Ethiopia is on the precipice of a civil war. Events on the ground are picking up momentum and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, is being put to the test. Will he be able to avert a military conflict that will dismantle the multi-ethnic, multi-religious country?
Debretsion Gebremichael, acting president of the Tigray region, called for talks with the central government. Nonetheless, air strikes conducted by Ahmed’s government continue to shell the region. For over a year, the West has been expressing fears of the disintegration of Ethiopia, especially after Ahmed ordered postponing the general elections until mid-2021, citing the coronavirus outbreak as the reason.
Tigray’s ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), denounced the government’s claims for postponing the elections and decided to hold the poll on its due date. Ahmed’s government dismissed the vote as “illegal”.
The government said last week the army was confronting “the secessionist movement” after Tigrayans attacked a military base in the region. Ahmed accused the TPLF, the largest political movement in Tigray, of orchestrating the attack.
Ahmed tweeted the TPLF tried to loot weapons and equipment from the military base. He added that defence forces “received the order to defend the homeland” after the “red lines were crossed”, claiming his decision to use force “was the last means to save the nation”.
According to Western media reports, bloody battles are still raging in west Tigray, to the north of the country, flanked to the east by Eritrea, to the west by Sudan. The Western reports emerged despite the heavy media blackout.
AFP cited an anonymous medical official saying Sunday that 98 army soldiers were being treated in a hospital in the neighbouring Amhara region. The officer said no deaths were reports and that the seriously injured were taken to bigger hospitals in Gondar, Ethiopia’s capital in the mid-19 century, and other advanced medical facilities.
General Berhanu Jula, the new army chief appointed Sunday, said federal forces “completely destroyed the heavy artillery of the traitors”, referring to the TPLF. Also Sunday, a military jet bombed a missiles site near the airport in Mekelle, the Tigrayan capital, military and diplomatic sources told Reuters. No casualties were reported. The sources added the jet took off from a military base in Bahir Dar, the capital of the Amhara region.
The Tigrayan government, sacked by the Ethiopian government, stated it shelled a military jet and it has been in control of the Mekelle military base since the time of the war with neighbouring Eritrea in the late 1990s until now. The reports can’t be verified due to the loss of communication with the Tigray region since 4 November.
The Tigrayans, comprising six per cent of the 100-million population of Ethiopia, had been at the helm of the country’s political life, army and security apparatuses since the fall of the communist regime under Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991 until Ahmed rose to power in 2018.
Since then, tens of Tigrayans were tried for corruption. The Tigray people denounced the “unjust targeting” of them after Ahmed rendered them “as scapegoats and the reason for the country’s problems”. Tigray leaders didn’t join the Prosperity Party Ahmed founded last year.
Despite fights that threaten Ethiopia’s descent into the horrors of civil war, on Sunday Ahmed sacked the army chief, head of intelligence and foreign minister. Adem Mohamed was replaced by his deputy Jula as army chief. Amhara state head Temesfen Tiruneh took over from Demelash Gebremichael, who became a police commissioner. Demeke Mekonen was promoted as foreign minister, taking over from Gedu Andargachew.
Through these shuffles, Ahmed is seeking to appease multiple ethnicities, such as the Amhara, the second largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, comprising 28 per cent of the population, and the Oromo, Ethiopia’s largest ethnicity, making up 34 per cent of the population, and from which Ahmed and Jula hail.
However, the reality on the Ethiopian ground is more complicated than it appears. Addis Ababa fears the elected government in Tigray could establish a secessionist state, despite affirmations by regional leaders that Tigray remains Ethiopian. Nonetheless, they reject a “unified” state and defend “self-rule”.
The Tigrayans are not the only ethnic group that rejects Ahmed’s rule. A large part of the Oromo and their rivals from the Somalia ethnic group, constituting six per cent of the population, are refusing Ahmed’s rule. Criticisms are also being voiced among the Amhara.
The Tigray, Amhara and a large portion of the Oromo population are Christian Orthodox, following the Egyptian Church’s denomination. Half of the Oromos, in addition to smaller ethnic groups, such as Benishangul, are Muslims. The south, made up of a large number of small ethnic groups, are Protestants.
Following years of prosperity, between 2003 and 2012, Ethiopia’s economic conditions worsened, according to government reports. Locust attacks resulted in a decrease in staple crops, increasing fears concerning already fragile food security.
Ethiopia is mired in conflicts with its neighbours due to the dams it is constructing on transboundary rivers, such as Juba and Shabelle with Somalia, the Omo with Kenya, in addition to complicated negotiations with Egypt and Sudan over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.
Eritrea, that accepted the Ethiopian peace initiative for which Ahmed was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year, is complaining that the deal didn’t bring back the lands it has been claiming for a quarter century; nor did it raise bilateral trade to “an acceptable level”.
“The man of peace in the Horn of Africa” is facing an unprecedented crisis in his short rule. He may, after all, become “a symbol of civil war”.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly