Addis launches fresh offensive against restive Tigray region

Saturday November 07 2020

Members of Tigray police at a checkpoint in the outskirts of Mekele on September 9, 2020. Ethiopia says the large scale law enforcement would target ‘criminal’ fighters allied to TPLF. PHOTO | EDUARDO SOTERAS | AFP


Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on Friday declared ‘’war’’ on the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a want-away movement in control of the northern region of Ethiopia, escalating tensions in the region’s most populous country.

The offensive, whose aim is to disarm and detain TPLF fighters, followed an attack by the renegade forces on federal soldiers on Wednesday. The federal government also declared a six-month state of emergency in the region.

“Given the challenge posed by the flagrant and repeated unlawful acts in the Tigray regional state to the national security as well as law and order, the federal government has deemed it necessary to undertake its law enforcement operation within a framework of a state of emergency,” Dr Abiy’s office said in a statement on Friday.

The Ethiopian leader said the “large scale law enforcement” operation would target “criminal” fighters allied to the TPLF. He did not indicate how long the offensive was projected to last but said the operation will be conducted at the “least possible cost.”

The country’s parliament endorsed the state of emergency, and the formation of a taskforce led by the army’s chief of staff to coordinate the military response.

Tsedale Lemma, an Ethiopian political analyst, said the situation in Tigray is the byproduct of Premier Abiy’s failed political project, but argued the war could be winding.


“The price tag for this transactional political order keeps skyrocketing; what started by jailing formidable opponents of Abiy’s failed nation-building project has now morphed into a civil war to get rid of TPLF, a powerful opponent, once-and-for-all, using the military,” she said.

“But make no mistake, this isn’t a surgical operation which will quickly end TPLF, but an epistemic rupture of the federation as we know it. When it’s over, and regardless of its outcome, Abiy’s failed ambition of a nation-building project will be irreparably dented.”

Addis Ababa declared ‘’war’’ on Tigray region, an autonomous federal area north of the country, after what Dr Abiy said was the crossing of the “last red line” when TPLF attacked a military camp of the Ethiopian National Defence Forces on Wednesday.

The International Crisis Group, a research and advocacy group, estimates that the TPLF has as many as 250,000 fighters, including allied militia.

“The region’s leadership also appears to enjoy significant support from Tigray’s approximately six million people, again suggesting that war could be lengthy and bloody,” the organisation noted in a briefing paper.

Redie Bereketeab, a researcher on state building in the Horn of Africa at the Nordic Africa Institute told The EastAfrican the Tigray regional government had, in a series of daring moves, triggered the current conflict following its loss of power.  

“Following the Ethiopian-Eritrean rapprochement, the TPLF accused the federal government led by Abiy of violation of the constitution and national institutions thereby declaring the federal government illegitimate, which is a serious accusation,” he said on Thursday.

“A regional government to call the national government illegitimate is a very serious constitutional matter,” said Mr Bereketeab, however, adding that both sides may be using Eritrea as a propaganda subject for now, including accusations Tigray was manufacturing Eritrean military uniform, and that Addis was using Eritrean fighters.

“Beyond such propaganda, I don’t see any reason for Eritrea to be involved in the current conflict. The federal government is capable of dealing with the Tigray problem, involvement of Eritrea would simply complicate matters and give propaganda victory to TPLF.’’

TPLF has been at odds with Abiy’s government since he came to power in 2018, rejecting his proposal to establish a national party he fronted, the Prosperity Party. In August, the region organised its local elections despite the country postponing countrywide polls due to Covid-19.

Despite being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to unite his country, PM Abiy has faced criticism for his silence over rising ethnic nationalism and killings, especially from his Oromia region since he came to power in April 2018.

The current crisis has been triggered by his administration’s decision to suspend elections earlier scheduled for August and the systematic removal of Tigray leaders from key positions.

Officials from Tigray say the region does not recognise the legitimacy of Dr Abiy’s government after its term expired in October, while the federal government terms the TPLF a “terrorist” organisation.

Tigray region president, Debretsion Gebremichael, on November 2, said in a television address that the Horn of Africa region should prepare for war, saying that the Tigrayans are in a position to defend ourselves against a war incited by the federal government and could count on the support of neighbouring Eritrea, which broke away from Ethiopia after a bitter war.

“Unless the federal government and Tigray administration tone down their rhetoric, the country is headed on the path of long-drawn conflict,” said William Davison, the International Crisis Group analyst on Ethiopia.

After coming to power in April 2018, Dr Abiy introduced wide ranging reforms including opening political space and releasing political prisoners. He also unbanned organisations, including some that are now behind the rising regional nationalism.

There are concerns Tigray could take advantage of the Ethiopian constitution that allows for self-determination for any of the country’s 10 regions that feels unfairly treated in the federation. The Tigray television, Dimtse Woyane (DWTV) has been preaching the language of self-determination. 

By Aggrey Mutambo and Fred Oluoch