The Battle of Mekelle and Its Implications for Ethiopia

December 4, 2020

Judd Devermont
Director, Africa Program

On November 28, Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed congratulated the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) for seizing control of Mekelle, the capital of Ethiopia’s restive Tigray region, after nearly a month of mounting violence between the government and rebel Tigrayan forces. Abiy declared that he would focus on “rebuilding the region and providing humanitarian assistance while Federal Police apprehend the [Tigray People’s Liberation Front] TPLF clique.” The prime minister’s triumphant message, however, underplays the human toll of the conflict; dismisses the risk of an insurgency and regional spill over; and discounts damage to the country’s democratic transition.

Q1: How did the conflict begin?

A1: Prime Minister Abiy and the TPLF share responsibility for the tragedy in Tigray. Both sides have been confrontational and uncompromising, heedlessly escalating tensions until fighting inevitably broke out in early November. Prime Minister Abiy, whose daring commitment to reconciliation and reform awed many Ethiopians and international observers, including the Norwegian Nobel Committee, was decidedly less magnanimous toward Ethiopia’s previous regime dominated by the TPLF. He swiftly moved against ethnic Tigrayan officials—who represent 6 percent of the population—arresting more than 60 officials, some from the intelligence services and some from a military-run industrial conglomerate. The TPLF responded in kind, rejecting Abiy’s leadership and refusing to join the prime minister’s new Prosperity Party. When Abiy delayed the election due to the pandemic, the TPLF ignored his order and defiantly proceeded with its own election on September 9, which it won by a landslide.

The election was a turning point. In response, the federal government declared the TPLF’s rule unlawful and the Tigray government indicated it would no longer recognize Abiy’s leadership. The TPLF claimed that federal troops had started to mass on Tigray’s southern flanks, presumably precipitating the raid on a federal military base. Abiy in turn accused the TPLF of “crossing a red line” on November 4, deploying his military to capture the region’s major towns and infrastructure and arrest the TPLF. The ENDF subsequently swept through Tigray, conducting air strikes and warning civilians there would be “no mercy” during the final assault on Mekelle. The TPLF, meanwhile, fired rockets at least three times into Eritrea to internationalize the conflict. A communications blackout has made it difficult to independently verify whether Mekelle is completely under federal government control.

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Q2: What have been the conflict’s humanitarian and human rights consequences?

A2: Since the conflict started early last month, there have been significant outflows of people and accusations of human rights abuses perpetrated by both sides. More than 40,000 people so far have fled to Sudan, and the United Nations estimates that it could rise to 200,000 within the next six months. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) is developing a Humanitarian Preparedness Plan to target 1.98 million people with multi-sector assistance in Tigray, Afar, and Amhara regions. This includes the existing humanitarian caseload, as well as an additional 1.1 million people expected to need assistance as a result of the conflict.

There have been hundreds of casualties from the fighting, but the media blackout has prevented a more accurate accounting. Following the siege of Mekelle, the ICRC indicated it “found approximately 80 percent of patients to be suffering from trauma injuries” at a local hospital. Ethnic Tigrayan and Amhara militias, as well as government forces, have allegedly committed human rights abuses; Amnesty and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) have accused—with varying levels of certainty—Tigrayan forces for massacres of non-Tigrayans. In Sudan’s Um Raquba refugee camp, individuals blamed the ENDF and Amhara militias for attacking Tigrayan villagers.

Equally alarming has been the level of disinformation and hate speech on social media, fueling discrimination and hostility toward certain ethnic groups. According to the BBC, social media users have posted manipulated photos of an S-400 Russian missile defense system in Tigray region and claimed the Tigrayan downed an Ethiopian fighter jet. In the Washington Post, Claire Wilmot analyzed Twitter data in early November, revealing how pro-Tigray and pro-Ethiopia activists promote their opposing narratives about who is responsible for the conflict. The Ethiopian government’s recall of Tigrayan soldiers deployed in Somalia and South Sudan, as well as at least one civilian at the African Union, has reinforced an ethnic dimension to the conflict. The UN’s special advisers on the prevention of genocide and the Responsibility to Protect warned that the current situation heightens the risk of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity.

Q3: What are the prospects for an insurgency and widening of the war?

