Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s talk of uprooting “the cancer” or “weed” in reference to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) not only shocked the world for its genocidal tone, but it also signalled that dialogue was no longer on the table.
While PM Abiy vows total annihilation of the TPLF — now labelled a terror group by Addis Ababa — militia and regional forces from around the country are being sent to the battlefront, or readying themselves to defend their territories. Leaders of Sidama, Benshangul-Gumuz, Afar, Somalia and Oromia regional states were all aligning themselves with the Ethiopian National Defence Forces and the Amhara militia to resume battle.
Political experts on Ethiopian matters told The EastAfrican that the mobilisation of regional states troops was for national pride and vengeance on the TPLF for past misdeeds against others.
“The removal of TPLF is important for the people of Tigray themselves and the region. TPLF has been given chances in those years to engage in peaceful negotiations and they refused,” said Redie Bereketeab, a researcher on Political and Development Sociology at the Nordic Africa Institute.
“Now all regions see TPLF as the enemy, so there is no chance now for the federal government to engage in peaceful negotiations,” he said in a Zoom call last week on Thursday, adding, “Despite the unilateral ceasefire by the federal government and especially the language of the TPLF Spokesman who suggested TPLF wanted to destroy Ethiopia, most Ethiopians feel TPLF is an enemy against all Ethiopians.”
So how did it begin?
For most of June, TPLF appeared victorious, parading captured soldiers in the streets of Makelle and warning of taking over more territory.
“PM Abiy calling on the rest of Ethiopia to rally against Tigray is part of his divide and rule policy clearly [and] shows he has no appetite for peace but more bloodshed,” said Getachew Reda, the TPLF spokesman. He was referring to a recent mass march against Tigray in Addis Ababa.
“We know he is not in charge of anything other than the campaign to dismember Ethiopia. While we are for peace and cessation of hostilities, it should be clear to all that all our conditions need to be met in full before that happens,” said the TPLF spokesman.
But depending on who you ask, the kind of bitterness being expressed by other regions against Tigray is a centuries-long issue. It was in Tigray that Italian colonialists were massacred and routed in battle for the now failed colonisation of the country. But Tigray is also where erstwhile allies, the Eritrean forces and the TPLF, cemented their enmity.
A story is told of Badme, a town once in Tigray, but which has since been given to Eritrea. In May 1998, TPLF forces fired on a delegation of Eritrean forces sent to discuss a complaint about a scorched-earth policy.
The incident astonished Western capitals, but it was not the only sign that the two sides had parted ways. TPLF sustained its clashes with Eritrea. The war ended after two years, following the signing of the Algiers Accord.
In 2018, after PM Abiy came to power, he agreed to implement the Algiers Accord, which among other things included returning Badme to Eritrea. TPLF rejected the idea, but they were no longer in power as PM Abiy pushed to dissolve the parties initially in the then ruling Ethiopia National Democratic Revolutionary Front (ENDRF).
Mr Redie called it mistake number one by TPLF, which worsened when they refused to dissolve and be a part of the ruling Prosperity Party.
“And then they went back to Tigray, then started mobilising, both militarily, emotionally and psychologically; telling the people in Tigray that all the people in surrounding areas were enemies. And they said they had to go on the offensive,” he told The EastAfrican.
Metta-Alem Sinishaw, a political analyst on Ethiopia and East Africa argues that TPLF created a “double-faced” characteristic, exacerbating the conflict while threatening their own survival.
“TPLF is celebrated as an angel of liberation in Tigray but perceived as an evil oppressor elsewhere in Ethiopia,” he said, referring to its 27-year dominance in Ethiopian administration in which it was accused of ruling with an iron fist.
But Abiy Ahmed has also not escaped blame for stifling political opponents.
“PM Abiy jailed, betrayed all prominent Oromo leaders who stood by him,” said Rashid Abdi, a Kenyan analyst on the Horn of Africa.