there was some fighting.

 

In fact, given the situation at the time, neither version seems plausible. It would be highly improbable that a commando unit would be able to land at Mekelle airport, drive into the city, take over a hotel and withdraw without conflict.

 

A different version of events suggests the Tigrayan government did not really expect conflict to break out until October, despite a long series of threatening moves by Abiy over several months, and they had made few preparations. When confrontation appeared inevitable, the Tigrayan leaders held talks with the Northern Command headquarters in Mekelle, to ask for assistance or at the least for weapons and logistical support, including artillery and rockets. They claimed Abiy had mobilized ENDF units and the Amhara militia and come to an agreement with Eritrea to attack Tigray. Agreement was reached allowing the Tigrayans to remove weapons but most of troops at the base refused to fight for Tigray. They then retired to Mekelle University campus to be guarded, housed and fed. Later an agreement was reached with the International Committee of the Red Cross, under which 1,300 were sent to Gondar and Addis Ababa.

 

In this version, when the Tigrayans arrived at the base to collect the promised weapons, some of the troops resisted and as a result fighting broke out. In the meantime, Tigrayan units had approached other ENDF bases throughout the region. The ENDF units were offered the alternatives of surrender or joining to fight for Tigray. Several thousand, including many of the Tigrayan troops in the Northern Command, took the latter option; but at least as many appear to have surrendered to be held prisoners.[6] In a number of cases, fighting broke out, for example, at Adigrat, Dansha and Serto, and some troops were forced to retreat into Eritrea.

 

This account appeared to be broadly confirmed a couple of weeks later when a TPLF official, Sekou Toure Getachew, admitted that the TPLF had taken what he described as a pre-emptive action, attacking units of the Northern Command in advance of a Federal Government assault on the region planned for the next day. [7] The timing of this, the day after the controversial 2020 US election, suggests the Federal government itself may indeed have been planning an attack to coincide with this distraction for the international community. Certainly, it had already moved some ENDF units into a position to launch an immediate response on November 4, as well as already mobilizing Amhara regional Special Forces at the border with Tigray. [8]

 

If the narrative provided by the Tigrayans is implausible, then so is that offered by the Ethiopian authorities. This portrays the Ethiopian government as having been taken completely by surprise by the attack on the Northern Command on November 4. The evidence points in the other direction. There are solid indications that Prime Minister Abiy and President Isaias spent many months working on plans to resolve their problems with the TPLF, or at least to reduce its influence inside Ethiopia and along the border with Eritrea. After Prime Minister Abiy went on his historic visit to Asmara on 8 July 2018 President Isaias and Prime Minister Abiy made no fewer than nine visits to each other’s capitals, or visited foreign capitals together prior to the outbreak of war in Tigray.[9] This cementing of relations was enhanced by further mutual visits by Ethiopian and Eritrean ministers and senior officials. A summit meeting was held in Asmara on 27 January 2020, at which the Eritrean and Ethiopian leaders were joined by the Somali President, Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo.[10] A statement was issued after the meeting in which the three leaders pledged to face common security threats together.[11] When the war in Tigray erupted, troops from all three countries would be involved. The final piece of the puzzle is offered by the visits made just prior to the Tigray war by President Isaias and Prime Minister Abiy. The Ethiopian leader becomes the first foreign head of state to visit Eritrea’s main training base at Sawa on 18 July 2020 and was photographed inspecting troops and military equipment.[12] This was followed by President Isaias’ visit to the Ethiopian air force base at Bishoftu on 12 October.[13] This pattern of inspection of military facilities just prior to the Tigray war, together with the summit with Somalia, strongly suggests that the leaders were making preparations to confront and – if necessary – eliminate the threat they perceived to emanate from Tigray.

 

If this interpretation is accurate then the official versions of events provided by both the Tigrayan and the Ethiopian and Eritrean sides of the conflict need to be treated with scepticism.

 

On 28 November, just over three weeks after the outbreak of war, Federal troops advanced to seize the regional capital, Mekelle. Rather than fight street by street the TPLF leadership and its forces chose to withdraw, taking to the countryside to continue the conflict. Prime Minister Abiy felt he could declare his ‘law enforcement operation’ had been a success. He wrote on his Twitter account: “I am pleased to share that we have completed and ceased the military operations in the Tigray region. Our focus now will be on rebuilding the region and providing humanitarian assistance while Federal Police apprehend the TPLF clique.”[14]

 

His belief that military operations in Tigray had been “completed and ceased”, rapidly looked hollow. With most of the TPLF leadership remaining at large, and the launch of guerrilla war, there were a steadily increasing number of claims of continued fighting, of massacres and attacks on civilians, and of looting as well as attacks on churches and mosques being carried out by both Federal Government and Eritrean troops. The war has continued with a series of confrontation that ranged from skirmishes to full scale battles.

 

The government has complained about the reports of continuous fighting claiming that these have exaggerated the humanitarian situation in the region, the human rights abuses committed against the local population in Tigray. The presence of Eritrea troops in Tigray was repeatedly denied as fake news. As the BBC reported on 27 January 2021: “Both the Eritrean and Ethiopian governments deny that Eritrean forces are in Tigray, which borders Eritrea.”[15] It was only on 23 March 2021 that Abiy only very reluctantly and belatedly admitted in a speech to Parliament that there were indeed Eritrean troops in Tigray. He said that he had spoken to Eritrean officials about the allegations of atrocities, following a growing number of accusations of abuse.[16] He told MPs: “After the Eritrean army crossed the border and was operating in Ethiopia, any damage it did to our people was unacceptable”, adding, “Regardless of the TPLF propaganda of exaggeration, any soldier responsible for raping our women and looting communities in the region will be held accountable as their mission is to protect.” [17]

 

Whatever the original intention of Abiy and the Federal government may have been, the operation in Tigray region rapidly assumed a much larger dimension than mere ‘law enforcement’. With the involvement of Eritrea, and to a lesser extent Somalia, it became an international conflict. The international aspect has been reinforced by the associated tension and clashes along the Sudan-Ethiopian border. Bloomberg reported on 24 March 2021 the UN as saying that Eritrean forces were participating in the clash between Ethiopian and Sudanese forces.[18] ‘“The conflict along the border between Sudan and Ethiopia remains active, with Sudanese Armed Forces and Ethiopian — including Amhara militias — and Eritrean forces deployed around Barkhat settlement in Greater Fashaga and clashes reported since early March,’ the UN said in its latest situation report on Ethiopia.” It is also a major humanitarian disaster, threatening the very survival of the region’s population and giving rise to accusations that Prime Minister Abiy and President Isaias have decided to destroy both the TPLF and even Tigray itself.[19]

 

From the outset of the fighting, the ‘law enforcement operation’, involved substantial numbers of Federal Government troops, Amhara Special Forces and militia and the support of much of the Eritrean army, apparently aiming for the destruction of the TPLF and apparently careless of any loss of life that might occur. They confronted tens of thousands of Tigrayan Special forces and militia and some ENDF soldiers and officers from Tigray, who had gone over to the Tigrayan side.  Thousands were forced to flee as refugees into Sudan, and hundreds of thousands more have been internally displaced. Accusations and counter-accusations of human rights abuse and of violations of the rules of war, have filled social media platforms, and the usual difficulty of evaluating claims in war situations was increased by the Federal Government’s blanket refusal to allow outsiders any access to the region and the cutting of all Internet and other communication links in Tigray. This, of course, had the effect of increasing international concern about the activities of both sides and more particularly of the Amhara and Tigray Special Forces and militia as well as of the Federal forces and even more of the Eritrean troops.

 

The Federal government’s ban on external and independent access to Tigray, both journalistic and humanitarian, was partially lifted in late February as a result of the increasing evidence of abuse, as Tigrayan leaders managed to provide reports to the outside world.[20] The ban had been doing the Federal government no favours and the effect on the reputation of Prime Minister Abiy will be long lasting. It also had the result of producing two, diametrically opposed, narratives, contrasting ‘truths’, very different accounts of why, and how, conflict erupted at the beginning of November, and of what has been happening since. These narratives not only cover the war, they also amount to two very different interpretations of events since Prime Minister Abiy came to power in April 2018 and of the years of TPLF hegemonic control of Ethiopia’s ruling coalition, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and the Federal Government prior to 2018, and even more of where blame lies for the descent into the catastrophic situation in Tigray. Neither can be accepted as totally plausible or accurate.

 

The absence of so much external and independent information, the refusal of the Federal government to allow independent access into Tigray, and the destruction of so much in Tigray, a point of concern in itself, means much of the story depends upon balance of probabilities not certainties. Surviving TPLF leaders have seldom been able to give their version of events since early November; the Eritrean government apparently continues to believe it can outlast any reports of killing, looting and destruction, and has remained silent as usual; the Ethiopian government has offered minimal details of its ‘law enforcement operation’. These have, however, included Prime Minister Abiy’s somewhat premature announcement of a successful conclusion to the operation on November 28, along with his knowingly inaccurate assertion that no single civilian had died in the capture of Tigray’s towns and cities. A growing number of detailed reports of human rights abuse, killings of the local population and the destruction caused by Ethiopia and Eritrean troops have been filtering out of the region since the end of November, despite all the efforts of Federal Government. Similarly, claims of continued TPLF military action have continued to appear, as has the evidence of maltreatment of civilians by refugees reaching Sudan, and the refoulement of Eritrean refugees from Tigray to Eritrea. The Federal government, in turn, has been steadily reinforcing its own narrative with reports of investigations claiming additional evidence of TPLF criminal and treasonable activities both before and after the outbreak of hostilities.

 

The contradictions in the competing narratives extend to the whole period since the TPLF lost power in early 2018, and indeed cover its activities since 1991 when it ousted the military regime of the Derg. A central element in Abiy’s account of how and why he became Prime Minister has been his increasing enthusiasm to blame the TPLF exclusively for all the problems of the EPRDF, for which, of course, he himself worked for so long, as a soldier, in security, as a minister and then as an Oromo politician. In fact, however, behind all the arguments and claims lies a long history of conflict and disagreements over power and authority in Ethiopia as well as over the policies and legacy of the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).[21]

 

Perhaps we should at this point, underline that what we hope to do here is to provide a third, realistic, narrative, producing as accurate an account as possible of events, steering a course between the Scylla of government claims and propaganda and the Charybdis of TPLF allegations and counter-claims, and avoiding the exaggerations, distortions and lies of social media, fake news, mis-information and hate speech produced by both sides and their supporters.

 

Background

 

The onset of the conflict in November 2020 was hardly a surprise. Indeed, expectations of open conflict had grown steadily ever since Prime Minister Abiy formally took office on 2 April 2018, and relations between the TPLF leadership and the Federal government in Addis Ababa began to deteriorate. The choice of Abiy as leader of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) saw Abiy sworn in as Prime Minister after the resignation of his predecessor, Hailemariam Dessalegn in February 2018. More significantly, it indicated an end to the TPLF domination of the EPRDF and of the control it had exercised over the Federal, and state, governments, for 27 years. Indeed, there were signs that the writing was on the wall since the outbreak of widespread demonstrations in 2015.[22] Ethiopians were increasingly fed up with deep seated corruption and failures of governance. It became clear that the public was prepared to resist the senior, and largely Tigrayan, levels of the EPRDF government, which had become infected by their immunity in power.

 

The TPLF leadership was proud of its revolution, of the effort and of the sacrifices it had made to overthrow the military regime of the Derg in 1991. They had built strong support in Tigray during, and after, the struggle. They had also produced a solution for the distribution of power in the rest of Ethiopia. Starting as an ethno-nationalist organization, long before the collapse of the Derg, the TPLF had realized the need to find another way of dealing with Ethiopia’s multiple ethnic problems. Its answer was a federation, and rather more controversially, an ethnic federation. The logic of this seemed reasonable in 1991– there were a number of ethnically based guerrilla groups operating across Ethiopia, and the country was awash with arms as the Derg’s 500,000 strong army collapsed. The TPLF may have been the leading element in ousting the Derg in Ethiopia but it owed much to the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front’s successes in Eritrea and for the help the EPLF provided in capturing Addis Ababa.[23] The Tigrayans were also supported by the Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (EPDM) later the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM), [24] and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) [25] in Ethiopia. Other armed ethnic opposition movements were also found at various times among the Afar, in Benishangul-Gumuz, Gambella, Sidama and the Somali regions. Indeed, much of the opposition to the Derg (and to the previous imperial regime) came from minority nationalities which believed correctly that they had been marginalized and largely ignored in terms of power, development, culture and language within the centralized imperial and military structures of governance.

 

On achieving power in Addis Ababa, the TPLF, well aware of the minority status of Tigrayans (only 7% of the population)[26], used the EPRDF as the vehicle for control. It added the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Front (later the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM) in 1992 to incorporate 56 ‘nations, nationalities and peoples’ from the southern part of the country. In theory, the Front provided an equality of authority between its four elements; in practice, the TPLF remained very much in charge. Its long-time chair Meles Zenawi (President 1991-1995; Prime Minister 1995-2012) developed a steadily increasing autocratic streak, particularly after he defeated an attempt to oust him in 2001.

 

Meles’ own personal authoritarianism was reflected in the way in which the TPLF controlled the EPRDF, producing an elite to dominate governance and administration, business and finance, and, in particular, military and security concerns.[27] Never quite so pervasive as its critics claimed, and gradually losing some of its control in all these spheres after 2012, significant elements of the TPLF nevertheless became involved in mis-governance. This included tax evasion, embezzlement, money laundering and all the other usual aspects of rent-seeking activities available in a developmental state suffering from corruption. Identified later by Prime Minister Abiy as essentially a Tigrayan fault, this was hardly the case.[28] During the 2000s, suspicion of corruption, both of power and of money, spread across all levels of the EPRDF and indeed of the associate regional ruling parties, in the Afar, Benishangul-Gumuz, Gambella, Harar and Somali regional states. Indeed, it could be said to transcend ethnicity and involve all regional governments as well as the Federal administration. When rumour became impossible to ignore, a minister might find himself (gender was hardly a concern prior to 2018) posted abroad as an ambassador despite protests from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Another alternative was to retire gracefully into a business advisory role. Any faults, real or imaginary, remained hidden behind the government’s traditional walls of secrecy.

 

Meles and some TPLF leaders railed against such perversion of the revolution, but demonstrated all-too-common undemocratic answers to criticism: jailing opposition party leaders, journalists and others, and responding violently to any demonstrations of opposition as in the aftermath of the controversial, and genuinely contested, 2005 elections.[29] There was some awareness of the need for change. In June 2009, at Meles’ insistence, the Front adopted Metekakat, his plan to provide for a new generation of leaders in three phases.[30] Meles himself was due to leave in the third and final stage by 2015. The first phase involved the resignation of a third of the EPRDF’s Executive Committee drawn from all four organizations. The reality of the changes was questioned because those resigning largely moved from executive to advisory roles with Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin, for example, being appointed Ambassador to China. Nevertheless, Meles, at least, intended the process to be real, if only as an excuse to remove of a number of people from the party. [31] The second stage of this transition was due in 2012, but the process abruptly came to a halt when Meles unexpectedly died in August 2012.[32]

 

The commitment of the TPLF, and therefore of the EPRDF, to an ethnic-driven federalism was in part driven by the circumstances of the struggle against the Derg, but it also reflected the TPLF’s own interest and aims for establishing Tigray’s future role in Ethiopia, and its ideological view of the place of the Amhara in Ethiopian history. This included awareness of the historic competition between the Amhara and Tigrayans for control of the core Abyssinian highland empire. For all its Marxist credentials its commitment to ethnic nationalism meant that the TPLF also looked back to the reign of the Tigrean Emperor Yohannes IV in the late 19th century, the last time Tigray had been dominant. Early on in its own existence, in 1976, the TPLF produced a position paper exploring the possibilities of an independent, even a greater Tigray, including the Tigrayan-speaking areas of what later became Eritrea.[33]  It was considered seriously, but almost immediately rejected for practical, political and ideological reasons. Although it has been frequently used as a slur since 2018, it is only now that it appears to be gaining traction again in response to the treatment of Tigray and Tigrayans by Abiy.

Whether the TPLF ever intended to create genuine federal structures, ethnic, linguistic or otherwise, may be an open question, [34] but certainly, despite having been instrumental in instituting a federal structure, the TPLF failed to implement the necessary structures for its growth. Ethnic, or rather linguistic federalism, however, had consequences, as might have been expected, most notably a substantial increase in ethno-nationalism with the potential to disrupt the unity of the state despite the emphasis laid on ‘unity in diversity’. Problems were exacerbated by the creation of the ‘developmental state’ which required a vanguard party, in this case a coalition controlled by the TPLF. Almost inevitably, this led to a widespread belief that the TPLF favoured state aid and investment for their home region over the rest of the country.[35] Intended to moderate and control ethno-nationalism, the EPRDF, in fact, encouraged it despite Meles’ own desire to turn the Front into a single national party. [36] The EPRDF Central Committee set up a sub-committee to study this back in 2008 but the four parties failed to agree on possible modalities. Significantly, they also refused to consider incorporating the ruling parties of the smaller regional states. These were also, in effect, creations of the TPLF but the EPRDF consistently refused to accept they had reached a sufficient stage of political maturity to join the EPRDF as equal partners.

 

This underlined the major failure of the TPLF and  its creation, the EPRDF: it proved unable to resolve the “question of nationalities in Ethiopia” [37] Its attempt, ethnic, or more accurately linguistic,  federalism, was never seriously applied with the TPLF operating a centralised authoritarianism in which repression became a major issue. This failure outweighed the quite genuine achievements of the government. Indeed, despite the Federal Government’s virulent propaganda after April 2018, the record of the EPRDF prior to 2018 was far from poor. Its ‘developmental state’ oversaw some 15 years of double–digit economic growth, an impressive and substantial fall in poverty, and significant development in infrastructure, health and education across the country. Life expectancy between 1991 and 2018 rose from 40 to 65. By 2019 the World Bank assessed that this had risen to 67 – a remarkable achievement.[38]  Donors found the EPRDF used aid effectively and welcomed its state-led developments in infrastructure and social services. It provided stability, if at a price, and supported international and regional peace-keeping.  Nevertheless, despite the EPRDF’s insistence that it was aiming for a ‘democratic developmental state’, its repressive and authoritarian approach to criticism, coupled with increasing perceptions of Tigrayan dominance and escalating failures of governance and corruption, provided for a steady build-up of opposition.

 

Overall, the operation of the federal state as implemented under the 1995 Constitution by the TPLF reinforced its authoritarianism, negating any efforts at real change or (re)-negotiation of power or even any improved relationship between the Federal government and the state administrations. At the same time, it offered no alternatives to the growing ethnic mobilization that the constitution inevitably encouraged in the states or to its increasingly vocal intellectual support. Coupled with the merging of party and state functions and administration within the centralized ethnic federal state, this became a major cause of increased ethnic-based violence, largely driven by land and territorial issues, particularly after 2015.

 

Any changes in personnel at the head of the EPRDF, or of the TPLF in 2010 and 2012, did nothing to moderate the growth of the TPLF into a propertied urban elite distant from its own roots among the Tigrayan peasantry. Nor did it make much effort to deal with the growth of popular unrest after 2015, largely in Oromia and Amhara regions, other than responding by violence, first instituting a State of Emergency in October 2016. This provided for an extensive list of measures, including bans on social media, on accessing the external ESAT and Oromia Media Network outlets, on participating in or organizing unauthorized protests, and on opposition groups issuing statements to the press. Diplomatic travel outside Addis Ababa was limited and security forces given considerably greater powers to search or use forces. Meles’ successor as Prime Minister, Hailemariam Dessalegn, from the Southern region, did also make a number of suggestions for economic and social reforms, but he was unable to make any real progress in the face of TPLF intransigence, not least because he was seen by the other parties, not altogether accurately, as a TPLF mouthpiece.

 

By 2018 TPLF leaders were certainly well aware of the need for reform. The first State of Emergency in 2016, was a reaction to widespread disturbances instigated by the Oromo youth protest movement, Qeerroo, later followed by the appearance of similar groups (Fana) in Amhara areas. Qeerroo activity originated due to concerns over the arbitrary expansion of Addis Ababa’s city boundaries, taking over land farmed by Oromo farmers. The protests rapidly escalated into widespread demonstrations against government abuse, corruption and maladministration.

 

The rise of Abiy Ahmed

 

Both the EPRDF, and in particular the TPLF, also responded by launching programs of self-criticism and considering further reform.[39] However, for the EPRDF, this was overtaken by discussions preceding Hailemariam’s resignation in mid-February 2018 and agreement on the appointment of Abiy Ahmed as Prime Minister at the end of March. The TPLF continued its discussions on internal reform, holding a six-week long Central Committee gim gima (evaluation) also in part a reaction to criticisms within the Tigray region, from new Tigrayan ethno-nationalist parties, Baitona, Third Weyene, and the Tigray Independence Party as well as from its longer established opponents, Arena and the Tigrayan Democratic Party which rejected ethnic federalism. This too was largely overtaken by events.

 

The growing pressure of continued unrest, and the Federal government failure to deal with it, brought together the Oromo and Amhara parties in the EPRDF, providing them with the opportunity to put together a firm enough alliance strong enough to encourage Hailemariam to resign. He did so on February 15, making it clear he believed it was necessary for an Oromo to succeed him. The most obvious possibilities were Lemma Megersa, President of the Oromia region and chair of the Oromo party, and Abiy Ahmed, his deputy and head of the Oromo party secretariat. The person most prominent in 2017 in organizing Oromo and Amhara pressure on the TPLF was Lemma, much the more popular and more respected. Political discussion prior to 2018 constantly emphasized the work that “Team Lemma” had done in dealing with problems in Oromia and Lemma’s own increasing status within the EPRDF. Indeed, Lemma was widely spoken of as a possible premier for several months before Hailemariam resigned.

 

For Abiy to become the Oromo candidate for the chair of EPRDF and for Prime Minister required some careful political manoeuvrings. Lemma might be the most obvious Oromo candidate but he was not a member of parliament, a requirement for becoming chair of the EPRDF and thus prime minister. The alternatives were to arrange a by-election or to replace Lemma as party chairman. This was the option Abiy persuaded the party to adopt, to take the tactical decision to replace Lemma by Abiy, allowing the party to continue with its leading role in the anti-TPLF alliance, making Abiy its candidate for the leadership of the EPRDF at the meeting of the 180-strong executive committee meeting which began on March 1.  In effect, after February 2018, Abiy out-manoeuvred Lemma, who accepted the situation in order to ensure the choice of an Oromo as Prime Minister and ensure the defeat of the TPLF.

 

Discussions in the EPRDF Council were protracted, and rancorous, before Abiy was elected EPRDF chair on March 29. There were four candidates, the heads of the four member parties. Out of the 168 votes cast, Abiy received 108 votes. These included all the Oromo votes, and after Demeke Mekonnen, the Amhara candidate, withdrew in effect assuring Abiy’s success, virtually all the Amhara votes. [40] Abiy also received a dozen or so Southern votes and even a little Tigrayan support. The other two candidates were the Southern leader, Shiferaw Shigute, who took 58 votes, a majority of the southern party and most of the Tigrayan votes, while Debretsion Gebremichael, chair of the TPLF, received only 2. Most of the TPLF voted for a southern option as the least dangerous option for the TPLF. On April 2, Abiy was elected Prime Minister by the House of Representatives.

 

In the best traditions of democratic centralism, the TPLF accepted the vote, if with little enthusiasm. TPLF members were not impressed by Abiy. TPLF chair, Debretsion was heard to remark that he thought Abiy, aged 41, was too young for the job, and the NISS head, Getachew Assefa did not think Abiy had sufficient capacity to cope with the problems. Of most concern, however, were the proposed changes that Abiy was looking to make and which he spelt out in his first address to parliament. And these appeared to largely aimed at limiting what he saw as the TPLF’s underlying control of governance, the economy and security, in its influence and command of the ‘deep state’. Abiy’s ideas also appeared to threaten the ‘developmental state’ as established by the TPLF/EPRDF, and even threaten the operation of the federal constitution. An additional concern for the TPLF was Abiy’s insistence on resolving relations with Eritrea. Nobody, in theory, objected to ending the state of ‘no war, no peace’ with Eritrea, a situation that had continued since the end of the war with Eritrea in 2000, and which benefitted neither country. However, President Isaias was a sworn enemy of the TPLF which he regarded as responsible for the UN sanctions against Eritrea and his own near isolation for nearly twenty years, and had frequently made it clear he wanted its removal politically, and indeed its destruction. For the TPLF, any deal with Eritrea needed its involvement. The TPLF’s concerns were intensified by Abiy’s obvious suspicion of the TPLF and his assumption it was intending to try and take action to restore its previous status.

 

Certainly, it was clear from the outset that Abiy saw a need to consider changes in the federal structure though his approach changed significantly between 2018 and 2020.  In April 2018, the choice of Abiy as Prime Minister within the framework of ethnic federalism was seen as elevating the Oromo to control of administration and policy. As the chair of the EPRDF’s Oromo party, Abiy was expected to follow the example of the TPLF and increase the number of his own ethnicity, the Oromo, in Federal government at the expense of Tigrayans. He did indeed do so to a considerable expense and underlined this by the launch of investigations into the alleged corruption of the previous regime. Oromo activists saw Abiy’s appointment and his early decisions as the start of a new dispensation. Jawar Mohammed, owner of the Oromo Media Network (OMN), who claimed a million and a half Facebook followers, and who had persistently argued for a greater Oromo role in Federal Government and realistic Oromo regional self-determination, welcomed Abiy’s appointment. The Qeerroo groups were quick to see his appointment as an opportunity to demand an ‘Oromo First’ policy, calling for genuine self-rule in the Oromia regional state and for Oromos to predominate in federal government.

 

One side effect of the events of 2017-18, and increasing divisions within the EPRDF, was the virtual collapse of party control at local level, and as party and administration officials were in effect indistinguishable, a near collapse of local authority. Within weeks of Abiy’s accession to the premiership, dozens of local conflicts broke out across Ethiopia. Most had a long genesis in the stresses and strains of two decades of ethnic federalism, and a number involved deliberate efforts by the Oromia and Amhara regional state governments to expand their territory. There were border conflicts between Oromos and Somalis, Amhara and Gedeo; between Wolayita and Sidama; Gurage and Kebena; Somalis and Afars; Berta and Gumuz and Amhara; and the Amhara region made threatening noises over western and southern Tigray.

 

Another effect of the security problems of 2015 and the continued rise in violence, was a considerable increase in regional militarization, and the creation of regional Special Forces, an additional paramilitary force intended to deal with more serious problems. Under the constitution, regional states have the right to organize their own police forces, and provide these with regular police training and any weapons necessary to enforce the law at local level. Local militia forces also operate as an adjunct to the local police. The idea of military training and heavier arms for ‘Special Forces’ at the regional level was first introduced in 2007 in the Somali region to control large-scale Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) insurgency. The activities of this force, the Liyu [special] regional police, though successful, acquired a highly unsavoury reputation under the Somali regional president, Abdi Iley, who was removed at an early stage of Prime Minister Abiy’s reforms in 2018.  The reputation of the Liyu police, however, did nothing to prevent other regions raising their own Special Forces after 2015, notably both the Oromo and Amhara regions. Amhara Special Forces were heavily involved in the November fighting in Tigray. The Tigray region also substantially enlarged both its militia and it Special Forces in 2018-2019.

 

The effective collapse of local government and traditional patterns of authority, and the rise of largely unstructured local youth groups, the Qeerroo and the Fana, also encouraged outbreaks of violence in a dozen cities and numerous smaller towns, many in the Oromo region. Most of these related to land and corruption issues and were driven by expectations of the implementation of reform. The problems were compounded by the return of externally based opposition groups, several from Eritrea where they were being trained and armed.[41] This certainly played a role in the upsurge of ethnically based violence in the later part of 2018 and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people.

 

Subsequently, the Prime Minister, as part of his demonization of the TPLF and Tigrayans, ascribed this upsurge of conflict to the machinations of the TPLF, arguing that this was all part of a policy aimed at inciting violence to discredit his government and derail his reforms, and ultimately restoration of TPLF control. The government has produced little evidence of this, though Abiy himself told Parliament in November 2020 that there were 113 outbreaks of ethno-nationalist violence that could be ascribed to the TPLF activity since he became prime minister. He also referred to the TPLF plans to seize control of the Northern Command weapons as the first stage in more extensive plans: “The aim was to attack the Northern Command first and to control Gondar and Woldiya in the morning. After they controlled Gondar and Woldiya, they would cause explosions in Addis Ababa, Adama, and Hawassa through their agents and then the country would enter into chaos so that they could do what they wished after that. Some people from here were also preparing themselves with such thinking that they would become a government when the regime is changed.” [42] Apart from the TPLF attack on Northern Command bases in early November, nothing has been produced in support of such accusations and they seem highly implausible.

 

While one immediate element in the problems that arose between the TPLF and the Prime Minister in 2018 might have revolved around issues of power and control, the wider underlying question remained the relationship between the central government and the regional states. The relationship between federalism and ethnicity in effect provided for an ideological dispute over the type and extent of the implementation of federalism in Ethiopia under the Constitution of 1995. While it dominated the government, the TPLF had been committed to a centralized ethnic/linguistic federalism, offering a carefully controlled amount of self-determination to those peoples who had been traditionally marginalized by a perceived and previous Amhara-centric imperial regime. As its own dominance began to fragment after 2015, while accepting the need for reform, the TPLF certainly tried to manipulate the system. And in response to the growth of ‘Ethiopiawinet’ (Ethiopianess), pan-Ethiopian unity rather than a federal construct, the TPLF began to emphasize the importance of ethnic federalism in 2019-2020 as a rallying point among the country’s minority nationalities. Most of the smaller nationalities claim to have been marginalized under previous regimes, as in fact do the Oromo. Regional autonomy, though never effectively applied by the TPLF, nevertheless remains seen as a protection against any of the over-centralizing authorities which historically marginalized the minorities.

 

This gained some traction, especially among Oromo ethno-nationalists, suspicious of Amhara ambitions, but there was real reluctance to offer support to the TPLF because of the perception that it had for quarter of a century operated a repressive, and latterly highly corrupt, regime with its own members taking the leading role in military and security services and in government and administration. Prime Minister Abiy also pre-empted the possibility of any substantial open Oromo support for the TPLF by disbanding the ERPDF and creating the Prosperity Party (PP) in December 2019, bringing together the EPRDF parties and its five associated parties. The only party that refused to join was the TPLF. A few months later he also took the opportunity to arrest leading Oromo opposition figures, in June 2020. It should be emphasized, however, that Abiy’s success in preventing other nationalities supporting the TPLF does not, however, indicate any lessening of their concern over the steady shift of Abiy’s policies towards ‘Ethiopiawinet’, a concern which is being intensified by events in Tigray.

 

Federalism and the Constitution of 1994-95 can perhaps be described as an experiment in multilateralism; Abiy’s attempt to redraw it, an approach paralleled by the changes he has introduced in foreign policy, is largely a response to populist demand, significantly modified by his own interests and aims. What he is offering with the creation of a single party, the PP, is a modified and reduced form of self-determination without providing a more democratic reality than had previously existed. His own autocratic, religiously-flavoured, version of democracy and politics apparently provides for compulsory unanimity without participation or rather without equality. For his critics, in other words, it threatens a return to an imperial past of traditional autocratic politics, perhaps without an emperor in name, but once again marginalizing and side-lining the non-Amhara nations and nationalities, sweeping away the gains these groups have acquired since 1991 under ethnic federalism, even when only partially and poorly implemented.

 

Abiy originally had the support of the Oromo, the Amhara and most of the southern nations, nationalities and peoples. Removing the TPLF’s excess presence in government and administration and replacing its [over-] centralized federal system was widely welcome. But it wasn’t long before his actions raised suspicions that his reforms and other changes were aimed less at a creating an effective ethnic federal structure and more at a centralized government replicating the ‘Ethiopiawinet’ of the past. His friendship with the region’s most authoritarian leader, President Isaias, and his more publicity-focused actions, have added to the concern with which many now regard him. The honeymoon lasted less than a year.

 

 

  • Prime Minister Abiy’s short-lived whirlwind of reform

 

Once in place, Prime Minister Abiy launched a whole series of reforms, positioning himself as a young (41), charismatic, energetic, reforming leader, and catching the attention of Ethiopians and of the world. In a well-received inaugural address to the House of People’s Representatives, he apologized for past abuses and called on exiled opposition groups (several of whom were being armed, trained and supported by President Isaias in Eritrea) to return. He appealed for unity, pledged to respect all human and democratic rights, especially freedom of expression, assembly and organization. He promised to introduce economic reforms and to tackle corruption, emphasizing the needs of youth and women. He also said he was ready to resolve differences with Eritrea and called on Eritrea to do the same. [43]

 

Over the next months, he announced a series of reforms and appointments, freeing thousands of political prisoners, promised free and fair elections, gender equality, economic changes including extensive privatization, the opening up of the media and revision of controversial anti-terrorist and CSO laws. It was all buttressed by the publication of his own personal philosophy of Medemer, which emphasized reconciliation on the basis of synergy, unity, dialogue, for both Ethiopia and the region, underlining the importance of keeping the best of the past while moving to the future.[44]

 

The most striking step was the achievement of a Peace Accord with Eritrea, which gained Abiy the Nobel Peace Prize for 2019. The citation included some of the accomplishments of his first 100 days: lifting the State of Emergency, releasing political prisoners, removing media censorship and legalizing opposition groups, as well as engaging in other peace and reconciliation processes in East and Northeast Africa. Displaying considerable prescience, the citation also noted that “some people will think this year’s prize is being awarded too early” but added the Nobel Committee believed that Abiy Ahmed’s efforts deserve recognition and needed encouragement. [45]

 

It all seemed to be too good to be true, and it was. Abiy faced significant political difficulties in the implementation of his programs, and his responses rapidly seemed to hark back to his own past as a member of the repressive EPRDF/TPLF regime that he had tried to distance himself from as he became prime minister and which he subsequently excoriated so strongly. He had been in office less than a year when he was warning ‘spoilers’ that his patience was not inexhaustible. His own certainties, coupled with impatience and refusal to listen to criticism or even questions have too often negated any possibility of dialogue over his proposed policies, despite the supposed centrality of dialogue and unity to his philosophy of Medemer. His alliance with President Isaias of Eritrea led him into new and problematic areas of policy including the horrific levels of violence displayed in his ‘law enforcement operation’ in Tigray which, since November 2020, seems to have displayed all of the more traditional and repressive activities and human rights abuses so prevalent in the past in Ethiopia and so dominant in Eritrea under President Isaias.

One policy that achieved particular resonance for the international community, despite the widespread failure to implement anything similar elsewhere, was Abiy’s announcement, in October, of a cabinet offering gender parity. Half of the ministers in the cabinet were women, including the important posts of Minister of Defence and the new Ministry of Peace, with a portfolio overseeing the rival intelligence/security agencies, the National Intelligence and Security Service and the Information Network Security Agency, the Federal police, the National Disaster Management Commission, the Main department for Immigration and Nationality Affairs and several other related agencies. Women were also appointed as President of Ethiopia (Sahle-work Zewde), and as Chief Justice (Meaza Ashena), with a mandate to reform the judiciary, and as chair of the National Electoral Board (Birtukan Mideksa). Critics, however, were quick to notice that the gender balance did not continue lower down the administrative hierarchy. Women only held 25% of the appointments at state ministerial level, and far fewer at lower levels. When 20 new ambassadors were appointed in early in 2021, only two were women.

In his February 2019 interview with the Financial Times, Abiy noted he had freed all journalists and opened up the media.[46] The Committee to Protect Journalists in its 2018 annual Prison Census report on journalists imprisoned for their work included no Ethiopians for the first time in 14 years.[47] A Media Law Working Group (MLWG) was established and there was a significant increase in the number of private print and electronic media outlets. By mid-2020, there were 13 public and 26 commercial television stations, 10 public and 15 commercial radio stations, 54 community radio and television stations, and nearly 50 print media products.

 

However, it was only a matter of months after April 2018 that the federal government was again closing off the Internet, and reports surfaced of Oromo journalists being arrested, with signs of an increasingly hostile environment for commentators on events in Ethiopia. Amnesty International was demanding the release of five journalists arrested a month earlier in October 2019.[48] This steadily intensified with the increasing amount of ethnic conflict, the threat of conflict with Tigray and the outbreak of war, producing an increasing amount of self-censorship. In early November, 2020, a senior editor for Addis Standard, was arrested and accused of “attempts to dismantle the Constitution through violence” and “outrage against the Constitution”. Released shortly afterwards, he was rearrested and held for a month. The authorities deported the Crisis Group’s Senior Analyst on Ethiopia, William Davison, allegedly for irregularities over his work permit on November 21, 2020.[49] The same day, they also issued warning letters to Reuters, the BBC and Deutsche Welle.[50]

 

In January this year, a journalist working for Tigray TV was shot and killed by federal security forces a week after he had been briefly detained. Armed men raided the home of a freelance reporter in Addis Ababa and threatened to kill her if she continued investigating stories about the conflict in Tigray. Ethiopia’s Ambassador to Washington issued a sharp warning to journalists to “abide by the most stringent ethical standards”, claiming the major print media was telling falsehoods against the Ethiopian government about complicity in “massacres, torture, rapes, abductions, and the looting” in Tigray.

 

The government’s claim that both local and international journalists had been provided with access as early as November to cover the active phase of the rule of law operations and had filed reports, and it was therefore wrong to claim no media access, were not shared by the media. It was not until mid-February 2021, that the government announced that seven media agencies could have limited access to Tigray – AFP, Al Jazeera, New York Times, France 24, Reuters, BBC and Financial Times.[51] Over the next few days, however, several journalists working in Mekelle as translators or fixers with these agencies were arrested or beaten in a specific effort to intimidate them in advance of international media arrival. The ENDF arrested two journalists in Mekelle who were, it said, broadcasting ‘false propaganda’. [52]

 

The Committee to Protect Journalists 2020 Prison Census, published in December, once again had to include Ethiopian journalists, seven of them, the third highest number in sub-Saharan African countries, after Eritrea and Cameroon, though six were subsequently released.[53] That same month, the Council of Ministers approved a new Media Proclamation outlining the media’s legal responsibilities, and penalties for flouting these.[54] The Prime Minister said this would bolster freedom of expression and press freedom; human rights groups argued it had created the legal means to muzzle critics. [55]

 

Relations with journalists look set to continue. In March, the Ethiopian Broadcast Authority announced it would take ‘corrective measures’ against media outlets that challenged Ethiopia’s sovereignty, or endangered the unity of its people and the country’s peace. Its Deputy Director-general said a media monitoring assessment of the ‘law enforcement campaign’ in Tigray had showed that some foreign media outlets reports were “full of bias, unbalanced, and inaccurate” and this raised questions about journalism and professional ethics. Journalists who entered the region after the government’s approval were producing unbalanced, biased, inaccurate, and distorted reports, completely denying the Ethiopian government’s efforts to rebuild the region. Seven international agencies were authorised and were in the region; no journalist needs permission to operate there. The government remained committed to its promise to protect media freedom and had not yet prosecuted media professionals who violated the media laws. It had only revoked licenses or expelled them. The government, he stressed, would continue to support the media sector “as long as it does not challenge the sovereignty, unity of the people and the country’s peace.” [56]

 

The steps towards reform of the judiciary, and for reconciliation, another strong focus of Abiy, have also made less progress than might have been expected. A reform plan for the federal courts was adopted in mid-2019, but the five-year strategic plan with a focus on judicial independence and the provision of prompt and good quality judicial activity, was only due to start in 2021. Some widely criticised laws, the Charities and Societies Proclamation, the Anti-Terrorist Proclamation and the Media law have also been revised, though the latter, in particular, remains controversial. The Federal Attorney General has drafted a five-year National Human Rights Action Plan, ostensibly giving priority to civil and political rights, and rights of women, children, persons with disabilities, refugees and other vulnerable groups, as well as calling for human rights education at national level. Significantly, it doesn’t include the signing of some international conventions allowing scrutiny of government activities. Equally, the military operations and the steadily increasing and horrifying evidence of the reality of atrocities in Tigray, as well as of other ethnic killings of Amhara and other nationalities elsewhere, effectively render it irrelevant. Since November 4 and the Federal government’s ‘law enforcement operation’ and even more since Prime Minister Abiy declared operation a success and finished, human rights abuses and humanitarian problems have intensified in Tigray. There is now a major humanitarian crisis in the region “characterized by food shortages, widespread looting, rape, and sexual violence.” Tigrayans also claim they are suffering from ethnic profiling in Addis Ababa and elsewhere.

