The TPLF was a “darling” of the West, especially the US and UK.
The two articles below should be read together, bearing in mind the sources. The first, by Horn of Africa scholar Fikrejesus Amahazion,is an historical background and analysis of the forces in play in Ethiopia and the region, written on Tuesday, November 17. The second article, published by the UK-based corporate newspaper The Guardian, on November 23, contains updates on the conflict and political reporting from the standpoint of western alliances and interests. – BAR editors
“For nearly three decades the TPLF was ‘top dog’ in Ethiopia and the West’s ‘local cop on the beat’ in the Horn of Africa.”
The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) is facing a “final and conclusive” offensive against it by Ethiopian federal forces. On Tuesday, November 17, Dr. Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, declared that, “The three-day ultimatum given to Tigray special forces and the militia to surrender to the national defence…ended today. Following the expiration of this deadline, the final critical act of law enforcement will be done in the coming days.” The dire situation that the TPLF now finds itself in reflects just how precipitous its fall from power has been.
Ethiopia is divided into ethnically-based states within a federal system. That system had long been ruled by a coalition of four parties, which was known as the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). The EPRDF was largely dominated by the Tigrayan minority (led by the TPLF), who make up approximately only 6% of the country’s total population of 110 million.
Despite its years of corrupt, authoritarian rule, as well as its illegal military invasions and foreign occupations of neighboring states, the TPLF was reserved a special place in the hearts of the international community. In particular, it was a “darling” of the West, especially the US and UK, regarded as a staunch ally against terrorism and a critical piece in promoting regional stability. Billions in assistance flowed to the regime, constituting more than a third of the country’s annual budget and making it one of the world’s largest recipients of foreign aid.
“The TPLF was regarded by the West as a staunch ally against terrorism and a critical piece in promoting regional stability.”
However, in 2015, large protests about land seizures and evictions, unemployment, torture and human rights abuses, widespread corruption, and economic and political marginalization quickly spread across Ethiopia and threatened to bring down the TPLF-led government. Thousands were killed or arrested, there was large-scale displacement, and the country was put under an extended nationwide state of emergency.
Additionally, although Ethiopia had been heralded as one of the top performing African economies, regularly posting impressive economic growth figures (albeit clouded by widespread skepticism about the validity of reported figures), it was also plagued by high levels of poverty and inequality, heavy foreign debt, rising inflation, a rapidly growing trade deficit, and a critical shortage of foreign currency, all of which put the economy in a perilous state.
It was against this backdrop of turmoil, mounting discontent, and widespread unrest, with the TPLF-led regime beginning to crumble, that Hailemariam Desalegn, who succeeded Meles Zenawi, resigned as prime minister in February 2018. Dr. Abiy Ahmed, then a relative unknown, was soon appointed as the new prime minister. With the pressing need for fundamental changes and dramatic reforms abundantly clear – even Desalegn acknowledged as much in his resignation letter – Abiy got down to work quickly. He loosened the state’s tight grip and control on the economy, privatizing key state-owned enterprises, pledged multi-party elections, publicly denounced the government’s use of torture and apologized for the killing of protestors, released thousands of prisoners and opposition leaders, and promoted reconciliation with exiled dissidents and critics.
“Abiy got down to work quickly.”
The PM’s wide-ranging reforms also extended to dramatically shift the country’s longstanding policy toward Eritrea, with Abiy announcing that Ethiopia would finally unconditionally accept and fully implement the UN-backed Eritrea Ethiopia Boundary Commission ruling of 2002 (which was part of the international binding agreement that ended their 1998-2000 war, but had been rejected by the TPLF).
Abiy has by no means been perfect since assuming leadership and his government has made many mistakes. A lot of his reforms have stalled, security forces have often been heavy-handed, and the government has often fallen back into its troubling old habits. However, the TPLF remained intransigent and obdurate. It has sought to stymie any efforts at peace, democratization, reform, and change. Feeling increasingly marginalized, as well as deeply bitter and resentful about its loss of power and control over looted state resources, the TPLF retreated to its base in Tigray. All the while, it worked to promote conflict, tension, and chaos, hoping that the instability and insecurity would hurt Abiy, prevent reforms, and allow the group to regain some of its former dominance. Over the past two years, the group has also been preparing for war, stockpiling weapons, and training militias (using funds that were actually to be for Tigray’s people and development).
“The TPLF remained intransigent and obdurate.”
After tensions between the TPLF and Abiy’s government had been simmering for some time, things finally boiled over earlier this month. On 4 November, PM Abiy ordered federal troops to launch an offensive against the TPLF. Described as a “law enforcement” measure, the offensive came after the TPLF attacked a large national military base in Tigray. Although many have pointed the finger at Abiy as instigating the latest conflict, senior TPLF officials have confessed that it was the group that first launched the attack on the national military base.
Since then, Ethiopia’s federal forces, along with the support of several regional forces, have been encircling Mekelle, capital of the Tigray region and headquarters of the TPLF. Although exact figures are difficult to verify, it is believed that hundreds have died in the ongoing conflict, while approximately 30,000 people have been forced to flee their homes for neighbouring Sudan. There have also been troubling reports of massacres and war crimes.
Probably in desperation, last Saturday evening the TPLF fired several missiles into neighboring Eritrea. The hope was that by doing so, Eritrea would be drawn into the conflict, thus internationalizing the situation and forcing outside intervention to bring it to an end. Eritrea, however, has exercised considerable restraint and not responded, while there has been a growing list of countries that have condemned the TPLF’s attack. Moreover, many of the TPLF’s longtime strongest allies now appear to be abandoning it (including the US).
