Ethiopia’s federal government and the Tigray regional state dig in for the long haul, as the former begins advancing in the west of Tigray. The humanitarian cost however is now beginning to show.
It was a normal Tuesday evening for Leake Zegeye, an Associate Professor at Mekelle University’s Institute of Technology. Or as normal as can be as his country teetered on the precipice of war. He says he was at his computer preparing a research proposal with a friend in Germany, when he began to hear sporadic firing. He quickly contacted his wife who was out with a friend telling her to rush back. As he sat anxiously in his home with his family, his phone connection fell and the region was cut off from the outside world.
Minutes later, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed wrote a threatening tweet, accusing the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which governs the northern Tigray state, of attacking the Ethiopian military’s Northern Command, a claim the TPLF denied. The Prime Minister would later describe what followed as a “law enforcement operation”. Zegeye knew what that would mean for his friends and family.
“Are we cursed?” he despairingly asked himself. “Do we have to go to war every few decades?”
Zegeye was born in May in the mid-80s, and recalled the brutal war between the TPLF, and the Derg regime. The sound of the Ethiopian air force flying overhead in their campaign to dislodge the TPLF brought back haunting memories for him of when the Derg regime similarly aerial bombardment against the state.
“My parents passed through the misery of war and I was also traumatized as a child” Zegeye tells TRT World. “I recall running home every time I heard the sound of an airplane as we began shouting “nefarit, nefarit” (air plane, air plane), pleading with everyone to hide.”
“The saddest part is that I see the same thing happening to my friends' children today” Zegeye continues. “They get sick and vomit when they hear the sound of the jets going over Mekelle. It’s hard to reason with children and we can’t give them answers to the questions we ask ourselves.”
An Ethiopian official has since confirmed the use of Ethiopia’s air force saying they have been “pounding targets with precision” to destroy the Tigray state’s military hardware. He denied reports that a fighter jet had been shot down.
A political deadlock
Whilst forces fighting for the federal government have made steady progress in the west of the Tigray regional state capturing numerous towns claiming to have killed 550 TPLF rebels, the humanitarian cost of the conflict has since increased with over 2000 refugees fleeing to the Sudanese border. “The number is increasing around the clock,” said Alsir Khaled, an official in Sudan’s refugee agency. They expect 200,000 Ethiopians to arrive in the coming days.
Within the Tigray state, Zegeye says the most vulnerable are suffering. “The sad tragedy is that there are some Syrian refugees & other people who live by begging in the streets of Mekelle. The residents coordinated by the youngsters used to try to help them, and rent houses” he continues. “But now they are also in hell and try to run away from them. And people can't donate much to them as all banks are closed and grocery items can't pass as all roads are closed.”
Even basic amenities, which the Tigray state has historically had difficulty with, like water and other things like fuel and electricity, have become hard to come by.
Despite the growing humanitarian cost, and repeated pleas to end the conflict, Prime Minister Ahmed shows no signal in wanting to let up tweeting. “There will be no negotiations with the junta” listing the TPLF’s crimes against Ethiopia’s citizens in an earlier tweet. The preconditions set for negotiations, which include the arrest of the region's leaders, looks equally unpromising, a point reiterated by a government spokesperson.
He has since re-shuffled his cabinet and fired security chiefs, with reports indicating a possible escalation, as the president of the Tigray state accused Eritrean troops of crossing into Ethiopia and involving themselves in the conflict. Eritrea’s foreign minister denied the accusations.
Abiy Ahmed has been in a political deadlock with the TPLF almost since coming to power when his reform agenda, which included bringing members of the TPLF to justice, brushed up against the residual power of the old regime. His ascendancy led to a shift in the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) away from the TPLF which previously dominated the multi-ethnic ruling party toward Abiy Ahmed and his political allies in the federal states.
Abiy Ahmed presented himself as a visionary & dynamic leader, who would attone for the crimes of the TPLF-led EPRDF and lay the foundation for a new progressive and inclusive country. In attempting to dismantle the networks of TPLF officials who dominated the Ethiopian state he met firm resistance, from a TPLF suspicious of his intentions.
Historical and ideological differences
The Tigray state’s officials repeatedly defied the federal government, including shielding TPLF officials accused of crimes against Ethiopians from arrest warrants. Abiy Ahmed, a Nobel Prize winner for his peace efforts eventually lost his patience, and pursued the military option.
Neither side looks likely to back down from this conflict given the political capital they’ve invested in their respective positions, says Mohamed Olad, a former communications advisor to the president of Ethiopia’s Somali State, and Editor of the Jig-Jiga Herald. And given the military strength of both sides, the stakes in this conflict are extremely high.
Though the Debretsion Gebremichael president of the Tigray regional government has signalled that negotiation is good, it seems unlikely that he will be won over to the federal government’s perspective that his presidency is illegitimate, a view shared by the Tigray state about Ahmed’s premiership.
When the Tigray regional government went ahead with regional polls in September, the federal government which called for all elections to be postponed, declared the result “null and void”. The federal government responded by cutting off funding to Mekelle, and passing a bill creating a caretaker government for the region.
This rift between Addis Ababa and Mekelle, the Tigray state’s capital, made long existing differences far more combustible, which created the path dependencies that led to this conflict. Addis wanted to re-impose federal authority, and Mekelle insisted on its autonomy & right to self-administer.
Abiy Ahmed isn’t so different in some ways from his TPLF predecessors, Olad explains, who were responsible for creating the authoritarian regime which governed Ethiopia until Ahmed came to power. He draws comparisons between the use of force in the Oromo region by Prime Minister Ahmed from which he hails to quell protesters, and the arrest of Jawar Mohammed, an Oromo opposition leader, to the situation developing in the Tigray state.
Abiy Ahmed rode a wave of ethno-nationalist discontent to come to power, leading the Oromo Democratic Party, before losing support in his region and leaning on support among other constituencies across Ethiopia. Ahmed then made the transition from an advocate for Oromo rights & causes tending toward what was ostensibly a more ecumenical form of nostalgic Ethiopian nationalism with a preference for a more unitary rather than decentralized Ethopian state.
The manner in which he imposed his vision is the problem Olad believes, not necessarily their difference per se.
“They [the TPLF] wouldn’t have behaved differently in this situation” Olad tells TRT World. “But whilst Abiy Ahmed and his allies have historical and ideological differences with the TPLF on the ethnically federated nature of the Ethiopian state, they should come around a table, discuss their difference and avoid conflict, but they haven’t.”
“The Tigray have historical differences with Abiy Ahmed’s allies among the political elite in the Amharic region who Abiy has turned to since he lost his base in Oromia” Olad continues, “the TPLF on the other hand, dislike their exclusion and view the issue as existential.”
In a harshly worded statement published through the TPLF’s Facebook page, the party repeatedly referred to Abiy Ahmed’s administration as “unitary fascists” calling on federalists to resist the incursion, finally warning that the Tigray state is a graveyard for all invaders.
This conflict has had deep ramifications across Ethiopia, Leake Zegeye explained with great concern as Abiy Ahmed’s slogan ‘medemer’ (coming together in Amharic) melts away in the heat of inter-ethnic conflict. Fear in the Tigray community across Ethiopia has increased, with reprisal attacks happening in the country.
“It makes me want to give up in Ethiopia, it's very sad to see people that you consider fellow citizens attacking you because you are Tigray” says Zegeye. “My friends and family can’t go out of the house, every Tigray is living in a state of fear and siege.”
“Yes of course there is confusion and fear, but the airstrikes in Mekelle have created anger and determination” writes Leake Zegeye in a message. “But all we want is peace! We need national dialogue for the sake of the country, otherwise there could be another Syria in the making.”