 

The violence against Tigrayans has been far in excess of any other conflict, but both Oromo and Amhara ethno-nationalists also now see themselves as being the targets of each other, as well as of Abiy and the critics of federalism and supporters of pan-Ethiopian unity. The Federal government’s response to assassinations in Bahir Dar and in Addis Ababa (June 22, 2019) included a wave of arrests, but to many in the Amhara region, the person responsible for what was identified as an attempted coup, Brigadier General Asaminew, was a hero, and after his death, a martyr. His efforts to increase the size of the Amhara Special Forces over the previous months were to be welcomed not criticised. Widespread demonstrations in April 2021 by Amhara underlined the continuing perception, even if encouraged for political reasons by ethno-nationalist parties, that the Amhara had become the target of Oromo violence. Oromo nationalists have seen themselves as the target of Abiy and pro-unity Amhara elements since 2019, an assessment reinforced by the arrests of the leaders of the main Oromo opposition parties in mid-2020.

 

Abiy told the Financial Times in January 2019 that he had released 60,000 political prisoners, significantly expanding the policy begun by his predecessor, Hailemariam, who had released 6,000 in January 2018.[57] It was only a year later, however, before protestors were being rounded up again in considerable numbers. Tens of thousands have been detained in the last two years following demonstrations in the Oromo region and ethnic clashes elsewhere. Most recently in 2020-21, thousands of Tigrayans in the security forces have been detained, and Tigrayans in other areas of government employment have lost their jobs.[58] Despite federal government denials, since November 2020, and even before, Tigrayans have been targeted in what looks increasingly like a policy of ethnic profiling.[59]

 

In fact, Abiy’s policies, whether by accident or design, have seriously expanded the underlying problem of ethnicity, and the related issues of regional difference, land and resource conflict, and democracy. Politics, and here Abiy is certainly responsible, have become increasingly ethnicised, driven by his attack on Tigray and Tigrayans.

 

Home-grown Economic reform

 

Abiy’s overall approach to policy is clearly visible in his economic strategy: substantial promises, and rather less achievement. The ‘Home-grown Economic Reform’, the basis for the 10-year Development Plan announced a year later, was announced in mid-2019, aiming for sustainable economic growth and major job creation, with macroeconomic reforms to improve the efficiency of State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) as well as privatise some government organizations. It includes partial privatization planned for key state-owned enterprises, Ethiopian Airlines, Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation, and EthioTelecom, with others, including sugar plantations and industrial parks, to be fully privatised. It provides for implementation of a comprehensive and controlled remittance strategy; the control inflation; to modernize banks, and while keeping control of the financial sector, allows Islamic banking; and improved financial access. It also identified four sectors, agriculture, manufacturing, mining and tourism as areas on which to concentrate. Abiy, stressing Ethiopia is “now fully open for business” called the agenda “the bridge to prosperity”.[60]

 

Welcomed by international agencies because of the emphasis on development of the private sector, the privatisation of major public enterprises and the opening up of the economy to foreign investors, marks a significant departure from the EPRDF’s developmental state. In a clear shift towards neo-liberal global policy, the government has demonstrated significantly greater responsiveness to external partners, including the World Bank and the IMF as well as to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

 

The Home-grown Economic Reform ran into criticism at the outset for its lack of public involvement. Adopted in September 2019, the policy, drafted and adopted by Abiy before any public debate, ignored the interests of many stakeholders and local policy-makers. A subsequent ‘discussion process’ was widely dismissed as no more than a gesture to try to pacify critics. It was also in effect overtaken by the onset of COVID-19 and the impact this have had on the strategies to mitigate unemployment, inflation, foreign exchange and debt. At the structural level, this has meant longer delays over implementation of the privatisation process and any efforts to address bottlenecks, and improve tax policies and regulations. It also seems to have delayed any real effort to increase transparency, if indeed this was ever the intention. Other major lacuna in the process include the lack of reference to the importance of regional development either in the objectives or in the details of the reform program, despite the acknowledged disparities in regional development, including “universities, airports, network infrastructure and industrial parks”. [61] Questions have been raised over the government figures used in the presentation of the Reform.[62]

 

Abiy himself remained upbeat about the progress of reform when he introduced the 2020-21 budget in the House of `Representatives in July last year. He said the reform agenda had produced real results in the macroeconomic and productivity sectors and relaxed debt stress and improved the budget gap.[63] External debt had fallen from 31% to 25% of GDP, following his efforts to extend or reschedule debts. It had enhanced private sector capacity and increased agricultural productivity, making finance available for small holder farmers – he mentioned the amount spent on water pumps, imported duty-free, and increased allocations for irrigation. Nominal GDP, he said, had increased from 2.2 trillion birr (USD 85 billion) in 2018 to 3.4 trillion birr, (USD 100 billion) in 2020. The Prime Minister also noted the economic impact of COVID-19 on the economy but surprisingly said exports had increased by 15% over the previous year despite the pandemic. The projections for the current year, however, must have been seriously affected by the increased spread of the pandemic, and continuing and indeed increasing inter-ethnic, the continuation of the war in Tigray, and if reports are accurate, by the promised subventions to Eritrea for the use of the Eritrean army. The government’s current claim that GDP growth this year will still reach 8.5% is clearly highly optimistic. The latest projection of the IMF, which has approved a nearly USD 3 billion support program, is a rather more plausible 2.0%.

 

Ethnic conflict

 

The lack of direction in the ruling EPRDF, increasingly apparent after 2015, and intensified by the efforts to marginalize and then remove three decades of TPLF influence and control after April 2018, allowed regional ethno-nationalist interests to operate almost unchecked. There was a sharp upsurge in inter-ethnic violence with millions displaced, extensive destruction of property and numerous killings, across almost every region of the country. The one exception, prior to November 2020, was the Tigray Regional State and this appears to have been one reason why Prime Minister Abiy later blamed all of these problems on the TPLF. He told Parliament on November 30 that there had been at least 113 major conflicts that had occurred in every region except Tigray, [64] with the ‘junta’ (TPLF) creating antagonism and enmity between different ethnic groups, adjacent regions and even neighbouring countries. He cited 37 major conflicts in Oromia, 23 in Amhara region, 15 in Benishangul-Gumuz, 14 in Addis Ababa, and others in Gambella, the South, Dire Dawa, and Harar, and between the Somali and Afar regions. All, Abiy asserted, were the work of the TPLF, which had worked “to sow great mistrust and suspicion between the peoples of Ethiopia”. He added that it had also tried to persuade the Sudan government to take over disputed lands along the border. The Prime Minister said Sudan had rejected the proposal and had informed him about the suggestion. This presumably referred to the area of al-Fashaq which Ethiopia said was taken over by Sudanese a few days after the Prime Minister’s speech.

 

The Prime Minister’s catalogue of inter-ethnic violence underlined the fact that since he came to power, there had been an enormous displacement of people. In 2018 alone, according to international NGO reports, nearly three million people were forced to leave their homes, mainly because of violence; government figures were significantly smaller. There was conflict in a number of woredas in or along the borders between Amhara and Tigray, Amhara and Benishangul-Gumuz. [65] Another major area of violence was all along the 1400 km. interface between the Oromo and Somali regions. The creation of the Oromo and Somali regions in 1994-5 had enforced a boundary that cut through many communities with close intra-ethnic and intra-clan links, and left a legacy of disputes all along the border. The National Election Board in 2004 organized a referendum in 422 kebeles for people to choose which side of the border they wished to live. 323 (80%) chose Oromia; 93 the Somali region. It did not, however, settle disputes over land, grazing and water. Nor did it do away with interest in acquiring extra resources, or ethno-nationalistic demands for the recovery of previously administered territories that had been adjusted when the Constitution was drawn up. [66] In 2016/17 a series of clashes led to over a million people being displaced on both sides of the border. This was one of the factors used by Oromo politicians, including Abiy, to generate support across Oromia for changes in the EPRDF. [67] Another major confrontation along Oromia borders in 2018 was between the Gedeo people of the SNNPR and the Guji Oromo, again with an estimate of another million or so displaced.[68]

 

These and similar clashes were also encouraged by the increased mobilization of Oromo and Amhara nationalist interests, driven in part by the choice of Abiy, a prime minister originally identified with Oromo interests. A related factor was the government call for opposition organisations in exile to return. Among these were the Oromo Liberation Front and Patriotic Ginbot 7, both of which had been based in Eritrea where they had been armed and trained. [69] Although Ginbot 7 disarmed on arrival, the OLF did not, and one faction, OLF-Shene, or the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), has continued to be militarily active in the western areas of Oromo, in Wollega, as well as in the south near the Kenyan border. After its return, Ginbot 7 merged with several other opposition parties to form the Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice (EZEMA) which is opposed to ethnic federalism and supports a more centralised, unified, structure of government, and revision of the constitution. Ginbot 7, although a multi-ethnic organisation, gains its main support comes from the Amhara and from urban elites.

 

The continuing ethnic violence provided the Prime Minister with additional reasons in support of his own intention to unpick the ethnic elements of the EPRDF and replace this with a new single national party. The mechanics for this provided a major step in the breakdown in relations between the Federal Government and the TPLF as did Abiy’s remarks to the FT, in January 2019, that he would like to move to a directly elected presidential system, rather than continue the indirect process conducted through parliament to choose the prime minister. [70] He also spoke of the “unity of the nation and national pride”, though he accepted this could be a concern for supporters of more regional autonomy. The EPRDF parties had discussed the possibility of merging their four elements into a single party before, and had even set up a committee to look into the practicalities in 2008. It concluded there were both practical and ideological difficulties, the latter connected with the relationship between the Federal government and the regional state authorities which has become the central issue in the current war in Tigray, as well as in the process of holding the national elections which, after two postponements, are due in June 2021.

 

Creating the Prosperity Party

 

The failure of the EPRDF to resolve its own problems in 2017-18 or to produce a consensus for reform, certainly underlined the need for change. The idea of turning the Front into a single party had been considered several times before, being first raised formally at the EPRDF’s 5th Congress in 2004. It set up a committee to consider the possibilities in 2008, but that failed to resolve the central problem of whether this should take the form of a merger of the four parties or of the creation of a new party.

 

A team was set up to make another study of merger possibilities in 2017. The study was expected to be presented at the EPRDF’s 11th Congress held in Hawassa in October 2018 and then endorsed. In his opening speech, Abiy, who was re-elected  chairman of the Front with 176/177 votes, stressed federalism was the way to go for Ethiopia, but warned it should not be mixed and confused with ethnic identity: “If we are able to form regional administrations without confusing it with ethnic identities, then there is no question that federalism is the best option for Ethiopia’s situation,” adding a plea for treating all people equally and “not attack one another motivated by and based on our ethnic and religious differences.” However, the study was not presented to the Congress as neither the Executive Committee nor the EPRDF Council had been able to discuss the proposals in advance.

The TPLF participated in the Congress, but in a statement shortly afterwards warned that rushed moves to dissolve EPRDF and create a single unified party posed a serious danger to the nation. It said it was necessary first to identify a vision or practices that could be unified, adding without identifying the dangers, “it is impossible to think about creating a single unified party.” The statement, which said there was “no unity of command and trust between and among the sister parties of the Front”, also referred to “the campaign to subdue the people of Tigray and TPLF from different directions”. [71]

 

Abiy’s own version was that the TPLF had originally decided to resign from the EPRDF and not attend the Congress, but it had then changed its mind and decided to attend to cause trouble. He claimed later the ‘junta’ (an example of the unfortunate use of abusive language by the Prime Minister concerning his opponents) had developed a three-pronged strategy to undermine and thwart his work. One was insults delivered before the meeting; then it organized groups to create chaos in the assembly and encourage dissension and recrimination, and finally, bring in others who pretended to be mediators. It was all intended, he claimed, to cause confusion and chaos. [72]

 

As Abiy indicated to the Congress, his growing support and emphasis on “Ethiopiawinet” posed an alternative to the TPLF’s version of the EPRDF, the developmental state and the federal structure. Abiy countered the TPLF insistence that this threatened the very concept of a federal state by accepting, if under pressure and reluctantly, the Sidama demand for their own state, allowing a referendum which voted overwhelmingly for it, in November 2019. It had the unwelcome result of encouraging a number of other groups in the southern region to consider making their own claims for statehood which Abiy had tended to ignore.

 

Despite the failure of the EPRDF to consider a merger in 2018, Abiy pressed ahead with his plans both for bring the four EPRDF parties into one and to add the ruling parties of the remaining regional states, the five associate parties, previously identified by the EPRDF as failing to reach the right level of development for incorporation in the Front, a status all five resented. [73] In November 2019, a meeting of the EPRDF Council, boycotted by the TPLF but attended by the other three EPRDF parties, Oromo, Amhara and Southern, agreed to disband the EPRDF and merge in a new Prosperity Party. [74] After the three parties agreed to the change, the five EPRDF-associated ruling regional state parties also agreed to join the Prosperity Party (PP), which automatically controlled the Federal House of People’s Representatives and all the regional states with the exception of Tigray. Each of the eight parties, became branches of the PP, contributing members to its central committee, and to an Executive Committee of 52.  The NEBE quickly gave the party a certificate of registration, though its structure and by-laws were still unclear.

 

Abiy argued that what he proposed to call the Prosperity Party (PP) would strengthen national unity and minimize ethnicity. [75] It also offered the best prospect of ensuring his own position in the face of growing discontent among his former Oromo base. He was careful to continue to claim to support the concept of federalism, if not the ethnic variety, but the PP clearly endorsed the concept of Ethiopiawinet (unity) which had in effect been side-lined by the ERPDF in the constitution of 1995. With membership drawn directly from the former EPRDF parties, minus the TPLF, and from the former associated parties, the new party automatically acquired a membership base of several million members, quite sufficient to win any election.

 

The TPLF opposed the creation of the PP, and refused to join, arguing that it was a clear rejection of the federal principle. It also questioned, with some justice, the technical legality of the move.[76] Under EPRDF concept of “democratic centralism” full agreement from the four parties within EPRDF was necessary for such changes. The TPLF was not alone in its concerns, and leading figures in other parties also abstained from supporting the move, including one of Abiy’s key allies, Lemma Megersa, the then Minister of Defence and former president of Oromia, and Muferiat Kamil, chair of the Southern party and Minister of Peace. Lemma has since lost his job though Muferiat remains in office. Both the Oromo and Southern parties of the EPRDF were in fact divided on the timing of the changes though not on the need for replacing the EPRDF. Others argued that Abiy should have acquired a new mandate via an election before creating a new ruling party out of the “three of the four components of a delegitimized and decaying EPRDF”.

 

The PP claims to a national party designed to abandon the ethnic element, and as a national non-ethnic-based party, to be inclusive, representing all communities; it uses Amharic, Afan Oromo, Tigrigna, Somali and Afar as working languages. Equally, Abiy told the PP assembly last year: “Our party believes the federal system is viable, beneficial and conducive for Ethiopia …Our commitment is to build a true, strong, and democratic federal system; rather than dissolving a system, we are building it better and implementing [it].” Indeed, since the members of the former all-ethnic parties provide most/all members of the PP chapters in their region, ethnicity by default remains a central feature, with party branches in each region being largely drawn from the region.

 

It is, in fact, difficult to see how far the different Prosperity Party branches will be able to reach consensus on ethnic issues, and the problems have already been apparent. They include Amhara expectation of retaining control of western Tigray, despite demands from the interim Tigray administration now being set up in Mekelle for the return of some areas now under Amhara administration. The respective Oromo and Amhara party branches are at odds over the future of Addis Ababa as a separate entity as the Amhara Prosperity Party insists, or whether it should in effect become Finfine, the capital of the Oromo region. Failing any change in Addis Ababa’s status, both have an interest in controlling the city.

 

Both of these branches of the PP have already expressed concern over the security of their respective populations in each other’s region, and as one observer puts it: “The differences in historical narratives that the elites from the two parties display in public to rile up their base is poisoning the politics”.[77] In March 2021, the Amhara and Oromia regional state chapters disagreed sharply over who might be responsible for an outbreak of violence in the Oromo Special Zone and North Shewa Zone of the Amhara regional state. The Amhara PP chapter accused the OLF-Shene, and the TPLF, as being behind the clashes, and repeated its assertions after the Oromo-PP released a statement blaming the members of the Amhara Special Forces.[78]

 

In October 2020, effectively the first anniversary of the Prosperity Party, Abiy told party members that the party was making a real effort to provide a genuine response to the demand for nations and nationalities to administer themselves as well as allow people to exercise democracy. Previous parties, he said, suffered from the disease of conspiracy, power struggles and personal benefit. The PP was different. It supported the ideas he himself had laid out in his inaugural speech as Prime Minister: unity in diversity, need to restore justice, diaspora to cooperate, peace with Eritrea, youth participation, the genuine equality of women, press freedom, and democracy. The government, he said, had taken fast and bold decisions to deal with these and other issues including the poor state of the economy, falling exports, problems with GERD. One tangible action was the creation of the Prosperity Party to implement the ideas of his philosophy of Medemer, “designed to find a national solution to national problems.” [79]

 

In his acceptance speech for the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, Abiy offered a definition of Medemer: “Medemer, an Amharic word, signifies synergy, convergence, and teamwork for a common destiny. It is a home-grown idea that is reflected in our political, social, and economic life. I’d like to think of ‘Medemer’ as a social compact for Ethiopians to build a just, egalitarian, democratic, and humane society by pulling together our resources for our collective survival and prosperity…At its core, Medemer is a covenant of peace that seeks unity in our common humanity”. Synergy in this context also meant “cooperation and collaboration to achieve an enhanced effect, [allowing] us to act synergistically to ensure a prosperous Ethiopia that provides for all its citizens.” [80]

 

Abiy told the party members that the PP accepts the superiority of ideas over force, a positive-sum game, not a zero-sum game. It claims its approach can be summed up by several characteristics: a unique vision of prosperity, political, economic and social prosperity, to lift Ethiopia out of its present poverty, dealing with the problems of class, nations and democracy through application of Medemer, that is: “home grown thought and knowledge, the only way possible to solve existing problems”. Ethnic identity, language, culture were all necessary and should not be any threat to national identity; they work together building a country while maintaining their own identities. The party recognizes both those who supported individual rights and those who support group rights. There should be a balance between the private sector and government intervention; centrist politics offer a unique place in the political history of the country. The Prosperity Party also offers continuity of generation which neither the TPLF nor the OLF were able to do. It has embraced youth and the concept that new generations mean new ideas. Its system is adaptive, not robust, nor violent.

 

Elections and the Electoral Process

 

From the outset, Abiy has repeatedly promised to hold free and fair elections for both the Federal House of People’s Representatives and for regional state councils, a promise repeated by the now ruling Prosperity Party on several occasions since its foundation in December 2019. One of Abiy’s major reforms was reorganizing and restructuring the National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) as an independent body reporting to the House of People’s Representatives, in June 2019. On the recommendation of the Prime Minister, a former opponent of the TPLF, Birkutan Medikssa, recalled from exile, was appointed to head the restructured Board.

