Myths about the start of the Tigray war

Martin Plaut

The opening clashes that led to the Tigray war on 4 November have been the subject of two competing myths.

The first myth is that the conflict erupted after forces loyal to the Tigray Regional Government attacked the Northern Command, situated in the Tigray capital, Mekelle.

This was a Tweet from Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. In this narrative, the war is the fault of the Tigrayan authorities and the TPLF in particular.

 

The second myth is that the war was sparked off by a failed attack by Ethiopian commandos on Mekelle, disguised as security forces guarding a banknote transfer.

This version of events suggested that very early Wednesday morning aircraft carrying Ethiopian commandos took off on a mission to eliminate the Tigrayan leadership.

Ethiopian sources suggest that the force was airlifted into Mekelle in two helicopters and an Antonov from Bahr Dar, to try and seize the TPLF leadership at a hotel.

Social media reports that the hotel in question was the Planet. The commandos landed without a problem and drove into Mekelle, seizing control of the hotel.

But the intelligence they were operating from was faulty. The Tigrayan leaders they were seeking were not there. The commandos then withdrew.

It is not clear if the unit was involved in any fighting.

But after the failed raid Tigrean forces took over the Ethiopian National Defence Force camp (the Northern Command barracks for Mekelle) near the airport (when there was some fighting), as well as taking control of the airport itself.

This explanation is also questioned and not seen as plausible.

Abiy’s problem of legitimacy

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was widely portrayed in the international media as a democrat and a former, who deserved his Nobel Peace prize in October 2019.

His reputation inside Ethiopia was less positive. In June 2019 opposition parties were querying his democratic credentials when the date of the general election due in May 2020 started to be questioned.

As Reuters reported on 21 June 2019: “Opposition politicians in Ethiopia are warning against a delay to national elections due in 2020 that would be the first under reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed but are under threat from an explosion of regional ethnic rivalries.”

The possibility of a postponement when the government mandate expired had nothing to do with Covid-19, as Reuters made clear.

“Earlier this month, the election board said insecurity, which has driven 2.4 million people out of their homes according to the United Nations, could delay next year’s parliament vote. A national census has already been postponed twice, potentially undermining logistics for the polls including the drawing up of constituencies.”

“If the government is going to postpone the general election … it will anger the public,” former political prisoner Merera Gudina told Reuters by phone. He chairs the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress party from a region, Oromia, at the heart of anti-government protests in recent years.

Debretsion Gebremichael, chairman of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), and vice president of Tigray regional state, also warned that postponement could have “grave consequences.” The TPLF is part of the governing coalition. “Not holding the election on time … is unconstitutional,” he told a television station. “It means the Ethiopia government after 2020 is illegitimate.”

By 2020 the situation was no better

The Prime Minister continued to lose support and an election looked increasingly unpalatable.

As the Washington Post reported: “Abiy’s platform is particularly unpopular in two ethnic regions: Tigray, in the far north, where power was centered during previous governments before he wrested it away; and his own Oromia, home to the country’s biggest group, the Oromo, who make up at least a third of the national population and whose ethno-nationalist leaders helped Abiy gain power but now want Oromo interests to be put first.”

Prime Minister Abiy was clearly considering postponing the election, which he was not assured of winning. The Economist headline summed up his dilemma. “Ethiopia is entering constitutional limbo. Postponed elections may leave it without a legal government.”

But then the Covid pandemic had arrived, which allowed Prime Minister Abiy to revisit the issue. The National Electoral Board of Ethiopia has announced that it will be unable to conduct the 2020 national elections due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Subsequently, the House of Peoples’ Representatives approved the election postponement. Opposition parties protested, pointing out that this was unconstitutional.

Abiy Ahmed responded unequivocally. He would not allow any challenge to the postponement. In a video message the Prime Minister issued a stern warning that his government would take action against anyone who took part in what he described as “Illegal political activities and acts that are threatening to violate the constitution and constitutional order in Ethiopia.” The Prime Minister said his government will do anything necessary to protect and defend the safety of the country and its people.

The statement was rejected by many, including Tigrayans, who felt increasingly marginalized. The president of the Ethiopian parliament, a Tigray politician, resigned after accusing Abiy of authoritarian tendencies. Her party — the TPLF — announced that it would hold regional elections in Tigray. This put Tigray on a collision course with the government.

The build-up to war

Anyone who had followed the situation in the Horn of Africa would have known that tensions between the Tigray region and Addis Ababa had been ratcheting up for months. The peace treaty with Eritrea in 2018 had allowed Prime Minister Abiy to forge an alliance with President Isaias and their plans for a confrontation with Tigray were well advanced.

