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Ethiopia’s capital under threat as Tigrayan rebels advance

As the conflict escalates and rebel forces march towards Addis Ababa, the international community tries to negotiate peace.

By Martin Plaut

The Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa is mobilising its defences with appeals for civilians to take up arms as Tigrayan rebels march towards the city. In defiance of the advancing threat, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, has declared his forces would bury the enemies with “their blood and their bones”.

But the tide appears to be turning against him. The head of the African Union mediating team, Nigerian Olusegun Obasanjo, flew into Mekelle, the capital of the northern Tigray region, on 7 November, accompanied by the head of UN aid operations, Martin Griffiths. When the war erupted a year ago, Abiy rejected all outside help, saying the conflict was no more than a “law enforcement operation” that would “wrap up soon”.

In the 12 months since it began, the conflict has become the bloodiest in the world, involving some half a million combatants. The number of people killed in the conflict is somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000, according to Kjetil Tronvoll, professor at Oslo New University College, who has spent years working in the region. Little of this has been reported, since journalists are denied access to front lines by government authorities.

In recent weeks, one city after another has fallen to the advancing Tigrayans, who have since linked up with allies from the Oromo – Ethiopia’s most numerous ethnic group. On 5 November, they were joined by seven other Ethiopian ethnic movements to sign a memorandum establishing a new opposition united front.

Nervous embassies and foreign nationals are making plans to depart. The US State Department ordered all its non-essential diplomats to leave on 6 November. The UK Foreign Office has advised against almost all travel. And on 9 November, reports emerged that at least 16 UN staff and their dependents had been detained in the capital.

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The roots of the conflict lie in a 2018 tripartite agreement between Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia, which was designed to cut the Tigrayans – who had ruled Ethiopia for 27 years – down to size. In November 2020, forces from the three nations attacked Tigray in a coordinated move that had long been planned.

The spark that ignited the war is still highly contested. The Ethiopian government blames the Tigrayans for starting it. But a team led by Mirjam van Reisen of Tilburg University in the Netherlands argues that the war was triggered when Ethiopian special forces flew into Mekelle in an attempt to arrest the Tigrayan leadership. Within days the fighting commenced, and within weeks the Tigrayans were forced to flee Mekelle. They took refuge in the rugged hills and mountains.

But in June this year, after regrouping, the Tigrayans launched a ferocious offensive, driving the Ethiopians and Eritreans from much of their territory. As his troops fell back and the Tigrayans advanced south and east, Abiy called for a mass mobilisation. He urged “all capable Ethiopians” to join the army, special forces and regional militia to face his enemy. Youths were rushed to the front armed with no more than machetes and sticks to face Tigrayans equipped with the modern weapons they had captured from the disintegrating Ethiopian army. The result was a slaughter.

The Ethiopian government is outwardly in denial. While the Tigrayans predict Addis Ababa will fall within weeks, the government declared that their enemies were “encircled” and close to defeat. “A rat that strays far from its hole is nearer to its death,” the government said on 4 November, apparently referring to the Tigrayan advances.

The fighting has not only consumed much of northern Ethiopia, it has seen Tigray encircled and cut off from the outside world.

The UN reports that “no humanitarian supplies have arrived into Tigray since 18 October”. Some 400 UN staff from ten UN agencies were in Tigray at the start of November. They cannot get out or help in. As the UN says: “Movement of humanitarian workers in and out of Tigray by road has been denied since 28 October.” The region is starved of fuel and deprived of telecommunications. Some 5.2 million people need feeding, but the aid agencies have next to nothing to offer them. Breaking this blockade is vital if a mass famine is to be avoided.

While no UK minister has visited Ethiopia for months, the Americans have been considerably more active.

“The conflict in Ethiopia must come to an end. Peace negotiations should begin immediately without preconditions in pursuit of a ceasefire,” tweeted Secretary of State Antony Blinken on 5 November. The US special envoy for the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, is in Addis Ababa attempting to bring this about.

But Western diplomats seem wedded to supporting the current government, rather than negotiating a transfer of power. Neighbouring African leaders are deeply worried that the instability could threaten the whole region. The Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni has called an east African bloc leaders’ meeting for 16 November. But this may be too little and too late.

The new united front launched in recent days has echoes of what happened when the Tigrayans last captured Addis Ababa back in 1991. Back then they also initiated an alliance of various ethnic groups, including the Oromo. They changed the Ethiopian constitution to entrench “ethnic federalism”, distributing power away from the capital.

That was the theory: in reality, most of the strings were pulled from behind the scenes by the Tigrayans. Their relations with the Oromo soon deteriorated and the relationship collapsed. If the new alliance is to successfully replace the current government, the Tigrayans will need to learn some stern lessons from the past. They cannot seek a monopoly of power or manipulate events from behind the scenes.

There is now a brief window of opportunity for diplomacy to end this war. It is likely to pass soon. If it does, the battle for Addis Ababa will commence and the city could be enveloped in carnage.

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