Ethiopia faces the prospect of bitter and bloody civil conflict after its prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, ordered a military response to an “attack” by the ruling party of the restive Tigray region on a camp housing federal troops.
“Our defence forces … have been ordered to carry out their mission to save the country. The final point of the red line has been crossed. Force is being used as the last measure to save the people and the country,” Abiy said.
Abiy accused the the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) of attacking a military camp in the region and attempting to loot military assets.
Addressing the nation on TV, the prime minister announced “several martyrs” in the attack in Mekele, the northern Tigray region’s capital, and Dansha town. The government declared a six-month state of emergency in the Tigray region.
Analysts and diplomats have been warning for weeks that the standoff between the federal government and the TPLF could spill over into violence.
“This war is the worst possible outcome of the tensions that have been brewing. Given Tigray’s relatively strong security position, the conflict may well be protracted and disastrous. It could seriously strain an Ethiopian state already buffeted by multiple grave political challenges, and could also send shockwaves into the Horn of Africa region and beyond,” said William Davison, International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Ethiopia.
The TPLF dominated Ethiopia’s governing coalition for decades before Abiy took office in 2018 and announced sweeping political reforms. Those reforms, however, have allowed old ethnic and other grievances to surface, and led to instability.
Under Abiy, who won last year’s Nobel peace prize for ending a war with neighbouring Eritrea, Tigrayan leaders have complained of being unfairly targeted in corruption prosecutions, removed from top positions and blamed for the country’s problems.
One factor in the new crisis is the postponement of national elections due to the Covid-19 pandemic. National polls were due in August, but electoral officials ruled in March that all voting would be delayed until the threat from the virus eased.
When parliamentarians voted to extend officials’ mandates – which would have expired in early October – Tigrayan leaders went ahead with regional elections in September that Abiy’s government deemed illegal.
Now each side sees the other as illegitimate, and federal lawmakers have ruled that Abiy’s government should cut off contact with – and funding to – Tigray’s leadership.
The Tigray region is home to a large portion of federal military personnel and where much of its equipment is located, a legacy of Ethiopia’s brutal 1998-2000 border war with Eritrea, its northern neighbour.
Some analysts estimate that Tigray could muster more than half of the armed forces’ total personnel and mechanised divisions.
Last week, Tigray blocked a general appointed by Abiy from assuming a new posting, saying Abiy no longer had the authority to make such moves.
Tigrayan officials have said in recent days they would not initiate a military conflict, however the risk of war is high.
On Tuesday night, hours before Abiy’s announcement, Wondimu Asamnew, another senior Tigrayan official, explained that the federal government was amassing troops on the southern border of Tigray – a claim that could not be independently verified.
“I think when it comes to military mobilisation, it’s not child’s play. It can trigger all-out war … what they are doing is playing with fire,” Wondimu said.
“A small spark can ignite the whole region. So I think we are on the alert and I can assure you we are capable of defending ourselves.”
Observers have called for calm.
“Both sides must urgently agree to a ceasefire and enter into unconditional discussions in a neutral location in order to sustain a truce and address the constitutional dispute that is the proximate cause of the conflict. Ethiopia’s international partners must immediately press for that approach,” Davison said.
Nic Cheeseman, an expert in African politics at Brimingham university, said that as much of the country’s military capacity had been under the control of the TPLF, an open confrontation would not necessity result in a straightforward “win” for Ethiopian forces.
“There is also a real risk that open conflict will exacerbate ethnic tensions and inspire further secessionist sentiment in other parts of this country. If so, Ethiopia could come apart at the seams. So these developments can’t just get lost in the sea of coverage of the US elections. They are too important,” Cheeseman said.