The first anniversary of the war in Ethiopia’s restive Tigray region has come with a sense of foreboding to the residents of Addis Ababa, as the impact of a state of emergency announced on November 2 starts manifesting and the possibility of a rebel takeover of the capital looms.
The Ethiopian army on Friday called on former soldiers to rejoin the military to fight the advance of Tigrayan forces, state media said, as nine anti-government factions formed a new alliance to push out Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government.
Media reports showed that the anti-government groups, some of which have armed wings, are called the United Front of Ethiopian Federalist and Confederalist Forces. The alliance includes the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), and have recently announced major territorial gains in a march on Addis.
The new front aims “to reverse the harmful effects of the Abiy Ahmed rule on the peoples of Ethiopia and beyond”, the groups said, and “in recognition of the great need to collaborate and join forces towards a safe transition”.
The war in Tigray has killed thousands of people and forced more than two million from their homes. In recent months, it has expanded to neighbouring Amhara and Afar regions. On Tuesday, the Ethiopian government declared a six-month nationwide state of emergency after the Tigrayan fighters said they had made gains in Amhara and threatened to march to Addis Ababa.
The state of emergency declared on Tuesday means that the government can impose a curfew, disrupt transport services and travel, and indefinitely detain anyone suspected of having links to a terrorist group. Local administrations in some areas could be disbanded, and a military leadership could be installed.
Addis Ababa has already branded the TPLF a terrorist group.
African and Western nations have called for an immediate ceasefire. US special envoy for the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, was in Addis Ababa on Friday to press for a halt to military operations and a start to ceasefire talks. African Union Commission Chair Moussa Faki Mahamat said he met Mr Feltman to discuss efforts towards dialogue and political solutions to the conflict.
The United Nations Security Council was scheduled to meet on Ethiopia on Friday at the request of Ireland, Kenya, Niger, Tunisia and St Vincent and the Grenadines, diplomats said.
The EU and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (Igad) joined the call for a ceasefire. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni announced an Igad meeting on November 16 to discuss the war, and Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta urged the rivals to lay down their arms and find a path to peace.
“The fighting must stop,” President Kenyatta said in a statement.
A recent United Nations report indicted the protagonists in the Tigray conflict for war crimes.
The conflict that broke out on November 4, 2020 pitted the Ethiopian federal government force and its allies — fighters from the Amhara region and Eritrean troops — against forces loyal to TPLF, the region’s then-governing party. Unarmed civilians have suffered the brunt of the war, including war crimes and crimes against humanity, according to the UN report released on November 3 by the UN’s main rights body and Ethiopia’s state-appointed human-rights commission.
It found that all sides in the yearlong civil war had “committed violations of international human rights, humanitarian and refugee law, some of which may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity”.
On Wednesday, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet asked the parties involved in the escalating conflict to stop fighting immediately or risk pushing the region’s catastrophic humanitarian situation “over the edge”.
“The risks are so grave that, far from stabilising the situation, these extremely broad measures — which include sweeping powers of arrest and detention — will deepen divisions, endanger civil society and human rights defenders, provoke greater conflict and only add to the human suffering already at unacceptable levels,” Ms Bachelet said.
The UN rights chief further urged the warring parties to prioritise the protection of civilians.
Call for justice and truth
And with the eyes of the international community fixed firmly on the alarming situation, Ms Bachelet called for justice and truth for victims’ families to be pursued in a transparent manner.
“Civilians in Tigray have been subjected to brutal violence and suffering,” she told journalists in Geneva at the launch of a report by her Office and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission.
“The joint investigation team uncovered numerous violations and abuses, including unlawful killings and extrajudicial executions, torture, sexual and gender-based violence, violations against refugees, and forced displacement of civilians.”
The report was much anticipated because the Ethiopian government has rejected the findings of previous investigations by groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, which were based on interviews with refugees fleeing the besieged Tigray. The government said it would heed the recent report and allow investigators access to the war zone.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said that he would “recognise and accept” the report despite “serious reservations”, He claimed that the report vindicated the government as having not committed genocide or used deliberate starvation as a war tactic, though evidence of the latter had been unearthed by news outlets and corroborated by the UN as the war progressed.
The Tigrayan rebel leadership also raised concerns about the impartiality of the report.
Earlier on Tuesday, US President Joe Biden announced his administration’s intention to revoke longstanding trade benefits that enabled Ethiopia to export to the US without paying duties through the African Growth and Opportunity Act, citing “gross violations of internationally recognised human rights”.
Citizens on alert
On Thursday, Ethiopia’s government communications office said many citizens had heeded to the call to join the fight “to save Ethiopia”.
“The response of the people, especially our young people, to the recent call from the Federal and Regional Executives Forum is truly amazing,” the statement said, referring to Prime Minister Abiy’s call to help “bury the enemy” and defend the country “with blood”.
“Ethiopians from all corners of the country are heading for the warfront. Ethiopians who love their country are joining the struggle in droves with a winning mentality, heroism and determination,” the statement added.
State Minister of Foreign Affairs Redwan Hussein and Justice Minister Gediwon Timotiewos briefed diplomats in Addis, assuring them of safety and immunity during the state of emergency.
The conflict has brought Tigray to the brink of famine, and threatened to plunge the country, Africa’s second-most populous after Nigeria, into a much broader civil war.
The US embassy in Addis Ababa urged American citizens to avoid travel to Ethiopia, and asked those already in the country to leave.
