A regional capital falls, and so does the stature of Ethiopia’s leader and its military
The surprise fall of the Tigrayan regional capital, Mekelle, this week has put Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in a tough spot, dealt a blow to the country’s military and placed the Tigrayan forces in a position of strength.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed may have won a Nobel Peace Prize, but on Monday, June 28, he seemed unable to grasp the difference between war and peace, ceasefire and defeat, and – more critically – the distinction between spin and the hard realities on the ground.
The disconnect has threatened not just Abiy’s credibility, but the security of his country, the wider Horn of Africa region, and exposed the challenges confronting the African Union – based in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa – in its bid to deliver “African solutions to African problems”.
On Monday evening, reports started emerging from Mekelle, capital of war-ravaged northern Tigray province, that Ethiopian troops were suddenly withdrawing from the city. Before long, crowds gathered in Mekelle’s streets to celebrate the departure of Ethiopian government forces and welcome the arrival of Tigray Defense Forces (TDF) rebel fighters.
Celebrations in Mekelle as TDF takes city pic.twitter.com/CPHYlzofxT
— Martin Plaut (@martinplaut) June 28, 2021
The Abiy administration, however, had an unusual spin on the latest development in the devastating eight-month-long Tigray conflict. The government had declared an “unconditional, unilateral ceasefire” in the province, according to a statement published by state media.
Tigrayan leaders offered a different narrative.
In a statement released Monday night, Tigrayan leaders asserted that Mekelle’s fall was due to a “lightning operation” by the Tigray Defense Forces, a rebel army composed of members of the region’s former ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) as well as non-members. The TDF was formed shortly after Abiy ordered a military operation on Tigray in November 2020, and this was their “victory” against “the invading forces”, the statement proclaimed.
“It’s clearly, without a doubt, a military defeat. You can’t have a situation where one party declares a unilateral ceasefire while fleeing areas it once controlled. They could have at least said they retreated for tactical reasons,” said Awol Allo, senior lecturer at Keele University in England.
Days later, the official narrative was starting to unwind and the ceasefire was in doubt.
“If it is required, we can easily enter Mekelle and we can enter in less than three weeks,” Redwan Hussein, spokesman for the Ethiopian government’s task force for Tigray, told reporters in Addis Ababa on Wednesday.
Abiy, meanwhile, acknowledged that government troops had left Mekelle, and that his army units had been ambushed and “massacred” while advancing through Tigrayan villages. But he attempted to downplay the fall of the Tigrayan regional capital, insisting it was not a defeat.
“It was the centre of a government. A centre for known and unknown resources. But by the time we exit, there is nothing special about it except that there are some 80,000 people, and those who loot people,” said Abiy in a videotaped address posted on his website, vastly underestimating the city’s population of around 500,000, according to demographers.
‘Monumental fall from grace’
From a globally fêted peacemaker to hawk overseeing a conflict that has seen mass killings, displacements and allegations of serious human rights violations by the UN, Abiy’s international stature has taken a sharp nosedive over the past eight months.
“For Abiy, it’s such a monumental fall from grace. This is somebody who came to power on the back of widespread popular protests. He was popular, his team was popular, and he received extensive international praise for establishing friendship with the Eritrean dictator,” said Awol, referring to the 2018 peace deal signed by Abiy and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki.
Awol – who was among the experts who nominated the Ethiopian prime minister for the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize – believes Abiy’s credibility began to slide with his attempts to “consolidate power and enact his childhood ambitions on 100 million inhabitants of Ethiopia”.
Abiy’s rise from rural poverty to the country’s highest office is by now the stuff of legend in Ethiopia, a rags-to-riches tale that acquires a messianic quality with every retelling. As recounted in a 2018 interview with the New York Times, the story goes that his impoverished mother once whispered into the ear of a 7-year-old Abiy that he would “end up in the palace” and “serve the nation”.
Critics, however, question whether Abiy, now 44, is best serving his country and its military, the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF).
“This is a military that has a reputation for being tough. Unfortunately, with this particular defeat of a big national force being repulsed by a tiny region, the Ethiopian military no longer has the same standing,” said Awol.
Rebel ‘mastermind’ rises from forced retirement
The Ethiopian military’s loss of stature has been the TDF’s gain.
On November 4, 2020, when the Ethiopian prime minister ordered a military operation in Tigray following escalating tensions with his former coalition partner, the TPLF, military experts immediately warned of a tough fight between “battle-hardened” troops.
With a combined force of around 140,000 active personnel, mostly in the army, the ENDF is considered a military heavyweight in the Horn of Africa region, one that has conducted cross-borders campaigns in neighbouring Eritrea and Somalia.
But the northern Tigray province – with its well-armed regional paramilitary force led by former national army generals – could also put up a fierce resistance, analysts warned.
That resistance strengthened as Abiy’s controversial use of Eritrean troops and militias from the rival ethnic Amhara group united Tigrayans, including those who had fallen out with the TPLF.