 

The elections were originally due to be held in May 2020 but the timescale became impossible after the Prosperity Party was founded in December 2019. On security grounds, the NEBE postponed the date to August 2020. This was reluctantly accepted by opposition parties as the date still fell within the theoretical five-year mandate of the parliament and of the Prime Ministerial term of office which was due to run out in October 2020. Another postponement to October 5, 2021, however, moved it outside the constitutional time-frame. This time the reason given was the problems posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, but it was widely believed to relate to the need for a longer period needed to organise the Prosperity Party,

 

The decision was authorised by parliament, which thereby extended its own term, but the TPLF was quick to claim this was not authorised by the constitution. The added delay also gave the TPLF an opportunity to hold its own state elections before the deadline and claim a legitimacy that it argued the Prime Minister and the Prosperity Party no longer could have after October 2020. Although the National Election Board declared any separate Tigray election would be illegal, the TPLF went ahead with its own regional state council election in Tigray in September, winning 98% of the vote. The House of Federation, the Upper House of Parliament, and the guardian of constitutional issues, also declared the TPLF elections unconstitutional. The National Election Board promptly declared this meant the TPLF would be unable to participate in the June election. That decision was underlined by the war in November and the subsequent security issues. No realistic Tigrean involvement in any government organised election is possible, though the NEBE has registered some Tigrayan parties opposed to the TPLF, and the Prosperity Party itself claims to have a Tigrayan branch.

 

Despite its short life, the Prosperity Party has all possible advantages in the elections. With its membership including the former ruling parties in every regional state, with the exception of Tigray, it should easily win all the regional state councils as well as the Federal election. It is the only party capable of putting up candidates in all constituencies. No other party is putting up candidates in all constituencies. The nearest is Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice (EZEMA) which has announced plans to field candidates in 435/547 constituencies. Control of government allows its officials to use public investment to boost their campaign, placing schools, hospitals, roads, irrigation facilities and any public works projects where they can most benefit the party. These financial benefits are underlined by the Prime Minister hosting 5- and 10-million-birr dinners for business leaders. How funds are raised and who provides them could in theory be an issue, but it is not one that appears to trouble the party leader. Abiy told Parliament last October that MPs should not and could not call him to account over donations made to him personally and that they had no right to question him over where he obtained funds or how he spent them.

The current security situation with substantial areas of the country under Command Post, military, control also benefits the PP as the arm of government, making it difficult if not impossible for opposition candidates to open party offices, recruit candidates, or run election campaigns. It has the freedom to use public media at will, and can and does deny their use to opposition parties, despite the various agreements over the use of the media. It also has the support of notionally independent media like the Fana Broadcasting Corporation and Walta. Given the government and Abiy’s increasingly negative attitude towards critical reporting as shown in Tigray, private media has been more and more careful to self-censor material.

 

Oromo nationalists, who originally supported Abiy in 2018 with great expectations that he would, as an Oromo, respond positively to their demands, were already becoming concerned about the direction of policy by early 2019. He made a substantial number of Oromo appointments after taking office but little effort to respond to more serious demands, such as giving Afaan Oromo the same status as Amharic, more autonomy to the Oromo region or reconsidering the status of Addis Ababa or giving the Oromo region more autonomy. His moves towards postponing the election and creating a single national party were seen as threatening to Oromo opposition parties which remain supportive of the concept of an Oromo region. The Oromo Federal Congress (OFC), the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and activists like Jawar Mohammed consider an active federation with ethnic regional parties a necessity to protect and expand Oromo rights. Jawar, the founder of the Oromo Media Network, and originally a supporter of Abiy, finally joined the OFC after the creation of the Prosperity Party in 2019.

 

The breaking point between Abiy and the Oromo ethno-nationalists, who had originally supported him in ousting the TPLF, came in mid-2020 after the killing of a popular Oromo singer, Hachalu Hundessa, on June 29.[81] His death led to a wave of violence in a number of towns as well as an inappropriate dispute over where the body should be buried. Abiy blamed domestic and foreign enemies, and a Prosperity Party Oromia branch spokesperson said the TPLF funded and worked with Jawar and the OLF to plan Hachalu’s killing and destruction in towns in order to spark religious and ethnic violence which would lead to a security collapse. The Oromo regional government claimed 167 people were killed and more than 10,000 displaced in the subsequent demonstrations. A report, issued on January 1, 2021, by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC), however, concluded that 123 people had been killed, more than half (76) by government security forces, 35 by individuals and groups, and 12 as a result of explosions or similar incidents. Its 59-page report, drafted after visits to forty towns, concluded: “The findings show that the attacks meet the elements of a crime against humanity with large numbers of people, organized in groups, having selected their victims on the basis of their ethnicity or religion when conducting a widespread and systematic attack in several different areas over the three days.”[82]

 

Abiy took the opportunity of Hachalu’s death and the violence to arrest a swathe of

opposition leaders, including Jawar Mohammed, and leading members of both the OFC and OLF, accusing them of inciting, orchestrating or organising the violence. Charges against Jawar also included the surprising allegation that he had been training terrorists in Egypt in order to assassinate Orthodox Christian priests, potentially increasing religious tensions. The government closed down Jawar’s Oromo Media Network, shut down the Internet for three weeks and over the following month detained more than 9,000 people in Oromia. It announced more than 4,000 people would be prosecuted for the violence, including 1,200 regional officials for allegedly failing to discharge their responsibilities and 500 government employees for participation. A month later, a meeting of the Prosperity Party Oromo branch, suspended several leading figures including ex-Oromia president Lemma Mergessa, a former ally of Abiy, and the ex-mayor of Shashemene Teyba Hassen, accusing them of failure to discharge their duties. [83] It was hardly a surprise when, in March, the OFC and OLF decided not to participate in the election in June.

Arrests have not been confined to Oromo politicians, they have also included Amhara ethno-nationalists and other politicians among them the founder and former president of the Ethiopian Democratic Party (EDP), Lidetu Ayalew, who was also arrested in July 2020, accused of coordinating and financially supporting disturbances in Bishoftu. Eskinder Nega, founder of the Balderas for True Democracy Party, was also arrested a day or two after Hachalu’s death along with six other members of his party, charged with trying to incite ethnic and religious violence, including the training of a terror group to assassinate the former acting Addis Ababa mayor and take power in the capital. Balderas supports a self-governing, multi-ethnic Addis Ababa. Eskinder was also accused of telling people that with the election postponed Abiy’s government would no longer be a legitimate government. [84]

 

There are numerous other issues that will affect the electoral processes besides security, the arrests of opposition leaders or the withdrawal of the two major Oromo opposition parties. Among the problems apparent at local level in the elections of 2010 and 2015 was the lack of distinction between ruling party and administrative officials at kebele (local) or woreda (district) level, with obvious effect on registration of voters, campaigning or of polling stations very few of which had observers. In 2010, for example,170 observers visited 815 out of the 43,500 polling stations to observe voting and counting. In previous elections, state resources have commonly been used for ruling party campaigning; and opposition candidates routinely prevented from campaigning, subjected to arbitrary arrest, and other forms of harassment. The Prosperity Party includes the former members of the EPRDF or of its affiliated parties whose previous electoral behaviour was marked by intimidation and obstruction if not outright fraud. How far, as rebranded members of the Prosperity Party, they have changed their attitude is unclear, but almost all parties certainly suffer from poor organisation.

 

The lack of security, currently widespread, also benefits the PP as the arm of government. The creation of Command Posts, equivalent to imposing a state of emergency, which now cover around a third of the country, coupled with the arrest of leading political figures, closure of opposition branch offices and bans on meetings, makes it clear there will be no provision of a level playing field. This has been particularly apparent in the Oromo region, and Tigray, of course, is now effectively outside the whole process.

 

The final step in ensuring a victory for the PP has been extensive detention of political leaders from major opposition parties, notably the Oromo Federalist Congress, the Oromo Liberation Front and Baldaras for Genuine Democracy, and in a practical sense preventing them from any realistic participation. In March, 2021, the OLF, which earlier complained its own branch offices had been closed and its headquarters put under surveillance, announced it  now felt unable to take part in the elections. The Oromo Federal Congress made a similar decision. The PP will face little or no opposition throughout the Oromia regional state.

 

The continuing political and security operations in Tigray and elsewhere and the jailing of opposition political leaders may guarantee a total victory for the ruling Prosperity Party in an election in June. It will not provide any realistic vote, any confidence in his version of democracy or of his Medemer philosophy, nor will it offer the legitimacy or the mandate that Abiy and his PP government need to have.

Military and Intelligence changes

 

From the start of his premiership, one of the areas of governance that most concerned Prime Minister Abiy was the possibility of Tigrean control of the ‘deep state’, and specifically of the military and security aspects. He himself had, of course, been a member of the army, reaching the rank of colonel, and involved in the setting up of the Information Network Security Agency (INSA), of which he was acting director for two years. He was very aware of the ramifications of security links across all levels of government and administration.[85]

 

Restructuring the ‘deep state’ was a priority from Abiy’s point of view, and he launched the process on 7 June 2018 when General Samora Yunis, a Tigrayan who rose to be the Army Chief of Staff, and another Tigrayan, Getachew Assefa, Director of the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS), were both abruptly removed from office. General Samora, who had tried to resign a year or two earlier, accepted the decision and was retired with honour. Getachew a member of the TPLF Executive committee, as well as the long-time director of the NISS, [86] was “unhappy” and according to the Prime Minister immediately retired to Tigray, taking with him quantities of surveillance and military equipment. Getachew, later complained he had heard about his dismissal on the media. It had, however, been widely expected. Two weeks later, there was an apparent assassination attempt during a mass rally in Addis Ababa (June 23) when a grenade exploded and several people were killed just after Abiy had left the podium. Abiy blamed the security services, and Getachew was accused of being responsible. When a warrant was later issued for his arrest, the authorities in Tigray declined to send him back to Addis Ababa.

 

The government launched an investigation into the incident and the first results became public in November. Attorney-General Berhanu Tsegaye said on November 12 that 36 people had been arrested from the NISS and the Prison Service, for human rights’ violations, including an ex-deputy head of the NISS and former Federal Police Commissioner, Yared Zerihun. [87] In addition to the arrests, Abiy took the opportunity to make widespread changes in the senior ranks of the NISS, and INSA and in the Federal police, financial intelligence and defence institutions. He said all, had fallen under control of “individuals and families”, by implication all Tigrayans.

The Attorney-General’s investigation had also covered the issue of corruption in the military-industrial complex, METEC. [88] And in November, he also announced another 27 arrests for corruption. Those detained included the former head of METEC, Major-General Kinfe Dagnew who had resigned some months earlier.

 

A government produced documentary on METEC’s embezzlement and mismanagement, assuming General Kinfe’s guilt, was put out on TV the day after the general’s arrest. The documentary raised allegations over the trading of arms between Iran and Somalia a few years earlier, irregular procurement procedures with inflated prices, including the acquisition of five aircraft, four of which were subsequently scrapped. Commentators were concerned that the way the arrests were handled and the Attorney General’s statements amounted to a trial by media, rendering a fair trial impossible: “The documentary regarding embezzlement and mismanagement by METEC that was aired by the state broadcaster the day after the arrest of its former boss puts in jeopardy the constitutional right to the presumption of innocence.” [89]

 

The TPLF, however reluctantly, had accepted the actuality of proceedings against human rights abuse and corruption, but it was less than happy over the way these were being carried out. A day after the Attorney General’s announcement, it issued a statement emphasizing that the rule of law should be respected. However, it also thought it necessary to underline that those responsible for corrupt practices came from the EPRDF in general, not just the TPLF, and from government as a whole. It was deeply concerned by the way General Kinfe’s arrest was shown on television with attendant government media comments assuming his guilt.

 

The TPLF saw the apparent concentration on Tigrayans as a warning. There had been earlier efforts to move against corrupt officials and business associates under Abiy’s predecessor, Hailemariam Dessalegn, with no apparent emphasis on Tigrayans, but most of those detained then had been released in the wide-ranging amnesty after Abiy took office. This time, there was no doubt that Tigrayans were in the frame, [90] and the arrests were seen as politicizing the issue of corruption. They may have reinforced Abiy’s reform credentials, but they increased concerns in Mekelle over the aims of the Prime Minister. Former Communications Minister, Getachew Reda, said the it looked as if only Tigrayan leaders were responsible for past abuses under the ruling coalition. He thought Tigrayans were being turned into scapegoats. The President of Tigray, Debretsion Gebremichael declared the investigations and arrests, particularly that of General Kinfe, were politically motivated, and Tigrayans were being disproportionally targeted. In fact, the political nature of the charges was reinforced in February this year, when the government dropped charges against METEC officials and others accused of corruption or charged with human rights abuse – in order to “broaden national understanding.”

A central focus of Abiy’s changes in the military was to alter the balance of perceived ethnic authority and control in the Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF). Critics of the TPLF had long maintained the senior ranks of the armed forces were almost exclusively Tigrayan, even claiming they made up over 90% of senior officers. While this might have been true in 1991, it was a considerable exaggeration by 2018 when only 50% or so of those holding the rank of Brigadier-General or above were from Tigray; the figure for majors and colonels was under 60%, and the numbers were falling steadily, though certainly still disproportionate. According to Abiy, percentages for other areas of command were significantly higher, including 80% of the senior posts within the Ministry of Defence, and most of the training and logistical institutions as well as all six sector commanders and deputy commanders. [91] The Prime Minister claimed army training had been tied to identifying the army as the vanguard of the EPRDF and defending the party’s revolutionary democracy rather than Ethiopia, though this, at least in theory, represented a substantial change from earlier practice. General Tsadkan Gebretensae, a former army Chief of Staff (1994-2001) and all members of the armed forces were required by the Constitution in 1995 to resign from any political party or to leave the military, and did so.

 

Changes in 2018 included an extensive series of retirements and promotions aiming to balance senior positions between Amhara, Oromo, Tigrayans and Southerners, the areas represented by the four parties of the EPRDF, and to limit the Tigrayan element within the mechanized forces to 50%. Other measures reorganised the management structures to limit the number of representatives of any ethnicity at every level of command. Training was reorganised to ensure the army should think of itself as an Ethiopiawinet army, entirely separate from political divisions or and political parties.

 

In addition to the changes in senior personnel and a reduction of the numbers of Tigrayan elements in various units, following the assassination attempt on June 23, Abiy also created his own Republican Guard. This was a substantially expanded version of the ‘Agazi’ brigade created by Meles which acted both as a guard unit for government offices and senior officials, and as a security strike force. It was reputed to be a wholly Tigrayan unit though its last commander was in fact an Oromo. The government also made what the Prime Minister later described as a “huge effort” to expand the army, launching a major recruiting drive in early 2019. A commission headed by Deputy Prime Minister, Demeke Mekonnen (Amhara), and his then security adviser, Abadula Gemeda, (Oromo) was set up to oversee the military and security reforms. Lt-General Mola Hailemariam, (Tigrayan) took control of the Federal Special Forces, overseeing the replacement of the Agazi brigade by the new Revolutionary Guard.

 

As part of the reconstruction, Abiy disbanded two of the six regional commands, those based at Enda Selassie in northern western Tigray and at Semere in the Afar regional state. These along with the Northern Command in Mekelle were part of the government’s anti-Eritrean strategy which became outdated with the Peace Accord with Eritrea signed in July 2018. The four remaining commands were the Northern Command still based at Mekelle; the Central /South Command, previously based at Hawassa, moved to Addis Ababa; Western Command, previously at Bahir in Amhara region, moved to Lekemte in western Oromia; and the Eastern Command at Harar/Jijiga. The number of commands was again increased to six again just prior to the outbreak of conflict in Tigray as part of the government’s preparations for its attack

 

Other changes were made in the air force, which the Prime Minister said needed to be revived. He also acquired a number of drones, later explaining that this was done in secret, and the necessary training as well as the number and deployment was kept from the TPLF. Drones played an important role in the conflict in November, their use apparently taking the Tigrayan forces by surprise. There was speculation that the drones used in Tigray were supplied by the UAE from its base at Assab in Eritrea. Given the alliance with Eritrea, this is highly plausible. [92]

 

Although he was prepared to use Tigrayan officers, such as General Seare, Chief of Staff 2018-2019) or General Molla, whose loyalty Abiy felt was reliable, all these changes in the military hierarchy, the restructuring of units, expanded recruitment and acquisition of drones as well as of new equipment, certainly suggest the Prime Minister saw a need to neutralise the Tigrayan element in the army as a matter of urgent necessity, suggesting anticipation of conflict with the TPLF.

 

  • An inexorable drive towards conflict 2018-2020

                                                 

Both the Prime Minister and the TPLF blame the other for the steady advance towards war in November 2020, and, as noted, they have produced very different narratives to assign culpability. It’s symptomatic of their dysfunctional relationship that that both sides have claimed they made every effort to avoid conflict and encourage reconciliation. Neither claim is realistic.

 

Prime Minister Abiy, of course, came to power as the result of an Oromo-Amhara alliance within the EPRDF to oust the TPLF from control of the Front and of the Federal government. This was never more than a tactical alliance between two parties with very different political aims and an equal desire for power, and its fundamental instability seemingly left Abiy vulnerable to TPLF efforts to restore their position within the EPRDF. This at least seems to have been one of his major concerns from the beginning of his premiership.

 

Certainly, it might be expected that the TPLF would be concerned, though hardly surprised, by the loss of control of the EPRDF and loss of positions in federal government. The Front was in disarray and the TPLF itself was divided. The proposed changes in social or economic affairs offered in Abiy’s reform agenda little that was unexpected as almost all the proposed reforms had already been suggested, or considered by the EPRDF or Abiy’s predecessor Hailemariam during his time in office. More worrying was the stress on total TPLF responsibility for all the problems of the past and for the excesses of an autocratic and repressive EPRDF government, and the apparent intent to make it the scapegoat for past abuses. This indeed encouraged many TPLF leaders to withdraw to Mekelle, the capital of the region, and keep out of harm’s way. Additional concern developed over Abiy’s avowed aim to replace the EPRDF by a single party and by his moves towards a more centrist, less federal approach, to government. The methodology employed by Abiy allowed the TPLF to complain that he was bypassing the EPRDF and even Parliament, but its failure to understand how far its years in government had exasperated other parties, meant it was unable to gather the necessary support to oppose him effectively. The TPLF also seriously under-estimated how far Abiy was prepared to go to ensure it could no longer pose any threat.

 

This, indeed, only became apparent when the Eritrean army began to pour into Tigray in mid-November 2020, though the TPLF worries stemmed from the Peace Accord with Eritrea that Abiy signed in July 2018. EPRDF policies towards Eritrea were of the most direct relevance to Tigray regional state as it has a thousand-kilometre-long border with Eritrea. It was the region most affected by the 1998-2000 Eritrea-Ethiopia war and by the ‘no war, no peace’ scenario that followed Ethiopia’s victory and the decisions of the Border Commission in 2002 which Ethiopia failed to accept. This led to a series of cross-border incursions, with both sides claiming to be responding to provocation by the other, numerous kidnapping raids from Eritrea, and an endless flow of refugees fleeing from national conscription in Eritrea. The closure of the border affected the economic status of the communities on both sides. On the wider level, the TPLF-dominated Ethiopian government in the mid-2000s had made a determined, and largely successful, if much resented, effort to contain and isolate President Isaias and Eritrea. [93] Indeed, as has become clear more recently, this seems to have contributed to Isaias’s determination to destroy the TPLF and indeed Tigray region itself, although enmity between the TPLF and Isaias’s party can be traced back to the 1970’s. It would appear likely to have provided a significant element in his long-standing determination that the future of Eritrea required either a collapsed Ethiopia or an Ethiopia in which he could play the major role. In these circumstances, the TPLF believed changing policy over Eritrea certainly demanded some TPLF input, and consideration of what other changes in foreign policy might result.