In a speech commemorating the war’s one-year mark on Wednesday, Prime Minister Abiy seemed to rouse his supporters in the face of battlefield losses.
When the war broke out, the leader declared it a “law enforcement operation” against the TPLF. A year on, what was deemed a short operation has turned into “an existential war”, as Prime Minister Abiy described it.
Addis Ababa has been facing pressure from world leaders to choose dialogue to end the impasse that could lead to disaster. According to diplomats involved in seeking a peaceful resolution, there is a glimmer of hope that the prime minister could accept talks.
“We are talking to all sides, so are the Americans and the UN,” said a senior official at the African Union on Friday. “Everyone is behind it. Prime Minister Abiy does realise it is important to avoid a civil war,” the diplomat said without giving any timelines.
He suggested that the intervention may prevent an imminent clash in the capital, after the TPLF announced a working co-operation with other armed groups and promised to march on Addis Ababa in months, or even weeks.
This is a conflict whose protagonists have defied international pressure or intervention before, much to the frustration of regional leaders.
On Wednesday, President Kenyatta said he had led several attempts to broker peace but all in vain.
“It therefore concerns me deeply that after one year the crisis has not abated but has in fact deteriorated. The fighting has continued, the deaths have accumulated, the displacement persists and suffering and humanitarian emergency has taken root in the country,” he said in a statement. “The origins of the crisis, bitter and unacceptable as they might appear, can no longer be used as justification for the continued suffering, killings and the extended open warfare that now engulfs the nation.”
President Kenyatta is the chair of the East African Community and president in Office of the Organisation of African, Pacific and Caribbean States (OACPS). Kenya is a member of the UN Security Council. The US and the EU have urged him to prevail upon the warring parties to dialogue. One such call was made last month in Washington when he met with President Biden.
In September, Kenya proposed some form of “handshake” between Prime Minister Abiy and the TPLF leadership, on condition that the TPLF is untagged as a terrorist group and they lay down arms and conduct elections in Tigray. At the time, Ethiopia said its new parliament, which has powers to lift the terrorist tag, had not yet been sworn in. Prime Minister Abiy’s office said the decision lay with the federal parliament. Meanwhile, Ethiopia relaunched airstrikes and erected a blockade, and the TPLF sought co-operation with the OLA.
President Kenyatta said the lack of dialogue had been “disturbing” in spite of calls from international bodies. Kenya’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs endorsed an African Union statement opposing Prime Minister Abiy’s call this week to the public to arm themselves to battle the TPLF was incitement.
That statements also put the prime minister in trouble with social media networking giant Facebook, which took down a post saying, “The obligation to die for Ethiopia belongs to all of us by holding any weapon or capacity”.
The Ethiopian leader has 3.5 million followers on the platform.
Horn experts say Ethiopia’s problems and its defiance to calls for peace are historical.
Hassan Khannenje, director of Nairobi-based think tank Horn International Institute of Strategic Studies, noted that Ethiopians have never negotiated out of conflict.
“While Ethiopia’s history informs the current conflict, the unwillingness to negotiate is informed by calculations of military success and non-recognition of the legitimacy of each other by the protagonists,” he told The EastAfrican. “Further, the bloody nature of the conflict and deep hostilities have hardened positions of the parties.”
Only a robust regional and international pressure, he said, could bring the parties to the negotiating table, something that is lacking.
“The current unco-ordinated international efforts are unlikely to lead to dialogue. The potential success of the allied rebel forces or a hurting stalemate may, however, force Abiy’s government and rebel forces to seek a negotiated settlement.”
Officials told The EastAfrican they were urging both sides to agree to some form of a transition.
The TPLF, once a formal political movement in Ethiopia, led a loose coalition of political parties known as the Ethiopia People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) for nearly 30 years. It was initially led by Meles Zenawi, a former prime minister who died in 2012. His successor, Hailemariam Desalegn, inherited the coalition as well as its past atrocities.
Seeds of discord
Critics say TPLF’s leadership may have sustained economic growth, but left in its wake marginalised ethnic communities, crushed dissent and sowed seeds of discord. In February 2018, Mr Hailemariam quit as protests mounted, especially in Prime Minister Abiy’s native Oromia region.
But when Prime Minister Abiy came to power in April 2018, he faced the dilemma of managing the people’s expectations: Reforming the country from the notorious clampdowns of the former regime while ensuring he did not extend the handshakes beyond the elbow to hurt the conservatives too soon. It turns out he could not please everyone.
“They missed consensus on a solution. Abiy himself perceived TPLF as a threat, so the TPLF responded by undermining the transition,” said Murithi Mutiga, Horn of Africa project director at the International Crisis Group, referring to the changeover from the EPRDF era. “This was an incomplete transition, which should have offered the right balance between the centre and the regions. And so, typical of Ethiopian history, they resorted to a power struggle.”
This is the most perilous position Ethiopia has been in 40 years, largely due to the absence of the culture of accommodation.
“It can be protracted if the elites do not find a common path,” Mr Mutiga told The EastAfrican.
When Mr Meles rose to power in 1991 as president, it was the first time in over 100 years since a Tigrayan had been in charge of Ethiopia.
“The suffering of the civilians and the bloodletting among the warring groups can be mitigated only by a genuine and unified international intervention,” Aw Hirsi a Horn of Africa analyst, told The EastAfrican.