Within 13 months of accepting the world’s biggest peace award Ethiopia Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is not only talking war but leading the prosecution of one.
He was presented with the Nobel Peace Prize Oct. 11 last year for making peace with neighboring Eritrea after decades of tension and war. But Nov. 4 he commanded the federal army to war against rebels in Tigray – a self-governing state north of his Horn of Africa nation.
Abiy has rebuffed peace envoys from the African Union, whose headquarters his country hosts in Addis Ababa, the capital, declaring that he wouldn’t speak with what he says is a “criminal junta.”
Earlier he warned against “foreign interference” in his government’s resolve to assert the rule of law in Tigray by militarily taking on the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) leader Debretsion Gebremichael and his troops.
The conflict, which had sent at estimated 43 000 refugees to neighboring Sudan according to the United Nations, is the latest in a country whose history is characterized by vicious ethnic power struggles and war even a Nobel Peace Prize winner couldn’t avoid.
Christopher Clapham, a specialist in the politics of Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa and retired lecturer at Cambridge University’s Centre of African Studies, ascribed the conflicts prevalent in the region to how the country was founded.
“Most basically, and paradoxically,” he told Business Times, “I ascribe it to the Horn being the one uncolonized region of Africa, with the result that whereas elsewhere in the continent, independent African governments have accepted the bases for statehood laid down by the colonialists. In the Horn these bases remain deeply contested.”
Ethiopia’s conflictual history dates back to 1974 with the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie in a revolution. A military junta replaced him, running the country until it was itself overthrown in 1991. The last of the junta’s three leaders, Mengistu Hailemariam fled to Zimbabwe where he remains.
The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a coalition of four movements which was controlled by the TPLF took over. The alliance governed until April 2018 when protests led by the Oromo ethnic group – Ethiopia’s largest constituting 34% of the national population of 115 million according to the 2007 census – forced Hailemariam Desalegn to resign as prime minister.
Abiy, an Oromo, was elected as successor by the EPRDF in April 2018, defeating Gebremichael whose Tigrayan tribe had dominated Ethiopian politics despite constituting only 6% of the national population. Among the premier’s first drastic actions he fired two powerful TPLF figures Samora Yunis and Getachew Assefa, then army chief of staff intelligence chief respectively. Police also started arresting some prominent Tigrayans on corruption and murder charges.
Also, since assuming power, the prime minister has attempted to stress national unity while also upholding the identities and interests of the groups which run the country’s 10 ethnically-based states. In doing that, some ethnic groups, principally the TPLF reckon he is diluting their authority. In addition, they interpreted the arrests and sackings as the beginning of marginalization on tribal grounds.
What may have accelerated the latest confrontation to engulf Ethiopia was Abiy’s decision in November 2019, to dissolve the coalition and bring its members together to form the Prosperity Party under his leadership. The TPLF hierarchy refused to join the party and withdrew to Tigray.
Their differences intensified when the central government postponed federal elections that were due in August on COVID-19 fears. Gebremichael defied the directive and led his people to elections Sept. 9. His party won but the national government has denounced that victory as illegitimate. The trigger was pulled Nov. 4, when Abiy accused Gebremichael’s army of attacking federal troops in Mekelle, Tigray’s capital. The prime minister then ordered the national army to war against TPLF.
Abiy declared late November the operation in Mekelle had ended after his forces seized Mekelle from the TPLF.
“God bless Ethiopia and its people! We have entered Mekele without innocent civilians being targets,” he said in a statement, adding that the troops were now hunting for Gebremichael and his men.
Gebremichael told the international media on the same day that the brutality with which government forces had taken on the TPLF boosted their resolve to fight “these invaders to the last.” He warned they would continue fighting to defend “our right to self-determination.”
A day later, the rebel leader claimed his men had shot down a national army MiG fighter jet and, with the cooperation of the civilian population, retaken a town from federal forces. His representative displayed a burning plane and what it said was the pilot whom they had captured alive. He said in an update that they were inflicting “heavy” losses on federal troops and Eritrean forces that the rebels claim support Addis Ababa.
Speaking to The Associated Press recently Gebremichael declared he was near Mekelle “fighting the invaders” and that he would continue fighting until “the invaders are out.”
The Tigray war is only the most prominent of the litany of armed conflicts in a country where tribalism and conflict over ethnic borders are endemic, often ending up in armed clashes, killings and displacement of hundreds of thousands. At least nine of them are ongoing. Among them is one pitting the Oromia – the prime minister’s tribe – against the Somali in southern Ethiopia. By mid this year, according to the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration, the protracted communal fight had displaced 350,000.
Yohannes Woldemariam, a political science lecturer at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst who was born in Eritrea but raised in Ethiopia, attributes the recurrent conflicts in the country, like Clapham, to the manner of its founding, which he said is unique to Africa. Ethiopia, he argues, is an empire in decay, unable to transform itself into a modern state.
“There are no good guys here,” he told Business Times.
“Both Abiy and the TPLF are power hungry. As briefly as I can put it, it is a power struggle. The children of the poor are dying for these power grabbers. Their children [Abiy and Gebremicheal’s] will never do the fighting. They are in America or Europe, far away from the scene.”
The central government is in a position to win the confrontation, if it is fought out in conventional military terms, Clapham said but the big question is whether the TPLF will be willing and able to resort to guerrilla warfare after losing the conventional battle. This would prolong the conflict, adversely affecting Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa.
He however, said the prime minister could be justified in his charge against the Tigray government as it openly defied his government in a way no government in Africa, and possibly anywhere in the world, would be expected to accept.
“Any prolonged instability in Ethiopia will affect the rest of the region, because Ethiopia is by far the largest and most centrally placed state in the region, and borders every other state. It remains uncertain whether the conflict can be restricted to northern Ethiopia. The TPLF is not popular in the rest of the country, as a result of the long period for which it dominated the central government, thus arousing the hostility of other groups, but any long drawn-out war would greatly increase the dangers,” he said.
The TPLF, which it accuses neighboring Eritrea of supporting Ethiopian troops, has fired dozens of rockets into Eritrea since the conflict started.
In yet another signal that the war in Tigray has already had regional implications, Ethiopia’s ambassador to South Sudan left the capital Juba in protest against the reported presence of Gebremichael in that country.
A day later Ethiopia expelled South Sudan diplomats in Addis Ababa. Juba denies that it is hosting Gebremichael.
The events of the past month, Woldemariam said, suggest that the TPLF have adopted guerilla tactics, a kind of warfare the rebels have experience in having fought Ethiopia’s military regime between 1975 and 1991. The civil war ended in a TPLF victory.
“There will be no winners,” Woldemariam said. “It will be a protracted and long debilitating war. Abiy may seem to have won but this is not over. Territorial control doesn’t mean winning. The hearts and minds of Tigray are not with Abiy!”