For Abiy, the TPLF were always going to be a potential threat to his ambitions, both personal and governmental, once these became clear. Even after the TPLF members of the EPRDF Council had all voted for him as Chair of the Front (and therefore as Prime Minister) and the effort of the TPLF Chair, Debretsion, to become deputy leader had been a comprehensive failure, Abiy remained highly suspicious of any Tigrayan presence in government and in the upper ranks of the military and security services. This suspicion continued even after many of the TPLF leaders retired to Mekelle. They, in fact, appeared to be concerned that they might be caught up in Abiy’s anti-corruption investigations into the previous government. Abiy said later that after he became prime minister, the TPLF-headed NISS had posted snipers on buildings to demonstrate its ability to remove him if necessary.  [94] Indeed, he appeared to believe that conflict was inevitable from the time he became prime minister.

 

One major area of disagreement revolved around the future of the EPRDF and the way Abiy carried out its replacement by his Prosperity Party. This ignored EPRDF party protocols and regulations, through his habitual practice of taking apparently ad hoc decisions without consultation and certainly without thinking through the possible consequences. The determination to delay elections past the original date of his mandate as prime minister may, however, have been calculated. It led the TPLF into holding its own regional election and set off a series of activities that provided Abiy with an excuse for taking action over what he would claim were treasonable activities that could be portrayed as a betrayal of the TPLF’s relationship with the ENDF.

 

The postponement of the elections was a decision that had an immediate effect on relations between the Federal government and the TPLF. In June 2019, the NEBE had warned that insecurity which had displaced 2.4 million people (UN figures) could delay the May 2020 election. A national census had already been postponed twice. Political figures reacted negatively to the idea. OFC Chair, Merara Gudina said any postponement would anger the public; Debretsion Gebremichael, TPLF chair warned postponement could have “grave consequences” as not holding the election on time was unconstitutional, adding “It means the Ethiopia government after 2020 [would be] illegitimate.” The House of Representatives, however, approved postponement until August 2020 despite opposition protests. And Abiy issued stern warnings against anyone planning to be involved in “Illegal political activities and acts threatening to violate the constitution and constitutional order in Ethiopia.” The government, he said, would do anything necessary to protect the safety of the country.

 

A few months later, in March 2020, the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) said it would be unable to run the election in August because of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, and this also precluded setting another date. In June, the House of Federation considered the issue and formally extended the term of office of the federal and regional governments, and therefore of parliament also, up to nine to twelve months after the Ministry of Health considered the pandemic sufficiently under control. A date of June 2021 was fixed subsequently. The TPLF claimed the postponement of the election was no more than a government effort to prolong its term of office to strengthen the Prosperity Party’s position before any election. It denounced the decision as unconstitutional for extended the government and parliament beyond their five-year mandates, due to end on October 5, 2020. Provocatively, it then announced that to avoid any violation of the time-frame and keep within the constitution, it would carry out its own regional election at the beginning of September which it did despite warnings by the House of Federation and the NEBE that this would be illegal. As expected, it won an overwhelming 98% of the vote, not least because by then it was able to call on a rising surge of Tigrayan nationalism in the face of Federal government actions.

 

Following the Tigrayan regional vote, the two sides then indulged in a series of tit-for-tat declarations, steadily ratcheting up the tension. The House of Federation declared the Tigray vote illegal; and the TPLF, in turn, declared the government in Addis Ababa illegitimate after October 5 and said it would not implement any new federal laws and regulations. The House of Federation asked the Ministry of Finance not to transfer the regular budgetary allocation to the Tigray regional government but send funds directly to local administrative bodies, bypassing the regional administration. Tigray officials declared this unconstitutional, adding that it amounted to a “declaration of war. Claiming the Federal finance ministry had retained 285 million birr provided by donors for social welfare programs in Tigray, they also announced the withholding of tax receipts collected for the Federal government.

 

As part of the policy of refusing to implement any federal decisions, the Tigray authorities refused to accept the appointment of a new commander and deputy commanders for the ENDF Northern Command based in Mekelle, and said it would only recognise the previous commander, General Diriba Mekonnen. The TPLF responded by claiming that as federal government had “no legal responsibility or power to make decisions regarding the reorganization and/or operations of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces, any decisions made thus far are not acceptable and will not be implemented.” It said: “any decisions related to Tigray, such as operational decisions, leadership changes and command reorganizations and the movement of troops or armaments, are absolutely unacceptable and will never be implemented,” One of the new deputy commanders, Brigadier-General Jamal Mohammed was immediately sent back to Addis when he arrived at Mekelle Airport. Brigadier-General Belay Seyoum, appointed as the new Commander of the Northern Command, his other deputy, Brigadier-General Seid Tekuye, and Lt. General Molla Hailemariam, responsible for the handover, were told in advance they would not be allowed into Mekelle. They made no effort to do so. The Ministry of Defense criticized the regional government for restricting the army from “performing its duties”, and pointed out the deployment and mission of the army was not under the interest of any group and was bound by the constitution.

The TPLF also refused to allow some troops movements, relocating units of the Northern Command to western Oromia and to the Southern region. This wasn’t the first time Tigray had prevented Northern Command reorganisation. In 2018, after the signing of the Peace Accord with Eritrea, the authorities mobilised the local population to prevent the removal of troops and equipment from the Eritrean border. They repeated this in January 2019 when the Federal government made another effort to get the Northern Command’s heavy weapons, rockets and artillery out of Tigray.

 

While the government was building up its forces in preparation for war, so was the TPLF. Faced by what they saw as the threats posed by Amhara claims to Western Tigray and to Raya in southern Tigray, officials spoke creating a “security fortress” and build up the region’s militia and the region’s Special Forces.[95] There were suggestions that it managed to mobilise as many as 250,000 fighters in advance of the outbreak of hostilities. The Federal Attorney-general claimed at a press conference in January (30.1.2021) that the TPLF had trained 170,00 militia in addition to 80,000 regional Special Forces during 2018-2020. [96]

 

The Attorney-general claimed the TPLF had created its own Central Military Command in July, organising these forces into 23 regiments, recruiting both current and retired ENDF military officers. The accounts of the fighting in November suggest these figures were significantly exaggerated, as indeed were the casualty figures claimed, by both sides, during November and subsequently. It was alleged that the Tigrayan Central Command had planned to collect technical and logistic supplies for a three-month conflict in preparation for a campaign against the Amhara region and then an advance to Addis Ababa. The investigation, the Attorney-general said, had found this was to be preceded by the attack on the ENDF bases of the Northern Command which actually took place on the night of November 3. The rest of these plans were pre-empted by the Prime Minister’s immediate response on November 4 and the actions of the ENDF and Amhara Special forces in defeating the advance towards Gondar on November 4. Reports of the fighting do indicate that the TPLF did take control of the ENDF base at Dansha on November 4, there were no other indications that the TPLF had planned any advance into Amhara region.

 

Another major factor in the deterioration of relations was the growth of Amhara ethno-nationalism after 2018 and the Federal government’s support for the anti-Tigrayan component in this. In part, this was a response to conflicts that had broken out at various points around the borders of the Amhara regional state, and of the treatment of Amhara in other areas, as well as emulation of the appearance of Oromo ethno-nationalism. It also thrived on the apparent opportunity, provided by the collapse of Tigrayan power (and of federal authority), to take back areas that had been assigned to Tigray regional state under the 1995 constitution. These included most of what had been designated Western Tigray and the Raya on the eastern side of Tigray.

 

Protests in the Amhara region, and the appearance of an Amhara youth movement, Fana, paralleled those in Oromia. Calling for the implementation of Amhara claims to Western Tigray, this encouraged Amhara ethno-nationalism and increased support for the National Movement of Amhara (NaMA), set up in June 2018. Since then, this has been posing an increasing threat to the Prosperity Party’s Amhara branch, being vocal in its criticism of the Federal government for failing to react to the killings of ethnic Amhara in Benishangul-Gumuz, Oromia and the Southern Regional state.

 

The first open Amhara moves against Tigray came in mid-2018, when the Amhara administration started closing off roads from Amhara into Tigray. By the end of the year, it was almost impossible for Tigrayans to get to Addis Ababa through the Amhara region. They were being forced to take a long detour through the Afar regional state into Oromia and then to Addis Ababa. Federal police refused to take action when Tigrayan merchants buying grain in the Amhara region were robbed by local youth. Over 130,000 Tigrayans felt obliged to withdraw from other regions and move back to Tigray, though some of this was a response to attacks in the Oromo region going back to 2015/6.

 

In June 2019, the Amhara regional head of security, Brigadier-General Asaminew Tsige, attacked Amhara regional government offices in Bahir Dar, killing the regional president and two other senior officials. This coincided with the killing in Addis Ababa of the army Chief of Staff, General Seare Mekonnen, a Tigrayan loyal to Abiy, giving rise to claims that this was part of an attempted coup against the Federal government. In fact, Brigadier Asaminew’s actions appear to have been limited to an attempt to take over power in the Amhara region. One of the accusations against was that he had been illegally increasing the Special Force units in preparation for his own coup attempt. Whether or not that was the case, the extra units he had recruited were not, in fact, disbanded after his own death.[97]

 

As the TPLF tried to link up with other supporters of ethnic federalism in 2019, and nationalist elements in Oromia became concerned over Abiy’s failure to push Oromo demands, Abiy looked to Amhara support.  Given the long-term issues between the Amhara and Tigrean regions, this was easy to obtain. Abiy was quite prepared to pay the price, support for and acceptance of the Amhara ‘recovery’ of Welkait and indeed all of western Tigray and of Raya, not least as it would help ensure a weakened Tigray in the future. He ignored the likelihood that any such military action might set off an unending chain of attack and counter-attacks. Equally, the Amhara region, and the Amhara elite in Addis Ababa, have always been largely supportive of a more centralised system of governance than of any federation, ethnic or otherwise. This is an attitude that resonated with Abiy’s views as expressed to the Financial Times in January 2019, and with his interpretation of Medemer, a word that might imply unity and dialogue, but which critics note, actually involves rather more instruction from on high than any realistic pretence at listening to others.

 

By the middle of 2020, Amhara militia and Special Forces had been mobilised and well before the fighting broke out they were deploying along the border with the Tigray region. It seems they were also well aware of the plans for an attack on Tigray and had been in discussion with the ENDF. Part of the final preparations for the attack also involved the creation of a new ENDF North-west Command, announced on October 20, 2020, to be head-quartered in the Amhara regional capital of Bahir Dar.[98]

 

The Chief Commissioner of the Amhara Regional State Police, Abere Adamu, indeed later admitted that the Amhara regional state had “already done [its] homework,” before war broke out and “deployment of forces had taken place in our borders from east to west. The war started that night after we had already completed our preparations.”[99] He also acknowledged that the Amhara Special Forces and ENDF mechanized units based near Humera (presumably at the ENDF base at Dansha) had discussed joint operations. There was heavy fighting at Dansha on November 4 with the ENDF forces being forced to retreat towards Humera. Then, the Commissioner said, Amhara forces arrived to provide support to the ENDF mechanised units: “this was how the war started, this was the day,” he said. [100] Commissioner Abere lost his job in April. He died suddenly in May.

 

The importance of the Amhara role in the war in Tigray was underlined on November 7, only three days after the launch of the “law enforcement operation”. In response to concern in the army over the outbreak of war and even more over his agreement to involve Eritrea troops, Abiy found it necessary to make changes at the top of the army, the security services, the police and the foreign ministry. These clearly indicated both the level of concern and his dependence on the Amhara element in the Prosperity Party and government. Lt. General Berhanu Jula, previously deputy chief of staff, an Oromo and close ally of Abiy, was promoted to Chief of Staff of the ENDF, with Lt. General Ababaw Tadesse., called back from retirement, as his deputy. Temesgen Tiruneh, previously president of the Amhara regional state, and Abiy’s National Security Advisor before that, was appointed Director of the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS). He had been made President of Amhara regional state after the assassination of the then regional state president, Ambachew Mekonnen and other senior officials on June 22, 2019. There were also changes at the head of the National Intelligence and Security Service and the Federal Police Commission, and Abiy finally acceded to the repeated demands of Deputy Prime Minister, Demeke Mekonnen, to add the position of Foreign Minister to his portfolio, with outgoing foreign minister, Gedu Andargachew, being appointed as National Security Advisor. Both were leading members of the Amhara political elite.

 

More generally, there had been numerous other points at which neither side made any real effort to avoid opportunities to irritate, alarm or even anger the other, particularly in the second half of 2020, by which time it appears Abiy and Isaias had decided on a date for war.

 

Among the issues that raised problems between the TPLF and the Federal government were the Administrative Boundaries and Identity Issues Commission, a commission reporting to the Prime Minister with a mandate to resolve border and ethnic conflicts. [101] Tigrayan MPs objected strongly, arguing it was unconstitutional, and unnecessary, because the upper house, the House of Federation already the proper body to deal with such issues. It was seen as threatening by Tigray as it seemed to offer a way for the Prime Minister to assist the Amhara region to resolve Amhara claims on Western Tigray.

A complaint, frequently repeated by Federal officials, was that the growth of demands from southern nationalities for their own killil (regional states) was due to TPLF encouragement. One group, the Sidama, despite government delays, successfully achieved this with a referendum in November 2019 providing an overwhelming vote in favour. This success inspired nearly a dozen other groups to demand a similar change of status. Abiy himself argued that it was the TPLF itself which was accountable for 27 years of corruption and repression, and that it was largely responsible for encouraging, indeed, organizing inter-ethnic conflict across the country to try to destabilize his regime.

 

The major failure of the TPLF, in fact, was that it never managed to resolve the “question of nationalities in Ethiopia.”[102] Its solution, ethnic federalism, proved unacceptable because of the way the TPLF implemented it, keeping the regional states subservient to a centralized authoritarianism. The failure to encourage realistic federal governance and the continued efforts to keep control of the regional states also counted against the TPLF’ subsequent appeals to federalism. The TPLF believed that any concern about its methods of government would be outweighed, as to some extent they had been in the past, by the positives: over a decade of double-digit growth, a revived and developed economy, substantial infrastructural development, and major progress in reducing poverty and in health and education development. They miscalculated, and it was only after Abiy began to make clear his interest in a more centralised and essentially Amhara agenda in the build-up to the war against Tigray that many of Abiy’s Oromo supporters had second thoughts. Abiy lost Oromo support because he failed to support demands for a greater Oromo role. There were also indications in early 2021 that he was beginning to lose Amhara support when he failed to respond sufficiently to the more extreme elements of Amhara nationalism.

 

Faced by Abiy’s anti-Tigrayan attitude, and policies, the TPLF in effect concentrated on Tigray though it also worked to build up an alternative coalition with groups and parties on the basis of the existing constitution and support for ethnic federalism for the elections. It believed such a coalition could win any election in 2020 especially after Abiy arrested leaders of the OLF and OFC and lost much Oromo support. This was one of the factors that [made] the House of Representatives illegal after October 5. It was the TPLF’s efforts to build an opposition coalition that appears to underlie Abiy’s allegations that the TPLF had been responsible for all the ethnic clashes across the country over the previous two years.[103]

 

By early 2019 Abiy was prepared to tell the Financial Times that there were serious tensions between the Federal government and the Tigrayan regional state, but he wasn’t too worried by them: “Yesterday they were on the streets of Mekelle insulting me, but I love that. That is democracy,” adding that he wanted to secure peace by persuasion, not through arms. “Negative peace’, he said, “is possible as long as you have a strong army. We are heading to positive peace.” [104]

 

Despite this, the provocations continued. In a statement from the Office of the Prime Minister in mid-November, he said the TPLF had, over several months, sponsored, trained, and equipped ‘anyone’ prepared to carry out actions to derail the democratic transition, instigating ethnic and religious clashes, and referred to ‘horrendous crimes’ in Western Gondar, the destruction of the town of Shashemene, and the massacres of innocent civilians in the areas of Arsi, Bale, Benishangul-Gumuz, Gura Ferda and most recently in Western Wollega. In addition, it had, orchestrated an illegal election in Tigray and openly refused to accept any federal government directives after October 5, and had recalled the Tigray representatives from the Federal House of Peoples’ Representatives and the House of Federation, which was a direct denial of Federal government authority. [105]

 

In the two months after the Tigray election, the TPLF claimed the government had carried out an increasing series of petty actions against the Tigray region: blocking the transfer of a chemical spraying drone, bought and sent by Tigrayan and Eritrean nationals residing in Israel, to help the region fight locusts; stopping the arrival of two water experts from the Chinese company China Gezhouba Group Company (CGGC), who were transiting through Addis Ababa en route to Mekelle;  prohibited the supply of masks for students in the Tigray region; told national and regional sport federations to cut ties with Tigray; and barred federal institutions from exchanging letters, information, providing support, or allowing participation in any Federal forum.

 

More serious was the House of Federation order to the government to cut off the federal budget subsidy for Tigray Regional State Council, though other officials said disbursement to woreda, kebele or city administrations would continue. In October, there was also some confusion about the disbursement of the next tranche of a 285 million birr fund under the donor-funded Safety Net program for the coming three months, though the Federal Ministry of Finance insisted it would be sent to woredas and kebeles as before. [106]

 

The rhetoric magnified. A Tigray regional government statement referred to the “illegal, unitarist and personalistic dictatorship currently in charge of political power at the federal level” which was conspiring with external actors to bring the people of Tigray to their knees, and “committing the treasonous act of abandoning the country’s policy of independence and sovereignty.” It also said cutting or suspending the federal budget subsidy was tantamount to a declaration of war. Three days later, former Foreign Minister, Seyoum Mesfin, speaking on the local Dimtsi Weyane television station in Mekelle on October 29, called Abiy the ‘former prime minister’, accused him of being a traitor, of selling GERD to Egypt and of colluding with President Isaias to undermine the sovereignty of the country and its constitution, and of allowing Isaias to ‘rape Ethiopia under the guise of cooperation’. He said Abiy had made “a one-day secret trip to Asmara”, conspiring with Isaias to wage war on Tigray. Eritrean military and security officers, he said, were in Bahir Dar advising on training and organizing the new ENDF North-west Command. Asmara had also recruited and trained new forces with the aim of “finishing off the TPLF”.

 

On November 2, Regional President Debretsion Gebremichael speaking on regional television said that the regional government had “prepared its military Special Forces” not because it wanted war but because it needed to be prepared for the worst. He said the situation was advancing towards war and everyone should be ready. It was, he said, a war that would be waged by the Federal government of Ethiopia and a foreign power (Eritrea). He said repeatedly the Tigrayan people wanted peace but if war was waged against them, they were prepared to fight and to win. [107]

The way both sides responded to the efforts of the Ethiopian Reconciliation Commission to mediate, blocking any progress by setting what amounted to politically impossible pre-conditions, was symptomatic of the relationship. The House of Representatives had voted for the creation of an Ethiopian Reconciliation Commission in December 2018, and the 41-member body was established six weeks later. Headed by Cardinal Berhaneyesus Demerew, head of the Roman Catholic church in Ethiopia, its members included many of the ‘great and good’: politicians, among them former Prime Minister Hailemariam, and opposition party leaders, academics and intellectuals, sporting heroes, philanthropists and religious figures. The Commission was given the aim of looking at conflicts, considering opposite points of view and working for reconciliation. In theory, at least it has the power to subpoena documents, summon individuals to give testimony, and demand police support.

