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Ethiopia's war against its Tigray region may spread beyond existing borders

Ethiopians call for the end of the government's military actions in the northern Tigray region in front of the US State Department in Washington, DC, on 9 November 2020. [NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images]
Ethiopians call for the end of the government's military actions in the northern Tigray region in front of the US State Department in Washington, DC, on 9 November 2020. [NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images]

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced an unprecedented military order on 4 November to confront the government of the semi-autonomous Tigray state in northern Ethiopia. Abiy has done this despite reassuring Ethiopians on more than one occasion that force will not be used in the dispute with Tigray.

Last week, the Ethiopian parliament imposed a state of emergency in Tigray. In a subsequent session it then voted against the legitimacy of the regional government, which withdrew its MPs earlier due to the end of the parliamentary term on 5 October.

The current fighting between the federal government led by Abiy Ahmed and the Tigray government was preceded by a media and political battle two years ago when Abiy got enough votes from the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition, which was led by the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), to succeed Hailemariam Desalegn as prime minister. He had resigned from the post under the weight of popular protests led by the Oromia region.

There was a smooth transition and Abiy came to power with the understanding not to pursue the people of the Tigray region who controlled Ethiopia for a quarter of a century within the EPRDF coalition, after the fall of the Derg regime in 1991. However, from the day he took office the new prime minister began to strengthen the pillars of his regime and purged the security and military institutions of officials from Tigray and prosecuted some civilians on corruption charges. Observers believe that this breached the understanding between the former and current leaderships.

The dispute became public after the re-establishment of relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea; territory disputed between the two countries lies within the Tigray region. Meanwhile, the Eritrean president distinguished between Ethiopia and Tigray in his media interviews as he sought to improve his relationship with the federal government in Addis Ababa and express hostility towards the government of Tigray. This had a negative effect on the relationship between Tigray and Prime Minister Abiy, whom the Tigrayans accuse of allying with Eritrea to crack down on the region.

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Abiy seeks to get rid of the legacy of the EPRDF coalition which ruled for nearly three decades and handed authority to him. He established the Prosperity Party on its ruins, and proposed a book of his own vision of governance, which many Ethiopians see as a snub to the existing ethnically-based federal system.

He faces strong opposition not only from Tigray, but also from his own Oromia people. Those who oppose this suggest that it paves the way for a central state that will bring the Amhara nation back into power. They ruled Ethiopia in the 20th century and their persecution and marginalisation of the Ethiopian peoples led to a revolt.

Ethiopians call for the end of the government's military actions in the northern Tigray region in front of the US State Department in Washington, DC, on 9 November 2020. [NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images]

Ethiopians call for the end of the government's military actions in the northern Tigray region in front of the US State Department in Washington, DC, on 9 November 2020. [NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images]

The confrontation intensified after Tigray's refusal to postpone its elections which were held in September, in defiance of the federal government's decision to delay them; the TPLF won. However, the federal government then imposed punitive measures against the regional government, including a budget cut, which the Tigrayans regarded as an act of war.

The fighting continues in Tigray, where the Ethiopian Air Force has bombed a number of sites near Mek'ele, the regional capital. In a televised speech, Abiy announced that the campaign had achieved its interim goal, which was to neutralise the regional government's heavy weapons, some of which have a range of 300 km, but he did not announce the end of the military campaign.

The outcome of this is unclear. It is certainly not a walk in the park, as the Ethiopian deputy chief of staff has made clear. The flames will be difficult to extinguish unless the two sides declare a ceasefire and speak to each other.

It may have been the plan to wrap the issue up in six weeks, which is the length of the state of emergency declared by parliament, but the reality of the forces on the ground suggests otherwise. The head of the regional government confirmed two days before the start of the military campaign that Tigray will be a graveyard for those aspiring to overpower the Tigrayans, and the region is ready to confront any military action against it. More than one official has also expressed Tigray's readiness for any confrontation on two fronts: against the federal government as well as Eritrea.

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Tigray's military strength should not be underestimated. While Abiy announced the destruction of heavy weapons in the region, the latter said that it possessed advanced weapons, and that it has access to the Northern Command of the Ethiopian Army, which has, it is claimed, allied itself with Tigray. The Northern Command is the strike force of the national army. Abiy must have taken this into account, because he worked as an army liaison officer during the Eritrean-Ethiopian war (1998-2000), but perhaps he counted on placing Tigray under siege from all sides.

The indications are that the war will be prolonged despite Tigray's scarce resources and the closure of the borders with its neighbours, because both sides have promised themselves victory. Tigray is betting on its internal unity and history in facing harsh conditions; it fought and won a war in the most difficult circumstances in the mid-1980s. However, it hopes that efforts to defuse the situation will succeed before the fighting consumes everything and Ethiopia experiences armed conflict in all its regions, not only in the north; there are already several hotspots. Eritrea, meanwhile, is on high alert in expectation of the conflict spilling over the border. According to the leader of Tigray, it may go even further than this.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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