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A3: With the ENDF in control of most towns in Tigray, the TPLF is likely to regroup as an insurgency. Tigray regional president Debretsion Gebremichael told the Associated Press that his forces “will continue until the invaders are out.” William Davidson, the International Crisis Group’s senior analyst on Ethiopia, explains that the TPLF can count on a regional paramilitary force led by former national army generals and a large militia full of war veterans to support the rebellion. The TPLF’s apparent decision to minimally defend key towns, including Mekelle, parallels its tactics almost four decades ago; in 1984, a declassified CIA assessment judged that the TPLF “avoided setpiece battles in favor of small-unit, classic guerilla operations against isolated garrisons and lines of communication, a major factor in its success.” It added that the TPLF established an effective intelligence network among a largely sympathetic population. If the TPLF reprises its old playbook, it could continue fighting for several few months and contribute to further dislocation, deaths, and ethnic polarization.

In addition, the conflict risks spreading to other Ethiopian regional states. The Amhara government, which has a long-running dispute over its border with Tigray, is already involved; the TPLF fired rockets into the cities of Bahir Dar and Gondar while Amhara militia have supported federal forces in operations in Tigray. Davidson, in an interview with the Africa Report, expressed his fear that Abiy’s opponents in Oromia region may ramp up attacks if they “sense weakness.” Even before the fighting in Tigray, there had been incidents of violence in Afar, Amhara, Benishangul-Gumuz, Oromia, Somali, and Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region (SNNPR). Many of these conflicts involve territorial disputes, ethnic tensions, and power struggles between rival rebel and militia groups.

A wider conflict with Eritrea is also possible. The TPLF and Eritrean president Isaias Afwerki—once allies in their struggle against Ethiopia’s former ruling military junta, the Derg—fell out in the late 1990s and fought a devastating border war from 1998–2000. Abiy, on the other hand, is close to Isaias, and is credited for overseeing rapprochement between the neighboring states. There have been rumors that Abiy and Isaias coordinated the assault on their mutual enemy in Tigray, and the TPLF has alleged that Eritrean soldiers crossed the shared border to support government operations. The TPLF launched strikes into Eritrea presumably in retaliation, as well as to draw Eritrea further into the conflict. The TPLF has an interest in exploiting Tigrayan animosity toward Eritrea to ensure its fighters and the general Tigrayan public continue to side with the TPLF. Abiy, Isaias, and Debretsion are playing a dangerous game, and the risk of miscalculation and greater regional instability are high.

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Q4: How does the fighting affect Ethiopia’s democratic transition?

A4: Prime Minister Abiy’s security operation to tame the rebellious TPLF may backfire, postponing or even ending Ethiopia’s transition to democratic rule. Abiy has justified his government’s actions as a response to an “unconstitutional” and “illegal” decision by the TPLF to prematurely hold elections. He appointed a provisional administrator to lead the region for the foreseeable future because, as his attorney general claimed, the people of Tigray have said “enough is enough.” While ostensibly these measures seek to remove the insubordinate TPLF and restore the electoral calendar, it raises questions about Abiy’s commitment to an inclusive, consultative process.

In the past two years, Abiy has moved to centralize power through his Prosperity Party and has cracked down on dissidents, including those from his own ethnic group. These steps already have fueled skepticism about his willingness to listen and incorporate the views of others in steering Ethiopia toward a stable, free, and democratic future. With the ENDF’s initial success in Tigray, Abiy is likely to adopt a more imperious manner in his dealings with opponents and subordinates. He probably will be less open to compromises, and other regions and ethnic groups may fear dire consequences if they cross the federal government.

Prior to the conflict, the Ethiopian government proposed to hold its postponed parliamentary election in May or June 2021. Abiy’s pledge to “rebuild what has been destroyed” in Tigray and the specter of more fighting may necessitate further election delays. If Abiy opts to run roughshod over other regions in the wake of his “victory,” it almost will certainly undercut his credibility as a democratic reformer.

Judd Devermont is the director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

4 Comments

  1. Amharas do want to control the entire world ,although they got thier land snatched by Sudan , and claim they will unify the world with one language, king and religion. Amarikawiyan, ya lem zegoch hulu saykeru we de yitopibiya yisededalu silu yeminegrun yamara bahtawuyan tebiyoch altefum. Yawum wede yemarina yewetetuwa ager Gojam kikiki narration from extremist fanoic bahtawuyan

    There is still a risk that BBC , CNNand Reuter recently might be closed by Abiy and temesgen Tiruneh !!!!