At a press conference on October 24, 2020, Cardinal Berhaneyesus revealed that the Commission’s attempts to mediate the current impasse between the Federal government and Tigray Regional State had been hampered by the pre-conditions set by both parties before they were prepared to sit down together around a table. The Cardinal said both sides had expressed their willingness to address the gaps between them but, he said, the politicians had persisted in underlining their own respective pre-conditions for conducting a dialogue. He refused to give any details of these but noted the Commission had received “a very constructive and good gesture from the Tigray administration” when they met Debretsion Gebremichael and his cabinet in Mekelle.[108]

At different times, Abiy did suggest the TPLF should merge with the PP or join as an affiliated party, or for Tigrayan President, Debretsion, to become Deputy Prime Minister and for a number of senior TPLF members to return to Addis Ababa to work with him. The TPLF offered to negotiate on security and other national issues and the holding of peaceful elections; but refused to cancel its own electoral process or to join the PP. It said, it would support an all-inclusive national dialogue, but that must involve the release of all political leaders, and a transitional national government to oversee elections with the earlier Tigray election accepted as valid. Security should be in the hands of regions, and President Isaias be excluded from any participation in affairs. The government and Prosperity Party firmly rejected any consideration of a transitional government or a national dialogue, insisting the Tigray election must be declared null and void and the previous administration reinstated. Once the conflict started Abiy repeatedly refused to consider any possibility of mediation with what he called a ‘criminal clique’, and demanded their complete surrender.

 

Given the prescriptions of his philosophy of medemer, it might have been expected that Abiy might also have tried to reconcile the TPLF with Isaias. The nearest he came to doing so was when he asked Isaias to talk to Tigrayan President Debretsion at the Ethiopian New Year in 2018. It was hardly a success.  Isaias described his two meetings with Debretsion in the interview/speech he gave in February this year: “We met Debretsion in Zelambessa on 11 September 2018. I was not in a mood to talk to him. This was followed by another meeting in Om Hajer. I only agreed to do so late the previous night having said I would not meet him up to that point. I had only one message/question and repeatedly asked myself if I should say it or not. In the end, I thought it better to say it. I asked Debretsion, why are you preparing for war? Why? He replied, “it won’t happen”.[109]

 

  • President Isaias and Prime Minister Abiy – who is in the driving seat?

 

Central to Abiy’s policies towards the TPLF and Tigray, and more generally in terms of internal political developments as well as regional and foreign policy, has been his relationship with Eritrea, or more accurately, with President Isaias.

 

Abiy’s promise to accept the Boundary Commission report of 2002 in full, subsequently endorsed by the EPRDF’s full Council including TPLF members on June 5, 2018, was seen as one of the most important points in his inaugural speech.[110] In the context of Abiy’s relations with the TPLF, it should be noted that the TPLF’s own Executive Committee described the decision as essentially in line with the peace principles of the government’s approach for the last 18 years and said it was appropriate and timely. It did add that it should be implemented carefully “in the light of geopolitical realities,” and complained the decision had been made public before being accepted by the EPRDF’s Council, a requirement of the EPRDF’s constitution. It warned of the need for careful consideration of implementation. Overall, the TPLF statement described the decisions as having fundamental flaws as it hadn’t followed proper party procedures, and had failed to take into account the “fundamental leadership deficit and the damage visible within the EPRDF”. Nor had it valuated the progress of the “deep reform” agenda that the EPRDF was currently undertaking in order to solve the challenges it faced. [111] 

 

The significance of Abiy’s decision was underlined by the related changes in Ethiopia’s foreign policy, with the Peace Accord bringing the Horn of Africa’s most isolated dictator back into regional circulation and, even more, giving him a leading, even controlling, role in Ethiopian affairs, and above all in events in Tigray regional state. Of course, an end to the 20 years of “no peace, no war”, largely driven by Isaias’ continuous efforts to destabilise Ethiopia, Sudan, Djibouti and Somalia after his defeat in 2000 and Ethiopia’s refusal to hand over Badme and its constant exertions to isolate Eritrea, was widely welcomed, not least by the people of both countries.

 

How far the Peace Accord was the result of Abiy’s own thinking and how far the result of external prompting has been the subject of much speculation. Some of the first moves came quietly from religious groups. In September 2017, the World Council of Churches sent a team to see what common ground there was on both sides.[112] It has been suggested, plausibly, that some of the groundwork for the rapprochement between Ethiopia and Eritrea was done by the United States. Ambassador Donald Yamamoto, the then Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Africa visited Eritrea, Djibouti and Ethiopia in late April 2018, and explored “the possibilities of an Ethiopian-Eritrean understanding, including the possible use of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to help underwrite the costs”.[113] Ambassador Yamamoto was a long-time proponent of bringing Eritrea back ‘into the fold of a relationship with the US and the international community; and with a career that uniquely qualified him to try to mediate between Ethiopia and Eritrea, he made a number of efforts to do just that during the 18 years of “no peace, no war”. [114] Diplomatic sources suggest that Yamamoto hosted talks in Washington at which both sides were represented. The Eritrean minister of foreign affairs, Osman Saleh, is said to have been present, accompanied by Yemane Gebreab, President Isaias’s long-standing adviser.[115]

 

Certainly, the US, and the US Ambassador in Addis Ababa, Michael Raynor, welcomed the Peace Accord. It didn’t need the US to explain its value to both Abiy and Isaias, (though the US may well have added an additional benefit to the agreement by persuading Saudi Arabia and the UAE to finance it) not least because Abiy and Isaias believed they had a common enemy, the TPLF. There was no indication of this in the Peace Accord signed on 8 July 2018 in Asmara, but Isaias had already made his position known several weeks earlier. After Abiy’s original call to “resolve differences through dialogue” and the EPRDF’s approval in June, he publicly identified this as “Game over” for the TPLF.[116]  He said he would send a delegation to discuss Ethiopian troop withdrawals from the disputed areas along the Ethiopian/Eritrean border that runs along Tigray, but he also needed to get some assurance that Abiy really had the political support necessary to deal with the TPLF. Eritrean Foreign Minister Osman Saleh and Presidential Adviser, Yemane Gebreab, arrived in Addis Ababa just after the attempted assassination of Abiy during a rally in Meskal Square. They were impressed by Abiy’s response to the attack and by the authority he had already shown in removing General Samora and Getachew Assefa. They reported favourably to Isaias. Two weeks later, on July 8, Abiy, at his own suggestion, arrived in Asmara – to an enormous welcome. President Isaias received an equally impressive reception when he visited Addis Ababa a week later. There was no doubt of the popular support in both countries for an end to 18 years of ‘no war, no peace’ and the opportunity for families to renew links across the Eritrea-Tigrayan border. Both leaders, particularly Abiy, basked in world-wide adulation.

The Peace Accord signed in July consisted of five general points, covering an end to the state of war, cooperation on political, economic, social, cultural and security issues, and opening embassies, links in trade, communication and transport, implementation of the border decision, and working jointly towards regional peace and security. It offered no specifics, and no indication of how the two sides would move the situation on. It was a clear example of what has become Abiy’s trademark approach: a personal action, often unexpected, to garner the headlines, without thinking through the consequences, or worrying about details, which are left to be discussed, or ignored, later. It also reinforced Abiy’s own view of his capacity to charm anyone and his skill in dialogue. For Isaias, it offered the prospect of lifting sanctions which would allow him to resume what he regarded as his proper role as an elder statesman in the Horn and start on the process of replacing the regional block, Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). In the second place, however, it offered the opportunity for the overthrow of the TPLF. Even more, it allowed for the actual destruction of the organisation, and the possibility of making sure no Tigrayan organisation (or even the region) could ever function effectively again, by destroying its administration, infrastructure, culture, and even its population. Isaias’ determination to crush the TPLF even allowed him to ally with Amhara ethno-nationalist elements against whom he had spent over 30 years fighting for Eritrean independence. Abiy was equally determined to shore up his own power base, despite his commitments to medemer, to dialogue, synergy, and unity, allowed himself to be carried along.

 

It seems unlikely that plans for the destruction of the TPLF and Tigray were worked out at Abiy and Isaias’ first meeting. However, their statements seemed to suggest that they rapidly saw the opportunities for something more than a mere alliance. On his first visit to Addis Ababa in July 2018, Isaias said: “I have given [to Abiy] all responsibility of leadership and power; from now on, anyone who says Eritrea and Ethiopia are two people is out of reality.”[117]  Abiy made similar remarks at Davos in January 2019, adding that he saw no need for Ethiopia, Eritrea or [more surprisingly] Djibouti to have separate armies or embassies.[118]  A few weeks later, Abiy, apparently referring to Eritrea said “it is only a matter of time that those who have left will return”, a statement that alarmed Eritreans who saw this as the potential negation of thirty years of their independence struggle and that “Eritrea has been offered to Ethiopia on a silver platter”. This. Inevitably, gave rise to rumours that they were considering some sort of closer links, even confederation. While these have not gone away, it is far from clear whether any such suggestion can be considered practical politics. What does seem clear, is that by the end of 2018, the two leaders had come to the conclusion that their alliance would, of necessity, encompass a military solution.

 

For Abiy, the TPLF was a dangerous political rival — a party that had once led Ethiopia and, once he became prime minister, repeatedly flouted his authority. For Abiy, like Isaias this was unacceptable. Both believed they needed the political annihilation of the TPLF. An additional factor, in the longer term, was a requirement for the devastation of Tigray’s economy in order to allow the Eritrean economy to benefit from the reopening of the border. This was underlined by the brief but very substantial impact of the openings of the border in July which benefitted Mekelle merchants and businesses, not Eritrea, and underlined the poverty and lack of capacity of the Eritrean economy

 

For Isaias, though, it was also much more, a deeply personal feud. Grievances, bad blood and ideological disputes stretched back to the time of the struggle against the Derg and for Eritrean independence. And as Isaias has frequently shown, he never forgets an injury, real or imagined, however small. Abiy offered Isaias what he most desired: a way to destroy the TPLF which had humiliated him in the 2000 border war, and which had subsequently prevented him from achieving the role and status he believed should be his: recognition as an elder statesman of the region. His dislike long preceded the war that ended in 2000. In the mid-1980s, when the TPLF had criticised his ideological arguments and refused to accept his guidance and his suggestions, Isaias closed off a major TPLF supply route from Sudan running through EPLF held areas during the 1983-84 famine.[119] Tens of thousands of Tigrayans died before the TPLF was able to build their own road through to Sudan. In the last years of the Derg’s rule the two accepted the need for a tactical alliance and after their respective takeovers in Eritrea and Ethiopia, relations improved. But even before the disagreements that led to the 1998-2000 war with Ethiopia, Isaias had become convinced that Meles had tried to kill him by causing problems to an aircraft on which he was returning to Asmara. Meles Zenawi once told Alex de Waal: “Isaias … cannot forgive the Weyane for defeating his unconquerable army and so he is looking to punish them. One way he would like to do this is to dismantle Ethiopia, which is proving a lot more difficult than he thought. The other strategy is to hang on until he can find enough Ethiopians who can also demonize the Weyane.” [120]

 

For the second stage of their rapprochement, Isaias and Abiy signed an Agreement of Peace, Friendship and Comprehensive Cooperation in the presence of the UN Secretary General and the King of Saudi Arabia in Jeddah on September 16.[121] This added little to the previous accord with its seven general articles. The state of war was ended and the two countries would promote cooperation in the political, security, defence, economic, trade, investment, cultural and social fields on the basis of complementarity and synergy, develop joint investment projects, including Joint Special Economic Zones, promote regional and global peace, security and cooperation, and combat terrorism and people, arms and drug trafficking. The two slightly more specific articles covering implementation of the Eritrea–Ethiopia Boundary Commission decisions and the establishment of a High-Level Joint Committee, and relevant sub-committees to oversee the implementation of the agreement.

 

Internationally, both Isaias and Abiy gained. For Abiy, of course, it meant the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, and a significant increase in his international status, with the UN Secretary–General talking of peace breaking out in the Horn of Africa. Subsequent events, of course, have seriously damaged his image and raised questions about the applicability of the prize. For Isaias, it relieved some of the international pressure over internal Eritrean policies, though that has never really worried him. He was irritated not to be given the Nobel Peace Prize jointly with Abiy, but his interest has always to be seen as a respected regional elder statesman. The rapprochement was irrelevant to Eritrea’s internal development, and was never intended to have any impact in terms of encouragement of democracy or open government, it only relate to his own position and authority, and his own desire for revenge against Tigray. He has used the Accord to bring his position in the region and in the lower Red Sea back to where he thinks it ought to be, joining the Saudi sponsored Council of Arab and African Coastal States of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden set up in 2020, and bringing Ethiopia and Somalia into an organisation which he can dominate. Isaias has not bothered to resolve his border problems with Djibouti but he has encouraged Abiy to make major changes in Ethiopia’s foreign policy, both towards Somalia and Somaliland and the Somali Federal states, in pursuit of his own long-standing aim of replacing IGAD with an organisation in which he can play a leading role. This, and the war in Tigray, has, of course, also affected Ethiopia’s relationship with Kenya, Djibouti, Sudan and IGAD, and weakened Ethiopia’s regional standing and its ability to control the discussions over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).

 

Isaias insisted that lifting the UN sanctions on Eritrea must be part of the overall deal, in part perhaps because of the need to acquire more arms. There have been reports that as soon as the sanctions were lifted, he was in the market for weapons, using the funds given by Saudi Arabia and the UAE for signing the agreements. Some of the weaponry displayed by Eritrean troops in Tigray appears to have been recently obtained. The UN sanctions had been imposed over Eritrea’s dealings with Djibouti and its support for extremists in Somalia. Relations with Djibouti, at least on the surface, were dealt with the day after the Eritrea-Ethiopia Peace Agreement, when, at the request of King Salmon, President Guelleh of Djibouti arrived to meet Isaias in Jeddah. They shook hands and agreed to restore relations, though Isaias subsequently made no further effort to improve Eritrean-Djibouti relations. [122]

 

Earlier, Isaias himself had also mended relations with Somalia. He invited Mohamed Abdullahi Mohammed ‘Farmaajo’, President of Somalia to Asmara on 28 July 2018 the first such visit by a Somali president.[123] They signed a Joint Declaration on Brotherly Relations and Comprehensive Cooperation, which covered acknowledgement of “each other’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity.” This was followed by a summit of Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia in Asmara on 5 September 2018, resulting in another Joint Declaration of Comprehensive Cooperation with agreement to build close political, economic, social, cultural and security ties, and coordinate policies to promote regional peace and security.[124] The three leaders also agreed to set up a Joint High-Level Committee to coordinate efforts. A second summit was held in Bahir Dar, the capital of the Amhara regional state, in November 2018 at which the parties reaffirmed their “commitment to inclusive regional peace and cooperation”.[125]

 

It was all enough for the UN Security Council to agree to the lifting of sanctions against Eritrea in November, achieving one of Isaias’ main aims.

 

The summit in Bahir Dar, however, was seen in a very different light by the TPLF, as it placed President Isaias in the Amhara regional state. The leaders discussed the possibility of making a joint attack on Tigray on two fronts: from Amhara region in the south and Eritrea in the north. The danger was certainly clear to the TPLF and was exactly what happened in November 2020. There is no doubt that the decision to hold the summit in Bahir Dar, whether suggested by Isaias, as at least one senior Ethiopia diplomat believed [126] or not, was designed to send a message to the TPLF.

Although no announcement was made at the time, it subsequently became clear that the three leaders had signed a formal agreement to set up a Horn of Africa Council at the Asmara summit. This appeared to be the first stage in a plan to try to replace IGAD, an organisation which Isaias, who walked out in 2007 when it refused to accept his advice over Somalia, had no time for. One result of the creation of the Council was a request by President ‘Farmaajo’ for Eritrea to provide troops for Somalia after the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) leaves which it is due to do later this year. Whether Isaias agreed is unclear, though there have been unconfirmed reports of some Eritrean troops in Mogadishu. He did, however, offer to train Somali troops, and the first group went to Eritrea in 2019 and 600 returned in mid-2020 after ten months training and more were sent. Somalis have claimed a total of 3,000 were involved. President ‘Farmaajo’ visited Eritrea in October 2020 and there has been speculation that he then agreed to allow the trainees to take part in action in Tigray.[127] Uncertainty about the Somali election and its date will, however, affect any decisions that Isaias and Abiy want to take over Somalia.

It is clear the final details for the planned offensive against Tigray were worked out after the Tigrayan authorities announced at the beginning of May 2020 that they would go ahead with their own regional state election in September, after the further postponement of the national elections in Ethiopia.[128] The timing of the offensive was chosen to coincide with the controversial US election day, November 3, when the world’s attention would be on the United States. It had the added advantage of coinciding with the beginning of the harvest in Tigray, making it difficult for the TPLF to deploy its substantial militia.

 

The final steps in the joint planning, paralleling Abiy’s internal steps in preparation for war, came in the second half of 2020. Abiy visited the main Eritrean military training base for national service conscripts at Sawa on July 18, to watch the graduation of the 33rd national service course, many of whom found themselves fighting in Tigray a few months later. President Farmaajo was in Asmara at the beginning of October, and President Isaias made his sixth visit to Ethiopia on 12 – 15 October 2020. This time he visited Ethiopia’s main air force base at Bishoftu, as well as the Ethio-Engineering Group facilities there. The EE Group took over production of military vehicles for the ENDF from the disbanded METEC conglomerate. [129] During Isaias’ visit, the intelligence heads of Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia held an unannounced meeting in Addis Ababa. There were also reports of troops and equipment being moved towards Tigray region. Isaias ramped up his pre-war rhetoric. The outbreak of fighting was preceded by series of inflammatory statements almost designed in effect to provoke a military action. One Eritrean government statement at the end of October accused the TPLF of obstructing regional peace and stability, with its “poisonous ethnic based politics”. It said the TPLF, which was quivering on its “death bed”, was still holding Tigray back, despite having being told by President Isaias that it was “Game over” for the TPLF two and a half years earlier. [130]

 

There were reports of the movement of military hardware towards the Tigray region from other parts of Ethiopia during and after Isaias’s visit. And it is clear there were similar activities going on in Eritrea. Eritrean opposition sources later provided details of some Ethiopian units being airlifted to Eritrea in October in preparation for the start of the offensive. In December 2020, former Eritrean Chief of Staff, General Mesfin Hagos, quoting his own Ministry of Defence sources, was able to give some details of just how extensive Eritrean involvement was – and it would all have had to be planned and mobilised in advance of the conflict. He said Eritrea first provided intelligence, logistical back-up and artillery support at Humera, and other areas close to the border. Once ENDF and Amhara special forces ran into problems, which they very quickly did, very substantial numbers of Eritrean troops crossed the border – on November 10 according to Tigray president Debretsion – in four areas. They participated in the attacks in Shire and at Axum and Adua, with two mechanized divisions, (46th and 48th) and three infantry divisions (26th, 28th, and 53rd); at Zalembessa, with two mechanized divisions (42nd and 49th) and four infantry divisions (11th, 17th, 19th, and 27th); and another five divisions moved from the Bada oasis, where they had been mobilized, into eastern Tigray, south of Adigrat. [131]

 

Who fired the first shots?

 

Whoever fired the first shots on the night of 3 – 4 November 2020 is almost irrelevant, as both sides had taken up positions in which conflict was inevitable and no other option possible. Prime Minister Abiy firmly claimed the TPLF was responsible and the attack on Northern Command bases in Tigray “in the early hours of November 4, 2020” by Tigrayan forces sparked off the war. This appeared to be confirmed when TPLF official Sekou Toure Getachew, said the TPLF had launched a pre-emptive attack on the Northern Command, being forced to act by the build-up of Amhara, Eritrean and ENDF forces poised to invade Tigray.[132] As noted above, this was later denied.

 

The Northern Command was the strongest of Ethiopia’s six regional commands with more than half of the ENDF mechanised units and much of its heavy weaponry. As many of the units had been based in Tigray since the end of the 1998-2000 war with Eritrea, and still included a significant percentage of Tigrayan officers, despite Abiy’s changes in the military hierarchy, the TPLF believed it would be able to count on its reluctance to support federal intervention. Indeed, the TPLF thought they might be able to get active support from many of the units if conflict broke out. It had laid plans for such an eventuality though in the event these were not as successful as expected. Certainly, as the probability of conflict increased in October, and earlier, the TPLF held talks with senior officers of the Northern Command, in an effort to secure their neutrality if not their active support in case of war. It appeared to have persuaded at least half of the Northern Command to remain neutral, at least at the beginning of the war.

