The end of the beginning

Ahmed Amal
Saturday 5 Dec 2020

Mekelle may be under control of the Ethiopian army, but the government’s conflict with Tigray is far from over and could destabilise the whole Horn of Africa

Twenty-four days after launching military operations against the Tigray region, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced that federal forces had taken full control of the regional capital, Mekelle. The announcement marked the beginning of the final phase of the operation, a statement from the prime minister’s office said, adding that the Ethiopian National Defence Forces (ENDF) had taken control of the Northern Command headquarters and secured the release of thousands of Northern Command officers who had been held captive by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The ENDF also now controls Mekelle airport and all other local and federal government facilities in the region.

THE BATTLE: When the operation was launched, federal forces marched on Mekelle with the help of special forces contingents of various sizes from other regions (the largest from the Amhara region and the smallest from the Somali region). The Eritrean army provided support along the Tigray region’s northern front. The offensive was carried out on three main fronts. The first was from Amhara to the west, primarily to cut off communications routes between Tigray and Sudan so as to prevent military assistance from reaching the region from abroad.

The ENDF’s ability to gain control over the northern bank of the Tekeze River marked a turning point on that front, as it enabled further progress towards major cities such as Shire. The southern front proved more challenging. The ENDF encounter fierce resistance from TPLF forces along that front, including ambushes in the vicinity of Alamata. After a gruelling artillery battle, federal forces gained the upper hand and were able to resume their advance. The army also encountered major hurdles during its advance from the north. It was not until their success in seizing control of Adigarat on 21 November that they were able to proceed further on that front and form the wedge that drove into Mekelle.

In addition to the many skirmishes on the ground along these three fronts, Ethiopian skies bore witness to another battle, which began after federal air force fighters bombarded civilian and military targets in Mekelle. TPLF forces responded with missile fire in various directions, targeting, for example, Bahir Dar and Gondar airports in Amhara and the Asmara International Airport in Eritrea.

The slow progress made by the ENDF and its auxiliaries just to reach the outskirts of Mekelle means that the “fall” of the Tigrayan capital is not the end of the battle. From day one of the federal government’s offensive, the TPLF demonstrated that it can still summon its expertise in mountain warfare which had enabled it to prevail over the Ethiopian army in the 1980s. That was essentially a protracted war of attrition in which army positions in towns and major roads became sitting ducks for TPLF fighters who could rapidly retreat to strongholds in Tigray’s rugged mountainous terrain. The very rapid evacuation of TPLF political and military leaders from key locations in the capital strongly suggest that they had prepared in advance for this new phase of the conflict.

INCENTIVES FOR ESCALATION: The difficulties of verifying information released by media outlets belonging to either side of the conflict, because of the near total blackout on internet and communication services in Tigray, contributed to opening the floodgates to torrents of fake news, which is part of the psychological warfare campaigns waged by both sides.

One notes, in this regard, that the Abiy Ahmed government shifted to a much more radical footing after the Ethiopian Broadcasting Authority (EBA) suspended the press licence of the Reuters correspondent in Ethiopia and issued warnings to the BBC and Deutsche Welle. The government had begun such practices early on, in September, when it banned foreign journalists from going to the Tigray region in order to cover local elections there.

The media bans and blackouts tell us that the human and material costs inflicted on the Tigray region may be much higher than announced. From the outset of the conflict, both sides appeared bent on demonstrating a certain calculated “savagery” as an instrument of psychological warfare. ENDF warplanes struck civilian targets in Tigray, such as electricity generators on the Tekeze Dam, the main sugar factory in the country and the University of Mekelle. Likewise, TPLF forces made a point of repeatedly striking civilian targets in Bahir Dar and Gondar, the two largest cities in the Amhara region.

The result will take the form of a high toll of civilian casualties which will deepen the hatred between the Tigrayan people and the other Ethiopian ethnic groups involved on the other side of the conflict, most notably the Amhara. Such animosities will make it virtually impossible to reunify Ethiopians behind a single national project. Since Abiy Ahmed’s assumption of power, Ethiopian social media has experienced an unprecedented outpouring of hate rhetoric which, in turn, has reignited festering tensions between Ethiopia’s many ethnic groups.

Ethiopia’s neighbours and international powers have been unable to contain the conflict because Addis Ababa is persistently rejected all offers to mediate between it and the TPLF. There have been many offers, starting from the initiative of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni to the efforts on the part of a high-level team of mediators appointed by the African Union. The government’s intransigence in this regard has been encouraged by the reluctance of many regional and international powers to deal with this conflict in its early stages and to issue explicit cautions against the escalatory policies of both sides.

THE FUTURE OF THE CONFLICT: The refusal of both sides to negotiate, which grew more adamant after they declared the other side “illegitimate”, induced them to escalate the threshold of their demands. The result was an increasingly complicated and intractable situation that leads to the following prognosis:

- The conflict in the Tigray region will continue. In tandem with their rapid withdrawal from the regional capital, Tigray political and military leaders have issued repeated calls for resistance against the “invaders”. The return to guerrilla warfare in that region could jeopardise all opportunities to restore stability in Ethiopia. Worse yet, the forthcoming period could broaden the scope of the war regionally. On 29 November, Asmara was victim to a new wave of missile fire from the Tigray region causing six explosions. This occurred just the day after Abiy Ahmed announced the fall of Mekelle.

- The hostilities could easily spread to other Ethiopian regions where relatively localised civil tensions have seethed for decades. There is a great risk, however, that such tensions could erupt into more wide-ranging conflicts, for example between the Somalis and the Afar or between the Oromo and the Somali and other ethnic groups in the south. Needless to say, such hostilities have a golden opportunity to flare given the federal government’s current preoccupation with the Tigray region as the main source of security threat until it apprehends TPLF leaders.

- In terms of the Ethiopian political structure, it is unlikely that Abiy Ahmed’s announcement of the success of the military operation in Tigray will improve his prospects to end the system of ethnic federalism and concentrate more power in his hands. This project continues to run up against widespread opposition, including from among the Oromo people to which he belongs.

- Amhara political leaders appear to be the only winners from recent developments. The operation has forced Abiy Ahmed to depend more strongly on political support from the Amhara in exchange for which he has elevated a number of their more prominent figures to key posts. For example, he has appointed Demeke Mekonnen to deputy prime minister for economic affairs and minister of foreign affairs, Amhara regional president Temesgen Tiruneh as the new security and intelligence chief, and Gedu Andargachew as adviser to the prime minister on security affairs.

Another plus for the Amhara is that, thanks to the operations in Tigray, their special forces now control areas that have long been under dispute between the Tigray and Amhara regions. If this fuels Amhara ambitions to acquire further gains, whether through the next elections or after, it could trigger a new round of conflict in Ethiopia.

Whether or not Abiy Ahmed has truly won a victory in Mekelle, the conflict that started 4 November truly mark a turning point that will determine the future not just of Ethiopia but of the whole of the Horn of Africa. It does not bode well that this military operation has re-enabled conflict as an alternative to mechanisms for resolving political disputes and disparities between the different ethnic components of one of the most complex and diverse regions in the world.

*The writer is head of the African Studies Unit at the Egyptian Centre for Strategic Studies.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 December, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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