Ethiopia’s historical town of Lalibela is back under the control of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), only days after it was captured by forces loyal to the government, adding more fuel to the fire that has engulfed the country for more than a year.
Situated in the Amhara region, Lalibela is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with 11 mediaeval monolithic churches carved out of rock. It is a Mecca for Ethiopian Orthodox Christians and an attraction for local and global tourists.
The TPLF had seized Lalibela in August, before the government recaptured it in early December.
From June to October, the TPLF made several advances, taking over a number of towns and cities in the neighbouring Amhara region to the west and southwest.
The front that has been engaged in conflict with the government since November 2020 took over the highway connecting Mekele, Tigray’s capital, and Addis Ababa as well as the towns and cities of Waldia, Kombolcha and Disi, where the 1983-1984 famine that paved the way to the overthrow of the regime of Communist Colonel Mengistu Hailemariam took place.
In October, a coalition of armed opposition movements announced the possibility of advancing towards the capital, Addis Ababa. The government responded by declaring a state of emergency and calling on residents of the capital to register their weapons in preparation for the defence of the city of five million residents.
It is no secret that marching on the Ethiopian capital at present would be extremely complicated. The majority of Addis Ababa’s inhabitants hail from the Amhara. They are loyal to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and will volunteer to fight alongside local militias in the war against the Tigray.
In November, Ahmed declared his intention to lead the troops on the battleground. Days after he arrived at the battlefield the state-owned television aired videos of Ahmed in military uniform announcing the government has retrieved a number of cities and towns from the TFLP.
By the end of the first week of December, Ahmed’s office declared he was back to his usual tasks after achieving “victories”.
However, when the TFLP took over Lalibela from the militias loyal to the government, Ahmed’s office tweeted that he was back on the frontline, where he said his forces took back towns and cities on the way to Mikele in the north, while the TFLP announced it took over several towns and cities in the course of its advance south to Addis Ababa.
Before Lalibela returned to the hands of the TFLP, the government had made a statement to activate the National Dialogue Committee, an initiative launched in August to counter the Tigray’s advances. The work of the committee had been frozen since its formation in October.
Ali Mohsen, a professor of the Amharic language, told Al-Ahram Weekly that “it is difficult to activate the committee following the devastating war and hostile statements.”
More than 40,000 people died in the past year due to the war, while two million people fled their homes. There is systematic starvation, rendering the current famine man-made, in the words of a report issued by the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in the US.
Facebook has removed a post by Ethiopia’s prime minister for “inciting violence”. Ahmed had said at the military’s headquarters in Addis Ababa: “The pit which is dug will be very deep, it will be where the enemy is buried, not where Ethiopia disintegrates… We will bury this enemy with our blood and bones.”
Immediately after Ahmed’s statement, his media attempted to justify his words, saying he was speaking about the TPLF, not the Tigray ethnic group. Rights groups, however, say that the government arrested hundreds, if not thousands, of Tigrayans living in the capital. The government has repeatedly denied the claim.
Ethiopia’s humanitarian conditions are plummeting, especially in Tigray. UN bodies reported that more than nine million Ethiopians are in need of humanitarian aid.
UN reports say the deteriorating situation in Ethiopia, the second most populous country in Africa with 110 million people, could endanger the country with the “largest famine” in the world, reminiscent of the early 1970s famines that toppled emperor Haile Selassie and the 1983-1984 famine.
Ethiopia has seen many other famines on a smaller scale, such as in 2003 when 13 million people suffered from hunger due to drought. In the past few years, the country has been attacked by swarms of locusts that destroyed the crops and heavy rains led to the depletion of harvests, severely affecting the country’s fragile food security situation.
The country looks to be on the threshold of a military standstill; the forces loyal to the government will not be able to storm the barricaded Tigray region and its capital Mekele.
“Tigray is the region that suffered all of Ethiopia’s famines in the past decades. It resisted the first Italian attempt to occupy the country in Adwa, north Tigray,” said Mohsen.
The Tigrayans are the group that contributed the most to fighting the fascist Italian occupation in the 1930s and they rebelled against the emperor despite the famine and then against Hailemariam until his overthrow in 1991, said Mohsen.
On the other hand, it is difficult for the TFLP to take Addis Ababa as it did in May 1991.
At present, the front is fighting against the Amhara, Afar, and Oromo, not against the country’s army which collapsed when the Tigrayan officers, who constituted one-third of the officers in the line, were fired. Now these officers are fighting alongside the armed opposition, according to Alex de Waal, professor of East African Studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.
Moreover, Ahmed is popular among the Amhara who have volunteered to fight against the Tigrayans and on the side of the Afar and the Oromo despite their fragile alliance due to fears on the part of other ethnicities of a return of full control to the Amhara, as was the case prior to 1991.
The Tigrayans are the only force capable of fighting against the government and its allies. The Oromos, despite being the largest ethnic group, are divided between Muslims and Christians, and people loyal to Ahmed – who has Oromo father and an Amharic mother – and the opposition.
“Also remaining is the Eritrean factor. Eritrea stood by the Tigrayans’ side in the 1970s and 1980s but now they are archenemies,” said Mohsen.
This stalemate increases the threats of famine and the involvement of neighbouring countries in the conflict, spreading more concerns about the Civil War turning into a regional conflict.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 December, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.