Ethiopia: Fear Tigray conflict could trigger all-out war | Africa | DW | 20.07.2021
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Ethiopia: Fear Tigray conflict could trigger all-out war

More regional militias have pledged to march into Tigray. Some fear that this could send Ethiopia into a spiral of ethnic violence. Others see the move as a sign of Ethiopian unity.

Militia members sit in the back of a pickup holding guns

Amhara militia groups, seen here in November 2020, are being joined in Tigray by other regional militias

Special forces and militias from a number of Ethiopia's regions are mobilizing to back the federal government's military operations in Tigray, signaling a widening of the conflict.

Regular forces from Amhara — a large region abutting the south of Tigray — have been fighting alongside federal troops ever since Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched the military offensive in Tigray last November.

But now regular and irregular combatants from six regions not previously involved in the conflict are joining, including from Oromia, Ethiopia's most populous region, as well as Sidama, Somalia and the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples (SNNP).

Ethiopia has a federal system, with 10 regional states (and two city administrations), which are largely ethnic based. Each have their own special forces, plus local militia groups often made up of farmers similar to a home guard unit.

"We have sent over 2,000 militias to the front," the administrator of Western Gojam Zone in Amhara, Simenhe Ayalew, said last week, according to the Bloomberg news agency.

Militias have little combat experience

The question is how much of a military asset these regional fighters will be.

"The regional militia has been given a Kalashnikov and maybe some very rudimentary training. But they are being called in because the war has decimated the federal forces," said Kjetil Tronvoll, a professor of peace and conflict studies at Norway's Bjorknes University College.

"The tragedy is that these militia may basically be perceived as cannon fodder and we can expect very high casualty rates if they don’t defect or surrender in large numbers," Tronvoll told DW.

Abiy called for regional military back up after Tigray's former ruling party, the Tigray's People Liberation Front (TPLF), took back control of the regional capital, Mekele, and ousted the Ethiopian National Defense Force in June.

Watch video 01:46

Ethiopia: Tigray forces retake regional capital

Tigray rebels launch new offensives

The mobilizations come amid reports that Tigray rebels are making incursions into Amhara-occupied areas of Tigray, as well as into the Afar region, which borders Tigray to its east.

Tigrayan fighters crossed into Afar on Saturday and Afar forces and allied militias were still battling them on Monday, Afar spokesman Ahmed Koloyta told Reuters news agency.

US-based Ethiopia analyst Yohannes Woldemariam told DW that Afar was "very strategic because the road and the railway [linking the capital, Addis Ababa] to Djibouti run through there.

"So if the TPLF manage to cut off the railway, then the central government would not have access to the seaport," Woldemariam said.

Different groups fighting together

Melisew Dejene, an academic at Ethiopia's Hawassa University, told DW that he wasn't surprised "to see different forces from different regions come together in order to defend the national interest."

"The TPLF was labeled a terrorist group in a recent Cabinet decree, and now it has become a threat for the nation," he said in a telephone interview from the Sidama region.

Dejene sees the support by the various regions for Abiy's troops as a "positive sign" that "people are coming together under one flag to defend their nation, Ethiopia."

The Horn of Africa nation, with a population of some 110 million, has more than 80 distinct ethnic groups.

Professor Tronvoll said some regions had had heated internal discussions about whether they should heed Abiy's call to march into Tigray.

"The local argument is: 'We don't want to be pulled into this war. It is not our war,'" Tronvoll said.

He said the conflict was mostly seen within Ethiopia as a war between Amhara and Tigray.

Early in the conflict, Amhara seized territory in the south and west of Tigray, which it says was annexed by the TPLF decades ago. Over the past eight months, ethnic Amharas have been returning to western Tigray and occupying abandoned homes and farmland.

Watch video 03:45

William Davison, International Crisis Group: No obvious remedy for territorial dispute between Amhara and Tigray elites

Eritrea's future role unclear

Adding to the mix are troops from Eritrea, Ethiopia's neighbor to the north, which entered the conflict in support of Abiy's government.

Eritrea's leader, Isaias Afwerki, is a sworn enemy of the TPLF, which ruled Ethiopia when the countries fought a border war.

Despite the TPLF's recent battle successes, Eritrean forces still remain in Tigray, although it seems that they have withdrawn to the north, closer to the common border.

The UN Human Rights Council last week called for a swift withdrawal of Eritrea's troops. It also called for an immediate halt to all human rights violations in Tigray.

In the first eight months of the conflict, rights organizations collected numerous witness accounts of widespread atrocities, including gang rape, massacres and looting.

Humanitarian organizations are also warning that the ongoing fighting, combined with the difficulty of getting aid into the region, is pushing hundreds of thousands people into Tigray into mass starvation.

Watch video 01:30

350,000 face famine in Ethiopia's war-torn Tigray region

Documenting rights abuses is problematic

Ever since Ethiopian troops retreated from Tigray, the region is again under a total communications blackout, with telephone and internet cut — similar to what happened at the beginning of the conflict.

The government has also imposed tough restrictions on journalists covering Tigray. The Ethiopian Broadcasting Authority (EBA) recently threatened international media houses of "measures" should they make reference to the self-pronounced "Tigray Defense Force (TDF)".

The concern is that with new regional militias entering the conflict, both the catastrophic hunger and human rights violations might spiral out of control.

DW requested a comment from the Office of the Prime Minister, but had not yet received a reply at the time of publication.

"It's a very dangerous situation that's evolving when you have so many groups who are fighting and they have their own issues and their own agendas," Ethiopia analyst Woldemariam said.

"This looks like a recipe for something really catastrophic. ... It may make Rwanda look very small. That's my fear," he said, referring to the genocide in Rwanda in which some 800,000 people died.

Fueling these fears, in a speech on Sunday, Prime Minister Abiy used words such as "weeds," "cancer" and "disease" to refer to the TPLF in a tweet.

Tronvoll sees this language as "very dangerous rhetoric, obviously bordering on genocidal rhetoric."