For nearly three decades the TPLF was “top dog” in Ethiopia and the West’s “local cop on the beat” in the Horn of Africa. It was showered with praise, given billions of dollars, and provided with unlimited support, despite its many horrors. This week, however, those days seem but a distant memory. The TPLF is now increasingly encircled, heavily embattled, and largely alone.
Dr. Fikrejesus Amahazion, PhD is a Horn of Africa scholar focusing on African development, human rights and political economy.
Ethiopia: Tigray People “Ready to Die” as Leader Rejects Call to Surrender
PM Abiy Ahmed had set 72-hour deadline for Tigrayan forces to surrender or face offensive on Mekelle
by Jason Burke
“The army has threatened a ‘no mercy’ tank assault on the TPLF leadership.”
The leader of Ethiopia’s dissident Tigray region has said his people are “ready to die” defending their homeland, rejecting the prime minister’s Sunday night ultimatum that they surrender within 72 hours.
Abiy Ahmed launched a military campaign against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) on 4 November, accusing it of attacking two federal military camps in the northern region, and of defying and seeking to destabilise his government.
The federal army says its forces are within 37 miles (60km) of Mekelle, the Tigracy capital and the seat of the TPLF, ahead of a threatened bombardment of the city of half a million people.
Abiy – last year’s Nobel peace prize winner – on Sunday called on the TPLF to surrender peacefully within three days, saying they were “at a point of no return”.
The TPLF’s leader, Debretsion Gebremichael, claimed Abiy was trying to cover for setbacks his army had suffered against Tigrayan forces, and was issuing threats to buy time. “He doesn’t understand who we are. We are people of principle and ready to die in defense of our right to administer our region,” Debretsion told Agence France-Presse via WhatsApp on Monday.
On Tuesday, a spokesman for the Tigray forces said they had “completely destroyed” the army’s 21st mechanized division. There is no confirmation of the claim and government officials did not return calls seeking comment.
“The TPLF’s leader claimed Abiy was trying to cover for setbacks his army had suffered.”
A communications blackout in the region has made claims from both sides difficult to verify.
The conflict has killed hundreds so far and displaced many more. More than 40,000 refugees have crossed into neighboring Sudan and roads in Tigray are crowded with people escaping from the fighting.
Brig Gen Tesfaye Ayalew was quoted by the state-affiliated Fana Broadcasting Corporate as saying federal troops were “marching into Mekelle,” having captured key towns to the north and south.
The army has threatened a “no mercy” tank assault on the TPLF leadership in Mekelle, warning civilians to leave while they can.
The threat has prompted widespread concern, with human rights campaigners saying it could breach international legal codes.
“Treating a whole city as a military target would not only [be] unlawful, it could also be considered a form of collective punishment,” the Human Rights Watch researcher Laetitia Bader said.
Abiy has so far rejected efforts by the African Union and others to bring both sides to the negotiating table.
The US senator Chris Coons, a member of the Senate foreign relations and appropriations committees, spoke to Abiy on Monday, urging talks and reconciliation.
Over the weekend, the Ethiopian army broke through TPLF defensive positions on to the high plateau around Mekelle. Within days federal forces are expected to be within artillery range of the city.
Abiy has urged the people of Mekelle to side with the national army against the TPLF “in bringing this treasonous group to justice”.
Ethiopian officials describe the offensive in Tigray as a “law enforcement operation” aiming to remove rebel leaders and restore central authority in the region.
The TPLF says it is defending its legitimate rights under Ethiopia’s devolved constitutional system.
Observers point to growing evidence of an ethnic dimension to the conflict, pitting the Amhara people from the neighbouring province against long-time rivals, the Tigrayans.
With fighting having subsided in the west of Tigray, government officials are seeking to reimpose order in the strategically important town of Humera after ousting TPLF forces early in the war. The strategy appears to be to erase TPLF control partly by bringing administrators in from the neighboring Amhara region, a move that risks inflaming ethnic tensions.
“Abiy has urged the people of Mekelle to side with the national army against the TPLF.”
Throughout much of the west, federal soldiers are scarcely seen, with security being maintained by Amhara’s uniformed “special forces”. Civil servants have also arrived from Amhara to take over the administration of some Tigrayan towns and cities.
TPLF banners at checkpoints and in town squares in Humera have been replaced by the green, yellow and red imperial-era flag of Amhara nationalism.
The presence of Amhara flags, officials and soldiers will fuel fears of an occupation among Tigrayans, who are mired in a decades-old dispute over land that has, in the past, sparked violent clashes and continues to be a dangerous flashpoint.
Amnesty International documented a gruesome massacre in which “scores and likely hundreds” of people were stabbed and hacked to death in the south-western town of Mai-Kadra. Some reports suggest the victims were Amharans living in Tigray.
The UN security council will hold its first meeting on the conflict in Tigray on Tuesday, diplomatic sources said late on Monday. The virtual meeting would not be open to the public, they said, and it was not yet clear if a statement would be issued afterwards.
Jason Burke is the Africa correspondent of the Guardian, based in Johannesburg, and reporting from across the continent. In 20 years as a foreign correspondent, he has covered stories throughout the Middle East, Europe and South Asia. He has written extensively on Islamic extremism and, among numerous other conflicts, covered the wars of 2001 in Afghanistan and 2003 in Iraq. Jason is the author of four books, most recently The New Threat.
This article previously appeared in The Guardian.
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