One year after Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched a war against the rebellious Tigray region, his army is on the verge of defeat and the Tigrayan forces are marching on the capital Addis Ababa. The federal government declared a national state of emergency on Tuesday.
The Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) has made significant territorial gains in recent days, along with its ally the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA). The OLA claimed that hundreds of Ethiopian soldiers have defected to their side, and that tens of thousands of Oromo youth have voluntarily joined their ranks. This has triggered frantic preparations across the region and diplomatic manoeuvres in Washington. 12 months on, the fighting has left thousands dead, displaced more than 2 million people from their homes, fuelled famine and given rise to a wave of atrocities and ethnic chauvinism on all sides.
The TDF turns the tables
When the civil war began almost a year ago, Abiy Ahmed promised a swift military operation that would not take more than a few weeks. Initially, everything seemed to be working out for him. In less than a month, federal Ethiopian forces, backed by paramilitaries from the Amhara region as well as troops from Eritrea, to the north, had captured almost all of Tigray, including its capital Mekele. Abiy Ahmed even declared a premature victory! The Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF) quickly occupied Mekele and held it for several months. The Tigrayan forces retreated and appeared to be pinned in the mountains by federal troops and the Eritrean army.
The turning point in the war came in June, when the TDF (the military wing of the TPLF) launched an operation which routed the ENDF and recaptured Mekele. The TDF has since launched a major counter-offensive that has swept everything before it. They expelled Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers from central parts of Tigray, taking back most of the region. They then took back a southern section of Tigray, known as Raya, which the neighbouring Amhara forces had also seized in the war’s first weeks. After that, they drove south into the neighbouring Amhara and Afar regions, allies of the federal government. In mid-July, they advanced across the Tekezze near Mai Tsebri and into the Amhara region’s North Gondar Zone. They also moved, briefly, into Chifra, a town on the Afar-Amhara border around 50 kilometres southeast of Weldiya town, claiming that they could cut off the Addis Ababa-Djibouti trade route at Mille nearby.
Then, on 12 August, they occupied Weldiya, a major Amhara transport and commercial hub on the main road to Addis Ababa. Abiy gambled everything on a massive offensive that he launched on 9 October, throwing tens of thousands of troops into the desperate fight. With typical bravado, he predicted that the offensive would take 10 days to recapture the Tigray capital. That offensive collapsed, and his forces were once again routed by the TDF. Having failed with the ground attack, the Ethiopian air force has repeatedly bombed Mekele over the past fortnight, killing many civilians.
The TDF have also seized key cities like Kombolcha on a major highway leading to Addis Ababa, which has a major airport now offering the TDF a logistical advantage in the war. This means that Addis Ababa is now wide open to a military assault. The TDF is in a position to cut off the main supply roads connecting Addis Ababa with the seaports. With the threat of an assault on the capital of 5 million people, and no strategic military obstacles in the way, the TPLF is using its position of strength to negotiate a deal, which aims to bring down the federal government and replace it with a more friendly transitional regime. With the rebels closing in on Addis Ababa, the federal government declared a national state of emergency last Tuesday.
With the dramatic turn of events on the battlefield, nine armed groups representing different regional and ethnic interests formed a new alliance on Friday to fight against Abiy, according to a statement issued by organisers. The new bloc, led by the TPLF, calls itself the United Front of Ethiopian Federal and Confederalist Forces, and says they want to establish a “safe transition in the country” to replace Abiy, in a statement at a signing event in Washington, DC on Friday. At a news conference the new coalition said it planned to dismantle Abiy’s government by “force or by negotiations”, and then form a transitional authority.
Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a statement on Friday called for a ceasefire and a negotiated settlement. He also sent Jeffrey Feltman, a special envoy to the region. The fact is that US imperialism has lost control of the situation in Ethiopia. Abiy Ahmed was a close US ally until recently. As long as he was prepared to advance American interests in Ethiopia and the region, he was their golden boy. They showered him with accolades, including the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019. But Abiy was very ambitious and had improved ties with China, which has invested heavily in major infrastructure projects in Addis Ababa. Ethiopia was promoted as a model of progress in the international media, but the ever-ambitious Abiy wanted to concentrate more power by weakening the federal system, which gave significant powers to the countries' different regions.