The Tigray regional government had not helped matters by staging demonstrations in late 2019 and 2020 which prevented heavy weapons from being withdrawn from their northern border with Eritrea. The Tigray elections – a success in themselves – were held in September 2020, despite being ruled illegitimate by the federal election commission.

The last straw perhaps came when the Tigray government rejected an attempt to replace the head of the Northern Command, based in Mekelle with a new commander, General Jumal Muhammad.

The stage was set for war – and everyone knew it.

On 30 October the International Crisis Group published a prescient article entitled: Steering Ethiopia’s Tigray Crisis Away from Conflict. It explained that “A clash over budget transfers is the latest flashpoint in the bitter dispute between Ethiopian federal authorities and their rivals in Tigray. To avoid the standoff triggering a damaging conflict, both sides should back down and embrace comprehensive dialogue.”

On 2nd November – two days before the fighting erupted – the European Union said that: “Developments in Ethiopia are a cause of deep concern. All parties as well as Ethiopia’s neighbours must act to reduce tension, eliminate inflammatory language and abstain from provocative military deployments. Failure to do so risks destabilising the country as well as the wider region.”

How right they were.

Debretsion Gebremichael – President of Tigray Region – went on television on 3rd November, the day before the fighting began, to warn his people to prepare for a looming war. He said repeatedly that the Tigrayan people wanted peace but if war was waged against them, they were prepared to fight and to win.

If these are myths – what is the truth?

A different version of events has now emerged.

This suggests that until very close to the eruption of the conflict on 4 November, the Tigrayan government, led by Debretsion, were not really expecting a war. They had certainly not made adequate preparations for one.

When it appeared that some kind of confrontation was inevitable, the Tigrayan authorities went to the Northern Command to hold a series of talks with the military stationed at the base. The Northern Command was the best armed in the country and had stores of artillery, rockets and ammunition that were necessary to mount a sustained war.

The Tigrayan authorities argued that it was clear that Prime Minister Abiy was about to launch an attack and that Eritrean forces and Amhara militia would also be involved. Some kind of informal agreement was reached with the officers at the base. This would have allowed the Tigrayan Regional Government to have removed the weapons they needed.  from the base.

Many of the troops and their officers agreed with this proposal and the Tigrayans arrived to collect the military equipment. But not everyone in the Northern Command was prepared to accept the terms of the deal and fighting erupted. This allowed Prime Minister Abiy to mount what could be presented as a rescue mission for the besieged troops.

In reality most officers and troops had left the Northern Command and were being housed in Mekelle university. They were well cared for. Food and clean water were provided. Among the troops held at Mekelle university were 741 female soldiers, and sanitary towels were donated for them by local women. The troops were held at Mekelle university for days – at a time when they could have been mown down by the Tigrayans, if they had wanted to.

In the end an agreement was reached with the ICRC – the Red Cross – to allow any of the troops who wanted to leave Mekelle to do so. Some 1,200 – 1,300 took advantage of the offer. They were transferred out of Tigray, to Gondar or Addis Ababa.

In the meantime the conflict had erupted, with Prime Minister Abiy sending the Ethiopian Federal army into Tigray, alongside supported by Eritrean forces and Amhara militia. The war in Tigray had commenced.

 

 

9 comments

  1. The information age has retreated from the Ethiopian battlefield, observed Slate magazine. It is under a bayonet charge by the Prime Minister of Ethiopia. History knows more about the immediate cause of the Ethio-British war, (19th century), which led to the death of Atse Tewodros, than the ongoing civil war in Ethiopia.

  2. Our grassy leaders are being busy to create a crying zone of East Africa. Tens of thousands of East African mothers are yet to cry, children are yet to be orphans, women are yet to be widows, elders are going to be helpless due to the ongoing war. what the world is waiting for?***

  3. @Martin: This is an interesting (and also likely) version of Events, But could you please provide us with some source that support it? What does the ICRC you mentionned say about it, for instance?

