First, we have to admit that all information is pretty hazy. Reporters are not allowed up to the front-lines and no independent reporting of any kind is permitted in Eritrea. In Ethiopian there is strict censorship.
Bearing this in mind – this is how the situation appears. This BBC report provides useful background.
What sparked it off?
- Prime Minister Abiy attempted to move away from ‘ethnic federalism’ of the previous government, putting his government on a collision course with the regional governments. The International Organisation for Migration reported that clashes between ethnic groups had left 1.2 million internally displaced Ethiopians before the Tigray conflict erupted.
- The Tigray regional government played hard-ball.
- They refused to allow heavy artillery and other military equipment to be moved south;
- they held elections (which they won hands down) despite the federal authorities declaring them illegal and
- when the Federal Army sent a fresh commander to take control of the garrison in Mekelle, he was put on a plane back to Addis.
How did the war begin?
The war was a long time coming, and came after meetings between PM Abiy and Eritrea’s President Isaias at their respective military bases in the weeks running up to the conflict.
On the 4th November, with all eyes on the outcome of the US election, the tension exploded.
Exactly what took place is not clear.
- Prime Minister Abiy accused the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) of attempting to steal artillery and other equipment from federal forces stationed there. “The last red line has been crossed with this morning’s attacks and the federal government is therefore forced into a military confrontation,” Abiy’s office said in a statement. The Ethiopian National Defence Forces have been ordered to carry out “their mission to save the country and the region from spiralling into instability”, the statement said.
- Internet and communications between Tigray and the rest of the world were cut.
- Ethiopia’s Northern Command based in Mekelle was reported to be refusing to accept the Prime Minister’s order to attack the Tigray leadership.
- There were unconfirmed reports of a commando raid on the TPLF leadership in an hotel in Mekelle under the guise of flying in new banknotes.
The war had begun.
Who is fighting?
There are at least three forces attacking the Tigrayans.
Firstly, there are the Federal Forces of the Ethiopian military. They are advancing from the North, South and West.
Ethiopian Federal Forces who fled into Eritrea when the Northern Command was taken over by the Tigrayans on 4 November, were fed and supplied by Eritrean villages and the Eritrean military.
They were joined by Ethiopian Federal Forces who had been flown into Asmara (often at night) and then deployed up to the Tigray border.
Eritrean troops, who have been rapidly mobilised, have joined the attack from the North.
The third group are the Amhara para-military forces who have joined the Federal Forces in their attack from the South.
There are unconfirmed reports that UAE drones have attacked key Tigrayan targets from their base in the Eritrean port of Assab. There have been confirmed reports of bombing on Tigrayan towns (including Mekelle) by the Ethiopian air force.
Who is winning?
This is not as easy to answer.
As indicated in the map above, the Tigrayans have lost territory, but continue to fight on. After three weeks what started as what PM Abiy described as no more than a “policing operation” looks as if it is getting bogged down into an ongoing conflict.
The BBC pointed out that the TPLF spent many years fighting from the mountains, and even if they lose the cities they are unlikely to give up. Guerrilla warfare is much more likely.
What about the civilians?
Their plight is terrible. Over half a million are now trapped in the regional capital, Mekelle, which the Ethiopian military promises to attack “without mercy.”
Many have fled – over 43,000 crossing into Sudan, according to the UN. More would probably have joined them, but as the BBC and others have witnessed, Ethiopian troops are preventing their flight.
The UN describes the situation for civilians remaining in Tigray as “very critical.”
Tigray’s population of six million remains sealed off and its capital is under threat of attack by Ethiopian forces seeking to arrest the regional leaders.
How might this war affect the rest of Ethiopia?
This is perhaps the most serious issue.
Even before the conflict erupted senior American Africa experts (including two former Assistant Secretaries of State for African Affairs) warned that the country might collapse.
“The fragmentation of Ethiopia would be the largest state collapse in modern history. Ethiopia is five times the size of pre-war Syria by population, and its breakdown would lead to mass interethnic and interreligious conflict; a dangerous vulnerability to exploitation by extremists; an acceleration of illicit trafficking, including of arms; and a humanitarian and security crisis at the crossroads of Africa and the Middle East on a scale that would overshadow any existing conflict in the region, including Yemen.”
The war in Tigray has already had regional consequences.
Eritrea has been drawn in. There are reports of UAE drones attacking Tigrayan positions and Ethiopian troops have been pulled out of Somalia, threatening the position of the Somali government which is fighting Islamists of al-Shabaab.
Is there a chance for peace?
The answer is yes – a brief opportunity.
African Union mediators are currently in Addis Ababa to hold talks with PM Abiy.
The three former African Presidents are elders of the continent: Chissano of Mozambique; Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia and Motlanthe of South Africa. Given a chance they could mediate between the parties.
The Tigrayan government has issued a call for a cessation of hostilities and for aid to be allowed into the country.
This is an opportunity for peace – but will it be grasped?
If the all-out assault on Mekelle takes place this chance could be lost and Ethiopia and the region plunged into the nightmare of all-out war.
The Ethiopian Federal Government has pulled troops out of Somalia.