Source: The Economist
“I SAW THE dust clouds covering the sky,” said a young university lecturer, describing the bombing by a government warplane of a resort on the outskirts of Alamata, a small town in Ethiopia’s northern region of Tigray. In normal times Alamata is known for its beautiful green mountains. Now it is a battleground in Ethiopia’s civil war, which broke out on November 4th between the federal government and Tigray’s rulers, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
As he fled towards Afar, a neighbouring state, the lecturer saw lorries carrying federal soldiers driving the other way. By the time the convoy reached Alamata, it was almost deserted. Most Tigrayan civilians had already left and Tigrayan armed forces were retreating into the mountains.
On November 16th the federal government said its forces had captured Alamata, which is on Tigray’s eastern border and about 120km from the regional capital of Mekelle. It also claimed to have captured key territory in western Tigray. This suggests the Ethiopian army has been attacking on at least two fronts since it was ordered into action by Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, to put down what he claimed was an armed revolt by the TPLF. But it is far too soon to suggest that these early victories herald a short or easily contained war. In fact, the opposite. As the TPLF has faced setbacks on its borders, it appears to have tried to widen the conflict, perhaps in a gamble that this will increase international pressure on the federal government to agree to peace talks, and that it will give the TPLF cards to play once the negotiations start. On November 14th it fired rockets over the border at Asmara, the capital of neighbouring Eritrea.
The attack threatens to drag Eritrea into conflict in Ethiopia barely two years after the two countries made peace. “It was a legitimate target,” says Debretsion Gebremichael, Tigray’s president. “Ethiopian forces were using Asmara airport.” He also claimed Tigrayan forces were fending off 16 Eritrean divisions on several fronts. Others are less convinced. Tibor Nagy, America’s senior diplomat for Africa, condemned the TPLF’s “unjustifiable attacks against Eritrea” and its “efforts to internationalise the conflict”.
The Eritrean government denies any involvement in Ethiopia’s conflict. But few doubt that its president, Isaias Afwerki, would like to see the Tigrayans routed. His bad blood with the TPLF dates back to the 1980s, when he was an Eritrean rebel fighting alongside the TPLF against the communist Derg regime, which fell in 1991. Between 1998 and 2000, the newly independent Eritrea fought a bitter border war against Ethiopia, then dominated by the TPLF, that cost perhaps 100,000 lives. Debretsion (as well as some eyewitnesses) claim that Eritrean soldiers have been involved in fighting near the border in recent days. At a minimum, retreating Ethiopian troops have been allowed to regroup on Eritrean soil before returning to battle.
The TPLF has also struck within Ethiopia, firing rockets at two airports in Amhara, the second-most-populous of Ethiopia’s ten ethnically-based regional states. Thousands of Amhara militiamen, mostly farmers with rusty kalashnikovs, have marched towards Tigray. They are fighting alongside the federal army to push Tigrayan forces out of disputed towns near the state border. The involvement of these regional militias in a country as divided as Ethiopia is a recipe for ethnic bloodletting. There are some signs that this has already started. Possibly hundreds of civilians, many of them Amharas, were hacked to death with machetes and knives on November 9th in Mai Kadra, according to Amnesty International. Some witnesses said that forces loyal to the TPLF were responsible for the killings, though Amnesty was unable to confirm this. Tigrayan refugees fleeing into Sudan from the same district told Reuters that they had been attacked by people from Amhara. As many as 25,000 people have sought refuge in Sudan.
Fears the war could fan ethnic conflagration in other parts of Ethiopia have been further heightened by the harassment of Tigrayans in the national capital, Addis Ababa, and elsewhere. Many Tigrayans in the security services, civil service and state institutions have been told not to come into work. Possibly hundreds have been detained. Ordinary Tigrayans have been turned away from international flights at the airport in Addis Ababa and told they cannot leave the country. Local IDs in Ethiopia typically reveal citizen’s ethnic background, and airport staff have instructed Ethiopian nationals to show them.
Both sides to the conflict may have hoped it would be over quickly. After the TPLF ordered its troops to fire the first shots with an attack on a camp housing federal troops in Mekelle, they described it as an act of “anticipatory self-defence”. Abiy’s government, for its part, has insisted it is involved in a policing operation aimed at “enforcing the rule of law”. But bad blood, and a lack of trust, between the two sides runs deep. The TPLF, which called the shots in the federal government for almost 30 years, has yet to come to terms with its dethroning in 2018 after massive protests brought Abiy to power. Following his appointment as prime minister, Abiy sidelined the TPLF and began removing Tigrayans from state institutions, in particular the army and intelligence agency in which they wielded outsized influence given that they make up less than 10% of Ethiopia’s population. He later accused the TPLF of undermining Ethiopia’s fragile transition to democracy by arming opposition groups (though he provided no real evidence for this claim) and of flouting federal law.
Tensions worsened when the central government postponed elections earlier this year, citing covid-19. The TPLF accused Abiy of breaking the constitution in order to stay in power and went ahead with its own regional election in September. The federal government deemed it illegal and proceeded to slash federal funding to the region. The TPLF called this a “declaration of war”.
Two weeks into the actual war, the TPLF seems a little less keen on fighting it. Debretsion has called on the African Union and UN to condemn the Ethiopian offensive. But Abiy’s government says it will not enter talks or mediation until the TPLF disarms. His government has issued arrest warrants for TPLF leaders including Debretsion. It has also switched off the internet and telephone network in Tigray and blocked food and medical supplies. Federal warplanes have been hammering arms stores and oil depots, and may well have hit some civilians too. Many Ethiopians hope the war will be over by Christmas. There are few signs that it will be.