Prime Minister Ahmed launched a “limited” military operation to “restore constitutional order” in the northern state of Tigray. Analysts say the move risks domestic and regional stability.
On November 3, the Ethiopian government accused the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the party governing National Regional State of Tigray, of attacking an Ethiopian Defence Forces base in their state “to rob the Northern command of artillery and military equipment.”
The “last red line has been crossed,” said the statement from the Prime Minister's office in an ominous tone.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said the TPLF's alleged attack on federal military installations forced Addis Ababa into a “military confrontation,” slamming the door shut on the possibility of dialogue.
Speaking to state television the night the operation was launched, Prime Minister Ahmed reassured the public saying that the “army not only repulsed the attacks but has managed to control important and key locations” warning that further operations could take place. Birhanu Jula, senior member of Ethiopian National Defence Forces, said “our country has entered into unexpected war… the war will not come to the centre, it will end there [in Tigray].”
A Tigrayan official denied his state was at fault saying “no attack was launched by us”. Tigrayan state authorities have also closed their airspace and have said that fighter jets have bombed areas surrounding the regional capital Mekelle, but no casualties have been confirmed at the time of writing. Sources on the ground however reported dozens of soldiers receiving medical treatment, without specifying which side of the conflict they were on.
The Tigray state also said that the Northern Command, one of four regional commands of the Ethiopian armed forces defected to its side. The claim was dismissed by Ahmed's spokesman, Billene Seyoum as “false information”.
Ethiopia’s Council of Ministers has since unanimously passed a bill declaring a six month state of emergency across Tigray region (which can be geographically expanded if necessary), accusing the Tigray state of “endangering the constitution and constitutional order”.
Despite appeals from the international community, Ahmed has pressed ahead with this seemingly abrupt military operation, which began as the world was focussed the American election. However this outbreak of violence between PM Ahmed and the TPLF elites in the Tigray state is the crescendo of a long running dispute between the parties.
Abiy Ahmed has framed the intervention in the Tigray region as an operation to defend Ethiopia’s constitution, and the Tigrayan people from a renegade movement that has defied federal authority & law which he wants to “extract” through military means.
Mukerrem Miftah, an Assistant Professor at the Addis Ababa based Ethiopian Civil Service University tells TRT World that “TPLF politicians & activists were clearly caught off guard by Abiy Ahmed. It doesn’t seem they expected the federal government to go as far as actually launching an all out military operation to open the political deadlock.”
The TPLF was historically the most powerful actor in Ethiopia’s multi-ethnic ruling coalition the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), originally a rebel group that battled the Derg regime before ushering in a multi-ethnic, albeit authoritarian, federal system to govern a country with close to 80 different ethnic groups.
In this arrangement the TPLF dominated state structures, and exerted outsized influence through loyalists in the EPRDF and in each of the states. This uneasy arrangement came under increasing pressure until major protests broke out in the Oromia regional state in 2015 driven by marginalized Oromos, which led to the use of “lethal force” by Ethiopian authorities.
On the back of the unrest which spread and also plagued the term of Meles Zenawi’s successor Hailemariam Desalgn, emerged Abiy Ahmed, Africa’s youngest leader, cast in the role of a visionary peacemaker, who could repair the country’s wounds, and put Ethiopia on the path to a new, more inclusive and democratic future.
Ahmed hit the ground running pushing through reforms at a breakneck speed. He ended Ethiopia’s state of emergency, admitted to the state’s use of torture and gave amnesty to many political prisoners domestic and abroad. A cabinet reshuffle saw half of cabinet positions go to women including a newly created Ministry of Peace.
His domestic reforms were mirrored in both scale and ambition by his reforms in Ethiopia’s foreign policy, where agreed peace with Eritrea, a country Ethiopia fought a vicious war with in the late 90s, and tried to help broker talks in South Sudan. He even appeared at a time to be the key to bring Sudan’s protests to an end, meeting with opposition leaders and the military council.
He was the darling of the global business community, making strident efforts to open up Ethiopia’s closed and largely state-led economy, giving an eloquent speech to much applause at the World Economic Forum in Davos early last year.
As his star continued to rise in Africa and beyond, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his attempts to resolve Ethiopia’s border conflict with Eritrea, which killed close to 80,000 people. His ascent however didn’t come without its detractors.
Ahmed’s sweeping reforms which removed the old regime from power, also dismantled the networks of powerful TPLF officials embedded in Ethiopia’s security, state, and economic structures.
“Given the widespread negative perception of the TPLF-led EPRDF’s rule, Abiy Ahmed was able to garner support for his reforms and for this operation in other states” Mukerrem tells TRT World.
“This conflict in some ways is functional also, it is a conflict between Ethiopians as Abiy Ahmed says and the TPLF, not Tigrayans and the Ethiopians”, Mukerrem continues, “the TPLF does have support in Tigray, but there are also many dissidents and opposition groups including a branch of Abiy Ahmed’s Prosperity Party, Harena Tigray, Tigray Democratic Party and a youth movement which wants to remove them from power (fenqel).”
