While the world was closely following the nail-biting US presidential elections between incumbent President Donald Trump and former vice-president Joe Biden, things were heating up somewhere else on the planet: in the northernmost part of Ethiopia in Tigray.
Out of the blue, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, ordered a “war” in this “defiant” region. As in the case with similar incidents in the history of conventional modern warfare, he said he had ordered a “military intervention” into Tigray as a response to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front’s (TPLF) attack on the Federal Northern Military Division located in Mekele, the capital city of Tigray, a story which US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has seemed to uphold.
Hours after the attack on the Ethiopian federal forces, Pompeo said he was “concerned” over reports of the TPLF’s attack on the northern division.
Back in the old days, when Abiy Ahmed and Debretsion Gebremichael, president of the TPLF, were pictured “in harmony” together, events showed that this “honeymoon” could not last much longer. In a bid to solicit support, particularly among his fellow Oromos and the Amhara, both arch-rivals of the Tigrayans, Ahmed allowed a “rift” to grow between the federal government of Ethiopia, on the one hand, and the people of Tigray, on the other.
Though TPLF-ruled Ethiopia was not a land of milk and honey, the situation, at least in terms of containing growing ethnic dissidence and promoting economic achievements, was far better than it is in Ethiopia today. But Ahmed tolerated quasi-official, and sometimes official, media campaigns that “devilishly portrayed” Tigrayans as the sole cause of Ethiopia’s plight. He also turned a deaf ear to frequent internal fighting between Tigray and its neighbours, particularly the Amhara. Under Abiy, the cracks have grown wider even among his fellow Oromos, who have burnt his book “Medemer,” which contains both the 42-year-old leader’s picture and his “ruling philosophy.”
Ahmed’s really intolerable sin remains a “delay” in the Ethiopian general elections because the Covid-19 pandemic will not allow the government to “safely” conduct them, according to a government statement, though in fact Ethiopia’s overall cases, including deaths, barely equate to a single day of new infections in the United States, which successfully held its presidential elections. They barely equate, either, to a similar African case, that of Egypt, which held both its Senate and House of Representatives’ elections following strict anti-Covid-19 measures.
Plainly, Ahmed’s government does not seem to be fearing for the lives of the people of Ethiopia, particularly after the TPLF itself revealed the pretext by successfully holding its own elections, which the government did not endorse. Apparently, Ahmed’s political career and future would have been on the cusp of “premature” termination had the general elections been held on time. In other words, his philosophy, best summarised in the Prosperity Party (PP), would have been a fairy tale for bedtime.
Militarily speaking, was Ahmed aware of facts on the ground before ordering the offensive in Tigray? The answer may not be satisfactory for the Ethiopian premier. First of all, the Northern Military Division that was stationed in Mekele as a means of deterrence of any possible Eritrean military intervention in Ethiopia after the two-year border war between the two nations in 1998-2000 is believed to be home to roughly 80 per cent of the Ethiopian National Defence Force’s (ENDF) finest heavy artillery.
By simple maths and if the TPLF’s side of the story is correct, if this division has been defeated and is now under the control of the TPLF (or even if it is false, but if the TPLF has managed to have the upper hand there), the ENDF as a whole will face fierce military resistance that may not favour the federal forces and will surely last for a long time.
Second, has the Ethiopian army prepared for a Tigray war or even readied itself in case one breaks out? Berhanu Jula Gelalcha, Ethiopia’s deputy chief of defence staff, has the answer. “Our country has entered into a war it didn’t anticipate… it is an aimless and shameful war,” he said.
Another proof that this “aimless and shameful war” has not been prepared for, at least technically, is the fact that the Ethiopian prime minister has ordered three top military officers who were laid off a long time ago to go back on duty. The three are Yohannes Gebremeskel, a Tigrayan who is known for his vehement critique of the TPLF, Abebaw Tadesse, a former commander of the central command who hails from the Agew/Qemant small ethnic group (in Gondar in northwestern Ethiopia, which is usually on bad terms with the Tigrayans), and Bacha Debele, an Oromo who was a commander of the Eastern Corps, better known for its ruthless quashing of the Oromo rebellion against the Meles Zenawi government in Ethiopia in 2002.
The aim of the order is clear: the ENDF is lacking in the kind of “seasoned” leadership that can handle combat, particularly an expectedly lengthy one.
On the other side of the fence, the Tigrayans seem to have mastered the war’s technicalities. After three decades in power, they have swept all top-level military and intelligence posts. Plus, they have experienced warfare, either because they have experienced it in real combat conditions during the war with Eritrea, or because they have frequently fought due to repeated “skirmishes” with Eritrea after the border war ended or with their neighbouring ethnicities, particularly the Amhara.
The TPLF has also prepared its own forces in anticipation of this moment. President of the TPLF Debretsion Gebremichael clearly put it this way, when he said that “we have prepared our military of Special Forces, not to be in need of a war, but if the worst comes to defend ourselves.” It is estimated that Tigray has some 250,000 highly-trained Special Forces and militias that, being led by seasoned Tigrayan military leaders and intelligence officers, may shift the balance in their region’s favour.
Ahmed considers the TPLF to be a “rogue” element within the country that must be “eliminated” for what he loves to call “stability” to be brought about, in effect bringing to an end the last hub of dissidence that categorically rejects his political dominance and sees him as a “former prime minister” as his “legitimate” mandate ended on 5 October this year. The now PP-dominated Ethiopian House of Federation has authorised the formation of a pro-Ahmed puppet administration in Tigray, removing the one headed by once a friend and now a foe, Debretsion Gebremichael.
To think that this would make things as easy as rolling off a log is really a sheer act of imbecility.
To stay ahead of the game, the incumbent government is desperately seeking help from Tigray’s archrivals in both Oromia and Amhara. Shelling can be heard from the latter’s border with Tigray, while some of the Ethiopian military’s total of 24 fighter jets continue to hover over Mekele’s skies, intimidating millions now that the government has postponed the elections for their “safety.”
The Ahmed-led government may be looking for a quick victory, relying on generous Israeli support, as it has leaked “used-to-be-confidential” information on collaboration between the Ethiopian Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) and Israel on the “sharing of information and technology transfer” with the “bright” goal of “maintaining” stability in the Horn of Africa.
But no matter how the war ends in Tigray, the only certain truth is that Ethiopia will never be the same again.
The writer is a former press and information officer in Ethiopia and an expert on African affairs.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly