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Vol 61 No 24

Published 3rd December 2020


Citadel falls but the war goes on

Tigray leaders vow guerrilla war against the Federal government as they withdraw to the hills

Copyright © Africa Confidential 2020

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed may have declared success for his 'law and order operation' with the fall of Mekelle, the Tigrayan capital, on 28 November, but it is far from clear that the fighting is over (AC Vol 61 No 23, Hard choices ahead in Addis). There have been thousands of casualties on both sides and among the Eritrean troops committed to the conflict by President Issayas Afewerki, who shares Abiy's aim of destroying the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF). Bombing raids and artillery have caused widespread civilian casualties and over 40,000 refugees have fled into Sudan from western Tigray. The Ethiopian army has closed the border to try to prevent more of them crossing.

Amid the news blackout, certain disturbing reports remain clear. Although the Federal government has spoken strongly against ethno-nationalism, Abiy has allowed Amhara militia and 'Special Forces' to spearhead the move into western Tigray, an area historically under Amhara control but controversially given to Tigray under the 1995 constitution. There have been ample reports of atrocities in western Tigray, with claims and counter-claims of responsibility. Against this background, there is great concern about the Federal government decision to allow the Amhara Regional State to administer the parts of Tigray it has taken over.

The Federal government has also been acting against Tigrayans outside Tigray, accusing them of supporting the TPLF and giving rise to fears of ethnic profiling. The National Bank of Ethiopia has frozen all bank accounts opened in Tigray State. The 34 important companies which form part of the regional state-owned Endowment Fund for the Rehabilitation of Tigray (EFFORT) have been delisted and their assets frozen; an asset manager has now been appointed to oversee their assets and resources (AC Vol 59 No 11, All things to all factions).

The African Union (AU) dismissed a Tigrayan, Gebreegziabher Mebratu Melese, its head of security, after the Ministry of Defence expressed concern. The Amhara regional administration has ordered its police to identify ethnic Tigrayans in all government agencies and NGOs. There have been similar activities in organisations and businesses in Addis Ababa and reports of hundreds of arrests of Tigrayans.

Army purge
After the Ethiopian military contingent in Somalia was ordered home, 'All officers and soldiers from Tigray were arrested and detained upon arrival in Addis', some of them being tortured while others were executed, according to a confidential United Nations report. The deputy force commander of the UN Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA) in South Sudan, Brigadier-General Negassi Tikue, was recalled to Addis Ababa and the UN told to find another officer. Other Tigrayan officers there were also ordered to Addis Ababa.

Abiy has appointed Mulu Nega, a former deputy minister, temporary head of a new Tigrayan administration. Setting up an effective local government may prove difficult, particularly if fighting continues. Abiy has said the next stage is to establish an administration in Tigray which can 'enforce law and order in the Region through a lawful state police force with sufficient capacity to maintain public order and peace within the State'. Mulu has added that 'executive and law-making organs at regional and zonal levels will be dismantled and replaced by new appointees.'

The interim government is also charged with carrying out rehabilitation work, providing social services and organising 'a democratic, participatory, free and fair election' next year, without, however, the participation of the TPLF, even though it took over 98% of the vote in the September election which was banned by the Federal government (AC Vol 61 No 20, Tigray takes on the centre). Independent observers called it relatively free and fair.

Federal question
While the conflict with the TPLF has all the hallmarks of a straightforward power struggle between an organisation that controlled Ethiopia through its dominance of the ruling Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front from 1991 to 2018, and an Oromo/Amhara alliance led by Abiy which took over in 2018 and disbanded the EPRDF, there is also an ideological element, of regional as opposed to centralised governance (AC Vol 59 No 11, All things to all factions).  

The TPLF certainly believed that championing provincial self-government within a federal system would win Tigray support against Abiy's centralising policies from other regions of the country, including the Oromo and Somali Regional States. But the TPLF's political domination of the country after 1991 – a key feature of the rule of the EPRDF – was deeply resented by many Oromos and other ethnic groups in southern Ethiopia, even though these groups support the self-governance elements of the constitution. The problem was with the practice not the letter of the constitution.