  4. Mr plaut am sorry that now you have become a mouth piece for TPLF propaganda machinery. I have been admiring ur reporting since ur BBC times together with ur colleagues Mr white and Bakibinga. I have been in Mekelle when events unfolded. Sincerely both sides were drumming up for war in the days preceding the Nov attack of the I’ll fated army Command. Though I can’t give u details now till I finish writing my book on the subject, there are some strong facets of truth in the initial narrative-that u called the myths. But the latter story is a pure propaganda. Surely ur sources have lied big if u are not part of it. The truth is each side wanted the other to fire the provocative shot inorder to get a pretext to wage the pre-planned assault and that D-Day shot manifested itself in the form of the Commando incursion on planet hotel which was a planned deceptive Intel dispatched by the Tigrayan authorities to launch attack on Northern Command though ill publicized for fear of public backlash and secretive nature of the TPLF on one hand. While on the other hand, the Feds got the pretext for the declaration of war by the TPLF assault on Northern Command which it widely publicized to ammasse public backings though ordinary Ethiopians were generally pessimistic about the whole state of affairs. That’s the story in short. Sending soldiers to Gonder was true but it came only after 1600+ officers above Lt were held hostages by TPLF. Anyway evaluating ur analysis as a witness to events on the ground then, it is outstanding despite incorporating some untrue information

  5. Dear Mr. @Plaut,

    I’ve followed all you Ethiopia related work/publications since the war started, and found your reporting to be impeccable, to the extent that the fog of war can ever be. As an English speaking American I’ve immensely valued your detailed reporting on the war and humanitarian crimes situation, and in-depth background, bringing this early on to western media, and the world. I thought the world (esp. EU/US/AU) learned a ‘never again’ experience after Ruanda, and your tireless efforts have made the western public media aware of the scale and scope of the Tigray genocide/ethnic cleansing, and forced them to be accountable with actions (however slowly) to their humanitarian publics, and thus out of the dark shadows of Abiy/Esyias’ news blackouts, murderous police states, and propaganda machines. Thus, you are a world treasure, to all humanity striving to lift the world out of the dark ages of depraved human cruelty and into the progressive future of Internationally enforced standards of at least not allowing genocides.

    Please keep up your critical, tireless work… we, in the free world, and those with no hope being crushed by depraved/despotic regimes, are counting on you, and your ilk!

    Regarding your article, I am relatively well researched on the subject of Ethiopia and Tigray, and with the little I know from English sources and report I find your ‘A different version of events has now emerged.’ scenario interesting, and adds some new bits which could be possible, if not plausible, yet I find the war genesis part of it as lacking consistency with known facts, in particular this part ‘But not everyone in the Northern Command was prepared to accept the terms of the deal and fighting erupted. This allowed Prime Minister Abiy to mount what could be presented as a rescue mission for the besieged troops’.

    That is, there are several very credible reports (including many of your own) and very credible public statements from officials that evidence a pre-arranged war conspiracy between Abiy, Esyias, UAE, and Somolia, many weeks if not months before the Nov. 3rd Northern command take-over event. Namely, some of the basic that quickly come to mind:

    1. The Eritrea army attacked Humera on Nov. 3rd, or no later than the 4th, so Eritrea was already lined up and coordinated for War in synch w/ Aby.

    2. ENDF troops came with Eritrean army to attack all the norther cities, and (pre-arranged) when injured went to Eritrean hospitals for repair and return to battles.

    3. Nov. 4th Amhara Militias and special forces were pre-arranged and immediately attacked West and South Tigray from south w/ ENDF heavy weapons support.

    4. UAE drones were immediately available and deployed to destroyed practically all Northing command heavy weapons, which accounted for over half of all the Ethiopian military assets at the time.

    5. The moment Biden was inaugurated president (Trump’s last court case failed) UAE shut down and destroyed its base, and miraculously all precision (drone) attacks against Tigray & TPLF assets instantly ended and have never resumed to date, despite TPLF never being able to down any drones and ENDF military collapsing w/o deploying any more attack drones; i.e., b/c Ethiopia only had recognizance drones and pre-planed and employed UAE attack drones weeks ahead of launching the war w/ Northern command pretext.

    6. a few months ago an Amhara region official said the use of their Militias and special forces to invade TIgray was pre-arranged before the war w/ Abiy/ENDF.

    7. a few months ago a South Sudan official said that weeks before the war Abiy secured an agreement for them to close their boarder to movement of arms/rebels.

    8. Virtually everything PM Abiy and Amhara PP gov has said publicly has turned out to be complete lies and/or obviously implausible/silly/stupid, and they continue this pattern as we speak, so they have zero credibility, esp. given PM Abiy formed an intimate alliance w/ the despotic, depraved, Eritrean dictator Esyas. On the other hand, in stark contrast, most everything TPLF has stated has turned out to be true and/or very credible. So, I believe TPLF when stated that there was a failed ENDF commando raid to take over the Northern command on Nov. 3. Again, their reports have been very credible and confirmed throughout the war, and this account is the most plausible with my above fact pattern as well.

    9. There is no way that #1-4 could have not been pre-arranged weeks ahead of time, as they are full scale war events, not the ridiculous propaganda lie of a ‘Policing law enforcement operation’.