The biggest obstacle was the Tigray region and the TPLF, which acted as a brake on his plans. This was ultimately the reason why he launched the war. The problem for him was that the war was not in the interests of the imperialist powers who feared that Abiy's ambitions could destabilise Ethiopia and thereby the whole region. Now that the situation on the ground has turned against Abiy, US imperialism has no problem ditching him when he is down and making a deal with his enemies. On Friday, US President Biden signed an executive order threatening sweeping new sanctions against the Ethiopian government if the negotiations did not go ahead. Biden's administration accused Ethiopia of “gross violations'' of human rights and threatened to remove the country from the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) trade agreement.
The executive order targets individuals and entities from the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and the Amhara regional government, who face possible asset freezes and travel bans. To avoid sanctions, the Americans are demanding that leaders on all sides must enter peace negotiations and accept mediation under the former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, an African Union envoy who was scheduled to land in Ethiopia last weekend. The US Embassy began authorising nonessential diplomatic staff to leave the country, and numerous other missions began considering evacuation options.
A devastating civil war
Ethiopia is a multi-ethnic country with a long history of inter-ethnic conflict, violence and resentment. The country has 80 ethnic groups, but the top five – Oromo, Amhara, Tigrayan, Afar and Somali – represent 85 percent of the population. The political system that kept these tensions in check has been breaking down for decades and the forces of violent ethno-nationalism have grown. The immediate trigger for the military conflict was Tigray’s decision to hold an unauthorised election in 2020 after Abiy postponed the country’s elections, citing COVID-19 as a pretext.
On 4 November 2020, Abiy sent a combination of ENDF troops, the Eritrean military and Amhara militias into Tigray, claiming he was responding to an attack by the Tigray military on a federal military camp. Abiy wanted to exploit the anti-Tigrayan resentment of the Amhara ethno-nationalists to crush the Tigrayans, who had been dominant in the country’s political system during the authoritarian rule of Meles Zenawi between 1991 and 2012. After Abiy’s succession to power in 2015, they remained a significant check on his power.
The ensuing conflict has been particularly violent, with thousands dead. After the November invasion drove the TDF into the mountains, the Amhara fighters were accused of ethnic cleansing of Tigrayan villages, and Amnesty International claimed that troops from Eritrea massacred hundreds of unarmed Tigrayan civilians in the town of Axum. Abiy has attempted to starve the encircled Tigray into submission by blocking food aid convoys from reaching up to a million people, mostly women and children, who are near starvation.
The alliance between Ethiopia and fighters in the Amhara region is very tenuous as Ethiopian troops continue to pull back and Tigray fighters go on the offensive. Anti-Tigray sentiment is the only thing that has held the alliance between Abiy Ahmed and the leaders of the Amhara region together. This has inflamed Amhari national sentiment and boosted support for secessionist movements in that region. In the end, this could have a domino effect on the different ethnically divided regions. The war has inflamed support for Tigrayan secession from the Ethiopian federation. Pro-independence sentiments could inflame the Amhara-Tigray territorial dispute, and could, in turn, destabilise Eritrea, causing many years of war and the breakup of the country.
The conflict could well last for months, or even years, an outcome that would be even more disastrous for Tigray and the rest of the country. The recent successes mean Tigrayan forces can sustain a long-term insurgency. Meanwhile, the federal government is now showing signs of demoralisation. A drawn-out conflict would lead to even greater suffering for civilians, potentially subjecting those in inaccessible areas to mass starvation. It would also threaten Ethiopia’s stability and potentially that of the Horn of Africa.
