Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed accused the TPLF of attacking a military base with plans of starting a rebellion, while the TPLF leadership has accused Abiy of targeting and marginalizing Tigrayans, who once held most of the country’s top political and military positions until he came into power. Three weeks after the conflict began, there is much uncertainty about the situation.
Here are five things to know about where the situation now stands.
1. An information blackout remains in Tigray
At the start of the conflict, Abiy’s government cut off internet access, telephone services, and other forms of communications and restricted journalists’ access to the region. Much of the information released to the public has therefore come from the federal government, which has been highlighting its own victories and downplaying the severity of the conflict. Abiy’s government has called the fight a “large-scale law enforcement operation,” instead of a civil war.
TPLF leaders have occasionally contacted news agencies with their own updates, and aid agencies such as Amnesty International have been reporting on the situation on the ground, but these reports are sporadic and incomplete. This lack of information has made it extremely difficult to figure out exactly what the situation looks like within Tigray. Even though communications access is being restored to parts of the region, it may be a while before outsiders can fully learn what has happened in Tigray over the past several weeks.
2. Ethiopia's federal armed forces seems to have won the military conflict -- for now
For three weeks, the Northern Command of the Ethiopian National Defense Force has used aerial bombardment, artillery fire and ground forces to subdue targets and capture major cities within Tigray. One source in Ethiopia, who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of the crisis, reported that the TPLF underestimated the extent to which the federal government’s superiority in air power – including armed and surveillance drones – gives Abiy an edge in tracking TPLF movements and disrupting the Tigrayan forces’ military operations. Earlier this week, Prime Minister Abiy declared victory after capturing the Tigrayan capital city, Mekelle. A new interim leader, Mulu Nega, Ph.D. has been appointed by Abiy's government to administer the Tigray Region for the time being.
Nevertheless, TPLF leaders have insisted that they are still fighting and that the war is far from over. Most of the TPLF leaders, including Tigrayan regional president Debretsion Gebremichael, remain at large, having reportedly fled to the mountains within Tigray. Though Abiy has the power of the national military at his disposal, the TPLF – which began as a rebel group in the 1970s before seizing control of Ethiopia in 1991 – has decades of military experience and hundreds of thousands of fighters on its side. Some experts fear that TPLF forces could wage a guerilla war against the government, and such a conflict would be difficult to resolve.
3. The conflict has caused a humanitarian crisis for the people in and around Tigray
The Associated Press reports that the United Nations has just struck a deal with the Ethiopian government to bring in food, medical supplies, and other aid for the estimated one million people who have been displaced by the conflict within Tigray. Aid agencies had previously been unable to bring supplies into Tigray, which had been cut off since the conflict started. In addition to Tigrayans, the United Nations has also been very concerned about the nearly 100,000 refugees from the neighboring country of Eritrea who have long been housed in Tigray but who have been cut off from communication and supplies by the war. A U.N. convoy attempting to reach the Eritrean refugees was fired upon and detained by Ethiopian federal troops, allegedly for failing to stop at two army checkpoints.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Tigrayan refugees have fled across the Western border into Sudan. Many of these refugees have reported large-scale death and suffering among the Tigray population.
“I saw many people dying on the road,’ said 54-year-old Gush Tela, who fled the region with his wife and children. And as Blavity previously reported, Amnesty International has highlighted at least one massacre of hundreds of civilians that have been blamed on forces allied with the TPLF, an accusation that TPLF leader Debretsion denied. Likewise, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy insisted that his forces did not kill a single civilian in its operations, a claim that strains credibility and contradicts the scattered reports that have come out of the region.
4. The international community has had limited power to influence the conflict
Abiy’s government has so far rejected multiple efforts by outside powers to intervene in the conflict, painting it as an internal matter for Ethiopia to resolve. When the African Union designated a high-profile delegation of three former presidents from across Africa to help negotiate an end to the conflict, Abiy rejected the offer and refused to allow the team to meet leaders of the TPLF.
Similarly, after Michael A. Raynor, the United States Ambassador to Ethiopia spoke to both Abiy and Debretsion, he reported that there was “a strong commitment on both sides to see the military conflict through” rather than accept mediation. In comments excerpted from a speech to Ethiopia’s parliament earlier this week that our source in Ethiopia translated, Abiy said that “no country in the world would engage in negotiations after the massacre of its military.” Abiy went on to state that “we may face poverty in its worst form but we will never negotiate with our sovereignty,” demonstrating that he views the conflict as a matter that must be resolved internally.
5. The conflict has dangerous repercussions for Ethiopia and its neighbors
Even if the TPLF has been defeated, tensions remain between the Tigrayan people, who feel that they have been unfairly demonized and attacked, and other Ethiopian groups who resent past Tigrayan dominance. Resolving these issues is likely to be harder than defeating the TPLF military. In addition to the conflict in Tigray, Ethiopia has been facing unrest and separatism from a number of groups within the country. Years of protests from the Oromo, the country’s largest ethnic group, brought Abiy – the first Oromo to become prime minister – to power. Nevertheless, groups like the Oromo Liberation Front and Oromo Liberation Army are still operating within the country. Ethnic clashes between groups, such as the Oromo and the Amhara, have persisted in the country, and the turmoil over the war in Tigray threatens to spill over to other regions of Ethiopia as well.
The conflict also risks destabilizing other countries in the East Africa region. Eritrea – Ethiopia’s northern neighbor that fought a war with the country during the days when the TPLF ruled over Ethiopia – has reportedly intervened on Abiy’s side to fight their mutual foes in Tigray. Tigrayan forces responded by firing rockets into Eritrea’s capital city, Asmara. Meanwhile, the tens of thousands of refugees streaming into Sudan are stretching thin the resources of that country, which already hosts over one million refugees from various conflicts in the region and is recovering from the recent overthrow of its longtime dictator, Omar al-Bashir. Additionally, Ethiopia withdrew thousands of its troops from Somalia, where they had been fighting the al-Qaeda linked terrorist group al-Shabaab, to fight in Tigray – such a move threatens to set back the fight against extremism in Somalia.
All these developments show that, even as military operations in Tigray wind down, the larger fight for peace and stability within Ethiopia and across its neighbors remains. Even if the government's military victory over the TPLF stands, bringing peace to the country and region is a much bigger fight than simply ending the war.