The anniversary of Ethiopia’s brutal and expanding conflict finds the country in a seemingly inescapable quagmire.
People ride a bus going to a temporary shelter in eastern Sudan near the Sudanese-Ethiopian border on December 1, 2020. The yearlong Tigray conflict has displaced more than two million people [File: Nariman El-Mofty/AP Photo]
On November 4, 2020, the Ethiopian military was deployed to Tigray to squash forces loyal to the northern region’s governing party, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), in response to what the government said was an attack on federal army camps.
The operation was meant to be swift but a year later, the conflict has expanded beyond the region’s frontiers, causing a full-blown humanitarian crisis and leaving the country in a seemingly inescapable quagmire as the rebels claim to have made advances towards the capital, Addis Ababa.
Since hostilities began, there have been mass rapes and massacres of civilians on a large scale. As far back as January, aid agencies were sounding alarms about how much worse the situation could get. Continued fighting, bureaucratic hurdles and aid blockades have since led to a continuing famine affecting hundreds of thousands of people. More than two million people have been displaced from their homes and tens of thousands more have died.
The declaration of a nationwide state of emergency by the federal government on Tuesday has triggered fears of more instability. The United States embassy in Addis Ababa has also issued a travel advisory, warning its citizens to avoid travel to Ethiopia.
“The conflict had been portrayed as a law enforcement operation that would last a few weeks,” said Awet Weldemichael, a Horn of Africa security expert and history professor at Queen’s University, Ontario. “A year later, we’ve since seen it degenerate into a brutal war to crush and erode Tigray, and where talk of elimination of entire ethnic groups has been normalised.”
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed had declared the war over on November 28, after federal forces captured Tigray’s capital, Mekelle. Basking in the triumph and clad in camouflage and a red military beret, the Nobel Peace Prize winner travelled to the city a few weeks later to congratulate a gathering of his military commanders.
But the victory lap turned out to be premature. Within months, the tide of war turned and Tigrayan forces eventually regained most of the territory they lost and continued to launch counteroffensives in the neighbouring Amhara and Afar regions.
Allied fighters from the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), at war with the Ethiopian army in the Oromia region since 2019, now openly patrol entire districts in the region and have reportedly threatened to march on Addis Ababa.
“Amhara special forces launched counteroffensives on our positions in Kemise, but we repulsed them,” Odaa Tarbii, spokesman for the OLA, told Al Jazeera on Wednesday. “With regards to the transition, OLA and its allies will work on stabilising the country to avoid possible chaos.”
Such chaos was once considered a thing of the past in Africa’s second most-populous country, long considered a beacon of stability in the region but now threatened to be engulfed by fighting across expanding territory – a stunning fall of grace for Abiy, two years after a Nobel Peace Prize coronation that won him praise and adulation.
Meanwhile, many towns and villages in the country’s north remain inaccessible to aid agencies, even as food and medical supplies continue to dwindle amid alarming reports of widespread human rights abuses and starvation deaths.
“On many aspects of state functionality, the Ethiopian state has partially collapsed,” Awet said. “When a state fails to deliver basic services to people, it is either a failed or a failing state. Unfortunately, this is where Ethiopia currently finds itself.”
Despite rebels making advances on multiple frontiers and the repulsion of an Ethiopian aerial and ground offensive launched in the Amhara region last month, the Ethiopian government continues to rebuff calls by the US, Russia and the European Union, among others, for dialogue.
Instead, Addis Ababa has intensified a mass army recruitment drive and is hoping that a reported shopping-spree acquisition of an arsenal of drones and other weapons, as well as an inflow of Eritrean troops made available by close ally President Isaias Afwerki, could give them an edge.
“Our people must put all issues to the side, formally enroll [in the armed forces] and march to defeat and bury the TPLF terrorist who has come to destroy,” tweeted Abiy in a rallying call on Sunday. “I call on all of us to unite without hesitation and defend Ethiopia.”
The message came shortly after reported losses suffered during the weekend, at the most recent epicentre of fighting, in and around the strategic Amhara city of Dessie, 400km (250 miles) northeast of Addis Ababa. Tigrayan forces claimed to have captured Dessie, as well as the neighbouring town of Kombolcha which bisects the Addis Ababa road to neighbouring Djibouti.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he was “alarmed” about reports of the capture of both towns and urged the Tigrayans to halt their advance.
But the gains appear to have emboldened Tigrayan forces. For months, Tigrayan officials, who say the reported attack on federal camps a year ago was a ploy for a “coordinated” assault on Tigray, maintained that negotiations were the only way to end the conflict. But in comments made during an interview on Monday with the regional Tigrai TV, Tigrayan commander General Tsadkan Gebretensae appeared to suggest that his forces would no longer settle for a mediated settlement.
“They aren’t giving us other options but to finish this on the battlefield,” Tsadkan said. “This government plunged the country into the abyss. We need to start asking what negotiations with this government would even lead to.”
For long periods of the war, allegations of human rights abuses were routinely dismissed as fabrication by the Ethiopian government, which for months even denied the presence of Eritrean soldiers. Barred from reporting in the region, news agencies and rights organisations resorted to using interviews, satellite imagery and geolocated footage to authenticate accounts of mass killings of civilians in towns and cities such as Mai Kadra, Axum and Adigrat.
Gruesome footage of atrocities, such as the videotaped Mahbere Dego massacre, heartbreaking images of starving children and gut-wrenching testimony of rape victims have provoked widespread condemnation. The rebels have also been accused of carrying out atrocities in the Amhara region, including the September massacre of more than 100 civilians in the village of Chenna.
The US has announced sanctions against Ethiopia, Eritrea and the TPLF for their part in the war and President Joe Biden made it clear that additional measures were being considered.
Meanwhile, widespread brutality and inciteful rhetoric on broadcast and social media have worsened ethnic tensions, with war also bringing about economic devastation, including skyrocketing inflation and high living costs.
But many say the Tigrayan conflict also mirrors Ethiopia’s last civil war that saw a rebel coalition, which coincidentally included the TPLF, wage a years-long campaign against the communist government of Mengistu Hailemariam.
Mengistu was similarly accused of wielding hunger as a weapon and contributing to the “Biblical famine” of 1984, which may have led to as many as a million starvation deaths. By 1991, rapid gains by the rebels eventually led to the overthrow of Mengistu’s government and forced him into exile in Harare.
But the crucial difference between both conflicts is that the current set of advancing fighters have different goals from those of the previous generation, said Mehari Taddele, professor of trasnational governance and migration policy at the European University Institute in Florence.
“For many observers, in 1991 there was significant political consensus and military propensity to take over Addis Ababa and establish a provisional government, which is not necessarily the case now.”
On Thursday, regional countries and international powers stepped up efforts to calm the situation as calls for an immediate ceasefire intensified.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni announced a meeting of the East African bloc the Intergovernmental Authority on Development on November 16 to discuss the worsening conflict, while the European Union reiterated that there was “no military solution” and the US sent special envoy Jeffrey Feltman to Ethiopia for talks.
But with mediation efforts so far failing to gain traction and neither side showing any sign of backing down, it remains to be seen if the international community could arrange negotiations and a settlement, averting a seemingly imminent assault on Addis Ababa.