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Moment that mattered: Ethiopian forces claim victory in Tigray

A woman stands in a sheet metal room damaged by shelling in Humera in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, 22nd November 2020. Photo: Eduardo Soteras

On the evening of 28th November, with the world distracted by the coronavirus pandemic, Abiy Ahmed declared victory in a war that few outside of the Horn of Africa even knew was happening. The Ethiopian prime minister claimed that government troops had established “full control” of Mekelle, capital of Tigray, the restive northern Ethiopian province which has a population of seven million. His military had undertaken a four-week operation against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a quasi-military political party that effectively controlled Ethiopian politics for over 25 years until 2018. Ahmed declared that the conflict had been “successfully concluded”.

However, Ahmed’s claims of victory were hard to verify. Phone and internet services in Tigray had been severed 24 days earlier, when Ahmed ordered the military campaign, and journalists, humanitarian organisations and independent investigators had been kept out of the region. “It was virtually impossible to get accurate information during the conflict,” says Adem Kassie Abebe, an expert on governance and peace-building in Africa. “I don’t think even journalists with Ethiopian state media could get the whole story.”

As is the case with most elements of this murky conflict, its origins are disputed. The government claims that the TPLF, the ruling power in the Tigray region, ignited hostilities by attacking a federal army base in Mekelle, killing several soldiers. The TPLF insists this was a preemptive strike made in self-defence because it had intelligence that federal forces were preparing to attack its territory. “For me the conflict didn’t really begin on 4th November,” says Abebe, an Ethiopian citizen based in the Netherlands. “The army base raid was just the spark that ignited the fighting. The tension was already there, both sides were ready and the brinkmanship was always likely to lead to a miscalculation. I was not surprised at all when fighting erupted.”

Abebe (pictured above) says that the tension between the Tigrayan leadership and Ethiopia’s new political elites can be traced back many years. Although Tigray is relatively small and Tigrayans only form around seven percent of Ethiopia’s population, the TPLF effectively governed the country after playing a leading role in overthrowing the communist dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991. During its quarter-century in power the TPLF was the dominant force in a coalition of ethnic groups known as the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). According to Abebe, the Tigrayans used “coercion and oppression” to retain their supremacy within the coalition over the years, but there always existed “an understanding that it was a minority government” and “a resistance to the idea that a small ethnic group dominated politics and the economy”.

That repressed anger finally spilled over in 2015, when protesters from ethnic groups who felt marginalised and underrepresented began mass demonstrations against the government; hundreds of people would die in clashes with security forces over the next few years. The protests ultimately forced the resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn in February 2018, and after what Abebe describes as an “internal power struggle”, Ahmed became Ethiopia’s first prime minister from the Oromo ethnic group, the country’s largest, which had spearheaded the protests.

“The TPLF saw Ahmed as a threat from the beginning,” says Abebe. “They resisted him becoming prime minister, but they were outnumbered. And after he came to power they tried to undermine and challenge him.” In 2019, an emboldened, reform-minded Ahmed moved to disband the EPRDF, in which his Oromo party had been a coalition partner, and to form a single new party based on a national rather than ethnic identity. Its creation saw power redistributed to previously excluded or underrepresented ethnic groups, but the TPLF, reeling from a sudden loss of power, refused to cooperate. Tensions escalated further in September 2020 when the TPLF defied Ahmed to hold regional elections, prompting fears of Tigrayan secession.

Reliable polls don’t exist but Abebe believes that the majority of Ethiopians supported the war. “For Ethiopians the conflict was not about Ahmed; it was about the TPLF. There was a lot of animosity towards them due to their authoritarian history and their domination of power. But the war was also popular because the federal government controls the airwaves in the country. It totally controls the narrative.”

This determination to control the narrative at all costs means that even the most basic facts about the conflict, such as who was fighting it, are disputed. Ahmed has consistently denied reports that troops from Ethiopia’s former bitter enemy Eritrea – the country with which he made peace 20 years after a bloody border war, earning him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 – crossed the border into Tigray to help him defeat the enemy. Eritrea also denies any involvement.

