Ethiopia’s massive war mobilization echoes the final days of the Derg

Ethiopia’s massive war mobilization echoes the final days of the Derg

It is likely to end the same way.

By MOHAMMED OLAD, July 26, 2021

(Awash Post) — The civil war in Tigray has entered a new phase, ensnarling ethnic militias and security forces from several regional states in Ethiopia. Amhara leaders have characterized the people of Tigray as “enemies” and urged the youth to take up arms.

“I call on all young people, militia, non-militia in the region, armed with any government weapon, armed with personal weapons, to join the war effort,” Agegnehu Teshager, president of the Amhara regional state, told state-run media on Sunday.

Young people are being massed in droves to the war front, particularly from Oromia and the Southern state.

The regionalization of the conflict came weeks after the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF) recaptured the capital Mekelle and much of the Tigray state. The mobilization of regional militias and untrained youth is a tacit admission that the nine-month-old conflict has crippled the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF). The government’s proclaimed ceasefire has completely collapsed as both sides mobilize forces and ratchet up war propaganda.

Ethiopian authorities continue to contradict each other on the next war aims. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and his associates have initially characterized ENDF withdrawal from Tigray as a “unilateral humanitarian” pause. Others, including General Bacha Debele, have said it was a tactical retreat to buy time, reorganize, and launch a final offensive.

One thing seems clear. After the military campaign failed, Abiy had a singular plan to make Tigray kneel: Pull back from most of Tigray except areas occupied by the Amhara forces, fortify international borders, and create a siege, allowing only enough aid to relieve some international pressure.

The stratagem ensured that the battle for Western and Southern Tigray would decide the course of the war. For the Amhara leaders, the loss of these fertile areas would mean a significant political blow. It will also be a major test for Abiy’s Prosperity Party (PP). A failure to back up Amhara members of the party could unravel the shaky alliance and turn the Amhara against Abiy. For the ascending TDF, the return of Amhara-occupied territories and a border opening with Sudan or Djibouti as signaled by their latest offensive on the Afar front were far more critical than the control of Mekelle.

Low morale and reluctance to fight

In effect, the ongoing mobilization of youth and ethnic militias is meant to assuage Amhara’s fears and put up a unified front. But divisions are rife within and between members of the ruling party. For example, in leaked audio earlier this month, Agengehu admits that the conflict had laid bare a serious intra-Amhara division. Hardline Amhara nationalists in Gonder, who claim ownership of Wolqait and other Western Tigray territories, are not happy with the reluctance of Gojjam-Wollo militias to sustain the fight.

Similarly, insiders allege that the Oromia branch of PP and several Oromo military Generals are loath to press on with the war in light of the heavy loss to both ENDF and the country’s international image. Interviews with POWs in Tigrayan custody also point to lack of cause and low morale within the army.

Reports also suggest that contingents deployed from Oromia to Afar and Tigray border are unwilling to fight. TDF has claimed that hundreds of militias from the Oromia contingent have already surrendered without a serious fight. Afar rebels have reportedly intercepted unarmed and untrained Oromo militias en route to the battlefield in the Afar state.

That is not all. Early last week, Mustafa Omar, the President of the Somali region, faced stiff resistance from the Somali Liyu Police commanders in his bid to mobilize 3,000 soldiers to show his commitment to the anti-TPLF war. Senior commanders reportedly pressed Mustafa to explain the rationale for taking sides in a war between Amhara and Tigray at a meeting.

Somali elders and political figures in Jigjiga and elsewhere object to Mustafa’s plan to make the Liyu Police willing participants in the aggression against Tigray. Like most Ethiopians and the international community, Somalis oppose Amhara’s expansionist desire to redraw the internal borders of Ethiopia by force. Prominent Somali activists and leaders have called for an inclusive political settlement. Rebuffed at every turn, Mustafa finally managed to raise some 200 poorly trained militias to join a long, drawn-out war that ENDF had been unable to sustain.

To make matters worse, long-suppressed border tensions between Afar and Somali forces boiled over this week. The fighting appears to have temporarily cut off the main highway linking Addis Ababa to Djibouti. TDF is also eyeing this main artery to open a humanitarian route to Tigray. The Afar-Somali fight may now stretch the ENDF and hasten TDF advances to control the road. The escalation in the Afar-Somali conflict and an extended blockade of the vital Addis-Djibouti highway would be a deadly blow to Ethiopia’s already crumbling economy. The collapse of the economy will, in turn, bring down the Abiy regime and hasten the risk of state failure.

