The Notion of Anticipatory Self-Defense and War between Tigrai and Ethiopia

The Notion of Anticipatory Self-Defense and the War between the State of Tigrai and the Federal Government of Ethiopia

By Assefa A. Lemu, December 27, 2020

Tigrai Ethiopia

After two years and half of war of words, the disagreement between the Governments of the State of Tigrai and the Federal Government of Ethiopia transformed into actual war on November 3, 2020. As admitted by Sekuture Getachew, one of the top officials of Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), Tigrai Defense force attacked the Northern Command of Ethiopian National Defense Force in Tigrai following the notion of “Anticipatory Self-Defense”.  In a discussion on the Dimtsi Woyane TV under the topic of “የመጀመሪያው ምዕራፍ በድል መጠናቀቅ እንድምታ” (the impact of the conclusion of the first chapter with victory)  aired on November 13, 2020, Mr. Sekuture explained that Abiy Ahmed’s Government’s consolidation of military forces in the Western Tigrai, an attempt to change the leadership of the Fourth Command which is stationed in Tigrai, establishing new mechanized brigade in Bahirdar since four of the six mechanized brigades of Ethiopia are in Tigrai, closure of the main road between Addis Ababa and Mekelle, and war threat from Eritrea made the Government of the State of Tigrai to take swift and powerful attack which destabilized and demobilized the whole of Fourth Command, except few pockets, in 45 minutes following the concept of Anticipatory Self-Defense.

He said, the concept of anticipatory self-defense which the small countries like Israel used when they felt that clear and imminent danger that put their survival at peril exists is accepted international concept and it is used to swiftly strike like a thunderstorm to destabilize and demobilize enemy forces. He added, the Government of the State of Tigrai took similar action taken by Israel against Arabs in 1967 Arab-Israel War because there were 30,000 Federal armies and four mechanized brigades in Tigrai and the invading unitary forces from the southern direction and the forces of Isaias Afeworki (Eritrean Forces) had been approaching from the northern direction. According to Mr. Sekuture, the strike taken against the Federal Government forces following the concept of anticipatory self-defense put Tigrai in the better position in terms of armament, psychological readiness for war, and mobilization of resources. Mr. Getachew Reda, Advisor to the President of Tigrai and Spokesperson of Tigrai Central Command,   also confirmed that the Government of Tigrai took control of all the artilleries and properties of the Forth Command.

What is Anticipatory Self- Defense?

The right of self-defense is acceptable under international law and national laws of Ethiopia. The action of self-defense is considered legitimate if it is taken against an illegal attack or war against oneself. In criminal law, self-defense is “the protection of one’s person or property against some injury attempted by another”. To use the right of self-defense, there should be an attempt against which a person uses force in resisting an attack. Some writers argue that “self-defense is lawful not only in defense of life, but also in defense of lawfully possessed property, with deadly force if necessary. The principle of self-defense allows a person to come to the aid of a relative or friend whose person or property is being attacked”. According to Article 14 of Ethiopian Constitution, every person has the inviolable and inalienable right to life, the security of person, and liberty and may not be deprived of his life except as a punishment for a serious criminal offence determined by law.

On the other hand, the notion of anticipatory self-defense is the use of force to repel an attacker before an actual attack has taken place- before the attacking force has crossed the border and before enemy started an attack. As the name indicates “Anticipatory” is a term that “refers to the ability to foresee consequences of some future action and take measures aimed at checking or countering those consequences”.

There are two schools of thought regarding anticipatory self-defense. The Restrictive School argues for a narrow interpretation of self-defense, excluding anticipatory self-defense, and asserts that there is no right of self-defense absent an attack. In the event of a possible attack, one can only prepare to resist a possible attack. The Expansive School argues that self-defense includes the use of force in anticipation of an attack.

Even though Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations accepts the inherent right of self-defense of its member states if an armed attack occurs against them, it is silent on anticipatory self-defense or preemptive strike in the face of an imminent attack. However, anticipatory self-defense has long been accepted as legitimate and appropriate under international law.

The case of the State of Tigrai and Federal Government of Ethiopia of November 2020 may not be subject to international law, but understanding the concept of anticipatory self-defense will help us to evaluate the argument of the officials of the Government of the State of Tigrai to justify their preemptive strike on the North Command of National Defense Force of Ethiopia referring to that concept.

Was the War Anticipated?