For many outside the central highland areas, Amhara notions of 'national unity' mean re-imposing the former imperial structure that excluded non-Amhara cultures and languages.

And Abiy's concentration on his problem with the TPLF has prolonged a number of inter-ethnic conflicts across the country which have displaced 1.85 million people, according to the latest National Displacement report and exacerbated humanitarian crises.

They include the conflict in western Wollega where the Oromo Liberation Front–Shene operate. More than 50 civilians were killed in an attack at the beginning of November, and federal military units have failed to establish control. The OLF-Shene is also operating along the Kenyan border in the south. In Benishangul Gumuz, 30 people were killed on 14 November, the latest in a series of incidents.

In many areas, the targets of the violence appear to be Amhara, but there has also been fighting in several areas round the Oromo Regional State: along the border with the Somali Region, where hundreds of thousands are still displaced after fighting in 2018; and between the Guji in Oromia and the Gedeo in the Southern Region. The Southern Region has seen conflicts in Bench Sheko and Wolaita and most recently Konso. A long-running dispute between Afars and Somalis in the east has displaced over 100,000 people in the last two years.

The Prime Minister's Office rather improbably accused the TPLF of 'planning, training, financing and executing' all the country's ethnic and sectarian conflicts. A more plausible reason is the collapse of local administration as the EPRDF fell apart since 2017, to be replaced last November by Abiy's new Prosperity Party, which has yet to establish itself effectively.

Victory for Abiy may allow him to start rebuilding local administration and deploy federal forces to re-establish control at local level. However, he will have to find a way to appease the ethnic hopes and ambitions of the other nations and nationalities in the country. Oromos, Somalis, Afars and others have exercised some local autonomy, if not as much as they would like, under the EPRDF for 25 years and do not want to give this up. This year, the Sidama, one of the 56 peoples in the Southern Regional State, achieved their own state after a long struggle and others indicated their desire to follow suit (AC Vol 60 No 24, States of expectation).

Abiy detained many of his Oromo critics, including opposition leaders Jawar Mohammed and Bekele Gerba, and placed former Defence Minister Lemma Megersa under house arrest earlier in the year (AC Vol 61 No 2, Regime reality check). He replaced the Oromo support he had lost with ethno-nationalist Amhara in the Amhara region, and gathered further backing from the Amhara elite in Addis Ababa who yearn to replace the federal system with unitary government.

Opposition Amhara parties like the Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice (EZEMA), led by Berhanu Nega, have strongly supported the operations in Tigray (AC Vol 60 No 1, Fighting fear with freedom). And days after fighting began in Tigray, Abiy increased the power of leading Amhara figures in government, by adding the post of Foreign Minister to Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekonnen's portfolio, moving Gedu Andargachew from foreign affairs to the post of National Security Advisor, and appointing former National Security Advisor and Amhara President Temesgen Tiruneh as intelligence chief.

The Amhara parliament then appointed Agegnehu Teshager, a strident opponent of the TPLF, as regional president (AC Vol 61 No 23, Fears mount of all-out civil war). Not all were impressed. The recall of troops from Somalia, the call on Eritrean armed forces for help in the field, and the bringing back into service of retired generals and the promotion of a long-time Abiy supporter, General Berhanu Jula, an Oromo, from deputy to Chief of Staff, were taken as signs that operations had not gone as well as expected. There was some concern in the upper echelons of the government and the military about Abiy's determination to crush the TPLF.

Advisors in the Prime Minister's Office still include a significant number of Oromos: former Ambassador to Washington Girma Birru,  macroeconomic advisor and former OLF spokesperson Lencho Bati,  former Minister of Defence Motuma Mekassa, and Hailay Berhane Tesema on National Security. The Prime Minister, a devout member of the Pentecostal Mulu Wengel Church, continues to take advice from the Oromo-American evangelist Gemechis Desta Buba, as well as other Pentecostalist pastors. For the moment, however, it seems that Amhara advisors – and Eritrea's Issayas – are the most favoured.

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