Will the Tigray conflict strengthen Abiy’s hand in Ethiopia?

Experts say a rapid victory against Tigray’s rebel government would personally benefit the Ethiopian prime minister. They also warn it could lead to outright guerrilla warfare — with disastrous consequences.

Source: DW


Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed  

The humanitarian crisis in northern Ethiopia is growing by the day. Nevertheless, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed refuses to change course. Abiy is relying on the power of the Ethiopian army to crush the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which controls the Tigray regional state.

Read more: Ethiopia: A timeline of the Tigray crisis

Abiy, who just last December was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, has refused the African Union’s (AU) offer to mediate in the conflict. Instead, he has announced that his troops will bring the situation to a rapid resolution.

Rapid victory would boost Abiy’s power

Could this military offensive against the influential TPFL increase the prime minister’s power across Ethiopia? Nic Cheeseman, Professor of Democracy at the University of Birmingham in the UK, told DW he believes this is feasible: “It is possible that PM Abiy could get a boost from the conflict in Tigray in terms of his control over other parts of Ethiopia.”

Cheeseman suggests other political groupings could recognize him as being a strong political leader if he suppresses the rebel movement. Tigray is not an isolated case, Ethiopia is a multi-ethnic federation and its central government has long faced armed insurrections in a number of different regions.

Writer and Ethiopia expert Martin Plaut paints another possible scenario: “He (Abiy) describes it as a policing action, not as a war or conflict and that he is only after he leadership of TPLF. If that proves to be a mistake and the Tigray people loose their cities and towns and retreat into the countryside, the hills and the mountains, which they did for the last 20 years in previous fights they had with the Ethiopian government, then he is in real difficulties.” Over the decades, TPLF fighters gathered experience in using guerrilla warfare tactics against the military government that ruled the country up to 1991. Now, they could draw on that experience in their conflict with the central government.

Ethiopia gives Tigray rebels 72 hours to surrender

Guerrilla warfare looming

Plaut believes the question of whether the TPLF will be able to organize sufficient supplies to hold out against the government troops for a significant time will be decisive in determining the outcome of the current struggle. Sudan will play a key role, he says, “The border is very long and the government is not very efficient.” Tigray will definitely exploit that to smuggle weapons, food, gas and other supplies into the country, according to Plaut. He concludes that it seems rather inconceivable that Abiy can resolve the conflict quickly.

Nic Cheeseman, too, believes this scenario is plausible. The political analyst stresses that the United Nations (UN) has warned of the danger of guerrilla warfare in its latest report on the situation in Ethiopia. He says such an outcome would leave Abiy looking as if he was an incompetent statesman — and it could embolden rebel leaders in other regions to rise up against the government.

Domestic pressure on the Ethiopian prime minister had been mounting in the months leading up to the outbreak of hostilities. Since taking office in 2018, he has released political prisoners, made peace with neighboring Eritrea and announced the country would hold free and fair elections in 2020. But opposition parties have long felt excluded from his reform process. There have been repeated outbreaks of fighting and unrest in various parts of the country. In 2019, around 2.3 million people in the Oromia Region were displaced because of ethnically motivated violence. The military operation in Tigray has pushed these conflicts out of the public eye.

Ideologies persist

Abiy Ahmed ordered the first air raids in the northern region on November 4. Since then, both sides have been involved in heavy fighting that has killed hundreds of people in Tigray and forced tens of thousands to flee. The Ethiopian prime minister accuses the TPLF of carrying out an armed uprising. The TPLF, on the other hand, believe they have been badly treated by Abiy and feel aggrieved. They say he has removed numerous TPLF politicians from influential positions in the state apparatus since becoming prime minister in 2018.

Read more: Opinion: Ethiopia is on the brink of failure

But even if Abiy crushes his opponents, peace is by no means assured. In an interview with DW, the Ethiopian analyst Ato Yesuf Yasin warned: “The ideologies —  in particular the concept of ethnic identity and the related rivalries —  that the TPLF has spread in the 46 years of its existence will continue to be with us for years to come — just as the wounds of war will be.”

Abiy has no ‘real mandate’

London-based expert Martin Plaut fears that the conflict in Ethiopia will destabilize the entire Horn of Africa and could lead to the break-up of Ethiopia in its current form. Abiy has lost the support of his own ethnic Oromo people, who make up around a third of the country’s population of 100 million people.

