Tigray war spawns ‘devoted’ militia and a threat to peace in the Horn

Amhara Region militia man

An Amhara Region militia man, that combat alongside federal and regional forces against northern region of Tigray, poses in the town of Musebamb, 44 kms northwest from Gondar, on November 7, 2020.

Photo credit: AFP

What you need to know:

  • Tigray has accused Eritrea of sending 16 divisions of its 200,000-strong military  into Tigray.
  • Kenya is watching closely, as a security vacuum could give al-Shabaab room to attack.

A month after Ethiopia launched a military operation against Tigray, a new face of war is emerging in the Horn of Africa. In the trenches of Tigray a new fighter is born, armed with an AK-47 or a rocket launcher, a twitter account and a Facebook page but evading sorties by lethal unmanned drones or stealth jets in increasingly ethnic but internationalised wars.

Scholars have termed the new fighter  “the devoted Actor” who is willing to fight and die in intergroup conflict and where in-group bonds are more important than power, material or other incentives.

Tigray’s “devoted Actor” is a product of failure by new African leaders to manage diversity.

 Once at the helm of power, the Tigrayan fighter has returned to the battle field with grievances galore.

Ethiopia’s second civil war, which started on November 4, reflects the new drift towards militarism and authoritarianism in the Horn.

The military is not only ethnicised, but its professionalism is replaced with loyalty. In a twitter message a few days into the war, Abiy reshuffled Ethiopia’s army chief, head of intelligence and foreign minister.

Accusing Tigray’s leaders of treason and issuing an arrest warrant against TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael, Addis Ababa closed all legitimate avenues for a negotiated a solution.

Dissident region

The regime now targets prominent Tigrayans, accusing World Health Organisation boss Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus– the highest-profile Tigrayan abroad – of lobbying in favour of the dissident region – a charge Dr Tedros denied.

Like pre-genocide Rwanda and Burundi in the 1990s, Ethiopia faces the tragedy of marginalising and waging war against a powerful minority, with the Tigrayans vowing they are “ready to die” and retreating into the mountains for a guerrilla war.

The war is drawing in rival regional forces and changing the nature and context of proxy wars raging in Yemen, Libya and the Middle East. Tigray politicians have claimed they are under attack “on several fronts”.

Tigray has accused Eritrea of sending 16 divisions of its 200,000-strong military  into Tigray.

The TPLF has been keen on internationalising the war. Gebremichael confirmed Tigray fired at least three rockets at Eritrea’s capital, Asmara.

Eritrea has insisted it is “not part of the conflict”. And Abiy, in yet another tweet, said Ethiopia can realise the “objectives of the operation by itself”.

In Somalia, the Tigray war is complicating the fight against al-Shabaab. The sacking of African Union security chief Gebreegziabher Mebratu Melese following a request from Ethiopia has undermined its counter-terrorism operation.

At least 200 Tigrayan troops in Ethiopia’s AMISOM peacekeeping force have been disarmed. Ethiopia has also reportedly redeployed more than 3,000 troops previously involved in combating al-Shabaab. With this, Sector 3 of AMISOM including Gedo, Bay & Bakool regions is now at risk.

Security vacuum

Kenya is watching closely, as a security vacuum could give al-Shabaab room to attack.

 The Tigray war has also emboldened and inspired Somalia’s populist President Mohamed Farmaajo to ponder launching a similar military operation against rival federal states, particularly Jubaland and Ahmed Madobe.

Facing elections in a few months, Farmajo is riding on the authoritarian wave and the air of belligerence fostered by the war to retain power by hook or crook.

Having won in 2017 by demonising Ethiopia, Farmaajo is hedging his bets on whipping up Somali emotions against Kenya to a fever-pitch ahead of 2022.

Claiming Kenya is interfering with the upcoming election, Farmaajo recalled Somalia’s Ambassador to Kenya and instructed Kenya’s Ambassador to Somalia “to depart to Kenya for consultation”. He expects Kenya to respond by taking draconian measures against Somalis.

He also hopes to whip up public emotions against the presence of nearly 4,000 Kenyan troops in Amisom, leading to their exit from Sector 6 (Kismayu and parts of Jubaland) and their replacement by the friendlier Eritrean forces. Then he can commence a military operation against Jubaland, along the lines of Ethiopia’s war against Tigray, and use this to post-pone elections and extend his rule indefinitely.

Eritrea’s alleged involvement is likely to draw in Sudan, which is already hosting more than 45,000 people displaced by the war. In the face of the dispute over the Grand Millennium Dam that Ethiopia is building on the Blue Nile, Sudan and Egypt have strengthened their ties. On November 14, Egypt and Sudan launched a joint military exercise.

Sudanese prime minister Abdullah Hamdok offered mediation as the chair of IGAD. Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni, another IGAD leader, also offered to mediate. But Abiy has insisted that this is an internal issue.

But ties with Ethiopia could get complicated. And it is doubtful Sudan will manage to cut off any supply lines to the TPLF through its border, which is “awash with contraband weapons smuggling”. Cairo is poised to support Khartoum in resisting pressure from Ethiopia.

In a tweet, the TPLF spokesman Getachew Reda, Tigray accused Ethiopia of deploying drones from a military base in Assab Eritrea belonging to the United Arab Emirates. Since 2017, UAE has been launching drone operations in Libya and Yemen against the Houthis.

The UN estimates nine million people are at high risk of being displaced by the fighting.