Formed in the 1970s, the TPLF emerged as the biggest and most powerful armed rebel group in Ethiopia following the 1991 ouster of brutal dictator Mengistu Hailemariam. The party then dominated Ethiopian politics for over two decades, overseeing economic development in the impoverished nation, but also maintaining power through repression.
The TPLF’s excesses sparked several splits within the ranks, including a particularly acrimonious one in 2001, after the Eritrea-Ethiopia war.
One of the casualties of the internal TPLF splits was Gen. Tsadkan Gebretensae, considered one of Ethiopia’s finest military strategists, who was fired from his post as Ethiopia’s chief of general staff.
When Abiy launched a military offensive in Tigray, Gen. Tsadkan was among several former TPLF senior military officers who joined the freshly minted TDF.
“The TPLF is a party with a contested legacy because it brutalised the Ethiopian public for nearly a quarter of a century,” explained Awol. So when the TDF emerged out of the TPLF last year, it attracted “all the Tigrayans who disagreed with the TPLF in the past and who saw no reason to reject the TDF,” he explained.
Gen. Tsadkan immediately assumed joint responsibility for the TDF’s military affairs, and spent months training new recruits before the latest offensive was launched, wrote leading Africa analyst Alex de Waal in a BBC column. Following the spectacular fall of Mekelle, the retired army general is being hailed as the Tigrayan “mastermind” in a recruiting coup for the TDF.
No African solution for this African problem
Ethiopia’s decommissioning of senior Tigrayan military commanders raised eyebrows in November, when the AU fired its security chief a day after the bloc’s chair, Moussa Faki Mahamat, received a letter from the Ethiopian defense ministry requesting the Tigrayan general’s dismissal, according to Reuters.
Gen. Gebreegziabher Mebratu Melese was on a list of military officials accused of treason for belonging to the TPLF “junta”.
Headquartered in Addis Ababa, the AU has faced criticisms over its inability to intervene in a conflict that has killed thousands of people, displaced over a million and has plunged the area to the brink of a humanitarian disaster, according to the UN.
“I think the AU’s credibility is in tatters, its prestige has been undermined by its failure to tackle the issue or even table a resolution on the Tigrayan crisis. There is a widespread belief among Tigrayans that the AU simply followed the Ethiopian government’s talking points,” said Awol.
Following a call by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken for the AU to do more to address the crisis, the bloc launched a commission in June to investigate alleged human rights violations in Tigray.
But like the UN, the AU is limited by the interests and actions of its member states, a fact underscored by the Ethiopian government’s call on the bloc to “immediately cease” the human rights commission leading the inquiry.
Eritrean troops, Amhara militias ‘sandwich Tigray’
The most serious implications of Abiy’s use of military force in Tigray, however, concern the future security and stability of his own ethnically diverse nation.
Abiy’s use of troops from neighbouring Eritrean – which was denied as “fake news” for months – in northern Tigray, and of Amhara militias in the southern and western regions was part of a “sandwich Tigray” strategy to isolate the recalcitrant province, according to analysts.
But by turning one ethnic group against another and inviting soldiers from a neighbouring country that has long been an enemy of the Ethiopian state, Abiy has played with fire. Those flames could engulf the nation and the region.
Traditionally, ceasefire declarations are welcomed as opportunities to try to bring warring camps to the table. But the Ethiopian government’s so-called ceasefire could spark an intensification of the conflict, many analysts warn.
“It’s difficult to bring the two parties to the table,” Awol explained. “Abiy invited the enemy country, Eritrea, and that’s really hard to reconcile. Barbaric crimes were committed, there’s been a polarisation of the populace and hatred fueled by propaganda. I find it very hard to see how the country can move on.”
On the domestic front, the Amhara “elites” have long contested pieces of territory in what is now Tigray province, particularly the Benishangul-Gumuz region near the eastern border with Sudan, where the massive Grand Renaissance Dam is under construction.
Politically sidelined in recent years, the Amharas nevertheless consider themselves the country’s cultural elites. Critics say Abiy has stoked Amhara nationalism, including frequent references to Menelik I, the first Solomonic emperor of Ethiopia who is believed to be the ancestor of the last emperor, Haile Selassie.
The rise in the TDF’s military fortunes are a troubling development for the Amhara militias, noted Awol. “The biggest losers could be the Amharas because the Ethiopian National Defense Forces have left. Will Abiy now defend the areas the Amharas have taken and now control? There will be military, economic and ideological problems ahead,” he warned.
The only hope, according to Awol, is for the international community, specifically the Western powers, to bring the two sides to the negotiating table. But the seasoned Ethiopian analyst is not putting any bets on a peaceful outcome in the short term.
“This defeat puts the government, that until recently resisted any suggestion of peaceful negotiations, in a very weak position. If there are any negotiations, the TPLF will be negotiating from a position of strength,” Awol noted.
It’s a position Ethiopia’s Nobel laureate leader is unlikely to accept in the spirit of peace.