 

Original reports claimed that the fighting started in response to an attempted attack by government troops very early on the morning of 4 November, after an aircraft carrying a special commando unit from Bahir Dar attempted to eliminate the Tigray leadership. The force was airlifted into Mekelle by two helicopters and an Antonov to try and seize the TPLF leadership at the Planet hotel. The commandos landed without a problem, drove into Mekelle, seized control of the hotel, but found no Tigrayan leaders present. They then withdrew without fighting, but after the raid TPLF forces forcibly took over the Ethiopian National Defence Force camp located near the airport, the airport itself and the Northern Command HQ in Mekelle. The commando raid allegedly preceded Prime Minister Abiy’s claim of a TPLF attack on the Northern Command barracks, but there had already been some fighting in Western Tigray by then between Amhara Special Forces and Tigray troops. Another version was that the reported aircraft had been sent to Mekelle to “deliver new banknotes”, with a commando guard. and that it was subsequently seized by the TPLF.

 

The government and the Prime Minister have also put out several versions of what happened on 3 – 4 November. The original statement from the Prime Minister’s office on 4 November said the TPLF had attacked and taken over an army base. It said the TPLF had attacked the ENDF base in Tigray in the early hours of 4 November, and attempting to rob the Northern Command of artillery and military equipment. The statement said that over the previous few weeks the TPLF had been arming and organising irregular militia outside the constitutionally mandated structure. It accused the Tigrayans of continually provoking and inciting violence over the past months, while the Federal government had maintained a policy of extreme patience and caution. This attack, however, was the last red line and the Federal government had therefore been forced into a military confrontation. The ENDF, under the direction of a Command Post, was therefore ordered into action “to save the country and the region from spiralling into instability.”[133] Later in a TV address, Abiy added that the TPLF had launched an attack which had resulted in “many martyrs, injuries and property damage” and had tried to loot military assets during attack, forcing the federal government into a military confrontation.[134] And two days after he had ordered the ENDF into Tigray, Prime Minister Abiy said his ‘law enforcement operation’ had “clear, limited and achievable objectives”. He identified these as disarming the TPLF, bringing its leaders to justice, appointing a new administration for the region, and enhancing law and order.

 

In a statement ten days later, the Prime Minister’s Office said the TPLF had committed high treason with its attack on the Northern Command of the ENDF, as well as planned, trained, financed and executed ethnic and sectarian conflicts in Ethiopia, endangered the constitutional order and that its three decades of rule had been characterized by egregious violations of human rights, corruption and self-enrichment. Therefore, the government was now going to disarm the TPLF ‘junta’, restore legitimate administration to Tigray, enforce law and order and bring fugitives to justice. [135]

 

Government accounts of what happened overnight on November have become steadily more outspoken and luridly detailed. At the end of November, Abiy told Parliament the ‘junta’ had cut communications, surrounded the ENDF units across the region, controlled most but killed some. He said: “Our soldiers who were killed were naked and both their legs and hands remained tied until our soldiers controlled the area and buried their bodies”. He gave no figures but said the ‘junta’ had driven members of the defence force into Eritrea naked: “But the people of Eritrea gave them clothes to wear, water, food and armed it as well, and they came back and fought in Eritrean clothes. That is why they said, ‘Eritrea is fighting us’. He said he himself had flown up to Eritrea along with three generals to reorganize these troops.[136]

 

A few weeks later, he added further details:

 

“On the night of 3 November 2020, the TPLF leadership launched, under cover of darkness, what they later described, on public television, as a ‘lightening pre-emptive attack’ against the Northern Command of the Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF), which had been stationed in the Region since the outbreak of war with Eritrea over two decades ago. Using traitors recruited from within the army along ethnic lines, not only did the TPLF leadership cause the massacre of unarmed soldiers in their pyjamas in the dead of night. They also took possession, illegally, of the entire military arsenal of the Northern Command… After they surprised and overpowered several regiments of the ENDF forces, the TPLF identified and separated hundreds of unarmed Ethiopian soldiers of non-Tigrayan origin, tied their hands and feet together, massacred them in cold blood, and left their bodies lying in open air. Never would I have imagined it humanly possible for any person to kill their fellow soldiers while asleep and record themselves singing and dancing on the bodies of their victims.”[137]

 

A preliminary report by the Federal Attorney-General’s Office in January said that on the night of 3 November, about a hundred military and police posts were attacked by regional Special Forces and militia which has surrounded the camps. The actions were led by Tigrigna-speaking brigade commanders and some defence forces defended themselves. The report gave no overall casualty figures though it referred to “17 hostages” killed in a vehicle collision, and to looting and to some killed in the camps, and to beheadings by “the TPLF group”. The report said that telecommunication and power facilities had been attacked and the Ethiopian Petroleum Supply Company depot and the National Disaster Risk and Preparedness Agency stockpile of wheat in Mekelle taken over. Arms, including rockets and missiles were taken from military units. The TPLF had been planning this for the previous three months, and a TPLF Executive Committee meeting ten days earlier had expected fighting to start at any time. The report’s conclusions were that The TPLF had prepared its own army; sponsored conflicts for more than two years; collected weapons for war; attempting to overthrow the unity of the country, the unity of the federation and the state of Tigray; declared a state of emergency; established its own defence council; sold bonds and allowed the withdrawal of excess money in defiance of National Bank Directives; and committed terrorist acts.

 

Abiy’s gave his own account of the reasons for the outbreak of fighting later: “No government can tolerate its soldiers and innocent civilians being ambushed and killed in their dozens, as happened at the hands of the TPLF last autumn. My primary duty as prime minister and commander in chief of the national armed forces, after all, is to protect Ethiopia and its people from internal and external enemies.” Unfortunately, “the suffering and deaths that occurred despite our best efforts have caused much distress for me personally as well as for all peace-loving people here and abroad. Ending the suffering in Tigray and around the country is now my highest priority.” He said, “Our operations in Tigray were designed to restore peace and order quickly”. He noted that the removal of the TPLF had fuelled “unease in the international community and that concerns about ethnic profiling in Tigray and obstacles to humanitarian relief abound”, but, he insisted, his government “was determined to address and dispel such concerns.” Government actions, he said, were designed to restore peace and order quickly, underlining that with “the removal – for good – of the corrupt and dictatorial TPLF, Ethiopians can now imagine a future based not on ethnic chauvinism, but on unity, equality, freedom, and democracy. Moreover, the source of ethnic division that had poisoned inter-state relations across the Horn of Africa has now been overcome.” He made no mention of the presence or the activities of Eritrean troops in Tigray.[138]

 

One of the points in the Prime Minister’s original 4 November statement was that the TPLF had also been “manufacturing Eritrean uniforms at the Almeda plc factory just outside Adua, and this was intended to implicate the Eritrean government in false claims of aggression.” Given the realities of subsequent Eritrean military involvement in the war, and the repeated denials by the Ethiopian government, it is clear that this statement was intended to try and pre-empt and nullify any subsequent claims of Eritrean involvement. At times, indeed, the apparent attempts to conceal the involvement of Eritrean troops reached farcical proportions. The government claimed:

 

  1. The TPLF had manufactured Eritrean uniforms to dress up TPLF fighters as Eritrean soldiers and commit atrocities;
  2. Ethiopian troops who fled to Eritrea early in November were given Eritrean uniforms to return to fight the TPLF; and
  3. TPLF released prisoners (numbers ranged from 13,000 to 60,000) and dressed them in Eritrean army uniforms encouraging them to commit abuses that could be blamed on Eritrean forces.
  4. The TPLF claimed Eritrean troops were putting on Ethiopian uniforms to conceal their presence; and
  5. That both Eritrean and Ethiopian troops were wearing each other’s uniforms and operating under each other’s command.

The multiplicity of reports of the presence and indeed of the horrifying abuses committed by Eritrean troops, finally forced the Ethiopian government to admit their presence in March, over three and a half months after the first crossed the border.[139] It was nearly a month before any Eritrean official was prepared to make such an admission, though it was not until April 15 that any Eritrean official did so. [140]  Until then, Eritrea while not admitting its troops were present in Ethiopia, had on occasions carefully avoided actually denying their presence, and indeed virtually implied that they were there.  In Geneva, for example, in February, the Eritrean delegate described an OHCHR oral report of the crimes committed by Eritrea’s armed forces as “utterly baseless. These are alien and an affront to the history and culture of Eritrea and its military establishments”. [141]

 

It is true that during the independence struggle, the EPLF did treat most of its prisoners relatively well, though not all. Eritreans who fought for Ethiopia, notably the Kunama for example, got short shrift, and it is far from clear that all those who surrendered (on either side) in the 1998-2000 war survived the experience. Certainly, the Eritrean troops who advanced into Irob in May 1998 to take Alitiena and outflank Ethiopian defences on the road to Adigrat, cut a swath of destruction across the region. An Irob submission to the Boundary Commission in April 2002, detailed “Killings of civilians, imprisonment, harassment, rape of women, desecration of and looting of churches, eviction of residents from their houses, destruction of houses, health centres and schools were daily activities of the Eritrean troops”. 15 months later, the Catholic Bishop of Adigrat, whose diocese included Irob, noted that in his jurisdiction over 300,000 people had been displaced, their homes destroyed, schools, clinics and churches looted, either severely damaged or totally destroyed. The town of Zalembesa, he said, had been systematically bulldozed and the Catholic Church there had lost eight institutions.[142]

 

There can be little doubt that Prime Minister Abiy was firmly confident that his ‘law enforcement operation’ would be quick and easy. Even though he found it necessary to make changes at the top in both the military and security establishments on 7 November, he was quite sure his preparations for dealing with the TPLF and Tigray would be sufficient as his continuous references to a three-week action demonstrated. He had, after all, the Ethiopian army and air force (largely purged a year or two earlier of their Tigrayan elements), President Isaias and the Eritrean army, the Amhara region special forces and militia, and, he believed, God, on his side. Despite breaking with his former Oromo supporters and other advocates of a realistic functional federalism, he had managed to prevent any conjunction of pro-federal forces emerging to support the TPLF. Indeed, entirely confident in his military superiority, he set himself firmly against any possibility of mediation or of dialogue, deliberately rejecting the parameters of a Nobel Peace Prize and his own medemer philosophy to accept the views of his autocratic and authoritarian ally who was determined on the destruction of an elected leadership he hated.

 

The TPLF was also confident it would be able to provide an effective resistance. They had sizeable and well-trained special force units and substantial militia forces. There was the prospect, however obtained, of acquiring the use of most of the heavy weapons of the best armed units of the Ethiopian army, and the possibility of being joined by a significant element from the Northern Command. The TPLF had a belief in their own strength, buttressed by the history of their long and successful war to overthrow the Derg’s military regime in 1991. Refusing to accept that its 27 years in power and its methods of governance had left a legacy of distrust and dislike, even enmity, it had also expected to be able to call on supporters of federalism from across the country. It under-estimated the sheer size of Abiy’s “law enforcement”, nor did it expect President Isaias to commit such a large proportion of the Eritrean army. It was shocked by the amount of new weaponry Isaias had acquired since the lifting of UN sanctions in November 2018, much of it no doubt from the UAE, and even more by the use of drones, which played a decisive role in the fighting in November. [143]

 

However, the fighting in November, essentially between regular forces, was no more than a prelude of what seems likely to be the start of a long guerrilla war. Abiy has ignored the fact that the TPLF successfully resisted the Derg for 17 years in Tigray. He overlooked the possibility that military action, however described, would generate resistance, and disregarded the probability that an invasion of Tigray, whether by the Federal army, or Amhara or Eritrean forces, would cause the population, not just the TPLF, to take to the hills. In the months since Abiy first declared victory at the end of November, his policies, including the deliberate and horrifyingly destructive operations of the Amhara and Eritrean forces and the Federal army, and his obstinate refusal to consider any dialogue, have made it clear the survival of both Tigray and the Tigrayan people are at risk.

 

The conflict seems set to continue, with the real possibility of spreading, within Ethiopia and into the wider region.

 

[1] A long-term consultant in Addis Ababa

[2] “TPLF attacks Ethiopian national Defence Forces Base in Tigray”. Office of the Prime Minister, 4.11.2020. https://www.ethioembassy.org.uk/tplf-attacks-ethiopian-national-defense-forces-base-in-tigray/

[3] Subsequently claimed to be a hundred in a report compiled by the Attorney-General’s Office, published February 2021. https://ethiopianmonitor.com/2021/02/06/attorney-general-office-gives-updates-on-probe-into-tplf-officials/

[4] Prime Minister Abiy’s address to Parliament 30.11.2020. https://www.pmo.gov.et/media/other/a04bae2d-2da2-483d-a9e3-74d441088401.pdf. (Amharic) https://www.ethiopia-insight.com/2020/12/22/the-causes-and-course-of-the-tigray-conflict-according-to-abiy-ahmed/ (English translation) An earlier statement (Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) 14.11.2020) referred to the “premeditated and treasonous act” in which the TPLF ordered “ethnic Tigrayan members of the Northern Command, whose loyalties lay with the TPLF and its murderous mission, to open fire on their comrades from within, causing unimaginable human suffering, demonstrating extreme cruelty, and showing unprecedented betrayal.” Abiy gave no numbers for those killed at the time, but in a statement in December (PMO 24.12.2020) he referred to the TPLF as massacring in cold blood “hundreds of unarmed Ethiopian soldiers of non-Tigrayan origin”.  The ENDF has given no figure of those killed on November 3-4.

[5] www.aigaforum.com/article2020/Tigrai-vs-Abiy-war-setting-the-record.htm

[6] After the Federal forces entered Mekelle on November 28, General Berhanu Jula, the Chief of Staff, said 7,000 members of the Northern Command held as hostages by the TPLF had been freed.

[7] Sekou Toure’s status has been questioned and his account was later denied by a senior TPLF official, spokesperson, Getachew Reda. “Interview given by freedom fighter Getachew Reda regarding current Issues”, TMH, 27/04/21 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S1aRsfuBJHo

[8] Amhara Police Commissioner Abere Adamu said later that the Amhara region authorities and police had been fully aware of the TPLF’s preparations, and the Amhara regional authorities “had deployed forces all along our borders from east to west. The war started after we have already completed our preparations.”   https://addisstandard.com/news-analysis-amhara-region-police-chief-reveals-how-regions-police-force-guided-federal-steel-clad-mechanized-forces-to-join-war-in-tigray/

[9] https://eritreahub.org/timeline-how-the-president-isaias-prime-minister-abiy-relationship-developed

[10] https://africa.cgtn.com/2020/01/27/somalia-ethiopia-and-eritrea-pledge-joint-anti-terror-war/

[11] https://villasomalia.gov.so/en/heads-of-state-and-government-meeting-between-eritrea-ethiopia-and-somalia-joint-communique/

[12] https://eritreahub.org/is-isaias-looking-for-a-final-confrontation-with-his-tigrayan-enemies

[13] https://shabait.com/2020/10/15/president-isaias-returns-home-concluding-working-visit-to-ethiopia/

[14] https://twitter.com/AbiyAhmedAli/status/1332740110039846914?s=20

[15] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-55825560

[16] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-ethiopia-conflict-idUSKBN2BF1NT

[17] It is worth noting that the Government of Eritrea has made virtually no statement on its involvement or the activities of its troops in Tigray. The first admission of their presence came in a letter from Eritrea’s Ambassador to the UN, Ambassador Sophia Tesfamariam, to the President of UNSC (16.4.2021) complaining about statements made on Tigray by the US Permanent Representative to the UN, and by OCHA, in a closed UNSC Session. https://shabait.com/2021/04/16/letter-of-eritreas-ambassador-to-the-un-to-current-president-of-unsc/. They had made false allegations about Eritrean troops: “The allegations of rape and other crimes lodged against Eritrean soldiers is not just outrageous, but also a vicious attack on the culture and history of our people”, adding that “Eritrea and Ethiopia have agreed, at the highest levels, to embark on the withdrawal of Eritrean forces and the simultaneous redeployment of Ethiopian contingents along the international boundary”. Ambassador Sophia outlined the official reason for the presence of Eritrean troops in Tigray, that the TPLF had “unleashed a massive, pre-emptive attack on all the contingents of the entire Ethiopian Northern Command. The purpose of this “blitzkrieg” was to neutralize Ethiopia’s largest army contingent, confiscate its weaponry (80% of the total arsenal of the DF) and seize power in Ethiopia through violence and subsequently invade Eritrea.”  There is, in fact, no evidence of the TPLF either planning to seize power in Ethiopia nor to invade Eritrea. Interestingly, however, Ambassador Sophia did refer to TPLF actions as “pre-emptive”, an apparent admission that Ethiopia and Eritrea had been planning an attack.

[18] https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-03-24/eritrea-forces-deployed-in-disputed-sudan-ethiopia-area-un-says

[19] https://www.theafricareport.com/62232/the-war-in-tigray-abiy-isaias-and-the-amhara-elite/

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-55877939

[20] https://eritreahub.org/prime-minister-abiy-announces-access-to-tigray-for-seven-international-media-organisations-including-bbc-reuters-al-jazeera

[21] The EPRDF, replaced by a single national Prosperity Party in December 2019) was the ruling coalition in Ethiopia from 1991. It was made up of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (later the Oromo Democratic Party), the Amhara National Democratic Movement (later the Amhara Democratic Party), and the Southern Ethiopia Peoples’ Democratic Movement.

[22] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/dec/11/ethiopia-protests-master-plan-addis-ababa-students

[23] https://rusi.org/publication/rusi-newsbrief/international-community-struggles-address-ethiopian-conflict

[24] The EPDM began as an offshoot of the pan-Ethiopian Marxist Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP). Opposed to the Derg, one faction had moved to Tigray to open guerrilla operations. In competition with the TPLF, in was defeated and driven out of Tigray in 1977. Some elements survived to set up the EPDM and open their own armed struggle among the Amhara in 1982. It joined with the TPLF to set up the EPRDF in 1989, and formally marked its transition from a pan-Ethiopian movement to an ethnic organization in 1994 when it changed its name to the ANDM.

[25] TPLF relations with the OLF deteriorated towards the end of the struggle against the Derg, and the TPLG created another Oromo organization, the OPDO, out of its Oromo prisoners of war, to provide the Oromo element in the EPRDF in 1990.

[26] https://www.cia.gov/the-world-factbook/countries/ethiopia/#people-and-society

[27] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/57a08aea40f0b64974000850/20110822-appp-rr02-rethinking-business-politics-in-ethiopia-by-sarah-vaughan-mesfin-gebremichael-august-2011.pdf

[28] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/15/world/africa/ethiopia-abiy-tigray.html

[29] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/10150894

[30] https://hornaffairs.com/2013/04/05/ethiopia-eprdf-leadership-organs-election/

[31] Personal communication, 2002

[32] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/aug/21/ethiopia-prime-minister-zenawi-dies

[33] The idea goes back to the Italian East African imperial governorates briefly established under Italian control in 1935-41. There were six of these, including an enlarged Eritrea, for Tigrayans and Afars, and a greatly enlarged Somalia for all Somalis, though the Amhara and Oromos were divided between the four governorates which made up the rest of Ethiopia.

[34] Comments from TPLF leaders in the first half of the 1990s suggest it was largely intended to control suspected Amhara efforts to reverse the EPRDF takeover, rather than from any genuine commitment to democratic forms per se.

[35] https://www.gov.uk/government/news/dfid-research-rethinking-business-and-politics-in-ethiopia-the-role-of-effort-the-endowment-fund-for-the-rehabilitation-of-tigray

[36] Personal communication, 2002.

