Ethiopia Edges Toward Civil War As Federal Government Orders Attack On Tigray Region

Nov 4, 2020
Originally published on November 11, 2020 7:31 am

As the world's attention remained on the American elections, Ethiopia seemed on the brink of war.

Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered an attack against the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), the state government in charge of Ethiopia's northernmost region. Abiy accused the TPLF of attacking a federal military base in the overnight hours on Tuesday.

"The last red line has been crossed with this morning's attacks and the Federal government is therefore forced into a military confrontation," a statement issued by his office read. In a statement on state television, Abiy said that the initial attack by Tigrayan forces had resulted in "many martyrs, injuries and property damage."

Phone lines and the Internet were interrupted in Tigray, so it was not possible to independently assess any damage or casualties. Abiy's government also announced a six month state of emergency in the Tigray region.

On a television station run by the Tigrayan government, the TPLF looped a recorded statement, announcing the closure of their airspace and promising proportionate retaliatory attacks against Ethiopian forces.

A member of Tigray Special Forces casts his vote in a local election in the regional capital Mekelle, in the Tigray region of Ethiopia in September. The vote defied the federal government and increased tensions in Africa's second most populous country.

This is a major escalation between the state and federal government in Ethiopia. The TPLF controls the most powerful regional force in the country. They are well-armed and well trained and analysts fear that if this leads to a full-scale war between the TPLF and Ethiopia's federal government, it could not only destabilize the already fragile Horn of Africa, but lead to humanitarian disaster in the country of more than 100 million people.

"Ethiopia [is] an anchor state in the Horn," analyst Rashid Abdi wrote on Twitter. "[This] implosion [is] bound to have devastating consequences across the entire sub-region."

Abdi has warned that a war in Ethiopia could open the floodgates for the Islamist group al-Shabab in neighboring Somalia. It could also further destabilize Sudan, whose transitional government is trying to keep the country together, and South Sudan, which has been trying to maintain a peace deal supported by Ethiopia.

Ethiopia's internal conflict, however, is a long time coming. The TPLF was thrown out of power when a popular uprising led to the dismantling of the ruling coalition the TPLF had built in Ethiopia. Abiy took power in April of 2018 and has since accused the former regime of trying to destabilize the country, in part, by fomenting ethnic divisions and violence.

The TPLF has given refuge to former government officials wanted by the new regime and in September, they held regional elections that had been declared unconstitutional by the federal government.

On Monday, Debretsion Gebremichael, the president of the Tigray region, said the Ethiopian government was plotting a war against them in retaliation for holding elections.

This afternoon, the United States Embassy in Addis Ababa urged "an immediate de-escalation of the current situation in Tigray."

"We strongly encourage all parties to prioritize civilians' safety and security," the statement read.

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Ethiopia appears to be on a dangerous course towards civil war. Fighting has intensified between the government and rival forces in the country's north. The official who ordered the government offensive is Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. And you might remember his name because he won the Nobel Peace Prize last year. NPR's East Africa correspondent Eyder Peralta is following all of this from Nairobi. Hi, Eyder.


GREENE: So start by giving a sense - us a sense of what's happening in Ethiopia right now.

PERALTA: Yeah. I mean, I think, first of all, it's worth noting that reporting this story has been really difficult because the Internet and the phone lines have been shut off in Tigray. And I'm still waiting for a visa to travel there. But from the information that we have, this is looking grim. The Ethiopian government says that its soldiers have killed about 500 fighters.

We know that the government is bombing targets across the region. Neighboring Sudan is reporting that thousands of refugees have already fled into their country. The African Union has called for an immediate cease-fire. But the rhetoric has actually hardened. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed says that there will be no negotiations. He says that their focus is to bring the TPLF - what he considers a rogue, regional government - to justice.

GREENE: So any idea what sparked this?

PERALTA: Yeah. There's a lot at play. But essentially, it goes back to 2018. That's when a popular uprising brought Abiy Ahmed to power. And one of the things that he did was he dismantled Ethiopia's ruling party, which had run the country for almost 30 years. And the guys who ran the show were the TPLF - the Tigray People's Liberation Front. And they were sidelined. They took off to their home region in northern Ethiopia. And Abiy has since accused them of stoking ethnic violence and holding illegal elections. And he says, last week, they organized a multi-pronged attack on the Ethiopian military. And the prime minister called it treason. He called it a treason that will never be forgotten.

GREENE: I mean, I mentioned that the prime minister won the Nobel Peace Prize. Does that make it surprising what he's doing right now, what role he's playing in all this?

PERALTA: It does. You know, Abiy, he won the peace prize because he changed Ethiopia. He made peace with Eritrea, which is Ethiopia's mortal enemy. He brought democratic reforms. People on the streets used to tell me that he was a gift from God. But now he's in the middle of this war. And a lot of the hope that he inspired, it feels really distant right now.

GREENE: Well, what is the potential for this to get even deadlier, Eyder?

PERALTA: I think, unfortunately, this has the potential to be devastating. Western analysts say that it could look like Yugoslavia, where Ethiopia breaks up. And I spoke to Kiya Tsegaye, who is an Ethiopian political analyst. And he took the government's view. He wouldn't even call this a war. He says it's a law enforcement operation and that the TPLF doesn't have the support it needs to fight back. But I pushed back on him because the TPLF, it's not just some militia. And Kiya kind of relented. Let's listen to how he described the TPLF.

KIYA TSEGAYE: They have dominated the security and the military for almost three decades. And they have all the information and the top secrets of this country. They have the fault lines. They know where to trigger. They know the Achilles' heel, you know?

PERALTA: The TPLF, he's saying, knows Ethiopia's Achilles' heel. And you can hear the urgency in his voice because no matter who is right and who is wrong in this conflict, what is clear is that it's a conflict between two very powerful adversaries. And the government says that the TPLF has stolen weapons, including some missiles that might be able to reach the capital, Addis Ababa.

GREENE: All right. Talking about that situation in Ethiopia with NPR's Eyder Peralta from Nairobi. Eyder, thank you so much, as always.

PERALTA: Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.