The incursion of Amhara combatants into Tigray has worsened the situation. Additionally, the reliance of federal forces on Eritrean support has grown amid Ethiopia’s armed confrontation with Sudan over a disputed borderland. Last December, clashes broke out in the al-Fashaga area along the Ethiopian-Sudanese border after the Sudanese military, taking advantage of Ethiopia’s distraction by the Tigray conflict, moved to take control of territory it claims the Ethiopians occupied from the mid-1990s. The hostilities, which have also drawn in Eritrean forces, are a disaster for the Amhara leaders, as farmers from the region were evicted by Sudan’s incursion. The border fight means that, for now, an Eritrean exit from Tigray would further stretch Ethiopia’s military, unless they reposition troops to Ethiopia’s Sudanese border. This is a dangerous situation for the whole Horn of Africa. The conflict in Tigray has already drawn in Eritrean forces, which have a border dispute with the region. Sudanese forces have also taken the opportunity to intervene in their own interests. The conflict has the potential to destabilise the entire region.
The war poses a serious threat to Ethiopia’s overall stability. It will exacerbate national fault lines and tensions in the region such as the mounting inter-communal killings in Benishangul-Gumuz region, bordering Sudan in the west, and simmering discontent in the country’s largest region of Oromia. Growing hostilities with Sudan complicate the picture further. In Oromia, which has its own low-intensity insurgency, political discontent runs high, although the opposition is relatively fragmented at the moment. If fighting intensifies in Tigray and the clashes with Sudan escalate, a protracted conflict risks sparking unrest throughout the region.
In Tigray, the federal government cannot eradicate the armed resistance, which appears to be entrenched in rural areas and commands widespread popular support. On the other hand, the Tigray Defence Forces cannot spread the war to other regions without plunging the whole country into civil war. In addition, the Eritrean and Amharan forces are now part of a delicate balance in Tigray. President Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea is a long-term enemy of Tigray and cannot relent on the pressure on the TPLF without settling the border dispute. This opens a prospect of the war turning into a protracted, frozen conflict, with devastating consequences for the people of the region. The Tigray forces are looking to retake control of western Tigray. Should Tigray forces control the Gondar area, they could push west to the Sudan border town of Metemma and also north as part of an operation to reclaim the contested territory.
A battle for western Tigray could draw Sudan into the war if Tigray forces move to open up a supply route for aid and arms through the east of that country. This could push Ethiopia and Sudan toward open conflict. Relations between Addis Ababa and Khartoum are already at a low ebb, mainly due to disputes over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam that Ethiopia is constructing on the Blue Nile, affecting downstream Sudan’s water supply. To add to this, there is al-Fashaga, the disputed farmlands adjacent to western Tigray, which Sudan occupied last December. In order to cut across the revolution in its own country, the military regime in Khartoum might very well be inclined to go down this route.
Fight the barbarism of capitalism!
No one will bemoan the fall of the Abiy Ahmed regime. This reactionary bourgeois regime has had nothing to offer the workers and the oppressed of Ethiopia, but privatisation and misery. But the question is what is to replace it? The TPLF is angling for a return to the pre-2015 regime, but this would be intolerable to the Ethiopian masses. Neither of the bourgeois parties are capable of taking Ethiopian society forward, or resolve the basic needs of the masses. This is why they increasingly lean towards sectarianism to retain their tenuous grip on power.
The people in the Horn of Africa have suffered from brutal conflicts for decades; the civil war in Ethiopia has further deepened this barbaric situation. The war has deeply destabilised the whole political situation. If the TPLF attacks Addis Ababa, the resulting conflict may lead to a bloody civil war which could lead to the breakup of the country. The Tigray Defence Forces cannot spread the war to other regions without plunging the whole country into civil war. Such a war poses a serious threat to Ethiopia’s overall stability and potentially that of the entire Horn of Africa. It will exacerbate national fault lines and tensions in the region such as the mounting inter-communal killings.
This barbarism is what capitalism has to offer in its period of death agony. A further descent into sectarian violence would be a completely reactionary step. The only way out for the people in the region is to fight against the capitalist system which is the root cause of this. Only the working class of the region, by booting out the rotten ruling caste of all nationalities and their imperialist paymasters, can offer an alternative to sectarianism.