There is panic in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa. Groups of quickly recruited civilians head for the front 250 kilometers north of the city to fight against the advancing rebels of the Tigres People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has called on every resident to defend their residential area with their own weapons.
A year after the civil war started in the northern state of Tigray, which killed thousands and displaced millions, the conflict is approaching Addis Ababa. Advancing rebels from Tigray secured a crucial victory last week by taking the strategically located towns of Dessie and Kombolcha in Amhara state. They have also formed an alliance with another armed group.
The government of Ethiopia, Africa’s second-largest country by population, has declared a national emergency. Observers from neighboring countries and the United Nations are calling for a ceasefire and negotiations, without success. The United States has imposed severe sanctions for human rights violations. Five questions about the escalating war.
Also read: UN: gross human rights violations by all parties to conflict Tigray
1What is the origin of the conflict?
With the election of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in 2018 by the then ruling party the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) the dominant position of the Tigreeans in Ethiopian national politics came to an end. Abiy fired Tigreeans from the army and state apparatus and dismantled their companies. Many prominent Tigreeans withdrew to their state and bask in revenge. They want back the influence in politics and the economy that was built after the TPLF took Addis Ababa in 1991. In June, the TPLF recorded a spectacular victory in Tigray, with the government army in the state fleeing.
2Can Addis Ababa fall, and must Abiy flee?
Some rebel leaders have indicated that they want to take the capital. But unless the government army collapses completely, that is not likely in the short term. It is believed that the rebels want to cut off supplies to the capital from neighboring Djibouti in order to force Abiy Ahmed to resign. If they move slightly east now, they can close off the main road to the port city in Djibouti and slowly strangle the rule. Abiy has vowed not to flee the capital. But if the tide is not turned soon, that opportunity is on the horizon.
There is a chance that the unitary state of Ethiopia will crumble, a development that is already underway in neighboring Somalia and which threatens in Sudan after last month’s coup. The entire Horn of Africa, with Ethiopia as the most stable state and ally of the West, is in crisis.
3Where has the Ethiopian army gone?
Under the regimes before Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia had one of the strongest armies in Africa. It managed to suppress all local uprisings and played a valued role in peacekeeping forces in, for example, Somalia and Sudan. But with the purging of Tigrese commanders and generals by Abiy Ahmed, the heart was ripped from the armed forces. The military is demoralized and has a weak organization. After the TPLF’s victory in Tigray, the backbone of the armed forces seems broken. Tens of thousands of soldiers were made prisoners of war. A massive recruitment of civilians and militias by Abiy Ahmed has failed to restore the army’s clout.
Because of the large-scale crimes against civilians by the government army and the allied army from Eritrea, the Tigrese population sided with the TPLF. These motivated fighters mow down the government soldiers from their positions in the mountains.
4Can Eritrea still help Abiy Ahmed?
Eritrean leader Issaias Afewerki is Abiy Ahmed’s strongest ally. He has longstanding feuds with the TPLF and has always been a staunch opponent of ethnic federalism, as introduced under the TPLF in Ethiopia. He took advantage of the quarrel between Abiy Ahmed and the Tigreeans to have his army invade Tigray. That invasion resulted in a punitive expedition in which the Eritrean soldiers looted and murdered civilians. These crimes made the Tigreeans rally massively behind the TPLF.
Eritrean soldiers protect western Tigray, on the border with Sudan, against the TPLF. The dilemma for Issaias is whether to get even deeper into the Ethiopian wasp’s nest to save his ally. With 110 million inhabitants, Ethiopia is a much more complicated and ethnically explosive country than the fairly homogeneous, small and tightly governed Eritrea.
Black smoke rises after an airstrike in Mekele, the capital of northern Ethiopia’s Tigray region, on Oct. 20. Photo AP
5Does a TPLF or Abiy win mean the end of the battle?
No, a military victory will only exacerbate the Ethiopian conflict. Opposition to Abiy Ahmed comes not only from the Tigreeans, but also from young activists among the Oromo, the largest population group in the country to which Abiy himself belongs. They have turned away from the prime minister because they are against the centralized state he is pursuing and want more autonomy for Oromia. The Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) has formed a military alliance with the TPLF and there are reports that they have also recently started working together at the front.
There is little sympathy for the TPLF outside of Tigray. Abiy Ahmed’s nationalist rhetoric has caught on among the Amharas. Fighters from the Amharic state took part in the invasion of Tigray last November, partly to reclaim disputed territory. Ethnic tensions have thus risen and a victory of one group over the other will fuel these disputes to such an extent that the country sinks even deeper into this civil war.
Ethiopians are becoming increasingly divided along ethnic lines as Tigreeans are equated with the TPLF. “I don’t dare go out on the state anymore,” an ethnic Tigrean told by telephone. And an Ethiopian of another ethnic group: “I will no longer be seen around Tigreeans.”
Also read: Wider conflict in Ethiopia degenerates into ethnic strife
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad on 5 November 2021 A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of 5 November 2021