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 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.