Fighting has begun in Ethiopia’s northern region of Tigray after prime minister Abiy Ahmed sent federal troops to quell a rebellion in a move that threatens to bring Africa’s second most populous country to the brink of civil war.
According to the prime minister’s office military operations began in Tigray on Wednesday afternoon. A western diplomat in Addis Ababa also said that “people have been killed” but that the death toll is “uncertain”.
Mr Abiy took to social media early on Wednesday morning to say that a “red line” had been crossed, accusing the armed forces of Tigray’s regional government of attacking a federal army base and “arming and organising irregular militias”.
Mr Abiy, whose government has been struggling to control ethnic-nationalist violence around the country, said his patience had run out with Tigray, which had pressed ahead with elections in September in defiance of a national postponement attributed to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The prime minister’s office said in a statement that the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, or TPLF, had attacked a federal army base in Tigray and “attempted to rob the northern command of artillery and military equipment”. The TPLF, the political party that controls the region of Tigray and lost much of its power nationally after Mr Abiy became prime minister in 2018, viewed the Ethiopian army as an occupying force, the statement said, adding: “The TPLF has chosen to wage war.”
Tigray’s local government said on a TPLF-associated television station that the northern command of the federal Ethiopian military had defected to their side, but the prime minister’s office denied that was the case.
The confrontation with Tigray is the most serious of several ethno-nationalist conflicts that have flared up since 2018 when Mr Abiy became prime minister of Ethiopia, a country of 110m people divided into 10 ethnically based autonomous regions.
Mr Abiy’s appointment had been meant to resolve tensions between the then TPLF-dominated government and those from the Oromo and Amhara regions who felt excluded from power. Instead, it has triggered a wave of ethno-nationalist sentiment as groups long-suppressed by the previous authoritarian government assert their rights and the TPLF fights back after being ejected from power.
“The conflict is not the people of Tigray versus the rest of Ethiopians. It is about reversing the unprovoked assault [by the Tigrayan forces] against the National Defence Forces and upholding the constitutional order,” said Redwan Hussein, spokesman for a newly established State of Emergency Task Force.
The tensions, which some have compared to former Yugoslavia, threaten to derail one of Africa’s most promising economic experiments. Under a state-led development model, the economy has grown at close to 10 per cent for much of the past two decades. Mr Abiy had promised sweeping liberal reforms, including privatising the huge telecoms monopoly, to take the economy towards middle-income status, but political tensions have slowed his plans.
With phone lines and the internet cut in Tigray, according to NetBlocks, which tracks internet blockages around the world, TPLF officials could not be reached for comment. But Debretsion Gebremichael, Tigray’s regional president, was quoted on Tuesday as saying: “We have prepared our military of special force not in need of a war, but if the worst comes, to defend ourselves.” On Wednesday, the federal council of ministers in Addis Ababa declared a six-month state of emergency in Tigray.
Diplomats in Addis Ababa called the fighting a “civil war”. Analysts believe it halts the political and liberal economic reforms that Mr Abiy — who last year won the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in ending a 20-year conflict with neighbouring Eritrea — had been championing.
Another commentator, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it looked as though Mr Abiy had been planning the clampdown for weeks and timed it to coincide with the US elections when the world was distracted. In a statement, the US embassy in Addis said it “urges an immediate de-escalation of the current situation in Tigray and a measured response by both sides”.
Tigray’s well-organised armed forces have their roots in the rebel army that overthrew a Marxist regime in 1991 and brought the Tigrayans to the centre of power for 27 years until Mr Abiy took over two years ago.
To the Tigrayan leadership — as well as many from other ethnic groups, including Mr Abiy’s own Oromo — the prime minister’s emphasis on national unity and a pan-Ethiopian identity undermines a federal system that guarantees significant autonomy for ethnically defined territories.
The regional government of Oromia accused the TPLF of supporting a militia group, the Oromo Liberation Front-Shane, which it alleged played a role in a massacre on Sunday that killed at least 54 people.
After Mr Abiy came to power, the TPLF refused to merge into his new unitary Prosperity party, which replaced the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, a four-party coalition that had run the country for three decades.