The Prime Minister’s attack on Tigray and his push for a unitary state raises concerns about political autonomy in other regions
(africa-confidential)—It is the beginning of the end, insisted Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on 17 November as federal forces started marching on Mekelle, the regional capital of Tigray. The previous day, Abiy’s government had announced the end of a three-day amnesty for Tigrayan special forces and militia to surrender. Around that deadline, the federal airforce launched fresh bombing raids on Mekelle and other towns and military positions.
The operation to ‘restore law and order’ in Tigray will be short-lived, repeats Abiy, determinedly refusing mediation or negotiations (AC Vol 61 No 23, Fears mount of all-out civil war). With hundreds killed in the first two weeks of fighting and 30,000 fleeing across the border to Sudan, international pressure will mount on Addis Ababa if the fighting continues, particularly for a ceasefire to allow in humanitarian relief.
Abiy’s chief foreign supporter in his Tigray strategy is Eritrean President Issayas Afewerki. Leaders of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) tried to encourage international pressure on Ethiopia on 14-15 November by launching three missiles at Asmara airport, raising the regional stakes of the conflict.
The TPLF may, however, have walked into a trap. One of the party’s senior officials has said that the TPLF acted in ‘anticipatory self-defence’ when it opened the fighting with an attack on Northern Command bases controlled by the Ethiopian National Defence Force in Tigray. But the timing suited Abiy, coming the morning after the messy United States presidential election, and a few days after Ethiopia took over the chair of the African Union’s Peace and Security Council for November. Ethiopia’s former Foreign Minister, Workneh Gebeyu, is Executive Secretary of Intergovernmental Authority on Development, and Sudan’s Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, another Abiy ally, is the current chair.
The timing for Tigray was awful. The harvest has yet to be collected, and it has been badly hit by locust swarms. Before the fighting started, Productive Safety Net Programme (PSNP), a donor-funded famine-prevention scheme, was supplying a million people in Tigray. In addition, 96,000 Eritrean refugees in the region and 100,000 other displaced people were receiving aid.
UN officials are warning of a humanitarian disaster, with no relief access to the region, for food, medicine and other emergency supplies.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has sounded the alarm about the line of refugees crossing into Sudan, increasing by several thousand a day. TPLF leader and regional President Debretsion Gebremichael called for mediation on 14 November, urging the UN and AU to engage: ‘Abiy Ahmed is waging this war on the people of Tigray and is responsible for the purposeful infliction of human suffering.’
For now, President Issayas is limiting logistical support to allowing some of those troops of the Northern Command who remained loyal to the federal government to retreat into Eritrea from Tigray. From there they have regrouped to launch attacks around Badme and Zalembessa.
Issayas also massed troops around Bada in Eritrea, and he gave artillery support to the federal attack on Humera on 9 November. But there hasn’t been any sign of Eritrean operations inside Tigray, with Issayas reportedly warned by military chiefs that his forces could not support prolonged operations in Tigray.
With the border with Sudan open only to civilians, the TPLF is cut off from external support. A wider conflict involving Eritrea would increase pressure on Abiy to agree to a ceasefire, which could leave the TPLF in control of at least some parts of Tigray.
With the humanitarian situation and its military capacity deteriorating, the TPLF needs an intervention, and indeed it may have calculated on that happening. As a defender of the ethnic federal Constitution, it may also have assumed it would win support from other regions for a federal structure.
Although Abiy came to power through the federal system, he is pushing for a more powerful centralised authority that not all Ethiopians would welcome. His unitary project is designed to appeal to the Amhara (27% of the population) rather than Ethiopia’s other nationalities, which welcomed Article 39 of the 1995 Constitution allowing self-determination up to and including secession (AC Vol 61 No 18, Regions take on the centre).
There may be support for constitutional change, even for Abiy’s campaign to remove the TPLF, but few Oromos (35%) or Somalis (6.2%) want to see their regions reintegrated into a unitary state. Last year, Abiy felt obliged to let the Sidama have a region; there are ten other nationalities in the Southern Region now angling for their own regions.
