The decision by Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to send the army to the Tigrayan region to crack down on criminals within the minority Tigray People’s Liberation Front is good news for the Horn and East African region, which suffered enormously as a result of this faction’s massacres, war with Eritrea and invasion of Somalia. TPLF agents used to hunt down their adversaries like animals in the streets of foreign countries, especially in Kenya and Somalia, where members from the Oromo Liberation Front and Ogaden National Liberation Front were murdered in cold blood.
Tigrayans, who’re six million in a nation of 110 million population, were so self-absorbed during their rule in Ethiopia that their then Foreign Minister, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus — who’s now the Director General of the World Health Organization — dared to brazenly ask Somali officials in a meeting in Nairobi, Kenya, to remove the five-pointed star of unity from their national flag.
Contrary to an inaccurate and hyperbolic media analysis and alarmism, the push to eliminate TPLF criminals will not plunge Ethiopia, the second largest nation in Africa, into a large-scale civil war. Far from it. The ongoing operation in Tigrayan region will go a long way in restoring sanity and sobriety in Ethiopia. Those calling for dialogue with TPLF better walk a mile in Ethiopians’ shoes.
TPLF “criminal elements cannot escape the rule of law,” Prime Minister Abiy tweeted on Saturday. “Our operation aims to end the impunity that has prevailed for far too long and hold accountable individuals and groups under the laws of the land.”
On Monday, he dismissed concerns that Ethiopia could descend into chaos as “unfounded” and a “result of not understanding our context deeply.”
“Our rule of law enforcement operation, as a sovereign state with the capacity to manage its own internal affairs, will wrap up soon by ending the prevailing impunity,” he tweeted.
The war, which Addis Ababa started on Nov. 4 after TPLF forces attacked a national army base and tried to steal artillery and military equipment, is an ego trip for TPLF leaders, something that Prime Minister Abiy himself alluded to on Nov. 6 when he said “hubris and intransigence” on the part of TPLF had caused the government’s efforts to resolve its differences with the Tigrayan region through mediation, reconciliation and dialogue to fail.
TPLF leaders would disagree with Abiy’s statement, but the truth is they’re just sore losers who won’t accept the fate that befell them after three years of uprising upended in 2018 their decades-old dominance in Ethiopia.
Abiy is angry — possibly vengeful — with Tigrayans’ lack of respect for the new, Ethiopian order he leads, which, in effect, means that the once marginalized and persecuted majority is the ruler and the minority that always overlorded the majority in Ethiopia is from now on the ruled.
Abiy – and by extension Ethiopia – has many reasons to be bitterer than Tigrayan generals and politicians. He’s bequeathed to a hollow office, as Tigrayans — who ruled with an iron-fist since their political ascendancy in 1991 until their actual ouster in March 2018 — looted the national coffers dry and hauled critical military hardware, ammunition and fighter jets to their region to set him up for failure.
Abiy was rendered dud on arrival. Had it not been for the UAE’s $1 billion cash rescue to help Ethiopia recover from the debilitating foreign exchange crisis that led many businesses to close shop, Abiy would have been engulfed in fresh uprisings from Day One.
Sensing the dangers these largely well-orchestrated schemes pose to his nascent administration and Ethiopia at large, Prime Minister Abiy – immediately after his swearing in in April 2018 — started a long journey of a cleanup. He purged Tigrayan big dogs, who had grown too big for their britches, from the government, rolled the repressive, TPLF-led multi-ethnic ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front into the Prosperity Party, discredited EPRDF’s time in power as a “dark era” and, most importantly, forged a surprise but now blossoming ties with Eritrea, an arch-foe of Tigrayan elites, mainly those molded by late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who went to war with Asmara, worked hard to isolate President Isaias Afwerki and was the brain behind the UN’s decade-long sanctions on Asmara.
But all that proved insufficient. As Prime Minister Abiy said the Ethiopian government was against a “TPLF criminal clique” that vowed to “make Ethiopia ungovernable.” He said that the group planned, trained, financed and executed “horrendous crimes in several parts of the country” directly and through criminal surrogates.”