Mengistu’s playbook

The national mobilization and war recruitment have the echoes of the final days of the Derg regime. In fact, the scorched earth tactics, genocidal rhetoric, the demonization and ethnic profiling of Tigrayans, and the deployment of Ethiopia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity as a pretext for the horrific Tigray war are out of Mengistu Hailemariam’s playbook.

Abiy shares much in common with Colonel Mengistu. They both rode a popular wave to power, came from a military background, exhibited a fake and misplaced bravado and patriotism; both left a trail of bloodshed and destruction by killing thousands while displacing and starving millions. Mengistu fled after driving the country to the edge of the cliff and eventual disintegration. Similarly, Abiy’s latest war efforts mirror Mengistu’s war mobilization in the twilight of his brutal Derg regime. As with Mengistu’s campaign, the latest war effort by Abiy and Amhara elites is doomed to fail and may dismember Ethiopia once more. The tell-tell signs are there for the keen, objective observer.

But what’s striking is the new turn the war took after Abiy’s forces were routed out of Tigray, just like how Mengistu’s army was overrun in Eritrea and Tigray.

Before the total collapse of the regime, the Derg tried to halt the rebel advances by arming and mobilizing Amhara peasants in the hope that they will buy the regime some time to recruit, regroup, and redeploy its faltering army. As with the final days of the Derg, Abiy’s government is struggling with a combination of heavy battlefield losses, sustained diplomatic pressure, a faltering economy, and an army besieged by low morale and poor recruitment prospect.

In the end, Mengistu and his regime run out of steam and ideas as the insurgency spread and gained momentum. Similarly, Abiy and his allies are following a similar approach, including by first arming and mobilizing the Amhara peasant militias and then expanding it to all regions. Mengistu’s last trick in his playbook — ‘ሁሉም ነገር ወደ ጦር ግንባር’  or   ‘everything to the frontlines,’ appears to be at work as the ruling elite seek to mobilize the country by portraying the Tigray conflict as an existential threat for all Ethiopians. The parallels underscore a feature of the Abiy regime that has escaped serious scrutiny. Mengistu’s war generals and other Derg military veterans now cheer, advise, or execute Abiy’s wars in Tigray, Oromia, and Benishangul-Gumuz. For example, among other Abiy advisers, Generals Kassaye Chemeda, Berhanu Jula, and Bacha Debele are Derg military veterans.

Abiy may have taken a leaf from Mengistu’s book in his last-ditch mobilization to cling to power. However, like Mengistu, Abiy and his regime are running out of time to save face or survive. It is astonishing to think one can reverse the current trajectory of the war by throwing poorly-trained militias into the fire.

A terrible precedent

It is dreadful that Abiy and the Amhara elites are attempting to expand the war in terms of reach, complexity, and parties involved. Afar may be the latest state to be engulfed by this senseless war, but it won’t be the last. Oromia is already reeling from almost two years of devastating conflicts between the Oromo Liberation Army, the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF), and the Oromia Special forces. The Benishangul Gumuz is in active revolt amid a military Command Post and tensions over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. The Somali-Afar conflict is expected to get worse, adding another front to the security crises facing Ethiopia. As Ethiopians increasingly worry about the return of Derg-style forced conscription of young people, the Tigray conflict is likely to expand and deepen existing tensions.

The mobilization of regional militias also sets a terrible precedent, potentially putting states in an arms race in the future. The division among Amhara militias, the reluctance of the Somali Liyu Police, and the hesitance of Oromo forces make it clear that the ploy is a public relations gimmick rather than a unified national military modulation that can tip the scale in favor of the battered ENDF.

As with the invitation of the Eritrean Army into Ethiopia, the Tigray blockade strategy and Abiy’s turn to demonization and incendiary rhetoric shows a leader whose sole strategy to remain in power is to spark and inflame a civil war. But it is set to backfire spectacularly.

Therefore, it’s time for both Ethiopians and the international community to understand that Abiy Ahmed and his elitist enablers are a lost cause. Their jingoistic campaign risks taking down a nation of 120 million in what could be the largest and worst state collapse in modern history.

Similarly, the nations, nationalities, and peoples of Ethiopia must coalesce and prepare for all eventualities, including the implosion of the Empire. In this context, it is not only prudent but necessary to explore creative ways to secure their collective destiny and distinctive aspirations.

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