[37] Walleligne Mekonnen 17.11.1969. https://www.marxists.org/history/erol/ethiopia/nationalities.pdf

[38] https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.DYN.LE00.IN?locations=ET

[39] Jawar Mohammed noted that EPRDF’s Executive Committee meeting in December 2017 had reached an agreement on partial political liberalization, the release of prisoners and the repeal of the state of emergency. but this had been accompanied, particularly in Oromia, by a security vacuum with administration paralyzed and replaced by organized youth and communal violence and displacement. Jawar Mohammed. “Managing transition in Ethiopia: Averting a looming danger”, https://addisstandard.com/opinion-managing-transition-in-ethiopia-averting-a-looming-danger/ 14.6.2018

[40] After Abiy became Prime Minister, Demeke retained his position as Deputy Prime Minister and has since added the Foreign Ministry to his portfolio.

[41] At least one, a major faction of the Oromo Liberation Front which, in theory, supports an independent Oromia, was allowed to keep its arms on its return. Subsequent events in western Wollega suggest this might have been a mistake.

[42] Abiy: Speech to Parliament: 30.11. 2020 https://www.ethiopia-insight.com/2020/12/22/the-causes-and-course-of-the-tigray-conflict-according-to-abiy-ahmed/ (English version)

[43] Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s Inaugural Address. 9.4.2018 https://www.africanexponent.com/post/9403-abiy-ahmeds-speech-of-the-century-preaches-hope

[44] https://medemer.et/

[45] Reuters 11.10.2019 Full text of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize Citation. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-nobel-prize-peace-fulltext-idUSKBN1WQ15N

[46] https://www.ft.com/content/433dfa88-36d0-11e9-bb0c-42459962a812

[47] https://qz.com/africa/1494561/ethiopia-has-no-jailed-journalists-in-2018-the-first-since-2004/

[48] https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2019/10/ethiopia-release-journalists-arrested-on-unsubstantiated-terrorism-charges/

[49] https://www.crisisgroup.org/africa/horn-africa/ethiopia/ethiopia-expels-crisis-group-senior-analyst

[50] https://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/2/10/394224/World/Africa/Ethiopia-suspends-Reuters-incountry-correspondents.aspx

[51] https://thespeakernewsjournal.com/world/ethiopian-government-allows-seven-international-media-outlets-to-report-in-the-tigray-region/

[52] https://addisstandard.com/news-journalists-rearrested-in-tigray-army-claims-they-were-preparing-to-broadcast-false-propaganda/

[53] https://cpj.org/reports/2020/12/record-number-journalists-jailed-imprisoned/

[54] https://cpj.org/reports/2020/12/record-number-journalists-jailed-imprisoned/

[55] Eritrea Hub, Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict and the battle to control information. 16.2.2021

[56] Ethiopian News Agency: EBA press statement 14.3.2021,

 

[57] https://www.ft.com/content/433dfa88-36d0-11e9-bb0c-42459962a812

[58] https://uk.news.yahoo.com/clean-insides-ethiopia-detains-tigrayans-061253144.html

[59] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/12/04/ethiopia-airlines-accused-ethnic-profiling-civil-war-tigray/

[60] (https://www.pmo.gov.et/initiatives/),

[61]https://duckduckgo.com/?q=Tsegaye+Tegenu%3A+Homegrown+Economic+Reform+and+Regional+Development+in+Ethiopia+ECADF+26.12.2019&t=osx&ia=web

[62] Alemayehu Geda: Critique of Ethiopia’s PM Abyi’s new “Homegrown” Policy 2019. September 2019. Researchgate.net

[63] https://www.capitalethiopia.com/featured/economic-reforms-bearing-fruits-pm-abiy/1  3.7.2020

[64] Abiy Speech to Parliament 30.11.20  https://www.ethiopia-insight.com/2020/12/22/the-causes-and-course-of-the-tigray-conflict-according-to-abiy-ahmed/ (English version)

[65] This involved the Metekel zone of Benishangul-Gumuz, an area administered by Amhara before 1995, largely inhabited by Gumuz but with a considerable Amhara settler population. The southern border of Metekel is the Blue Nile and the zone hosts the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

[66] https://issafrica.org/research/monographs/drivers-of-ethnic-conflict-in-contemporary-ethiopia

[67] Hagmann, T. and Mustafe Mohamed Abdi: Inter-ethnic violence in Ethiopia’s Somali Regional State, 2017 – 2018, Research Memo, LSE, March 2020.

[68] https://ethiopia.iom.int/sites/default/files/situation_reports/files/IOM Ethiopia Gedeo-W.Guji Sitrep No.5_0.pdf

[69] EZEMA, established in May 2019 is made up of Ginbot 7, the Ethiopian Democratic Party, All-Ethiopian Democratic Party, Semayawi Party, New Generation Party, Gambella Regional Movement, and Unity for Democracy and Justice). It is led by Berhanu Nega, former leader of Ginbot 7.

[70] Typically, the interview with the FT hit the headlines with Abiy’s display of confidence: “I have done so many great things compared to many leaders. But I didn’t do 1 per cent of what I am dreaming,” and his assertion that he had known from the age of seven that he would one day lead the country. Such comments have given credence to a growing belief that he would prefer a much more centralised, even quasi imperial system of governance. https://www.ft.com/content/ae678b6-346f-11e9-bb0c-42459962a812

 

[71] https://ecadforum.com/2019/10/20/eprdf-denounces-tplfs-stance-over-unified-party/

[72] Abiy speech to PP officials, 8.10.2020 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4DClE6GRQs&feature=youtu.be (Amharic)

[73] Afar National Democratic Party (ANDP), Benishangul-Gumuz Democratic Party (BDP), Gambella People’s Democratic Movement (GPDM), Harari National League (HNL) and Somali Democratic Party (SDP).

[74] The TPLF argued that the dissolution of the EPRDF was illegal as it had not been agreed by all elements of the Front as required in its statutes. It also said any merger of parties required a common program, and this had not been provided, nor had any by-laws. There was, therefore no indication of the relationship between and among members.

[75] The name appears to be drawn from the controversial Evangelical prosperity theology, (the prosperity gospel) which essentially equates riches with virtue, holding that financial blessing and physical well-being are the will of God for a person, and that faith, positive speech, and donations to religious causes, will increase one’s material wealth. With faith, God will deliver security and prosperity. It also emphasises personal empowerment. Christians are entitled to well-being, interpreted as physical health and economic prosperity. Positive confession allows Christians to exercise control over their own souls and over material objects around them. Prosperity churches encourage people to “live without limits”, and cultivate optimism about their lives..

[76] https://www.ethiopia-insight.com/2020/12/18/the-war-on-tigray-a-multi-pronged-assault-driven-by-genocidal-undercurrents/

[77] Tsedale Lemma, Sunday Thoughts 2, 14.3.2021

[78] https://addisstandard.com/news-amhara-oromia-pp-engage-in-war-of-words-as-relative-peace-returns-to-violence-hit-areas/

[79] Abiy speech to PP officials, 8.10.2020 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4DClE6GRQs&feature=youtu.be (Amharic)

[80] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jESA8MLAuCw

 

[81] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-53238206

[82] https://www.thereporterethiopia.com/article/crimes-against-humanity-committed-wake-hachalus-death-commission-says .   https://l.facebook.com/l.php?u=https%3A%2F%2Fdrive.google.com%2Ffile%2Fd%2F1oGkx-fFhTX_9AHoIzjj8KwIeWpyPZu5O%2Fview%3Fusp=sharing%26fbclid=IwAR3tGVRIiaIhq5KM3u9T13CO7yLD9k0xEwzfDAVq4vVB12Hkbhuwsl9TY4Q&h=AT1p0gKstGvluKSwvXTAoSyRB0wiavwFilJkJzdBh 1.1.2021

[83] https://www.horndaily.com/2020/08/10/breaking-news-lemma-megersa-suspended-from-prosperity-party/

[84] Leul Estifanos, Ethiopian opposition leader Eskinder Nega charged with terror plot to kill ex-Addis Ababa mayor, Ethiopian Insight, 20.9.2021

[85] file:///Dawit Endeshaw/ The rise of Abiy “Abiyot” Ahmed, The Reporter 31.3.2018

[86] INSA, set up in 2011 took over surveillance and the censorship of Internet traffic from the NISS

[87] William Davison, Hayelom Tewelde: Abiy attacks impunity as MetEC and NISS officials held for graft and torture. Ethiopian Insight,15.11.2018.

https://www.ethiopia-insight.com/2018/11/15/abiy-attacks-impunity-as-metec-and-niss-officials-held-for-graft-and-torture/

[88] METEC was a conglomerate set up in 2010 bringing together nine defence industry businesses in a state-owned military-industrial complex, grouping Defence Ministry businesses and related spare-part, vehicle and engineering companies, eventually incorporating over 70. with the aim to concentrate and improve Ethiopia’s engineering capacity. It was headed by senior officers from Tigray.

[89] Ethiopian Insight 15.11.2018.   https://www.ethiopia-insight.com/2018/11/15/abiy-attacks-impunity-as-metec-and-niss-officials-held-for-graft-and-torture/

[90] The pattern of the arrests suggested the government was trying to split the TPLF, to take advantage of divisions within the organization, representing different military and political elements. There were claims that some of the information about corruption in METEC was provided by an anti-military group led by Getachew Assefa and one-time TPLF leader, Sebhat Nega. These divisions, which included reformist and non-reformist factions, had interfered with TPLF efforts to reform itself in 2017-2018, and also hindered TPLF attempts to produce a coherent response to Abiy’s moves against it in 2018.

 

[91] Abiy: Speech to Parliament 30.11.2020 op.cit.

[92] Equally, the ENDF could also have acquired drones from China or Israel. It might also have acquired some drones earlier from the US which was using them in Somalia operating out of a base at Arbaminch in southern Ethiopia. See: https://www.youuav.com/news/detail/202012/46513.html

https://www.eepa.be/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/Situation-Report-EEPA-Horn-No.-64-23-January-2021.pdf

 

[93] See: Redie Bereketeab, “The Eritrea-Ethiopia Conflict and the Algiers Agreement: Eritrea’s Road to isolation”. In Eritrea’s External Relations: Understanding its Regional Role and Foreign Policy, ~Ed. Richard Read. London, Chatham House, 2009

[94] Abiy. Speech to Parliament op.cit

[95]https://www.crisisgroup.org/africa/horn-africa/ethiopia/283-keeping-ethiopias-transition-rails 16.12.2019

[96] The figures, as usual, seem to reflect some exaggeration, as the report also states recruitment for the Tigray special forces in 2018-19 rose from a previous figure of 500 a year to 5,000. All figures need to be treated with some circumspection. https://www.fanabc.com/english/attorney-general-police-release-results-of-investigation-into-tplfs-armed-attack-against-defence-force/29.1.2021

Attorney General, Police Release Results Of Investigation Into TPLF’s Armed Attack Against Defence Force, The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ethiopia  5.2.2021(English)

 

[97] Asaminew was arrested in 2009 for plotting a coup, but released in February 2018. He was then restored to his rank and retired on full pension before being appointed to head Amhara regional security bureau, in charge of Special Forces and militia. He was close to members of the Amhara Democratic Forces Movement, an ethno-nationalist group previously based in Eritrea, and like NaMA a supporter of the Amhara claims to Western Tigray. Nizar Manek: “Abiy Ahmed’s Reforms Have Unleashed Forces He Can No Longer Control”. 4.7.2019

[98] https://www.fanabc.com/english/nation-to-establish-two-additional-regiments/ 20.10.2020

[99] https://addisstandard.com/news-analysis-amhara-region-police-chief-reveals-how-regions-police-force-guided-federal-steel-clad-mechanized-forces-to-join-war-in-tigray/ 4.1.2021

[100] Ibid.

[101] https://chilot.me/2019/08/proclamation-no-1101-2019-administrative-boundary-and-identity-issues-commission/

[102] Walleligne Mekonnen: “The question of nationalities in Ethiopia”.  17.11.1969 op.cit

[103] Speech to Parliament. 30.11.2020. Op. cit

[104] Financial Times: “Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed: Africa’s new talisman”. 21.2.2019 op.cit

[105] Office of the Prime Minister (PMO) 14.11.2020

[106] Siyanne Mekonnen “Crisis staring Tigray, Federal governments “in the eye” as army is caught in the mix, relations plummet to new low”. https://addisstandard.com/analysis-crisis-staring-tigray-federal-governments-in-the-eye-as-army-is-caught-in-the-mix-relations-plummet-to-new-low/

[107] President Debretsion on regional TV.  https://addisstandard.com/we-have-prepared-our-military-of-special-force-not-in-need-of-a-war-but-if-the-worst-comes-debretsion-gebremichael/

[108] The Reporter, Pre-conditions impede Commission’s reconciliatory efforts, 24 October 2020

https://www.thereporterethiopia.com/article/pre-conditions-impede-commissions-reconciliatory-efforts?__cf_chl_captcha_tk__=cf6ea5b4fdf726e4864f2ca5bcbfa1c17b029676-1619970175-0-AcfR-mp8ZtCD_AQTkLpx6SrOin0CxSBy_N64v7LFrxC2544c2AJte8Rq82Xn5JLkW8kL7x

[109] Habte Hagos: 28.2.2021  https://asenatv.com/a-complete-english-translation-of-isaias-afwerkis-eritrean-tv-interview-17-february-2021/

[110] BBC, “Ethiopia ‘accepts peace deal’ to end Eritrea border war”, 5 June 2018

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-44376298

[111] Etenesh Abera 13.6.2018: https://addisstandard.com/news-tplf-says-ethiopias-recent-eritrea-economy-related-decisions-havefundamental-flaws-calls-for-emergency-meeting-of-the-ruling-eprdf-executive-council-committee/

[112] World Council of Churches, “Eritrean Orthodox Tewahdo Church hosts WCC delegation”, 3 October 2017

https://www.oikoumene.org/news/eritrean-orthodox-tewahdo-church-hosts-wcc-delegation

[113] “War resets the region”. Africa Confidential, Vol. 61, no. 24, 3.12.2019.

[114] Personal communication. Ambassador Yamamoto was U.S. Ambassador ad interim to Eritrea (1997–1998); Ambassador to Djibouti (2000-2003), Ambassador to Ethiopia (2006-2009); and acting Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs (in 2013, and in 2017-2018); and Ambassador to Somalia 2018-2020.

[115] The Conversation, “Eritrea and Ethiopia have made peace. How it happened and what next”, 10 July 2018

https://theconversation.com/eritrea-and-ethiopia-have-made-peace-how-it-happened-and-what-next-99683

[116] “President Isaias’ speech on Martyrs’ Day”, Shabait.com 20.6.2018. Translations varied with references from “the end of the TPLF’s shenanigans”)( https://martinplaut.com/2018/06/20/why-is-eritreas-president-so-hostile-towards-his-tigrayan-neighbours/ to the “TPLF clique, and other vultures”( https://sudantribune.com/spip.php?article65702).

[117] Abraham Zere, “Isaias out of character: Why Eritreans are getting nervous”, African Arguments, 18 July 2018, https://africanarguments.org/2018/07/why-eritrea-nervous-isaias-abiy-ethiopia/

See also: https://twitter.com/Saveritrea/status/1018204071109459968?s=20

[118] Davos, “A Conversation with Abiy Ahmed, Prime Minister of Ethiopia”, 23 January 2019

https://www.weforum.org/events/world-economic-forum-annual-meeting-2019/sessions/a-conversation-with-abiy-ahmed-prime-minister-of-ethiopia

[119] Tekleweini Assefa, Head of the Relief Society of Tigray, interviewed in: Identity jilted or re-imagining identity?  Alemseged Abbay, Red Sea Press, 1998, p 129.

[120] Alemayehu Weldemariam, “Domestic despair shadows Abiy’s diplomatic waltz”. Ethiopian Insight, 18.9.2018. https://www.ethiopia-insight.com/2018/09/18/domestic-despair-shadows-abiys-diplomatic-waltz/

[121] Saudi Arabia and the UAE provided financial support for the deal and both awarded the two parties their highest honours for signing up, as well as providing significant financial support. UAE promised Ethiopia USD3 billion, Saudi Arabia reportedly a year’s supply of oil. Eritrea will have obtained something similar.

[122] Eritrea has yet to give up its claims to Ras Doumeira and Djibouti still wants answers about missing prisoners of war. Nor has there been any indication that Isaias has dismantled the training camp for anti- government Afar guerrillas that he has maintained in southern Eritrea for well over a decade.

[123] Reuters, 28 July 2018  https://www.reuters.com/article/instant-article/idINKBN1KK1OQ

[124] Africa News, “Asmara hosts meeting between Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia leaders,” 5 September 2018

https://www.africanews.com/2018/09/05/asmara-hosts-meeting-between-ethiopia-eritrea-somalia-leaders//

[125] Addis Standard, 8 November 2018

News: Second tripartite meeting between Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia to take place in Amhara regional state

[126] Personal communication

[127] In January, 2001, there were allegations that some of these troops had been engaged in action in Tigray and that over 300 had been killed. The original claim was made by Abdisalam Guled, a former head of Somali’s National Intelligence and Security Agency. There have been no confirmed sightings of Somali troops in Tigray, though family members in Somalia said they had heard trainees had suffered casualties there. https://www.garoweonline.com/en/news/somalia/somalia-s-fm-in-ethiopia-amid-claims-of-somali-troops-deaths-in-tigray

[128]  https://borkena.com/2020/05/04/tplf-election-decided-to-conduct-accuses-abiy-ahmeds-govt/

 

[129] Overall, Abiy and Isaias held at least nine meetings in 2018-20, and numerous telephone calls, to develop their strategy. file:///Martin Plaut/ “Timeline/ How the President Isaias – Prime Minister Abiy relationship developed” Eritrea Hub. 9.11.2020

[130]  https://addisstandard.com/news-amidst-heightened-tension-between-federal-tigray-region-governments-eritrea-blames-tplf-for-impeding-regional-peace-stability/

[131] African Arguments, “Eritrea’s Role in Ethiopia’s Conflict and the Fate of Eritrean Refugees in Ethiopia”, Mesfin Hagos, one-time Chief of Staff in Eritrea, 4.12.2020

https://africanarguments.org/2020/12/eritreas-role-in-ethiopias-conflict-and-the-fate-of-eritrean-refugees-in-ethiopia/

[132] Sekou Toure Getachew, 14.11.2020.  https://youtu.be/gsPP-m6Jwzw.

[133] Office of the Prime Minister: “TPLF attacks Ethiopian national Defense Forces Base in Tigray”, 4.1.2020.

https://www.pmo.gov.et/media/documents/November_4_Press_Release_.pdf

[134] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-54805088

[135] Office of the Prime Minister: “The Ongoing Law Enforcement Operations in Tigray: Causes and Objectives”. 14.11.2020.   https://ethiopianembassy.org/the-ongoing-law-enforcement-operations-in-tigray-causes-and-objectives-november-14-2020

[136] Statement to Parliament, 30.11.2020, op.cit

[137] https://www.ethioembassy.org.uk/operations-to-restore-law-and-order-in-ethiopias-tigray-region-how-did-we-get-here/

[138] https://www.project-synicate.org/commentary/ethiopia-removal-of-tigray-tplf-will-benefit-region-by-abiy-ahmed-2021-02

[139] “Ethiopia PM Abiy admits Eritrea forces in Tigray”, BBC news, 23.3.2021

[140] https://www.newsnow.co.uk/h/World+News/Africa/Ethiopia/Tigray

[141] Response of the Eritrean Delegation to the Oral Report of the High Commissioner of the OHCHR on Eritrea. 46th Regular HRC Session Item 2, Geneva. Shabait.com 27.2.2021. https://shabait.com/2021/02/27/response-of-the-eritrean-delegation-to-the-oral-report-of-the-high-commissioner-of-the-ohchr/

[142] Patrick Gilkes, “Violence and Identity along the Eritrean-Ethiopian Border”, in Unfinished Business: Ethiopia and Eritrea at war, Ed. Dominique Jacquin-Berdal and Martin Plaut, Red Sea Press, 2004, p 229 – 254

[143] There is reason to believe the drones were flying out of the UAE base at Assab in Eritrea, not least because once the UAE had abandoned the base at the end of the year, reports of drone activity in Tigray stopped.

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