The spectre of full-blown civil war now looms in Ethiopia
Exactly one year ago this week, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched an offensive against his country’s northern Tigray province. Rebellious regional leaders there had held an unconstitutional election and then allegedly orchestrated an attack on a military base, and Abiy promised a brief campaign to restore order.
This week, as the Tigray rebels advanced towards the capital, the government imposed a nationwide state of emergency and Abiy issued a rallying cry calling on all abled-bodied citizens to mobilise against the threat. “We will bury this enemy with our blood and our bones,” he said.
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The authorities in Addis Ababa have called on residents to register private weapons with the police and urged them to protect their neighbourhoods. Dozens of people had been arrested since the new emergency measures were introduced.
On Wednesday evening, a spokesman for the Tigray rebels said his forces had linked up with insurgents from Oromia, Ethiopia’s second biggest state, and were poised to continue south after taking two strategic towns on the road to Addis Ababa.
Among the city’s Tigrayan residents, the prevailing mood is fear. “We are terrified,” said one, who asked to remain anonymous. “If your identity card says you are Tigrayan or you have a Tigrayan name, the police can just arrest you. All of my friends are staying at home, it’s too dangerous to go out.”
Leading the rebels is the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The group dominated Ethiopia’s politics for 27 years until it was toppled by protests and replaced with Abiy’s government. Few Ethiopians are keen to see a return to their rule, which was characterised by repression.
“If the war comes to Addis, we will have no choice but to join the army and fight,” said resident Biniyan Amsalu. “You can’t imagine how much we suffered under the TPLF, we cannot go back to those times.”
It is unclear whether the rebels really do intend to reach Addis Ababa, where they would meet stiff resistance. They have said they are prepared to take the city, but also insist their main goal is to open up a humanitarian corridor to Tigray, which has been under a government-imposed blockade since the rebels retook most of it in June. Some 400,000 people there are believed to be in the grip of famine.
That aim would be better served by gaining access to the sea, and there were reports that the rebels were advancing east in an attempt to capture the road linking Ethiopia to Djibouti. Such a move would allow them to bring in supplies while also increasing pressure on Abiy’s government.
Meanwhile international efforts to end the conflict stepped up this week. Jeffery Feltman, the US envoy for the Horn of Africa, has arrived in Addis Ababa to press for ceasefire talks while the presidents of Uganda and Kenya also renewed calls for negotiations on Thursday.
Moges Zewdu Teshome, an independent analyst, predicted much worse bloodshed if mediation efforts were to fail. “If the TPLF seized the capital, they would not be able to govern the country,” he said. “The situation would be a full blown civil war that would spread like wildfire across Ethiopia.”