Ethiopian government forces have regained control of the towns the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) had seized in the Amhara and Afar regions in the past two months, ushering in a new chapter in the Civil War that is eating away at the resources of Africa’s second most populous country.
These “victories”, according to state media, were attained days after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed made an appearance in military uniform in the countryside as he led his soldiers into battle.
A few days later, the government said it had regained control of the towns of Amhara, the majority of which stands with Ahmed. The Amhara towns the government recaptured from the TPLF include Lalibela, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with 11 mediaeval churches carved out of rock.
The Amhara administration announced a number of its areas were harmed by “Tigray aggression”, which involved the looting or destruction of hospitals, schools and churches. The TPLF denied these claims.
Earlier this week, the Ethiopian Ministry of Education announced the closure of secondary schools in areas controlled by the federal government to enable students to help their families harvest the crops.
The government said earlier that more than 300 schools had been badly damaged by the war, affecting two million students who could not attend their classes this year. The government statement, published on the Ethiopian Ministry of Education’s Facebook page in English, added that the ministry is seeking to fix the damages in those schools and educational institutions in order for work to be resumed.
“I cannot say we will pause once we reach Mekelle [Tigray’s capital] or other places, rather we will recapture areas in the hands of Woyane [the TPLF]. We will follow and get rid of them,” Lieutenant General Bacha Debele said.
Debele denied a TPLF statement stating that his forces “tactically withdrew from those towns”, adding that “this is a lie, they want their masters to continue helping them, they have been completely defeated,” due to the high morale of Debele’s soldiers after the arrival of Ahmed at the battlefront. When asked if he seeks peace in Ethiopia, Debele said, “It is not my business. My job is to fight, but if I am told to stop the war because negotiations have begun, I will stop.”
The Ethiopian government has on countless occasions said the TPLF are agents of “Western” powers.
It is no secret that Ethiopia’s relations with the US and Europe have reached their lowest point, driving the African state to search for new allies. In a letter the TPLF addressed to the UN secretary-general revealed who those might be. In the letter, the TPLF complained that the government forces shelled Mekelle with drones Ethiopia acquired from Russia and China, which supply Addis Ababa with large quantities of arms.
International media reports stated that Ethiopia receives weapons from Turkey, Iran, China and Russia. Moreover, the country receives wide support from the Eritrean forces accused of heinous crimes since the war broke out in November 2020.
Ahmed has repeatedly rejected international and regional mediation to reach a ceasefire, claiming that what is taking place in Ethiopia is “a process to enforce law and a domestic matter.”
However, the weapons Ethiopia receives don’t land in the hands of the country’s weak army, but rather those of the Amhara, Afar and Oromo militias loyal to Ahmed’s government.
The Ethiopian army’s power has been deteriorating since Ahmed disposed of the Tigray leaders who had been at the helm for three decades and whose fellow Tigrays made up more than one third of the army – although that ethnic group makes up no more than seven per cent of the population.
Since Ahmed’s rise to power in April 2018, he has launched a massive “anti-corruption” campaign targeting the Tigrayan elite in all sectors of the state. The TPLF feels the move is politically motivated and it has mobilised thousands of people back to their home towns in the north in anticipation of a near-future confrontation.
The majority of Tigrayan officers are now leading the region’s forces in the fight against the government.
They are not fighting against the government’s army, however, but rather ethnic militias from the Amhara and Afar, who have been on the battlefield since the war erupted two years ago.
This makes the mission more difficult for the TPLF which is forced to fight against multiple ethnicities, reducing its chances at victory and minimising its ability to gain control of supply or logistical lines.
Many Tigrayan observers feel the government’s latest moves will corner the TPLF in its mountainous region between the militias of the Amhara and Afar and the Eritrean army. This situation will increase Tigray’s humanitarian suffering which is exacerbated by the government’s measures to prevent aid from reaching Tigray, exacerbating threats of famine.
If the TPLF barricades in the north, Ahmed’s government will have a greater chance to defeat the rest of the rebel ethnicities, such as the Oromo and Benishangul, who are not as strong, skilled or experienced as the Tigrayans.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 December, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.