GP Insights # 444, 29 November 2020
On 28 November, Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia's Prime Minister announced completing and ceasing the military operations in Tigray, as the army took full control of Mekelle, the regional capital. He has also stated that the focus would be to rebuild Tigray, provide humanitarian assistance and apprehend "the TPLF clique."
On 27 November, in his meeting with African Union envoys, Abiy rejected calls for dialogue with the leaders of Tigray. He said he would engage with representatives "operating legally" in the region; the statement reiterates Ethiopia's stance of not recognizing the elected regional government in Tigray.
On 26 November, Abiy ordered the Ethiopian military to move into Tigray's capital city, Mekelle, and urged civilians to stay indoors. The statement was a result of Tigray's defiance of the 72-hour ultimatum that Ahmed had proposed to the region to surrender. On 22 November, he warned that Tigray is "at the point of no return" and called for the region's surrender.
What is the background?
First, Tigray's resistance to the two ultimatums by Addis Ababa. Leaders of Tigray defied two deadlines issued after the current round of conflict began on 4 November. The first three-day deadline to surrender ended on 16 November. A week later, the Ethiopian government issued another three-day deadline which expired on 25 November. Chairman of the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) emphasized that surrendering was not an option and that Tigrayans would continue to fight. This is a reflection of the battle-hardened history of Tigray and its people; first, Tigray led the movement to overthrow the communist government in 1991 and second, they led the 1998 Ethiopia-Eritrea war and combated subsequent conflict which lasted till 2018. Currently, it is estimated that the Tigray military, along with local militia groups, has nearly 200,000 personnel, well equipped with arms.
Second, the TPLF's animosity towards the Ethiopian government. In March 2020, Ahmed postponed the national and regional elections scheduled for August 2020 to 2021 citing the COVID-19 pandemic. The current conflict began when Tigray defied this order and held its election in September 2020. The region refused to recognize the Ethiopian government as a legal entity; they cited that the government's tenure was over in August. The TPLFs approach to defy orders of the government can be traced to Ahmed's attempt to revamp the ethnic-based federal structure of governance, which was promulgated by the TPLF in 1991. In 2018, Ahmed came to power following protests by other ethnic groups against the then ruling TPLF-led coalition — Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). Ahmed restructured the coalition and formed the Prosperity Party. Members of the EPRDF, except TPLF, joined the new coalition. Ahmed adopted a broad nationalist approach of governance, leading to concerns that this would lead to diminishing powers of ethnic groups and regional autonomy.
Third, the uncertainty of developments in Tigray. Since Ethiopia has imposed a communications and road blockade on Tigray, information about the developments in the region is being communicated by the Ethiopian media or government. However, the TPLF has managed to contact media houses. He has refuted the Ethiopian government's claims of capturing territory or advancing into Mekelle. It is, therefore, impossible to verify the reality on the ground as both sides are issuing contradictory statements.
Fourth, violence and the humanitarian cost of the conflict. As mentioned above, information from the ground is not available. However, there are speculations that thousands have perished. As of 27 November, the number of Ethiopians who fled to Sudan crossed 43,000. The United Nations expects the number will reach 200,000 in the next six months. The UN has also warned of dwindling humanitarian aid and supply in Tigray and Sudan. Further, the conflict has paved the way for parallel conflicts between ethnic groups within Tigray. On 24 November, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission stated that a local Tigray group had massacred nearly 600 people belonging to the Amhara and Wolkait ethnic groups.
What does it mean?
The UN has earlier warned that if Ahmed launches the final offensive, it will lead to war crimes. Ahmed has been rejecting requests from regional organizations, neighbouring countries and the rest of the world to de-escalate the violence. Further, he declined offers of mediation, terming them an 'interference.'
It is difficult to ascertain the future course and the humanitarian losses the conflict would entail as neither the Ethiopian government nor the TPLF has an exit strategy in case of a protracted conflict. For example, even if Ethiopia succeeds in capturing Mekelle, it is unlikely that the TPLF will cease resistance. On 28 November, after Ahmed announced ceasing of operations in Tigray, the TPLF Chairman told the media that Tigray would continue fighting. Therefore, unless there is a dialogue between the two sides, the current political and military confrontation could transition into guerilla warfare; this would also mean that despite Ahmed's attempt to reintegrate Tigrayans with Ethiopia, he would not succeed doing so