Ethiopian Prime Minister Sends Army to Confront Opposition Tigray Region

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A member of the Tigray Special Forces casts his vote in a local election in the regional capital Mekelle, in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, September 9, 2020.
A member of the Tigray Special Forces casts his vote in a local election in the regional capital Mekelle, in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, September 9, 2020.Credit: AP File Photo

Ethiopia said on Wednesday it had begun military operations in the Tigray region, after the prime minister accused the local government of attacking federal troops.

Tensions have escalated in recent days with both sides accusing each other of plotting a military conflict. Military operations in the region had commenced, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's spokeswoman Billene Seyoum told Reuters, without giving further details.

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The federal government declared a six-month state of emergency in Tigray region to be overseen by a team led by the chief of staff of the armed forces, the prime minister's office said.

Internet access monitor NetBlocks said that the Internet had been shut down in the region, confirming reports that authorities had shut down telephone and Internet services. Tigray TV reported that airspace has been closed over the region.

Earlier on Wednesday, the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) attacked a military base in Tigray and tried to steal artillery and other equipment from federal forces stationed there, Abiy's office said in a statement.The statement also accused the TPLF of arming and organizing irregular militias. It did not mention any casualties.

After months of “extreme patience” by the federal government, “a war however cannot be prevented only on the goodwill and decision of one side," the prime minister's statement said. “The last red line has been crossed with this morning’s attacks and the federal government is therefore forced into a military confrontation” to save the country by preventing instability from engulfing the country and region, he added.

Tigray officials have objected to the postponement of Ethiopia’s national election, once set for August, because of the coronavirus pandemic and the extension of Abiy’s time in office.

In September, Tigray held regional elections in defiance of the federal government, which called the vote "illegal." Tigray officials warned then that an intervention by the federal government would amount to a “declaration of war.” 

In October, following the local Tigray election, the federal government moved to send funding for the region to local administrations instead of the regional government, angering TPLF officials.

Reuters reported Tigray's local government as having said the Northern Command of the federal military, which is stationed in the region, had defected to its side, and that Billene dismissed the claim as "false information."  According to the Associated Press, there has not been any immediate word from the TPLF. 

On Sunday, a senior TPLF official, Getachew Reda, told The Associated Press his side will not accept a negotiation with the federal government.

“What we need now is a national dialogue, not a negotiation,” he said. The TPLF says the release of detained former officials is one precondition to opening talks.

“This war is the worst possible outcome of the tensions that have been brewing,” William Davison, International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Ethiopia, said in a statement Wednesday urging a ceasefire. “Given Tigray’s relatively strong security position, the conflict may well be protracted and disastrous.”

Tigrayans ruled Ethiopian politics since guerrilla fighters ousted a Marxist dictator in 1991, but their influence has waned since Abiy took office in 2018 and announced sweeping political reforms that won him the Nobel Peace Prize last year. 

Those reforms, however, have opened space for old ethnic and other grievances. Many senior Tigrayan officials have been detained, fired or sidelined, in what the federal government describes as a clamp-down on corruption but Tigrayans see as a means to quell dissent.

Last year, feeling marginalized, the TPLF quit his ruling coalition. It remains a strong military force, observers say.

Tigray's population makes up 5% of Ethiopia's 109 million people, but it is wealthier and more influential than many other, larger regions.

Ethiopia was already stressed by a dispute with Egypt over a massive Ethiopian dam project that has drawn rare attention by President Donald Trump to Africa, and a multi-layer crisis is unfolding with the COVID-19 pandemic, deadly ethnic violence and a locust outbreak.

Observers have worried for months about the growing tensions and their implications for the long-turbulent Horn of Africa region, where Abiy cast himself as a peacemaker shortly after taking office.

A new report by former U.S. diplomats and military officials, issued last month by the United States Institute of Peace, said the fragmentation of Ethiopia “would be the largest state collapse in modern history, likely leading to mass interethnic and interreligious conflict ... and a humanitarian and security crisis at the crossroads of Africa and the Middle East on a scale that would overshadow the existing conflicts in South Sudan, Sudan, Somalia, and Yemen.”

The international community needs to rally around the idea of national dialogue in Ethiopia, the International Crisis Group warned a week ago.

“The alternative, given the country’s multiple and bitter divides, is a potential march to war that would be catastrophic for Africa’s second most populous country and would send shock waves, and refugees, into other Horn of Africa countries as well as across the Mediterranean Sea,” the group wrote.