Ethiopia PM orders response after military camp 'attack' in Tigray region

Tigray police

Members of Tigray police at a checkpoint in the outskirts of Mekele.

Photo credit: Eduardo Soteras | AFP

The Ethiopian government on Tuesday night ordered troops to launch attacks on forces of the regional administration in Tigray, raising the ante in a conflict between Addis Ababa and the autonomous part of the country.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed claimed the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) had “crossed the last red line” after ambushing Ethiopian forces.

He said the Tigrayans had attacked the local base of the Ethiopian National Defence Forces and “attempted to rob” artillery from the facility.

“The attack on the Northern Command (of ENDF) has been premised on TPLF viewing the Ethiopian National Defence Forces as a foreign army rather than an army that has been protecting the people of Tigray for more than twenty years.

“Resultantly, TPLF has chosen to wage war in Dalshah,” the PM’s Office said, referring to the ENDF base in Tigray.”

Autonomous region

The troubled northern autonomous region of Ethiopia, one of the ten in the country, had defied Addis Ababa in August and held elections despite the national postponement. PM Ahmed rescheduled the vote initially meant for May this year to next year due to Covid-19.

And while Addis Ababa allowed the vote to go on, Tigray administration subsequently said it will not recognise Dr Abiy’s government beyond October, saying it had overrun its mandate.

With relations soured between the two levels of governments, some experts were warning on Wednesday morning that the problem in Ethiopia could spiral to make the country unstable, especially after mediation efforts failed.

Rashid Abdi, who analyses geopolitical events in the Horn of Africa and the Gulf argued the decision to order an attack on Tigrayans may have been Dr Ahmed’s “worst strategic blunder.”

With Ethiopian forces being ethnically diverse, how it responds to the directive could determine whether the country, or the region, holds together from now on, he argued.

No new fighting

By Wednesday midmorning, no new fighting had been reported, indicating the ENDF was still holding on.

“This could fragment army — a dangerous scenario in itself,” he wrote on his Twitter page on Wednesday.

But amid the chaos, the role of Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki, who has since made public peace with Ethiopia came to the fore.

“PM Abiy would not have ordered army to go on the offensive in Tigray without Afewerki's active connivance and instigation. A short, sharp campaign to dislodge TPLF as two hope wide off the mark,” he said of the region that shares ethnic composition with Eritrea.

“Tigray now a volatile theatre likely to draw in Eritrea, reignite border conflict.”

Whether it was wise for Tigray to defy authorities in Addis is yet to be seen. Ethiopian federal system has often followed ethnic lines, with each of the ten regions named and composed of major tribes in the country.

Yet it, sort of, held together the country.

Merged parties

In December 2019, Dr Abiy led the dissolution of the coalition, Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front and merged parties into the Prosperity Party. The TPLF which had been part of the coalition refused to dissolve.

Some experts, however, think Tigrayans have been over ambitious.

“Ethiopian PM's order to the army to tame rogue Tigrayan region is wise and timely. Misguided Tigrayan elites thumbed their noses at the very Ethiopianness PM Abiy was pushing for,” Dr Abdiwahab Sheikh Abdisamad of Nairobi’s think-tank Southlink Consultants told the Nation, arguing that Ethiopia should crush them once or regret later.

Tigrayans have also bickered with Amhara, the neighbouring autonomous region.

“They want to govern the country by force, because they have everything. They are one of the best equipped autonomous regions of Ethiopia, militarily. But their way of doing things will undermine the stability of Ethiopia and the entire region,” Dr Abdisamad added.