Plaut says the Oromo people and ethnic Somalis might ask themselves why their sons should die fighting for the federal army in the mountains of Tigray. And the leaders of the autonomous states could distance themselves further from Abiy. After all, the prime minister was not elected by the people of Ethiopia, but by the governing party.

Abiy Ahmed postponed the free and fair elections that were scheduled for June due to the coronavirus pandemic.


  1. The war in Tigray is an extention of war in Oromia .Abyi Ahimed rule through military adminstiration what he calls “comand post” In weast and southern oromia since he came to power wherehisbarbaric forces has killed thousands of innocent civilians,raped under age children ,burned thousands of community homes,lott proporties.The war is idological war between Federalist who belives self rule through democratic , free and fair election and the neo-naftana lead government who belives Ethiopia is the proporty of Amhara while other nations and nationalities are serffes or servants of Amhara hence,Ethiopia is a single nation ,Amharic isthe only language,Orthodox chrstianity is theonly religion and culture .Most importantly,the neo-naftana lead government is fighting to eliminate Federal system and to establish unitary state dominated by the neo-naftana elite of the Amhara .Therefore,the war is the begining and could spread to every cornors of Ethiopia that leads to the disintigration of Ethiopia.International community must intervene to save Ethiopia from collapse.

  2. Federalists who are vying for autonomy based along semi autonomous ethnic lines are nor democrats. They are anarchists. The tribal politics where the hunters go out and return with a kill to share among the tribe is as old as Africa. The tribal politics of Tigray has nothing to do with federalism. The Californians may toy with the idea of breaking away from the USA but they will not tae up arm. The Basques may hold their election but the Spanish state must survive. The Scots and Irish may tout devolution but they will never resort to arms. This I s not the case with Tigray. In 2018 the eunuch Debrestsion who can only survive in the old chaos of tribal politics gave out that the Tigray leadership would call on the youth to sacrifice their lives for an unwinnable cause. They foolishly believe that Egypt who us backing them to maintain the balance of power in the region can quell the rest of Ethiopia and change the politics of the GERD. The crudeness of tribal politics can be seen in the mistaken idea that all people who live in Tigray are ethnic Tigrayans. It is this fear of losing his ethnic grip on Tigray why Debrestsion is fighting a terrorist war. The Eritrean in Tigray are as entitled as ethnic Tigrayans to live in Tigray. Just as all Ethiopians that go to Amhara regions are entitled to be there. You don’t have to be Amhara to live on Adis Ababa. Why should you have to be Oromo to live in Oromia? Ethiopia was at war with men who had a philosophy of socialist back yards. The leadership in Tigray seek to emulate the very people they helped to remove, and fir that they will risk the break up of Ethiopia. The cradle of the black race. A swift victory is needed against tribal politics in Africa. But clinical butchery is not a characteristic of the African way of doing things. A boy us entirely at fault. From the onset in 2018 when Debrestsion made it known that he wished to maintain tribal politics, Abbiy should have decapitated the Tigrayan leadership. Thereby liberating the people from chaos and removing the old guard of the TLP. That ought to be his priority. Kill all the leaders of the TLP for breaching the treaty with Eritrea, accepting bribes from a foreign power aimed at destabilising Ethiopia and breaching the Conztitution. The colonial. Mentality of Samuel wishes foreign powers to rescue African infantilism from its self. His is the stuff of a colonized mind.

  3. People in Ethiopia are now split into two ideologies. One school of thought is the centralized power which is one city nation, and one man show with zero checks and balance, no judiciary system, no freedom of speech, no free trade (licenses are awarded to the supporters of the dictator. On the other side, people want to have a self rule and use the constitution as the guidance of the systems of all levels governments. When the country become stable, people will move to anywhere they find a good living standards. Some states will be richer than others and thus there will be more jobs in the richer state and the people from any state will go find a job where it available. Why centralist are distorting the meaning of federal system? because Amhara ethnic group befitted from the central system before, at the expenses of the other ethnic groups. Abiy had a chance to fix the problems of Ethiopia and to make it a modern constitutional state with open economy and federal system run by a constitution. He could lay the foundation for free elections to take place every few years with several parties competing for the job of the highest office, thus building the confidence of the people. The prime minister should be an employee who gets salary from tax payers and not an owner of a system like Abiy is acting now. Why Ethiopia has fallen behind the world with which it was sitting at round table in 1889 when colonial powers were debating how to share the third world? Simple, dictatorship and oppression made the country an open prison for the masses.

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