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Ethiopia nears war in Tigray as Abiy sends in troops

November 4, 2020

As Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sends troops into the country's northern Tigray region, the country could be on the brink of a civil war.

Ethiopian soldiers sit during a military parade in Tigray
Image: DW/M. Hailesilassie

Fighting and gunshots have been reported in Tigray after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered a military offensive in the region in northern Ethiopia.

Military operations in the region have commenced, Abiy's spokeswoman Billene Seyoum told the Reuters news agency on Wednesday.

Internet access monitor NetBlocks said internet and mobile lines in the region have been shut down. DW's correspondent in the regional capital Mekele couldn't be reached by telephone or text throughout the day.

The airspace over Tigray is also closed.

"We have confirmation that there is troop movement on the border to Tigray, there is an active ongoing armed confrontation," said Ethiopia observer Kjetil Tronvoll, Research Director of Peace and Conflict Studies at Norway's Bjorknes University College.

Abiy ordered the offensive earlier on Wednesday following what he said was an attack by regional Tigray forces on a federal military base.

"The last red line has been crossed," Abiy declared in a televised address on Wednesday morning, warning that "the end is near" for the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLG), which rules Tigray. 

Federal authorities also imposed a six-month state of emergency on the region.

Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed holds his Nobel Peace Prize
Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who was awarded the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, has ordered a military offensive against the Tigray regional governmentImage: picture alliance/AP Photo/NTB scanpix/H. M. Larsen

Conflict could overshadow those in Somalia, Sudan, Yemen

Analysts have been warning for months that rising tensions between the federal government and the TPLF could spill into civil war.

The row escalated in September after Tigray held regional elections in defiance of the federal government, which called the vote "illegal".

The International Crisis Group warned less than a week ago that Abiy's government and the TPLF were "barreling toward a major crisis".

"The alternative, given the country's multiple and bitter divides, is a potential march to war that would be catastrophic for Africa's second most populous country and would send shock waves, and refugees, into other Horn of Africa countries as well as across the Mediterranean," the group wrote.

A report published last month by the United States Institute of Peace said the fragmentation of Ethiopia "would be the largest state collapse in modern history."

It would "likely leading to mass interethnic and interreligious conflict ... and a humanitarian and security crisis at the crossroads of Africa and the Middle East on a scale that would overshadow the existing conflicts in South Sudan, Sudan, Somalia, and Yemen."

Point of no return?

Ludger Schadomsky, Head of DW's Ethiopian language service said the escalation came as "no surprise" to Ethiopia observers.

Tigrayans dominated Ethiopia's politics from 1991 to 2018 but their power has waned since April 2018.

"Both sides have been locked in an increasingly bitter stand-off since Abiy came to power," Schadomsky said. "There doesn't appear to be much space for last-minute negotiations at this point."

Conflict analyst Tronvoll has a similar opinion.

It is probably "too late" for the international community to exert pressure to avoid fighting between federal forces and the TPLF, which boasts its own large regional army, he told DW.

"The first phase will be settled through arms," Tronvoll said.

Punishment for September election

Redwan Hussein, spokesman for the newly established State of Emergency Task Force, said the federal government viewed the TPLF as the real enemy, not the Tigray region.

"This conflict could have been avoided by all means and it was possible," he told journalists at a press conference in the capital Addis Ababa.

"The federal government has been trying its best to use diplomacy and several individuals have tried to ask this group to come on board and engage in civil discourse. But all attempts were rebuffed and it could not bear any fruit."

Read more: Tigray region's defiance puts strains on Ethiopia's unity

Tigray's president, Debretsion Gebremichael, had warned on Monday that Abiy's government was planning to attack the region in punishment for holding regional elections in September.

Tigray held the polls after the federal government postponed elections scheduled for August 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic. Tigray opposition politicians accuse Abiy of using the pandemic to extend his time in office.

Hundreds of people holding TPLF flags march in the Tigray regional capital, Mekelle
TPLF won September's controversial regional elections with 98.5% of the vote Image: Million Hailesilassie/DW

Dashed hopes for peace

Schadomsky says Abiy, who faces an election in mid-2021, had little choice but to "put his foot down firmly" to keep the federation together in light of continued opposition from the TPLF.

"This obviously puts a huge damper on hopes for a peaceful Ethiopia and indeed hopes for a peaceful Horn of Africa," he said.

DW - Silja Fröhlich
Silja Fröhlich is a German journalist and radio host.