The war between the State of Tigrai and the Federal Government of Ethiopia was anticipated and it didn’t come as surprise to many. The disagreement between the two was intensified following Tigrai’s decision to hold regional parliamentary election. In early August 2020, besides writing a letter to Tigrai Government not to hold the planned election, the Speaker of the House of Federation of Ethiopia Mr. Adam Farah warned that if the State of Tigrai pursues its plan to hold election, the Federal Government will take “the necessary and appropriate measure”. The State of Tigrai held the reginal parliamentary election on September 9, 2020 and claimed that the Government of the State of Tigrai is the only lawful administration in Ethiopia because the term of office of the rest expired on October 4, 2020.  They said they will not recognize the power of the Federal Government of Ethiopia after October 5, 2020 and members of the Federal parliament elected from Tigrai withdrew from the parliament. Ethiopian Federal Government also refused to recognize the newly established government of Tigrai and refused to provide budget support. There were military parades both in Mekelle and Addis Ababa to show force.

As Tamirat Layne said the anticipatory self-defense strike on the Fourth Command is simply a pretext to start the war but the fundamental cause of the war is struggle for the control of power and both sides had been preparing for the war for more than two years. Amhara Police Commissioner Abere Adamu who claimed he was the one who informed General Birhanu Jula who is the Chief of General Staff of Ethiopia about the breaking of the war between Tigrai and the Federal Government said that the officials of Amhara State knew that the war was coming and the Amhara Special Forces had been preparing for it. Tons of evidences could be presented to prove that the war between the State of Tigrai and the Federal Government of Ethiopia was expected but there is no need to list additional evidence on this.

Why the Tigrai State Government Took Preemptive Strike?  

The reasons why the Government of the State of Tigrai took anticipatory self-defense attack or preemptive strike could be many and differ based on who is listing them because the supporters of the causes of Tigrai and the Federal Government have their own perspective. Here, I will list the reasons which I think are correct:

  1. TPLF over estimated its experience in war, armament it possessed, and potential to fight. For example, the president of Tigray Dr. Debretsion Gebremeskel repeatedly said Tigrai will crush  and powder  Federal forces. TPLF Officials like Ambassador Wondimu Asmamaw claimed that Tigrai people are special and better than Oromo, Wolyita, Qimant and others in terms of organization, leadership, armament and will not be subdued like them. Unfortunately, TPLF officials couldn’t prove that they are different from Oromo in defending themselves from the forces of the Federal Government with all those accumulation of artillery. TPLF crumbled with less than a month of war with the forces of Federal Government and Mekelle City was controlled on November 28, 2020.  We didn’t notice the claimed superiority of Tigrai people to Oromo in defending themselves against the forces of the Federal Government regardless of high accumulation of armaments (before the war 75% of artillery and 45% of Federal defense forces were in Tigrai). TPLF leaders were disbanded and went to hiding, their supporters were either killed or jailed or fired from government jobs, their media were closed, and their properties were either confiscated or blocked. In short, as journalist Sileshi Shibiru of Nahoo TV put it, TPLF officials started the war out of haughtiness without having Plan B or their Plan B failed to work.
  2. Undermining the power of the Federal Government- Some Tegaru activists bragged that if it wishes, Tigrai could remove Abiy Ahmed from Arat Killo Palace within one week because Tigrai has all the necessary preparation, armament, and defendable cause. It is undeniable fact that TPLF played a key role in removing Derg from power and bringing political changes in Ethiopia which is still acknowledged by the majority of Ethiopians. At the same time TPLF did lots of harms for which some want to take revenge against TPLF officials by standing on the side of the Federal Government. In addition, the Federal Government has more coercive power to mobilize more force to the war and has more resources including logistics. The Government of the State of Tigrai and TPLF miscalculated these imbalances.
  3. Assuming Tigarus are special—In his speech made one day before the outbreak of the war, the President of Tigrai said no one will defeat Tegarus and history is a prove for this. No one defeated Tegarus in the past and again no one will defeat them; Tigrai will be the burial place of dictators. In his November 24, 2020 speech he also said the history of Adwa will be repeated in Tigrai; as if the victory of Adwa was achieved by Tegarus alone. Yes, Tegarus played a key role in overthrowing Derg and referring back to history is necessary to mobilize supporters, but it is necessary to be careful not to send wrong messages to others while mobilizing supporters– others may ask “who do they think they are?” instead of rendering support or sympathy.

The Outcome of Tigrai’s Anticipatory Self Defense

The Federal Government of Ethiopia announced the war with the Government of the State of Tigrai is over and what is remaining is to hunt down members of the “TPLF Junta”. In order to catch what it says “members of the TPLF Junta”, the Federal government set aside 10 million Birr to give as a reward to anyone who informed the Federal Government whereabouts of the “Juntas”.

In fact, it seems that the conventional war is over unless the guerilla war is started. After the war started, Dr. Debretsion said the difference between TPLF and Prosperity Party is political and must be solved through discussion not in the battle field. If that is the case, it is not clear why the Government of the State of Tigrai sparked the war.

