ADDIS ABABA – In a major escalation of a bitter feud with his rivals in the northern region of Tigray, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered military action following an attack on a federal army camp in the early hours of November 4th. The announcement, which came after weeks of escalating tensions, could mark a dangerous turning point for a country whose stability has been repeatedly tested since Abiy came to power in 2018.
The sharp deterioration did not surprise observers of Ethiopia's once-promising transition to democracy – a shift largely initiated by Abiy, who also won a Nobel Peace Prize for his role in ending a 20-year Cold War with neighboring Eritrea.
For months, many observers had sensed a showdown between him and Tigray's ruler, the Tigrayan People & # 39; s Liberation Front (TPLF), which dominated the country's ruling coalition from 1991 – when it overthrew the previous military dictatorship – until 2018. On October 30, The International Crisis Group warned that the stalemate could spark "a harmful conflict that could even tear the Ethiopian state apart".
The roots of enmity are deeply ingrained. The TPLF refused to join Abiy & # 39; s new ruling party, the Prosperity Party, when it was formed late last year. She sees the new party as an attempt to dismantle the constitution. And earlier this year, Tigrayan leaders accused him of laying the foundations for dictatorship by postponing elections due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In September, the Tigray region held its own elections despite the federal government and prompted parliament to vote last month to sever ties with the regional leadership.
The TPLF also claims Abiy's government oversaw the persecution of ethnic Tigrayans, who make up about 6 percent of the population, and selective purge of Tigrayan officials and security service leaders in the government. As a condition of the dialogue, it called on Abiy to step down as prime minister and allow the formation of a transitional government.
For its part, the Prosperity Party claims that the leaders of the TPLF are tackling Ethiopia's myriad problems – including political assassinations, protests, armed uprisings, and minority massacres – in order to derail the political transition and regain the power they forcibly lost .
Both sides have expanded their military capacities – Tigray, as one of the ten semi-autonomous ethnically influenced regional states of Ethiopia, has its own police and militia – and are increasingly using bellicose rhetoric. The federal government recently suspended its monthly financial aid to Tigray, the latest in a series of tax and administrative penalties aimed at putting pressure on its leaders.
It wasn't immediately clear who had actually fired the first shots. According to the German government, the TPLF attempted to "loot" equipment from the northern command of the German Armed Forces, which is stationed in Tigray near the border with Eritrea and is said to comprise most of Ethiopia's armed personnel and mechanized divisions. The TPLF has long believed that the officer corps of this command – many of whom, according to insiders, are Tigrayans – will not follow Abiy. Last month she said she would not accept any changes to the regiment's leadership or structure and then declined to allow new commanders appointed by Abiy to take up their posts.
It's plausible, as Abiy claims, that the TPLF attempted to seize commando assets. However, it is not certain whether this happened before or after the deployment of federal troops. A former Tigrayan general in Mekelle, the region's capital, told me last week that it might be necessary to remove such devices "from the equation" if tensions boil over. A Politburo meeting this weekend resulted in "historic decisions" to bolster the region's readiness, Getachew Reda, a senior TPLF official, said on Twitter. Regional President Debretsion Gebremichael said on Sunday: "If a war is imminent, we are ready not only to resist, but to win".
But it is also evident that there were significant movements of federal troops in the days leading up to November 4th. Units had been withdrawn from several parts of southern Ethiopia, including the Hararghe and Somali areas in the southeast, according to a United Nations diplomat. and from the Welega Zone in the western Oromia region. "(The federal government) will have a hard time convincing someone worth their salt that it wasn't pre-planned," the source said.
With internet and telephone networks cut across Tigray, details of ongoing confrontations between federal troops and Tigrayan paramilitaries are patchy and difficult to verify. According to a source in Mekelle who spoke to me over a satellite link, the fire in the city lasted about an hour in the early hours of the morning.
The fighting was limited to the area around the airport. Several sources in Addis Ababa said the federal government had dispatched commandos in military planes to Mekelle to secure military assets and possibly remove the TPLF leadership. This does not appear to have been successful, and the Tigray Special Police are believed to have taken control of the federal military base. The city was quiet for the rest of the day.
In his statement, Abiy also alleged the TPLF attacked federal forces in the town of Dansha in western Tigray near the border with the Amhara region. There have been reports of fighting in the West since the morning of November 4th, but these are particularly difficult to confirm. The number of victims is unknown.
Many in Addis Ababa are hoping that Abiy & # 39; s military operation will be limited to a surgical strike against the TPLF to assert federal government authority in Tigray. However, the conflict could easily spread to the entire region. The neighboring Amhara state has territorial claims against parts of Tigray, and members of the ruling party there – important allies of the prime minister – had urged it to take decisive action against the TPLF. On November 4, its president called on Amhara military veterans to take up arms in the fight against them.
Even more worrying is the possibility of Eritrean troops intervening on the side of the Ethiopian federal army – until recently its archenemy. Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki has an old grudge against the TPLF – dating back to before the Ethiopian-Eritrean War of 1998-2000 – and has gotten close to Abiy since the two made peace in 2018. Few observers doubt that Isaias could be tempted to intervene in any way if he spied an opening. "We have no illusion that the Eritreans would sit by idly," TPLF's Getachew told me last week.
Even without an overflow to neighboring countries, a limited operation to relocate the TPLF will not be easy. The party controls every government office in the region down to the lowest level. The security forces are led by battle-hardened veterans of previous wars. And neither they nor the federal government are willing to compromise.
“When I think of a war between Abiy and the TPLF, do you know what I'm thinking of? Iraq and Afghanistan, ”said a well-connected analyst in Addis Ababa. In other words, he went on, "A swamp."