    I could go on and on, but the above is plenty enough to cut against your source’s “different version of events ” wrt to war genesis/cause.

    I could be off on some facts here and there, but not as a whole.

    I look forward to your thoughts/counterpoints.

    thanks again for all you do…
    Mr. Ferenji

  6. Dear Mr. Plaut, I’ve followed all you Ethiopia related work/publications since the war started, and found your reporting to be impeccable, to the extent that the fog of war can ever be.  As an English speaking American I’ve immensely valued your detailed reporting on the war and humanitarian crimes situation, and in-depth background, bringing this early on to western media, and the world.  I thought the world (esp. EU/US/AU) learned a ‘never again’ experience after Ruanda, and your tireless efforts have made the western public media aware of the scale and scope of the Tigray genocide/ethnic cleansing, and forced them to be accountable with actions (however slowly) to their humanitarian publics, and thus out of the dark shadows of Abiy/Esyias’ news blackouts, murderous police states, and propaganda machines.  Thus, you are a world treasure, to all humanity striving to lift the world out of the dark ages of depraved human cruelty and into the progressive future ofInternationally enforced standards of at least not allowing genocides.  
    Please keep up your critical, tireless work… we, in the free world, and those with no hope being crushed by depraved/despotic regimes, are counting on you, and your ilk!

  7. @Plaut,
    Regarding your article, I am relatively well researched on the subject of Ethiopia and Tigray, and with the little I know from English sources and report I find your ‘A different version of events has now emerged.’ scenario interesting, and adds some new bits which could be possible, if not plausible, yet I find the war genesis part of it as lacking consistency with known facts, in particular this part  ‘But not everyone in the Northern Command was prepared to accept the terms of the deal and fighting erupted. This allowed Prime Minister Abiy to mount what could be presented as a rescue mission for the besieged troops’.
    That is, there are several very credible reports (including many of your own) and very credible public statements from officials that evidence a pre-arranged war conspiracy between Abiy, Esyias, UAE, and Somolia, many weeks if not months before the Nov. 3rd Northern command take-over event.  Namely, some of the basic that quickly come to mind:
    1. The Eritrea army attacked Humera on Nov. 3rd, or no later than the 4th, so Eritrea was already lined up and coordinated for War in synch w/ Aby.  
    2. ENDF troops came with Eritrean army to attack all the norther cities, and (pre-arranged) when injured went to Eritrean hospitals for repair and return to battles.
    3. Nov. 4th Amhara Militias and special forces were pre-arranged and immediately attacked West and South Tigray from south w/ ENDF heavy weapons support.
    4. UAE drones were immediately available and deployed to destroyed practically all Northing command heavy weapons, which accounted for over half of all the Ethiopian military assets at the time.
    5. The moment Biden was inaugurated president (Trump’s last court case failed) UAE shut down and destroyed its base, and miraculously all precision (drone) attacks against Tigray & TPLF assets instantly ended and have never resumed to date, despite TPLF never being able to down any drones and ENDF military collapsing w/o deploying any more attack drones; i.e., b/c Ethiopia only had recognizance drones and pre-planed and employed UAE attack drones weeks ahead of launching the war w/ Northern command pretext.
    6. a few months ago an Amhara region official said the use of theirMilitias and special forces to invade TIgray was pre-arranged before the war w/ Abiy/ENDF.
    7. a few months ago a South Sudan official said that weeks before the war Abiy secured an agreement for them to close their boarder to movement of arms/rebels.    
    8.  Virtually everything PM Abiy and Amhara PP gov has said publicly has turned out to be complete lies and/or obviously implausible/silly/stupid, and they continue this pattern as we speak, so they have zero credibility, esp. given PM Abiy formed an intimate alliance w/ the despotic, depraved, Eritrean dictator Esyas.  On the other hand, in stark contrast, most everything TPLF has stated has turned out to be true and/or very credible.  So, I believe TPLF when stated that there was a failed ENDF commando raid to take over the Northern command on Nov. 3.  Again, their reports have been very credible and confirmed throughout the war, and this account is the most plausible with my above fact pattern as well.
    9.  There is no way that #1-4 could have not been pre-arranged weeks ahead of time, as they are full scale war events, not the ridiculous propaganda lie of a ‘Policing law enforcement operation’.
    I could go on and on, but the above is plenty enough to cut against your source’s “different version of events” wrt to war genesis/cause.
    I could be off on some facts here and there, but not as a whole.
    I look forward to your thoughts/counterpoints.
    thanks again for all you do…

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