Amnesty International confirmed that scores, and likely hundreds, of people were stabbed or hacked to death in Mai-Kadra (May Cadera) town in the South West Zone of Ethiopia’s Tigray Region on the night of November 9th.
Earlier this month, a simmering political and ideological conflict between Ethiopia’s federal government and the northern region of Tigray escalated into a deadly civil war that is threatening to destabilise an already fragile and volatile region.
The war in Tigray is a continuation of the violent and widespread repression Abiy began in Oromia, Walaita and Sidama against those who resisted his vision of the future. After silencing dissent and opposition elsewhere in the country, Abiy and his camp are turning to Tigray, the last frontier in the battle over the character of the Ethiopian state.
Tigray presents a significant challenge to the prime minister’s grandiose vision of “Making Ethiopia Great Again” (MEGA). In addition to being an autonomous region with effective control over its territories, it is a battle-hardened region with highly trained troops and access to much of Ethiopia’s military arsenal.
Although Abiy’s government is scrambling to convince the world that this is a law enforcement operation with limited and achievable objectives, the fierce battles fought over the last few weeks involving fighter jets, tanks, and armoured personnel carriers make it evident that the country is in the midst of what is likely to be an intractable military deadlock that would result in a large number of casualties.
But what are the causes, drivers, and dynamics of this war?
The genesis of the conflict
At the heart of the current civil war and the political upheavals that rocked the country since Abiy’s rise to power are two radically contrasting and seemingly irreconcilable visions of the future. On the one hand is Abiy’s vision of a centralised and unitary state in which the centre determines the political, economic, and cultural policies of the periphery. On the other hand is a vision represented by the TPLF, the Oromo opposition camp and other nations and nationalities in the south of the country, of an Ethiopia in which political authority is constitutionally divided between the central government and autonomous regional governments responsible for determining policies central to their political, economic, and cultural futures.
It is these inherently ideological differences about the nature and character of the Ethiopian state that escalated into a full-blown military confrontation between the TPLF and the Abiy regime in Addis Ababa.
Abiy Ahmed Ali
Abiy fought against the Derg (Dergue) regime, which ruled Ethiopia from 1974 to 1991, and later served in the Ethiopian National Defense Forces, where he achieved the rank of lieutenant colonel.
Abiy Ahmed Ali, took up the post of Prime Minister of Ethiopia in April 2018. His perspective was very optimistic and many were very excited about where he was going to take the country after centuries of violent division.
Notably, Abiy was the first Oromo to serve in that position, and it was hoped that his election as prime minister would help quell the remaining tensions between the Oromo people and the government.
and right after he came to power The country was ravaged by a protracted conflict with its neighbor, Eritrea, over a disputed border area. An international arbitration commission ruled in favour of Eritrea in 2002,
but the Ethiopian government refused to accept the ruling.
After 16 years of “no war, no peace” between the two countries, Abiy Ahmed broke the deadlock and accepted the decision. In September 2018, he and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki signed a historic peace agreement.
Although Abiy started his political life as a member of the Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation (OPDO), his attitudes, views, actions and visions are currently at odds with mainstream Oromo views. Abiy’s main support base is now in the Amhara region, and mostly among the Amhara elite in Addis Ababa, who want to dismantle the federal system and bring back the unitary system in the name of national unity.
For Amharas and the Amhara elite, this war is about recapturing territories they claim were unlawfully taken by Tigray, such as Wolkait, and moving closer to their dream of reinstalling national unity by eliminating the TPLF. For many in the historically marginalised south, however, their ideas of national unity represent nothing but an attempt to reimpose the assimilationist system that excluded non-Amhara cultures, languages, and ways of being from Ethiopia’s national life.
Abiy went to an all-out war with Tigray because he could not subdue the region and the TPLF in the same way he annihilated opposition in Oromia and other places. The region is politically autonomous and retains effective control over its territory. It also has significant military capacity in terms of troops and weaponry.
November 4th 2020
Abiy used an alleged attack on a federal military base in Mekelle, the regional capital of Tigray, by forces loyal to the TPLF as justification for his government’s military offensive against the region. However, federal forces were massed on the border between Tigray and Amhara days before the alleged attack on November 4, indicating that the central government was preparing for war long before the incident.
After three weeks of fighting, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered the army to move into the Tigray region’s capital of Mekelle for its “final phase,” sending off alarm bells for human rights groups.
The move comes shortly after Abiy offered a 72-hour surrender deadline to forces in the area. The prime minister warned civilians in the capital that there will be “no mercy” if they don’t “save themselves” and leave the area.
Abiy is trying to frame the continuing war as a rule of law operation aimed at defending the constitution, but his declaration of war against a regional state itself lacks a constitutional basis. Abiy declared war against Tigray only because the region refused to bow to his unitarian vision. Ethiopia’s constitution does not grant prime ministers the authority to go to war with regional states that do not support their ideology or policies.
TPLF once ruled Ethiopia’s government, but it has now been upended by Abiy’s rule. Both governments view one another as illegal.
According to the United Nations, people are fleeing Mekelle, but several communications and transport links remain cut off to Tigray, so it is unclear how many people received the warnings to exit the territory.