Five things to know as Ethiopia's conflict spreads

Thursday August 12 2021

Captive Ethiopian soldiers carry a soldier on a makeshift stretcher as they arrive at the Mekele Rehabilitation Center in Mekele, the capital of Tigray region, Ethiopia, on July 2, 2021. PHOTO | YASUYOSHI CHIBA | AFP


The war in Ethiopia has expanded beyond Tigray and risks widening further, with a national call to arms threatening to draw in civilians from all corners of the vast country.

Here's what you need to know about the evolving conflict in Africa's second-most populous nation: 

Where is the fighting?

The war kicked off nine months ago in Tigray, a small but strategically vital and historically powerful region in the north along Ethiopia's border with Eritrea. But it has since spread to other parts of the country.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner, sent the army into Tigray after accusing the region's ruling party of mounting attacks against federal army camps.

Abiy vowed to defeat the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) quickly but pro-government forces became mired in a counterinsurgency campaign that dragged on for months.


In June, TPLF forces mounted a fresh offensive and took control of the regional capital Mekele. 

They then pushed beyond Tigray into the neighbouring Afar and Amhara regions.

Swathes of northern Ethiopia, including areas previously untouched by the conflict, have become embroiled in active combat as frontlines continue to shift.

Who is involved?

In recent weeks all of Ethiopia's 10 regions and its two administrative areas -- Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa -- have deployed new troops to the conflict zone. 

Afar, which borders Djibouti, has marshalled its special forces and militias to confront pro-TPLF forces on its soil.

Amhara, a region located just south of Tigray, has been involved in the war since November, when its forces seized and occupied territory that its leaders accuse the TPLF of illegally annexing three decades ago. 

More recently, militia fighters have mobilised and regional officials have rallied Amhara citizens to enlist, warning that their very "survival" is at stake.

What does Abiy want?

Abiy declared a unilateral ceasefire in late June as Tigrayan forces swept into Mekele, saying a pause in fighting was needed to allow farmers to plant crops ahead of the harvest season.

But the government says the rebels, who it calls "terrorists", ignored this and instead dispatched troops to loot and murder in Afar and Amhara. A spokesman for the TPLF has denied allegations of abuses including the use of child soldiers.

On August 10, just days after threatening to deploy Ethiopia's "entire defensive capability" against the rebels, Abiy urged all eligible civilians to enlist and stop the TPLF "once and for all".

"Now is the right time... to show your patriotism", he said. Those unable to fight could contribute in other ways such as providing moral and material support to the army, he added.

The appeal for mass mobilisation suggests a major offensive could be in the offing and that the ceasefire is as good as dead.

What do the rebels want?

The TPLF has stated it does not intend to hold territory outside Tigray and is instead focused on two goals: facilitating humanitarian aid access and preventing pro-government forces from regrouping.

But it has promised to "liberate every square inch of Tigray", including southern and western parts of the region that have been occupied by Amhara forces since the early days of the war.

TPLF leaders have also called for the withdrawal of Eritrean forces, which have backed Abiy's army, from Tigray.

The US has urged the TPLF to withdraw from Afar and Amhara. 

But the rebels have refused to budge until restrictions on aid into Tigray are lifted.

Where does the international community stand?

The deadly brinkmanship comes as world leaders ramp up calls for a negotiated ceasefire to allow desperately-needed aid into Tigray.

The United Nations says 400,000 people face famine-like conditions in the region, as aid convoys grapple with security woes and bureaucratic hurdles. 

The war has strained ties with historic allies including the US, with the Biden administration openly critical of the war. 

Addis Ababa has accused foreign, especially Western, leaders of overlooking crimes by the TPLF and accused aid groups of aiding -- and even arming -- the rebels. 

The conflict has also exacerbated fraught relations within the volatile Horn of Africa region.

Sudan recalled its ambassador to Ethiopia this month, saying Addis Ababa had spurned its efforts to mediate a settlement in Tigray.