Within days, the conflict in the north-western Ethiopian region of Tigray may reach a bloody climax.
The fighting between federal forces and those loyal to the ruling party of the restive province has been chaotic and bitter. Hundreds have been killed – both combatants and civilians – and many thousands forced to flee their homes. Regional and international powers have looked on with increasing anxiety as violence threatens the stability of one of Africa’s most fragile regions.
Abiy Ahmed, the Ethiopian prime minister, told his 110 million countrymen and women five days ago that “a final and crucial” offensive was imminent. This aimed to secure Mekelle, the highland capital of Tigray. Then, it was implied, what Abiy and other senior Ethiopian officials call a “law enforcement operation” would be over.
Abiy’s strategic aim is to oust Tigray’s ruling party, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which went ahead with elections this year after national polls had been postponed due to Covid-19. The move followed a long series of increasingly acrimonious disputes between the TPLF, which says it has been unfairly marginalised since Abiy took power two years ago, and central government. Abiy has repeatedly said he has no grudge against Tigrayans, only their “criminal” leadership, and that he sees them all as equal citizens of a federal Ethiopia.
Many – though not all – Tigrayans doubt this. They claim Abiy is set on a brutal reimposition of central government’s authority, with implications for all of Ethiopia’s regions and ethnicities. The violence of recent weeks – as well as some of the measures and rhetoric that have accompanied it – may not have convinced them otherwise. Nor will the stark ultimatum issued by senior military officials on Sunday to half a million civilians in Mekelle: disassociate yourselves from the TPLF or risk death under bombardment and airstrikes when the federal forces move on the city. In other words, support the rebels and you could pay a very high price.
The threats against the population of Mekelle may simply be a blunt form of “Psy Ops”, designed to isolate the TPLF leadership so they can be somehow picked up – or picked off – without an inevitably costly offensive into a sizeable city. Ethiopian regular forces have so far avoided such battles, advancing swiftly towards Mekelle by bypassing many population centres. They need to keep the momentum of their advance brisk for political reasons. A long war may get very unpopular with Ethiopians, regional powers, investors and other important international friends.
But as countless political leaders have found, even a quick war may easily turn into a long one. There are reliable reports that fighting is continuing in territory that should have been swiftly secured as the first wave of troops breached Tigrayan defences and moved on. Militia and paramilitaries appear to be suffering from hit-and-run attacks by lightly armed, experienced and motivated Tigrayan fighters. This must be worrying for Ethiopian military planners. Above all, it suggests that any declaration of mission accomplished would be premature, whatever the outcome when their troops reach Mekelle.