By Jean Damascene Hakuzimana

The armed conflict between the Ethiopian federal government and the Tigray Region has taken on a different tone in recent days. Amnesty International reports the killings on the night of November 9 of dozens, and possibly hundreds of ethnic Amhara living in the town of Mai-Kadra in the Tigray region. The perpetrators have not been identified, however the United Nations suggests that possible war crimes have been committed and says that 14,000 people have crossed the border between Ethiopia and Sudan to take refuge in Sudan. Anxiety is mounting both within and outside Ethiopia that the conflict will escalate even further, and  spiral out of control, with catastrophic consequences for the Horn of Africa.Tensions have been high in Ethiopia since leaders in Tigray ignored Prime Minister Abiy’s ruling in September postponing regional elections because of the pandemic. The federal government declared the vote in Tigray illegitimate and withheld funding to the area in retaliation. 

On November 4, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered military operations against its northern Tigray Region, which borders the country of Eritrea. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed described the strikes as counterattacks, staged in retaliation for killings of federal troops on November 3 after Tigray’s army reputedly attacked federal troops in the region. Without presenting evidence, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed accused forces loyal to Tigray’s regional government of responsibility for the killings. The Telegraph reported that around 100 government soldiers were treated for gun wounds after the November 3 operation, while graver cases were rushed by ambulance to health care facilities in the region of Gondar. The government declared a state of emergency in Tigray. In a bid to seize control and delegitimize the leadership currently in place, federal lawmakers approved the formation of an interim government in Tigray.  

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has rejected dialogue and de-escalation maneuvers and instead sought to neutralize Tigray’s government, according to the Associated Press. Ethiopians in the Diaspora are deeply concerned – telecommunication in the Tigray region has been cut, and they are finding it hard to reach loved ones back home, or verify reports of fighting.The strikes by the federal government against Tigray’s missile and heavy weapons storage facilities around the regional capital of Mekelle marked a dramatic escalation of a long-simmering internal dispute. 

In the 1970s, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), along with other armed factions, rallied together to bring down the brutal regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam, whom they finally overthrew in the 1990s. One faction, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), then proclaimed the independence of Eritrea. Meanwhile, the Tigray People’s Liberation Army took on leadership of the remaining coalition, and its leader, Meres Zenawi, became prime minister of Ethiopia, a position he held for 20 years. While in power, the Tigray-led government sidelined other ethnic groups, which stoked unrest against the government, and paved the way for Abiy Ahmed, an ethnic Oromo, to climb to power in 2018.

Al Jazeera reports that the Tigray region’s leaders began feuding with Abiy Ahmed’s government as soon as he became president. They accused him of sidelining them, while befriending Eritrea’s leadership, and in fact, after his ascension to power, Prime Minister Abiy cracked down on leaders in top positions, the majority of whom were from Tigray, accusing them of corruption.  Tigray suspects that the move to normalize relations between Abiy’s government and Eritrea is a way to control them. After the airstrikes by the federal government, Tigray shut down its airspace and blocked road access to the region. The TPLF seized the federal military facility of the Northern Command, an act that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed called “crossing a red line.”

Ethiopia is facing many challenges right now in addition to the tension with Tigray, among them COVID-19 and a major dispute with Egypt over the Nile River. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 after his efforts to mediate the crisis in Sudan, South Sudan, Djibouti, Kenya, and Somalia. Now his lauded ability to ease tensions is much needed in his own country, and the whole continent is watching to see what he will do.