Abebe isn’t convinced, however. “[Eritrean president] Isaias Afwerki holds a big grudge against the TPLF,” Abebe says. “They defeated him in the border war, but more importantly they managed to isolate Eritrea in the international sphere, and get sanctions introduced against them [by the UN security council in 2009]. Afwerki had every reason to seek revenge. I am sure Eritrea was involved, and I think they tipped the scales in favour of the [Ethiopian] government.”

Many harrowing stories of human rights abuses – perpetrated, it appears, by all sides in the conflict – have emerged, including accusations of mass killings. “Everyone who has managed to get out of Tigray has told stories of brutality committed by the Ethiopian government, militias from Amhara [a region of Ethiopia embroiled in border tensions with Tigray] or Eritrean forces,” says Abebe. Many of these reports are from Tigrayan refugees who fled over the border to Sudan. The UN says that over 60,000 people have made the journey, and Human Rights Watch (HRW) has accused the Ethiopian government of shutting the border to keep many thousands more trapped inside the country. “The government propaganda line is that the [refugees making accusations] are trained TPLF operatives who committed atrocities themselves,” says Abebe. “We do not know what happened because there is no access, but why block access if there is nothing to hide?”

Everyone who has managed to get out of Tigray has told stories of brutality”

While the ousted TPLF leader, Debretsion Gebremichael, has accused Ahmed’s government of waging a “devastating and genocidal war” against the Tigrayan people, the TPLF has been accused of war crimes itself. Amnesty and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission have amassed evidence that hundreds of civilians were hacked to death by militias connected to the TPLF in the town of Mai Kadra on 9th November.

While the awful living conditions in the Sudanese camps to which Tigrayans have fled are a major cause of concern, another refugee crisis is taking place within Tigray itself. The UN believes that Eritrean refugees, who escaped one of the most oppressive regimes in the world and made it to camps in Tigray, have been subjected to “killings, targeted abductions and forced returns”. Witnesses have said that the soldiers, who allegedly looted and destroyed two camps in Tigray before bundling refugees into vans and driving them back over the border, were Eritrean. On 5th March 2021, HRW said Eritrean forces “massacred scores of civilians” in the Tigrayan town of Axum.

The region faces other humanitarian challenges. Abebe warns about the possibility of an upcoming famine in Tigray – there has been a growing problem with locust swarms destroying crops in a region where severe food insecurity predated the conflict. When you add in the coronavirus pandemic and the threat of further fighting, the situation looks desperate.

Abiy appears to have won the initial conflict, but Abebe isn’t convinced that the prime minister strengthened his hand. His reputation abroad has taken a hit – he’s now mentioned alongside Aung San Suu Kyi, who is accused of defending war crimes in Myanmar, as evidence of the “Nobel prize curse” – and his domestic popularity may have suffered, too. “He tried to present the conflict as a necessary evil,” says Abebe. “I don’t think he lost support with his base, but I think that due to some of the stories emerging [from Tigray] his reputation will suffer.” His declaration of victory may also have been premature. “The TPLF leaders are hiding in the mountains,” says Abebe. “It’s guerilla tactics now. Things don’t look bright for them but they are not gone completely. They claim to still control large parts of Tigray.”

Three months after the war, aid organisations are still pleading with  Ethiopia to be allowed into the region to address the various crises. Unicef has estimated that 2.3 million children in Tigray urgently need food. A provisional administration has been installed in Mekelle and the federal government insists that the situation is returning to normal, but there have been reports of fighting.

Much about the Tigray conflict remains unknown. The day after he declared victory, Ahmed said that no civilians had been killed by federal troops during the offensive. In February 2021, however, opposition parties in Tigray claimed that 52,000 civilians had been killed since the start of the conflict, including women and children. The UN Human Rights Office said in March 2021 that all parties involved in the conflict may have committed crimes against humanity. With this war being fought almost entirely in the shadows, it may take a long time for the full truth to emerge.

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