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Ethiopia’s Stunning Battlefield Reversal

· 6 min read
Ethiopia’s Stunning Battlefield Reversal
A member of the Afar Special Forces stands in front of the debris of a house in the outskirts of the village of Bisober, Tigray Region, Ethiopia, on December 9th, 2020. (Photo by EDUARDO SOTERAS/AFP via Getty Images)

A year is a long time during warfare, and the Tigray conflict that began last November has now been flipped on its head. Not many observers saw the current scenario coming. The world’s recurring tendency to forget Ethiopia, noted by the eminent 18th-century British historian Edward Gibbon, has reasserted itself. Now the media are rushing to catch up with the changing tide of battle.

After months of political tension steeped in decades of rancour, rivalry, corruption, and jealousy, a speedy advance into Ethiopia’s northern-most Tigray region last November by the federal forces of the Ethiopian government led to the rapid capture of major Tigray cities. Before the month was out, the regional capital Mekelle had fallen to the government. On November 27th, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared victory in the civil conflict. But the routed forces of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) did not give up. In a stunning reversal of fortunes, this November has begun with Ethiopia’s cabinet declaring a national state of emergency. The citizens of the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, are now being told to arm themselves and prepare to defend their city.


Tigrayan forces have advanced south into the neighbouring Amhara region and reportedly captured Dessie and Kombolcha, some 250 miles north of Addis, although the government claims its soldiers are still battling for control there. Because Tigray and much of northern Ethiopia is under a communications blackout, with severely restricted access for journalists, verification of battlefield claims is difficult. However, if Dessie has indeed fallen, it is an especially notable development. It is seen as the gateway to Addis Ababa, and the BBC reports that the battle for control of the city was among “the most ferocious in the war.” I remember taking buses between the two cities. It was a good route by Ethiopia’s usually arduous travel standards, and it didn’t take long to cover the distance.

The National Movement of Amhara (NaMA) is mobilising communities to halt the advance and distributing aid to those displaced by the advancing front. “There are two options,” Tewodros Hailemariam, a senior NaMA member told the BBC. “Either the TPLF is defeated and the Ethiopian central government is saved. Or the worst-case scenario is that the TPLF rules and controls Addis Ababa and then there will be civil war in the entire nation.”

The government, however, is not just up against the TPLF. Fighting alongside the Tigrayan forces is the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), an outlawed armed group from Oromia, the country's most populous region. History seems to be repeating itself, echoing events in 1991 when Tigrayan forces led another revolutionary coalition of rebel groups that advanced on Addis and successfully overthrew the communist government of Mengistu Haile Mariam. Except this time the rebels are set to overthrow a Nobel Peace Prize winner. The West's man looks to be in big trouble, as do millions of innocent Ethiopians caught up in the political feuding.

The dreadful fallout of this year-long conflict—extrajudicial killings, millions displaced, the risk of famine—that I wrote about for Quillette in March hasn’t abated. In addition to the communication blackout of Tigray, a logistic blockade since June has cut off humanitarian relief and commercial access. Hundreds of thousands of Tigrayans are facing the threat of famine, according to the United Nations, in addition to the thousands who have already lost their lives to the conflict. It’s estimated that two million Ethiopians—primarily Tigrayans—have fled their homes.

“We have consistently condemned the TPLF expansion of the war outside Tigray and we continue to call on the TPLF to withdraw from Afar and Amhara,” said US Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa Jeffrey Feltman during a recent press conference. “The expansion of the war, however, is as predictable as [it is] unacceptable, given that the Ethiopian government began cutting off humanitarian relief and commercial access to Tigray in June, which continues to [this day] despite horrifying conditions of reported widespread famine.” The US government has announced that it will revoke trade privileges, such as duty-free access to Ethiopian exports, due to “gross violations of internationally recognized human rights.” This move deals a new blow to Ethiopia’s economy, which is already reeling from the growing cost of the war and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

All the while, the conflict has been inflamed by rhetoric on all sides inciting ethnic violence and hatred. Now with its back to the wall, the Ethiopian government and its Nobel laureate prime minister are likewise upping the rhetorical ante against Tigray and (implicitly) its inhabitants. Reports are emerging of Tigrayans being rounded up and arrested by police in raids on homes, cafes, and bars in the capital. Facebook has just removed a post from the prime minister for violating its policies against inciting violence. In his call to citizens to mobilise, he declared: “We will bury this enemy with our blood and bones and make the glory of Ethiopia high again.”

Notwithstanding this decision, the recent release of documents by Frances Haugen has revealed that Facebook turned a blind eye as its platform was used by various armed groups to incite violence against ethnic minorities despite reports of massacres and extrajudicial killings. Even before the conflict began, ordinary Tigrayans were highly vulnerable to ethnic-based agitation. Making up only six percent of the country’s population, they have long been blamed by association for the crimes of the TPLF. After the 1991 revolution established the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, the TPLF dominated an increasingly authoritarian and cruel regime, until Abiy Ahmed came to power in 2018 and set about dismantling the TPLF’s hegemony. The jubilation that initially greeted Abiy’s much-needed reforms appears increasingly distant and moot at this point. He and his government are rapidly losing credibility among Ethiopians and are increasingly considered to be as corrupt and deceitful as their predecessors. One Addis Ababa resident told me that the current government is so dismal that even the TPLF and OLF would be preferable.

The UN Security Council was called upon to weigh in long ago, when Ethiopia’s conflict was limited to Tigray’s borders. It didn’t, which is why I am now writing many of the same things I wrote back when Tigray was on the ropes. What happens in Africa’s second most populous country should matter to the rest of us, not least because its enormous population—estimated at over 110 million—has already suffered so many horrors. However, it should also matter because of Ethiopia’s special place in the world’s consciousness as a talisman for international development and hope after its famine-stricken image seared itself into the collective global memory. All of that—along with the implicit huge scale of human tragedy—could be on the line.

Can Abiy hold on? Are the TPLF bluffing and strategically positioning forces close to Addis Ababa to force the government to concede? Some commentators have suggested that the TPLF, which initially attempted to open negotiations, will not back down now that it has the upper hand militarily and can smell victory. According to Al Jazeera, in a recent interview on Tigrai TV, Tsadkan Gebretensae, a former army general and key figure in the Tigrayan command, “appeared to suggest that his forces would no longer settle for a mediated settlement.”

William Davison, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, is also sceptical. “I don't think the simple calls for negotiations, and asking the Tigray forces to stop their advance are going to work at this point,” he said in an interview with CNN. “They have a lot of momentum, they have clear goals here. And I think what is needed is for the prime minister and his allies to recognize the reality of this situation and for the country's best interest to try to make some form of concessions to the Tigray forces so they at least freeze their advance outside the capital.”

Increasingly, the fate of this previous developmental success story and its long-suffering people appears to lie in the stand-off between, and in the psychology of, Ethiopia’s increasingly mercurial and obstinate prime minister and the equally stubborn TPLF leaders—two sides who couldn’t detest each other much more by this stage. In 1991, the overthrow of the government was followed by a period of relative stability as different factions united. But if the government falls to the TPLF forces now, Davison warns that continuing resistance and intercommunal violence is more likely.

The chances of a solution are slim, and the international community don’t appear to be able to do much about it. However, Davison believes that a collective effort and message might achieve something. “It's important to place pressure on the Tigray forces to show restraint here because of the potential for violence with a push to Addis Ababa,” he says. “But the reality is if some of their demands aren't met, they are going to keep maximising pressure, they are going to keep pushing forward as they have done successfully since July.”

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