The Federal Government presented Tigrai’s preemptive strike of the North Command as an attack on the Ethiopian National Defense Force and as an attack against entire Ethiopia and mobilized the regular army, special forces, militias, and various supports nationally and internationally. Two weeks after the war started, TPLF officials who criticized Oromos, Waliytas, and others for being excelled by the military forces of the Federal Government asked for their help. Finally, the Federal Government won the November 2020 war and forcefully removed the elected Government of Tigrai and replaced by the Provisional Government of Tigrai led by handpicked individuals. If it happened, the next war whether it is conventional or guerrilla will be different chapter of the story.

Even though Prime Minister Abiy said the purpose of the war is to restore law and order in Tigrai, some Amhara activist say it is the war to repossess (rist masmeles) their ancestral lands taken from them by TPLF and to change the current constitution.  That could be one of the reasons why the Amhara Special Force and militias quickly opened attacks on Tigrai forces in different fronts. Some Amhara activists argue that Wolkait, Tsegede, and Rayya belong to Amhara and were included into Tigrai State illegally before the ratification of the Ethiopian constitution and can’t be solved within the framework of the constitution.  This is a fallacy because the boundary of Tigrai during the ratification of the constitution was the same as the current one and this means the constitution confirmed or acknowledged that boundary.  All border questions, whether drawn before the ratification of the constitution and acknowledged by the constitution or drawn after the ratification of the constitution, must be handled in accordance with Article 48 of the constitution which says “All State border disputes shall be settled by agreement of the concerned States. Where the concerned States fail to reach agreement, the House of the Federation shall decide such disputes on the basis of settlement patterns and the wishes of the peoples concerned”. In legal term, shall is synonymous with must and the provision is obligatory.

The  first regionalization of Ethiopia after 1991 was proposed by the Regionalization Task Force led by the former ANDM official Mr. Dawit Yohanes who himself was Amhara using the study made by the Nationalities Institute of Derg and the proposal of the Task Force was approved by the Parliament of the Transitional Government of Ethiopia. Therefore, there is no legal base to solve the border dispute between Tigrai and Amhara outside the framework of the constitution.

Motivated by the victory over the Government of the State of Tigrai, Amhara forces are vowing to proceed to other neighboring States in the name of defending the Amhara rights. For this purpose, some pro-Amhara media and Amhara State officials are portraying Beneshangul and Oromo as cannibals who eat human flesh. They wish to present Amhara like a fire that no one dare to touch and afraid from the distance. Amhara Police Commissioner Abere Adamu officially declared that Amhara Special Force can go anywhere in Ethiopia and fight and indicated its intention to go to Benishangul Gumuz (Metekel) and Oromia (Wollega) under the cover of protecting the rights of Amhara. After the defeat of the Government of Tigrai, the removal of the monument in Bahir Dar which used to symbolize the “end of war” is one of the indications of Amhara’s intention to point their guns against others and their readiness for wars.

Mouthpieces of expansionist anti-multinational federal system like Tamirat Negera advocate for taking back Ethiopia to pre 1974 era of one language, one flag, and one religion system where only “Ethiopian nationalism” is upheld and ethnic nationalism is considered trash (qiraqimbo).Thanks to Walelign Mekonnen we know what “Ethiopian Nationalism” mean.


The crushing of the Government of Tigrai has emboldened some of the pro-unitary and anti-multi-national federalism groups and increased their ambition to scrub away the constitution, to change the federal structure and the degree of the rights for self-administration, and the structure of the current regionalization and the form of government. They argue that ethnic based political organizations, particularly TPLF, OLF, and ONLF must be banned and designated as terrorist groups. As one of the senior OLF members Mr. Abbachala Lata puts it, this group thinks that once the Tigrai force is crushed, the remaining are hays which can be easily swept away. He argued that eliminating organizations like Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) is impossible because OLF is simply a front established to fulfil the aspiration of Oromo for liberation and as far as the Oromo people exist, OLF will exist. The same is true for TPLF because Oromos and Tegarus have historical and sentimental attachments to their respective liberation fronts.

Unless the ambition for expansion (“rist masmeles”) is checked, the attempt to forcefully change the constitution is stopped, and the powers of the Federal Government and States are limited to what are given in the constitution, more conflicts and wars may be forthcoming. To avoid such possible misfortunes from happening, we all must do what we can.  Undermining the constitution by word and deed must be stopped and if amendment or change is required, it should be made following the established constitutional/legal procedures. I hope Prime Minister Abiy will not repeat the mistake of Emperor Hailesellassie who dissolved the Eritrean parliament and constitution in 1962 and pushed Eritreans to fight for their independence from Ethiopia which they achieved in 1991.

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