“Since the current administration came to office by peaceful means in April 2018, members of the TPLF clique, who ruled the country the previous 27 years through means of oppression rather than law, have been fugitives from justice hiding in the city of Mekelle and using the civilian population as human shields,” said Abiy, whose administration released political prisoners and for the time in Ethiopia’s history allowed the public — albeit short-lived — to express their critical views about their government.
The Tigrayan generals took advantage of the opened civic space and started fanning the flames of inter-communal tensions among Ethiopia’s dozens of ethnicities, putting the country at inflection point, which increased the pressure on Abiy to act and not to waver. To crush the rebellion in Tigrayan region, Abiy would need to summon world’s moral, financial and military support, and it’s likely that many foreign nations are willing to rush to his aid, as the alternative would be an emboldened TPLF and an enfeebled Addis Ababa unable to exert its control over the whole country.
TPLF leaders will not hesitate to further stir up ethnic conflicts in Ethiopia because that will serve their interest of crippling any national government that’s not beholden to them. They know if they hold off the offensive by Addis Ababa, they can inspire new tribes with underlying grievances to rise up and sink the country into total lawlessness.
TPLF’s rejection of the national parliament’s vote that postponed elections past their scheduled time and its griping about victimization and scapegoating were hogwash and a convenient cover-up. It’s the one that violated the Ethiopian constitution by organizing “illegal” regional elections that were legally postponed because of the Covid-19 pandemic. It “anointed” itself as the legitimate ruler of the Tigrayan region, ganged up with destructive agents in other regions to undermine Ethiopia’s peace, illegally started – according to the federal government — relations with international organizations and countries and finally cut ties with Abiy’s administration, calling it “illegitimate.”
Abiy had no option but to confront TPLF. He felt belittled — even threatened — by this well-armed and thuggish militia that relishes the idea of standing up to a legitimate, internationally recognized government. If he has to rule Ethiopia, his reasoning goes, he has to whip the Tigrayan region into line, once and for all, and make Tigrayan elites, who’re unable or unwilling to swallow their pride, accept their leadership loss and pay for their disrespect for the national government in Addis Ababa.
TPLF leaders deluded themselves when they thought that their rebellion will raise TPLF’s profile among peasant Tigrayans or erode Abiy’s international and local image as both a capable leader and peacemaker. They’ve shown their true colors and overplayed their hand when they challenged the national government, but like Icarus, in the ancient Greek myth, they seem they’ve flown too close to the sun until the wax on their wings melt and slammed into the rugged Tigrayan mountains.
Ordinary Tigrayans, who toyed with secession for decades, would sure have been thrilled if TPLF could have snatched a special status concession from the jaws of the raging war to put their region above others. But that’s unattainable. Prime Minister Abiy, determined to show his military mettle, is disinclined to cave in to TPLF’s demands or calls for mediation, as both would confer legitimacy to elements he considers as criminals and vows to “extract,” them from the Tigrayan region and “relaunch our country on a path to sustainable prosperity for all.”
“Federal Defense Forces are determined to bring an end to this criminal enterprise with the least possible cost to the civilian population in Tigray and the rest of Ethiopia,” Abiy said, noting that the military operation had “clear, limited & achievable objectives — to restore the rule of law and constitutional order and to safeguard the rights of the Ethiopians to lead a peaceful life wherever they’re in the country.”
Unlike the doomsday scenario predicted by some analysts, the war in the Tigrayan region is pretty likely that it will stay there. Saying that it will spread to and destabilize the rest of the Horn of Africa region is a far-fetched notion. Ethnic Tigrayans are confined in Ethiopia and Eritrea, mainly hemmed in by hostile neighbors. If Addis Ababa closes ranks with Eritrea and Sudan, any fallout from the war could easily be contained, even if the war takes more than a year. Asmara blames TPLF for causing the “current conflict” after its “reckless and multi-pronged attack” on the Northern Command. Khartoum has closed its border with the Tigrayan region “until further notice” because of the “security tensions” in Ethiopia, the Sudan News Agency quoted acting Governor of Kassala State Fathal-Rahman Al-Amin as saying.
