Ethiopia: What after Mekelle falls?

Attia Essawi , Wednesday 2 Dec 2020

Abiy Ahmed’s military push in Tigray may have been successful in the short term, but resolving the conflict will take negotiations, else Ethiopia could be torn apart

Tigray conflict
Ethiopians who have just crossed a river from Ethiopia to Sudan to flee from the Tigray region, walk towards the Hamdeyat refugees transit camp, which houses refugees fleeing the fighting, on the border in Sudan, December 1, 2020. REUTERS

Although the Ethiopian government announced that federal troops had taken over the capital of the northern region of Tigray, and that military operations were complete, regional diplomats and experts have warned that a military victory might not end the conflict. Some observers said that even if the Ethiopian military gains the upper hand, the conflict would not end without proper negotiations between the two sides.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said Saturday that federal troops had taken control of the Tigrayan capital Mekelle within hours of launching an offensive there, laying to rest fears of protracted fighting in the city of 500,000 people.

However, Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) leader Debretsion Gebremichael told Reuters in a text message on the same day that its forces would fight on. “We have prepared our army, our militia and our special force. Their (the Ethiopian government) brutality can only add [to] our resolve to fight these invaders to the last,” he added. “This is about defending our right to self-determination,” he said.

The International Crisis Group (ICG), a non-governmental organisation that focuses on conflict prevention, said the TPLF seized an array of weapons, including rockets and missiles, though the Ethiopian military still has considerable air power, including fighter jets and helicopter gunships.

An ICG Ethiopia analyst has said the TPLF may be able to call on more than 200,000 fighters, from militias in villages to special forces in the regional government. “Because of the changed political dynamics over the last two years, there has been significant recruitment and training in Tigray,” he told the BBC.

“The TPLF could be preparing to return to the mountains to launch a guerrilla war against the federal government,” another expert said, adding that many Tigrayan fighters may eventually retreat to villages and surrounding mountains to prepare for a guerrilla war that could receive significant public support.

The ICG does not give an estimate of the strength of the Ethiopian military, but Reuters quotes the Janes security data group as saying that it has around 140,000 active personnel, most of them in the army.

If these estimates are correct, the Ethiopian military may have fewer soldiers than the TPLF, but it can bolster its numbers by drawing on the special forces of other regional governments, according to experts. Ethiopian law allows each of them to have  paramilitary units to provide security within their territory.

The TPLF cannot sustain a conventional war, but that doesn’t mean that federal forces will have the quick victory they hope for, one expert said. Unlike flat areas in the west, giving a conventional army more advantage, the terrain in the “core” of Tigray, around cities in the east, like Mekelle, is rugged and mountainous, making it more conducive to guerrilla warfare, he added.

Indeed, the TPLF has a history of guerrilla resistance. Tigray’s mountainous terrain and borders with Sudan and Eritrea helped it during its long struggle against Marxist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, whom it eventually toppled in 1991.

Thousands of people are believed to have been killed and nearly 44,000 have fled to Sudan since the fighting began 4 November. The flow of refugees and attacks by the TPLF on neighbouring Eritrea have also threatened to destabilise the wider Horn of Africa region.

The Ethiopian government has rejected African mediation efforts and said that the three envoys sent by the African Union to discuss the conflict will not be allowed to visit Tigray.

It described the conflict as a “law-enforcement operation” against a “clique” intent on destroying Ethiopia’s constitutional order.

Earlier, the President of South Africa Cyril Ramaphosa, who currently holds the rotating chair of the African Union, announced that the envoys would travel to Ethiopia to “create conditions for an open national dialogue to resolve the issues that led to the conflict”.

The fighting in Tigray may not only have drastic implications for the future of the country but could also seriously affect its neighbours. The International Crisis Group says that unless the conflict is urgently stopped, it “will be devastating not just for the country but for the entire Horn of Africa”.

Internally, forces in Tigray fired missiles at the cities of Bahir Dar and Gondar in the neighbouring state of Amhara in retaliation for armed men standing alongside federal forces.

Special forces from the Amhara regional government  — which has a long-running land dispute with Tigray — helped federal troops secure territory in western Tigray when the conflict started, according to TPLF leadership accusations.

Almost 250 people have been arrested in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, on suspicion of plotting to orchestrate chaos in support of Tigrayan forces, state media reports. This may aggravate the desire for retaliation.

Some argue that the conflict could weaken the Ethiopian state, which could have damaging regional consequences, with other groups in the multi-ethnic country emboldened to take on the central government. 

Ethiopia was already suffering from ethnic divisions and major economic crises when Abiy Ahmed assumed power two years ago. In 2017, more than a million Ethiopians were forced to flee due to ethnic and other conflicts related to drought and a great shortage of food and services in some areas.

Abiy faced a test when nearly 240 people were killed in violence and protests that erupted in July over the killing of folk singer Hashalo Hondisa, whom many members of the Oromo ethnicity to which Abiy belongs regarded as a voice for their suffering and marginalisation.

Early this month, armed men from the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) Shane group killed 60 people and torched more than 20 houses in a raid in Amhara, in western Ethiopia.

Some observers understand that Prime Minister Abiy needed to bring Tigray back in line with the federal government to avoid a situation where other regions could follow its example.

The TPLF had previously made veiled threats of secession, citing an article in the federal constitution which allows the “unconditional right to self-determination, including the right to secession”.

One of these groups — the Sidama — voted to have their own federal state last year.

Regionally, there is a long-standing rift between the TPLF and the government in Eritrea, which shares a long border with the Tigray region. Six explosions were reported in the Eritrean capital, Asmara, last Saturday, days after Tigrayan forces fired rockets at its outskirts on 14 November. The TPLF has accused Eritrea of sending troops to Tigray to join the Ethiopian government’s fight and it sees Asmara as a mortal enemy.

Several sources in Eritrea have told the BBC that Ethiopian troops have been crossing the border to regroup and to treat their wounded in military hospitals, though both governments deny Eritrean involvement in the conflict.

There is also a danger that the federal government’s focus on Tigray could weaken its involvement in backing the government in Somalia against Al-Shabab militants, an expert said.
Ethiopia has already withdrawn about 600 soldiers from Somalia’s western border. “If the situation deteriorates further and Mr Abiy is forced to pull out of Amisom, that would be catastrophic... it will create an opportunity for Al-Shabab to regrow and regroup again,” he said.

On the humanitarian side, about 600,000 people in Tigray — 10 per cent of the population — already rely on food aid, and across the country around seven million people face food shortages, the UN says.

An official at the UN High Commission for Refugees revealed that the agencies of the international organisation are preparing for the possibility of 200,000 refugees arriving in Sudan within six months, fleeing violence.

The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) warned that the conflict has left nearly 2.3 million children in urgent need of assistance, noting that thousands more are at risk in refugee camps.

The UN has also said that there are 96,000 Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia without clean water.

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

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