Many Tigrayans however have viewed Abiy’s moves as a purge and an attempt to exclude & marginalize them. A problem complicated by the fact that many normal Tigrayans also haven’t benefitted from TPLF rule creating a feeling that the region is under siege. This reflects a pattern, says Awol Allo, a Senior Lecturer at Keele University and commentator on Ethiopian affairs which extends to his treatment of dissidents & protesters in other regions.
“There are efforts to corner the people of Tigray,” said Getachew Reda, a senior TPLF member and former communications minister. “But we don’t believe that’s going to work because we are steeped in the tradition not just of defending ourselves but also rising up to whatever challenge”.
“TPLF elites still haven’t been able to believe that they are outside of Ethiopia’s central political field. That the centre of gravity in Ethiopian politics has increasingly moved away from them” Mukerrem says.
The tensions saw a steep escalation when the Tigray state went ahead with elections in September after the federal government chose to postpone them until mid-2021 due to the pandemic. TPLF officials declared that they would no longer recognize Abiy Ahmed as prime minister after October 5th winning all contested seats in the regional parliament.
The Federal government responded by cutting off contact with the TPLF and withholding funds to the Tigray region, with the House of Federation Speaker Adem Farah telling state TV that “the illegally formed Tigray regional assembly and cabinet has no legal basis so will receive no budgetary support.” The Tigrayan regional state president, Debretsion Gebremichael slammed the decision as an act of revenge which would hurt regular Tigrayans.
Whilst Abiy Ahmed has pressed on with his project to rebuild and reform Ethiopia, he increasingly viewed the Tigray regional state as an obstacle in the attainment of his political goals. The TPLF however has often protested, insisting that the federal government is encroaching on its federally guaranteed right to administer the region independently.
“The writing was on the wall” says Awol Allo. “There were a number of confrontations that gradually morphed into the situation we see developing before us.”
What's really at stake however, Awol Allo tells TRT World, are ideologically differing visions of what kind of a country Ethiopia ought to be which prompted PM Ahmed to found the Prosperity Party in place of the EPRDF. Parties that never joined the EPRDF in the Afar, Benishangul-Gumuz, Harari, Somali and other regions dissolved and joined the Prosperity Party.
“The TPLF prefers the federal system it took part in founding, in fact the current Ethiopian constitution we might say is the brainchild of the TPLF” says Allo. “Abiy Ahmed on the other hand wants to move away from the ethnic based political arrangement, into something more like a unitary centralized system, colored by a nostalgic view of Ethiopia’s past.”
Prime Minister Ahmed’s new foreign policy has also irked officials in the Tigray state, which also drastically differs from the approach of his predecessors in Addis Ababa. His new close partnership with Mogadishu and Asmara, are part of a wider effort to create an integrated Horn of Africa, more akin to a solid & coordinated regional bloc. At Davos in 2019 he said “integration must be viewed not just as an economic project, but also as crucial to securing peace and reconciliation in the Horn of Africa.”
He has also begun more proactively engaging Gulf countries, and has taken a firmer stance against Egypt and the US on Ethiopia’s flagship project the Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam (Gerd), which demonstrates his ambition for the kind of role he envisions Ethiopia having in both the region and across Africa.
His widely applauded rapprochement with Eritrean president Isaias Afwerki however, has been viewed by Mekelle as being directed against it fearing increasing encirclement.
“The TPLF and People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ - Eritrea’s ruling party) have an unsettled legacy from the Ethio-Eritrean War which endures to this day” says Mukerrem.
Gebremichael, president of the Tigray state, previously claimed that Ahmed was training soldiers with Afwerki to attack the Tigray regional state. Whilst it doesn’t seem necessary that President Afwerki would get involved the optics haven’t left much to the imagination among TPLF officials.
Earlier this week Gebremichael attacked PM Ahmed for showing Afkweri around a restricted Air Force base, saying “the base is restricted even to our own citizens let alone a leader whose soldiers are pointing their rifles right in front of us.”
Though Gebremichael insisted his state prefers dialogue, in a press conference which broadcast on Tigray TV, he said “we have prepared our military... not in need of a war, but if worst comes to worst, to defend ourselves.”
“The TPLF has attempted to build coalitions in other states but has failed because of its dark legacy leaving it isolated” says Mukerrem, “and the de facto independence they currently have is increasingly turning to discussion about de jure independence - which though un-realistic, is provocative.”
While Abiy Ahmed, has been careful to distinguish between Ethiophian citizens of Tigrayan ethnicity and the regional government, tweeting that the Tigrayan people are being held “hostage” by TPLF “fugitives”, Henok Gabisa, Co-Chair of the New York based International Oromo Lawyers Association, says “he was not forced to take this path.”
“Yes, the TPLF is part of the problem but if he made peace with Eritrea, it shouldn’t have been impossible for him to sit down and negotiate with the Tigrayan state, after all whatever they do he is leading the country” he tells TRT World.
“The previous decades of TPLF led authoritarian rule, and all the egregious violations of rights could have been more effectively addressed within a transitional justice framework where serious violators could have been held to account” Gabisa says. “Abiy Ahmed was meant to be a transitional figure who led the country to democratic governance and reconciliation.”