Authorities “will not allow any individuals or groups holding weapons to enter Kassala State,” said the governor, adding that a committee will be formed to determine the method of dealing with the civilians expected to flee the war and might seek refuge in Sudanese territories.
Ethiopia’s decision to withdraw troops from Somalia will also have little impact on the overall security situation in Somalia. In fact, it could give the Somali government a rare opportunity to shop for an alternative force from a Muslim nation to help it uproot al Shabab. Mogadishu decision-makers have always believed the African Union peacekeeping force in their country was not serious about ending the Shabab menace as the group’s existence served its interests. Somalis have accused the African mission, which they universally despise, of turning its stay in Somalia into a cash cow and their bases into rape zones, where women and even preteen girls are raped.
Also, Addis Ababa has no sworn enemy in the Horn and East African region that is hell-bent on adding fuel to its conflict with the Tigranyan region. Better still, Addis Ababa is not against the Tigrayan people or even their aspiration to maintain their autonomy like all the other nine regions in the country.
“The forceful measure, which is part of upholding the rule of law, is not with the entire TPLF and not with the security forces of Tigray as well rather with the disruptive and bloody force,” said Abiy in a message to the people of Tigray in their own language. “Concealed inside the people and TPLF, this force is disrupting you and the entire Ethiopia.”
If the war drags on – a big if — the TPLF will find no substantive support from anywhere, locally or internationally. It’s unthinkable that Ethiopians, who know TPLF’s blood-soaked history, will throw a lifeline to a former oppressor on its last legs. Egypt, which is entangled in a diplomatic row with Addis Ababa and of course would be happy to see a distracted Ethiopia, would pause before associating itself with the TPLF, as a state collapse in Ethiopia could put its source of water at a greater risk.
Abiy appears to have prepared well for this war.
On Nov. 1, he met with Gen. Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, chairman of Sudan’s Sovereign Council, in Addis Ababa, and two days earlier, held discussions with high-level federal officials and regional presidents on “national peace and security concerns,” perhaps a reference to the Tigrayan region.
On Oct. 12, Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki paid a three-day working visit to Ethiopia “to enhance,” according to Abiy, the two countries’ bilateral ties.
During Isaias’s sojourn, the two leaders visited the Ethiopian Air force, which Abiy billed as a “national pride protecting our airspace and closely working with our ground forces in various scenarios, including national emergencies and natural disasters.”
“My visit today confirmed their demonstrable technological capability and readiness,” tweeted Abiy on Oct. 14, when he and Isaias visited Bishoftu Automotive Industry on the outskirts of the capital, which produces T-72 Tanks, medium and heavy weapons and military vehicles for the Ethiopian army.
The war against the Tigrayan elites and generals is as much about Abiy’s future political prospects as it’s about Ethiopia’s sovereignty and search for peaceful transition. TPLF leaders are a risk to both. They’ve no liking for any ruler other than theirs. The impression that they abhor only Abiy, the Oromo, is deceptive. Their goal is to abort any leader who can hold them accountable for their decades-old crimes and massive corruption. A ruler from the Amhara ethnic would have drawn the fiercest resistance from them. Former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn came from the minority Wolayta tribe, yet they frustrated his administration every step of the way until he resigned.
Abiy, a former soldier, doesn’t seem to want to be another victim. He wants to rout TPLF leaders militarily and politically. He’s cocksure that he can pull it off.
On Saturday, he dealt a major blow to TPLF when the Ethiopian upper house of parliament disbanded the legislative and executive arms of the Tigrayan regional administration and set up a transitional administration that will be Addis Ababa’s puppet in Mekelle.
There’s a precedent on this.
On Aug. 4, 2018, the federal army raided the Somali region’s capital, Jigjiga, and ousted its President Abdi Mohamed Omer. Although the military takeover sparked days of violence that killed dozen of people and destroyed many properties, the ruling Somali People’s Democratic Party on Aug. 26 elected Mustafa Muhumed Omer as the new president for the region, which is now the safest in Ethiopia.
