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O n 4 November 2020, Prime Minister Abiy Ali authorised a military attack on federal army camps in Tigray. Hours before the attack, the Prime Minister’s office released a statement in which it alleged that the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) had “attacked the Ethiopian National Defence Forces base located in the Tigray region and attempted to rob the northern command of artillery and military equipment.” What has initially planned as a short, surgical assault rapidly escalated into a civil conflict on multiple fronts. One year later, the Tigray Defence Forces (TDF) loyal to the TPLF is within reach of the capital.

Organised political violence in Ethiopia

Tensions had been simmering between Abiy and the TPLF – a paramilitary group and political party that wielded power before Abiy’s ascension to the prime minister’s office in 2018 – for several months before the conflict broke out. Abiy’s pan-national vision of Ethiopia contrasted sharply with the TPLF’s federalist approach to national politics and power-sharing. Both parties understand that wrestling for control of the dominant nation-building narrative legitimises the ruler and impacts the creation and partition of economic gains.

Prior to this conflict, Ethiopia was touted as Africa’s new growth engine and investors were jockeying for pole position as the economy liberalised. This excitement has since been overtaken by trepidation and concern about evolving humanitarian crisis as well as atrocities and human rights violations committed by the warring sides.

A spark catches fire

Since coming into power, Abiy has systematically sought to reduce the TPLF’s influence. Tigrayans constitute roughly 6% of the total population but the TPLF has played an outsized role in the country’s politics as a driving force of the former ruling coalition of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). The party has been one of the country’s main economic actors through a range of investment vehicles for almost 30 years. In 2018 Abiy set himself the ambitious target of recalibrating this power dynamic but dislodging the Tigrayan elite from their dominant position was always going to be fraught with tension.

As Abiy pushed ahead with his reforms, tensions came to a head when the August 2020 elections were postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. In June 2020, the country’s upper house of parliament voted to extend the terms of federal and regional lawmakers and the executive branch by 9 – 12 months, which sparked strong opposition criticism. The election – the country’s first democratic elections in 15 years – had been highly anticipated. Opposition politicians had also warned as early as July 2019 that there would public uproar if the election was postponed for any reason. That year, the TPLF Chairman Debretsion Gebremichael stated on local television, “Not holding the election on time … is unconstitutional… It means the Ethiopia government after 2020 is illegitimate.” The  poll postponement was a spark that fell on dry kindling.

It’s against this backdrop that the Tigray region staged elections in September 2020. Although nearly all opposition parties protested against the poll postponement, only Tigray held its own regional election; the TPLF won 98.5% of the vote to secure dominance of the Tigray Regional Council. While smaller parties participated, none had the depth and breadth of support that the TPLF held. The government declared the election illegal; counterclaims by each side in the following months culminated in a military response by the federal government in November 2020 after attacks against the ENDF in Tigray.

All roads lead to Addis: TDF marches to the capital

The Council of Ministers’ declaration of a six-month state of emergency on 2 November sent a clear signal about the severity of the situation as well as the direct threat posed to the capital by the advancing TDF. Over the next six months, the government can order citizens to obtain military training; suspend the operating licenses of media outlets; impose a curfew; ban unauthorised public gatherings; and indefinitely detain anyone thought to have ties to terrorist organisations. The Council of Ministers designated the TPLF a terrorist organisation in May 2021.

To understand the TDF’s success is to understand General Tsadkan Gebretensae. Gebretensae joined the TPLF in 1976 and was instrumental in ousting former Prime Minister Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991. Throughout the 1990s, he restructured and professionalised the ENDF, and skewed the composition of the senior ranks towards Tigrayan officers. Former Prime Minister and close associate Meles Zenawi dismissed him in 2001 after the end of the war with Eritrea, in part over a dispute about whether the ENDF should have marched to Asmara in 2000, when Ethiopia’s victory over its northern neighbour was all but certain. Gebretensae advocated for the push to the capital, while Mengistu refused to endorse the move.

Gebretensae retreated to civilian life, obtained an MBA via correspondence and started a local brewery in in southern Tigray, which successfully raised USD 13 million in 2013. He surprised many TPLF contemporaries when he returned to the national stage in 2018 and expressed a willingness to work with the new prime minister. What was less surprising was his return to the frontlines in 2020. Described as some as one of the greatest military strategists of his generation, the march to the capital could only be conceivably led and successfully achieved by this man. The ENDF’s successive losses to the rebel force, even after enlisting support from neighbouring Eritrea and Amhara fighters, is a testament to the discipline and adaptive strategy instilled by Gebretensae in the TDF.

“I know the history, I know the potential, when this thing started it was very clear that the most senior, most highly experienced commanders are from Tigray, which has been the backbone of the Ethiopian armed forces for the last thirty years, highly experienced because most of them have gone through two major wars, I very much know the military tradition of Tigray, so when you combine those two elements, highly experienced and skilful commanders and a society with a very deep military tradition, it only takes a short period of time to reorganise and regain control. That’s exactly what happened.”

Gebretensae in an interview published on 9 July. “Tigray Crisis: A Conversation With General Tsadkan Gebretensae, Tigray Defense Force Central Command” in The Elephant

Gebretensae has several tactical advantages. He has living memory of flighting in and winning an asymmetric conflict; an innate understanding of the terrain and the ENDF’s strengths and weaknesses; and deep respect within the TDF, which is highly motivated. As with all asymmetric conflicts, the “hearts and minds” component is crucial, and in this case, the stakes are different for the TDF and ENDF forces. The TPLF’s – real or perceived – threat from Abiy and his reforms will almost certainly trump the ENDF and Abiy’s supporters’ existential threat from the TPLF. It will serve as a strong motivator for the TDF and compel the TPLF leadership to extract maximum concessions from the other side.