  2. The article appears to be written by a well-informed person interested in skillfully crafting a propaganda piece to misinform the uninformed reader. I will only comment on the following section.
    “….Abiy …was decidedly less magnanimous toward Ethiopia’s previous regime dominated by the TPLF. He swiftly moved against ethnic Tigrayan officials—who represent 6 percent of the population—arresting more than 60 officials, some from the intelligence services and some from a military-run industrial conglomerate.”
    I am by no means an Abiy supporter. In fact, I oppose his arrest of innocent prominent politicians like Iskindir Negga and Lidetu Ayalew. However, I would like to point out some intentional misrepresentations in this piece.
    Abiy has not only been magnanimous towards the TPLF, but notoriously inept and reluctant to bring TPLF’s criminals to justice. The author seems to be well aware of the facts but has chosen to present them in a light that would mislead the casual reader.
    The casual reader is not told that Tigrayans from the TPLF, representing only 6% of Ethiopia’s population, dominated 60 to 80% of the National Army and Intelligence leadership. At some levels, this domination reached 100%! So when the author writes 60 officials of the Corrupt TPLF were arrested, the uninformed reader would take that as a great proportion, given that Tigrayans make up only 6% of the population. 60 officials, however, represent only a tiny percentage of TPLF Tigrayans in power. TPLF Tigrayans in office all over Ethiopia run in the tens of thousands.
    Moreover, the piece fails to inform the reader that it is the thousands of TPLF officials inside the Ethiopian military and intelligence who worked with the external TPLF special force to precipitate the attack on the largest military base of the country.
    The other intentionally left out fact is the billions of dollars embezzled by the TPLF and its military-run industrial complex. What the TPLF did was to refuse to hand over criminals responsible for large-scale atrocities and embezzlement. Secondly, TPLF, while still receiving budgetary allocations from the Federal Government, acted as a de facto state and defiantly staged military show of force. Abiy moved swiftly to crush any such belligerence from other regional governments, but tolerated the TPLF beyond the patience of the great majority of Ethiopians. This, in fact, has cost Abiy irreparable damage as those who suffered most when TPLF was in power regarded Abiy to be in cahoots with these criminals.
    It is clear to all that a guerrilla army that walked bare foot into Addis in 1991 could not own hundreds of corporations and list a dozen billionaires in its ranks in less than three decades without large scale looting and corruption. Despite this, Abiy allowed TPLF businesses to operate. It would have been hard to do otherwise, as the TPLF and its affiliates controlled virtually every sector of the Ethiopian economy. All this tolerance while TPLF attempted several assassinations on Abiy and funded inter-ethnic strife and genocidal atrocities all over the country.
    Abiy also took no measures when the TPLF blocked redeployment of a part of the National Defense military units out of Tigray. 70% of the force was in Tigray and, after the rapprochement with Eritrea, such a big military presence was no longer needed. As genocidal attacks and inter-ethnic strife mounted, Abiy needed some of these Army to be deployed about the country. These attacks on innocent unarmed civilians led to the deaths of thousands and the displacement of millions.
    The other fact, intentionally ignored as a source of conflict, is the new currency issued by the Ethiopian government. TPLF was left with possibly billions of birr in the old Ethiopian currency that it printed and horded in Tigray. The old birr was also discovered in sacks, containers and building basements all over the country. Despite urging by activists, Abiy was very slow in issuing the new currency. This gave the TPLF ample time to change their ill-gotten birr to foreign currency. Even then, the TPLF was very sore at the issuance of the new currency.
    Such was the contour of the conflict. So, Abiy did not act swiftly and, in fact, he was way more than magnanimous when it came to the TPLF. I only wish he was half as tolerant towards innocent politicians and journalists whose sole crime is criticizing his government’s policies.

  3. MR. Judd Devermont, your rhetoric is neither factual nor justifiable in any notion but pure fiction rather biased decree. You know what, you are paid ether Western employee to facilitate the bulldoze Ethiopia agenda or TPLF paid subhuman. You know it but I want to remind you 3 facts:
    – TPLF is traitor mafia. It is a killing machine, absolute liar and absolute looter. It is rather alien inspired enemy of ET.
    – TPLF is a terrorist organization procured, installed, and sustained in government power in ET bulldoze Ethiopians and the nationhood. They found it here: https://www.trackingterrorism.org/group/tigray-peoples-liberation-front-tplf
    – The recent law enforcement and survival operation is a reaction to its unending unlawfulness and treason due to its attack on the nations Northern command.
    I know you are not ignorant of these three but you are trying to portray to your employers and beyond that you are a good assignee in de buldoze Ethiopia agenda. But, Ethiopia is none of your concern and we firmid you to do that. I command you to go away from Ethiopia because you are neither Ethiopian nor an authentic human. Besides I should tell you this: Your rhetoric doesn’t help TPLF because it is buried, your Western bosses may not be happy in your story because it garbage. Hence your garabage helps no one.

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