The TPLF claim to be supporting the 1995 constitution against an attempted return to a centralised autocratic regime has won little sympathy (AC Vol 61 No 20, Tigray takes on the centre). That’s due to the excesses of the TPLF cadres who dominated the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), rather than support for centralisation of power.
Both the conflict and the politics around it raise questions about the national elections due in May or June next year. Abiy will have to work hard to reconcile his critics if his Prosperity Party is to win a majority. His government’s actions against its critics in Oromia have cost him support from much of his own Oromo constituency. Many say he has now tilted towards Amhara nationalists.
This has been underlined by several inter-ethnic clashes. There was a horrific attack in the village of May Cadera in Western Tigray on 9 November where about 500 people were killed with knives and machetes according to Amnesty International. It is not clear who was responsible, although the federal government blamed the TPLF; Amnesty reports that some survivors have backed this claim. Yet refugees arriving at al-Fashqa in Sudan have identified the attackers as an Amhara militia on an ethnic killing spree.
Addis Ababa’s Human Rights Commission has promised to investigate; the TPLF has called for an international enquiry. UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet also called for a full investigation, saying the killings could amount to war crimes.
Wherever responsibility lies, it points to the extra risks of the involvement of ill-trained regional militias in the conflict: whether in the federal government’s advance into areas of western Tigray claimed by Amhara or in the TPLF’s mobilisation of its militia forces.
All of Ethiopia’s ethno-federal states have their own militias as well as Special Police. The ethnic element is central to the crisis, notably the rounding up of Tigrayans in Addis Ababa, and the dismissal of Tigrayans from the civil service, government administration and the security services, where they were dominant.
A series of ethnic conflicts have blown up in recent months, with an estimated 2.5 million Ethiopians having fled their homes in the past three years due to clashes involving the Oromo, Amhara, Sidama, Gumuz, and Somalis.
Several politicians have been stoking ethnic hatred, often at its worst on social media.
Abiy targets the TPLF with attacks on its record in power. He has referred to criminal mafia masterminds, and coined the phrase ‘ye-qen jiboch‘ (daytime hyenas) to describe TPLF leaders. But his supporters in government and wider society use it against all Tigrayans. Beyond the conflict in Tigray, there are growing clashes and repression by regional security forces. For example, on 1 November a militia attack killed at least 54 people in a schoolyard in western Oromia.
All this has raised fears of a Yugoslav-style unravelling. Determined to avoid this, Abiy wants to restore an effective centralised authority. At the end of last year, he replaced the four-party EPRDF with his own single Prosperity Party. Its structure is organised to run a centralised state rather than the current ethnic-federal system.
For this, Abiy would have to revise the constitution, to reject the ethnic element in the current federal structure. He and his party would be the controlling factor in the restructured government. This may satisfy those Amhara whose parties look back nostalgically to the highly centralised imperial system. But it would not win support from the other nationalities who gained some regional autonomy under the EPRDF’s constitution: Oromos, Somalis, or indeed Tigrayans.
If Abiy wins the conflict, he would try to impose a new government in the Tigrayan capital Mekelle. Through parliament, he has already appointed a new president for Tigray, Mulu Nega, previously federal deputy minister for science and higher education.
There are also political parties and others in Tigray opposed to the TPLF, some advocating independence for Tigray, others including former TPLF leaders willing to work with Abiy and the PP. Local support for them is questionable. They were irrelevant in the regional election in Tigray in September when the TPLF took 98% of the votes in what appears to have been a credible election, although it was dismissed by the federal government and parliament as illegal and unconstitutional.
Any prolonged operations against Tigray or continued inter-ethnic conflict will threaten the stability of Ethiopia and the region, and will further damage an economy already battered by the impact of Covid-19. To navigate out of this crisis, many are calling for a national dialogue ahead of the upcoming elections, followed by a national convention to revise the 1995 constitution and federal system. For now, this seems far from the agenda of the government in Addis Ababa.