Abiy would soon be compelled to conclude the “large-scale law-enforcement operation” to avert an unnecessary mission creep. He has to fix Ethiopia’s ballooning internal problems before they get out of hand. He’s dropped the ball when he advocated impractical regional integration policies that gave TPLF elites the time to regroup and try to undermine his administration.
The concern about a prolonged confrontation pitting certain hardcore elements within the TPLF, mainly former generals and their sympathizers and recruits, against the federal forces inside the Tigrayan region is a legitimate but misplaced one. Inhabitants of the region – roiled by their yearlong strained relationship with Addis Ababa — would have no appetite for a protracted war that could lead to their isolation and starvation. They can barely afford that. A semi-arid and landlocked, the Tigrayan region’s livelihood depends on its neighbors, Amharas (to the south), Eritreans (to the north), Afars (to the east) and Sudanese (to the west). Majority of the region’s population subsist on rain-fed agriculture, meaning that they can’t sustain themselves for a long time and that Abiy, who weaned the region off the national budget, may soon have them eating out of the palm of his Oromo hand.
Worse still, Tigrayans’ ties with their neighbors are fraught, particularly with Eritrea and Amharas, a tribe still smarting from TPLF’s 1991 lead role in the toppling of their President Mengistu Haile Mariam by a multi-ethnic coalition. Eritrea, too, is only too glad to rid its border with Ethiopia of Tigrayan elites, who were a part of the regime it fought in 1998-to-2000 that declined to return the town of Badme, even after the UN-funded Eritrea–Ethiopia Boundary Commission ruled that it belonged to Asmara.
Tigrayan fighters will eventually find themselves alone in their hatred for Abiy’s national government. Their military braggadocio will quickly crash into the cold reality. They’re up against the rest of Ethiopians who hate TPLF and would applaud if the the 44-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate freed the country from the criminals passing off as a legitimate political party to get more time to tackle their nation’s burning issues, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, the Chinese debt and the ethnic federalism.
Ethiopians will soon forget the war against Tigranyan rebels if Abiy manages to vault Ethiopia to democracy, to respect for the rule of law and to free and fair elections. His political adroitness to build an open nation, whose citizens can peacefully coexist, would define him more than anything else.
Abiy’s administration has so far committed a litany of human rights abuses. It arbitrarily arrested political opponents, killed peaceful protesters and shut down the internet. However, previous Ethiopian administrations, including the TPLF-dominated junta, did just the same. The Tigrayan rule, which was pampered by the United States and other Western nations, carried out massacres in Ethiopia and Somalia, where Ethiopian forces under a Tigrayan command slit people’s throats, gouged out eyes and gang-raped women.
The long-term losers of the ongoing war between Addis Ababa and TPLF are the Tigrayan people: Their long cherished dream of one day gaining a complete self-rule was being dashed by their leaders’ antagonism with Addis Ababa and Eritrea. It’s highly likely that Tigrayans will soon be preoccupied with bread-and-butter issues, as worsening livelihood conditions in their region will force them to flee to other parts of the country.
Tigrayan elites will continue living in their own Shangri-La, intentionally ignoring their demoted role in the new Ethiopia, where they’re openly ridiculed as criminals. That’s not unexpected. Indeed, that’s how history works. Tigrayans for three decades bestrode Ethiopia like a Colossus.
Prime Minister Abiy didn’t put Ethiopia’s stability in jeopardy when he kicked off the offensive against TPLF. The real danger facing modern-day Ethiopia’s peace and unity is the very nature of its composition, as overambitious Menelik II and Haile Selassie cobbled together divergent ethnicities that shared almost nothing, a reality that is becoming clearer every day.
“Our rule of law operation is aimed at guaranteeing peace and stability once and for all by bringing perpetrators of instability to justice,” Abiy tweeted on Monday.
At some point in the future, though, Ethiopia will be a candidate for fragmentation, disastrously if not midwifed timely and properly. But that won’t be because of Prime Minister Abiy’s bold attempt to bring a rebellious region to heel.
The military action by Abiy, true to his peacemaker tag, could well be – retrospectively – the masterstroke that bought time for Ethiopia.
If one had believed otherwise, he shouldn’t have any longer.