by Jean Damascène Hakuzimana
Tensions between the federal government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia and leaders of the country’s northern Tigray Region have built steadily over a period of years, and in early November those tensions boiled over. On November 4, Prime Minister Abiy ordered military operations against Tigray’s missile and heavy weapons storage facilities around the regional capital of Mekelle. The prime minister described the strikes as counterattacks, staged in retaliation for alleged killings of federal troops on November 3 by Tigray’s army. The Telegraph reported that around 100 government soldiers were treated on site for gunshot wounds after the November 3 operation, while graver cases were rushed by ambulance to health care facilities in the region of Gondar.
September marked an escalation of the long-simmering internal dispute, when the Tigray leaders ignored the prime minister’s ruling that postponed regional elections – the reason cited for the postponement was the pandemic – and held them anyhow. The attacks in early November have since devolved into full-fledged fighting between the Ethiopian Federal Army and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). At least 30,000 people have now fled the region to seek refuge in Sudan, and the United Nations has declared the situation a full-scale humanitarian crisis and is making plans to accommodate a possible 200,000 refugees. According to Amnesty International, a massacre took place in Mai-Kadra in the South West Zone of Ethiopia’s Tigray Region on the night of November 9, during which at least 500 civilians were killed by knife and machete. Responsibility for the massacre has not been determined. Anxiety is high both within and outside Ethiopia that the conflict will escalate even further, potentially with catastrophic consequences for the Horn of Africa.
To date, neither side in the conflict shows signs of backing down. On the contrary, in a move apparently designed to destabilize the Tigray Region’s leadership, Abiy has ordered attacks to continue. And on their side, Tigray forces have fired missiles on neighboring Eritrea, accusing them of supporting the federal government. In an unusual move, Ethiopia army chief has accused the World Health Organization’s Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus of backing Tigray forces, a region he is from. He has denied these allegations. Dozens of U.S. senators have written to the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, urging him to pressure Ethiopia to de-escalate the conflict. 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.
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’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. Leaders in Tigray suspect 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 Abiy 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.