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Ethiopia

UN Security Council calls for ceasefire as rebel alliance closes in on Addis Ababa

Embassies prepare to evacuate staff from the capital as the federal government holds mass rally to mobilise support

On 8 November, the UN Security Council is due to discuss the worsening turmoil in Ethiopia and its regional consequences. Although there is no majority on the Council for sanctions against the belligerents, the debate chaired by Ireland is likely to increase pressure for political negotiations as well as a ceasefire which can allow aid agencies to send in supplies.

This follows a Council statement on Friday (5 November) which called directly for an end to hostilities. Ireland, together with Kenya, Tunisia and Niger backed the statement. 'Today the Security Council breaks six months of silence and speaks again with one voice on the deeply concerning situation,' said Ireland's Ambassador Geraldine Byrne Nason.

Russia agreed to a compromise on the text having accepted the country's conflict could no longer be treated solely as an 'internal affair'. Moscow has criticised United States efforts to mediate both in Ethiopia's war and in Sudan.

Developments on the ground in Ethiopia have outstripped diplomacy. At the beginning of the month, the Tigray Defence Forces had taken Dessie and Kombolcha and were within 400 kilometres of Addis Ababa. The Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), an offshoot of the nationalist Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), is moving towards Addis from the south-west (AC Vol 62 No 21, Into the hell of war, again).

Faced with the twin-pronged offensive, the federal Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF) is in retreat. Addis Ababa announced a state of emergency and called for an all-out 'people's war' against the Tigrayan and Oromo forces. Regional authorities are urging young people to join local militias to defend their local areas. Many western embassies are preparing to evacuate non-essential staff.

Tens of thousands joined pro-government solidarity rallies on 7 November in Addis and big cities in the regions such as Jigjiga (Somali), Harar (Harari), Ambo and Adama (both Oromia). Amid the military chaos, the federal government and its allies are ramping up the nationalist rhetoric.

The organiser of the Addis rally, the mayor Adenech Abebe, accused 'foreign powers' of backing the Tigrayan forces as a way of installing a puppet government in the capital. Abiy Ahmed's government has cited accusations that foreigners were supporting the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) with help such as satellite imagery as a reason to block international aid and fuel supplies to the region.

Countering the government's mobilising efforts, the opposition forces announced a nine-member alliance led by Tigray and Oromo militants but also including groups from Somali region, Gambella and Sidama. Launched in Washington DC on 5 November by Berhane Gebre-Christos, a former foreign minister who now leads the TPLF's media outreach, said the group's aim was to stop Ethiopia from imploding and spreading insecurity in the region.

Dismissed by Gedion Timothewos, the federal justice minister, as 'publicity stunt', the new alliance, backed by a growing military power, lends a new urgency to efforts by mediators to broker a ceasefire and political negotiations. Last week General Tsadkan Gebretensae, one of the TDF's top commanders, said the war had gone too far for negotiations with Abiy. That wouldn't preclude discussions with other political forces about a transitional authority in the capital, say other Tigrayan officials.

This follows assessments by the Tigray forces that the Federal forces were in terminal retreat. Despite some claims that the Tigrayan and Oromo forces are ready to march on the capital, security sources say that veteran strategists such as Gen Tsadkan would see that as counter-productive, and likely to result in heavy casualties as local militias defend the city.

Instead, the TDF may choose to march eastwards, stepping up pressure on the Djibouti-Addis corridor, the main supply route to the capital. This would have the advantage of blocking critical imports for Abiy's government, as well as opening new supply lines to Tigray (AC Vol 62 No 22, The costs of Abiy's all-out war).

It would also present a dilemma to Djibouti's President Ismail Omar Guelleh, who has backed Abiy to date but is trying to distance his country from direct involvement in the fighting. Will he bet on Abiy's survival? 

Djibouti's neighbour, Eritrea's President Issayas Afewerki, whose forces strongly backed Abiy's push against Tigray, faces his own choice. Issayas has pulled back Eritrean troops to reinforce the border with Tigray but there is little sign of them further south, where the federal forces have been routed.

Sudan's generals, who seized power in Khartoum on 25 October, are seen as siding with Egypt in its dispute with Ethiopia over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Nile.

These regional factors overlaying the national dynamics complicate the work of two of the putative mediators: Nigeria's former President Olusegun Obasanjo, who represents the African Union; and the United States special envoy to the Horn, Jeffrey Feltman (AC Dispatches 7/09/21, Nigeria's Olusegun Obasanjo takes on mediating role in war as brickbats fly on both sides).

On 7 November, Obasanjo travelled to Tigray to meet Debretsion Gebremichael, Chairman of the TPLF, who described the talks as 'highly constructive'. That such a mission was cleared by the authorities in Addis indicates how desperate the situation has become. Until now Tigray leaders questioned Obasanjo's neutrality while Addis had barred any high-level international missions to the region.

Ambassador Feltman met Obasanjo and other AU representatives along with senior officials in Abiy's government over the weekend. On 7 November, he flew to Nairobi for meetings with senior state officials there.

Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta, apparently alarmed by prospects of regional chaos should the Abiy government collapse, called last week for both sides to agree to a ceasefire, pending substantive political talks. That is much stronger than the AU's near silence on the year-long war and mirrors growing concern in other countries in the region such as Uganda.



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