Pointing fingers: ENDF and TFD accused of human rights violations

Since the TDF recaptured Tigray’s capital Mekelle in June, the TDF has  taken control and held territory as they marched towards the south and east of Tigray. Due to the communications blackout throughout the majority of the conflict, it’s difficult to estimate the number of military casualties. However, the meagre reports on the civilian toll have been heavily scrutinised. In August 2021, Amnesty International published a report in which it accused forces aligned with the federal government, specifically the ENDF, Eritrean Defense Force (EDF), the Amhara Regional Police Special Force (ASF), and Fano, an Amhara militia group, of sexual violence against women and girls in the Tigray region. The Ethiopian government issued a statement vehemently denying the allegations and strongly expressing its condemnation of sexual violence. It criticised the report’s methodology and questioned the “impartiality and professionalism of some of the personnel within the Amnesty East African Office”.

The TDF has been the subject of similar claims. It has been accused of committing atrocities throughout the conflict. Most recently, it was accused of killing 120 civilians in Amhara region. The TDF refuted these reports and has called for an independent investigation. On 17 September, US President Joe Biden signed Executive Order 14046, “Imposing Sanctions on Certain Persons With Respect to the Humanitarian and Human Rights Crisis in Ethiopia” in response to the “ongoing violence, abuses against civilians, and growing humanitarian plight in Ethiopia.” It allows the US government to impose financial sanctions on individuals and entities linked to the conflict. The executive order applies to military or security forces operating in Ethiopia from 1 November 2020 and encompasses the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments, the TPLF, People’s Front for Democracy and Justice, the Amhara regional government or the Amhara regional or irregular forces.

The government has been accused of seeking to subdue the TPLF through starvation of the Tigray people; Tigray has been under a de facto blockade for over four months. An estimated 10% of food and humanitarian assistance is unable to enter Tigray and essential services have been either disrupted or stopped. This has caused severe food shortages and a triggered a spike in inflation at a time when the country is grappling to deal with poor rainfall and a desert locust infestation. The UN estimates that USD 1.3 billion in funding is needed if 20 million Ethiopians are to receive urgent humanitarian assistance.

Senterej moves: Local conflict could spread to the wider region

The conflict appears to be reaching an apex; some form of mediated settlement will be required to defuse tensions between the warring factions. The African Union has tried and the matter will be discussed at the upcoming Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) meeting on 16 November at the behest of regional leaders including Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. Kenya, Turkey or Algeria are expected to be announced as prospective mediators after the IGAD meeting.

Despite Eritrea’s involvement, this conflict has remained within Ethiopia’s borders. However, there is an immediate risk that the conflict could quickly regionalise. The impact of the civil conflict on al-Fashaga, a 260 square-kilometre the area across Ethiopia-Sudan border, has been under-reported. This area, which neighbours Sudan’s arable Gedaref state and the western borders of Tigray and Amhara region, has been disputed for generations. The area covers a loosely demarcated swathe of land that was determined by a 1902 Anglo-Ethiopian Treaty, and since 2007, has been administered by a treaty underpinned by the goodwill and mutual understanding between former Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and former Sudanese President Omar Omar al-Bashir. Both Sudanese and Ethiopian local communities lay claim to the area but they had been able to jointly use the land with minimal conflict since the signing of the 2007 treaty.

In December 2020, Sudan quietly took advantage of the ENDF’s deployment to Tigray to seize the fertile farming area and began developing commercial and military infrastructure al-Fashqa. If not addressed, this is likely to be the next flashpoint in the region. Sudan has encroached on an area farmed by the Amhara community, to whom Abiy is beholden for political and military support against the TPLF and its military forces, which also has support from the Oromo Liberation Army.  For the Sudanese, the recent military coup suggests that military leaders will take a hard-line stance if Ethiopia attempts to retake the area. Control of al-Fashqa will be of increased strategic importance in the long term as both Sudan and Ethiopia battle climatic changes, including drought.

In the short term, Sudan could come into play in Ethiopia’s civil conflict if it allows the TDF to use it as a rear operating base from which to launch attacks against the ENDF. This would trigger increased Eritrean troop presence and likely draw-in Egypt, which is aligned with Sudan against Ethiopia in the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) dispute. Egypt has only just come out of its own state of emergency. To state that de-escalation of tensions at a local and regional level is required is stating the obvious.

Unlike chess, the Ethiopian variant Senterej allows both players to move their pieces as fast as they want without waiting for a response from the other player. Now that the sensitivity of Ethiopia’s political system to huge and dramatic change has been exposed. If approaching it like a Senterej master, the challenge for the hopeful winner in this real-world battle is to temper his pace, maintain the course, and win while allowing the opponent to retain a few strong pieces on the board.

Senterej | The Ethiopian Chess. Photo Credit: Muya Ethiopia.

The operating environment in Ethiopia will remain highly challenging in the short term. The promise of Ethiopia’s growing middle class, its location as a low-cost manufacturing hub and alternative gateway to the region has yet to be fully realised. However, as the past three years have shown, a lot can happen in a relatively short period of time.