A year on, Ethiopia decimated by ravaging internal conflict

Friday, November 5th, 2021 00:00 |
A war veteran holds a candle during a memorial service for the victims of the Tigray conflict organized by the city administration, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Wednesday. Photo/AFP

Addis Ababa, Thursday

On November 4, 2020, the Ethiopian military was deployed to Tigray to squash forces loyal to the northern region’s governing party, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), in response to what the government said was an attack on federal army camps.

The operation was meant to be swift but a year later, the conflict has expanded beyond the region’s frontiers, causing a full-blown humanitarian crisis and leaving the country in a seemingly inescapable quagmire as the rebels claim to have made advances towards the capital, Addis Ababa.

Since hostilities began, there have been mass rapes and massacres of civilians on a large scale.

As far back as January, aid agencies were sounding alarms about how much worse the situation could get.

Continued fighting, bureaucratic hurdles and aid blockades have since led to a continuing famine affecting hundreds of thousands of people.

More than two million people have been displaced from their homes and tens of thousands more have died.

The declaration of a nationwide state of emergency by the federal government on Tuesday has triggered fears of more instability.

The US embassy in Addis Ababa has also issued a travel advisory, warning its citizens to avoid travel to Ethiopia.

“The conflict had been portrayed as a law enforcement operation that would last a few weeks,” said Awet Weldemichael, a Horn of Africa security expert and history professor at Queen’s University, Ontario.

“A year later, we’ve since seen it degenerate into a brutal war to crush and erode Tigray, and where talk of elimination of entire ethnic groups has been normalised.”

Declared war

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed had declared the war over on November 28, after federal forces captured Tigray’s capital, Mekelle.

Basking in the triumph and clad in camouflage and a red military beret, the Nobel Peace Prize winner travelled to the city a few weeks later to congratulate a gathering of his military commanders.

But the victory lap turned out to be premature. Within months, the tide of war turned and Tigrayan forces eventually regained most of the territory they lost and continued to launch counteroffensives in the neighbouring Amhara and Afar regions.

Allied fighters from the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), at war with the Ethiopian army in the Oromia region since 2019, now openly patrol entire districts in the region and have reportedly threatened to march on Addis Ababa.

“Amhara special forces launched counteroffensives on our positions in Kemise, but we repulsed them,” Odaa Tarbii, spokesman for the OLA, told Al Jazeera on Wednesday.

Such chaos was once considered a thing of the past in Africa’s second most-populous country, long considered a beacon of stability in the region but now threatened to be engulfed by fighting across expanding territory – a stunning fall of grace for Abiy, two years after a Nobel Peace Prize coronation that won him praise and adulation.

Meanwhile, many towns and villages in the country’s north remain inaccessible to aid agencies, even as food and medical supplies continue to dwindle amid alarming reports of widespread human rights abuses and starvation deaths.

Despite rebels making advances on multiple frontiers and the repulsion of an Ethiopian aerial and ground offensive launched in the Amhara region last month, the Ethiopian government continues to rebuff calls by the US, Russia and the European Union, among others, for dialogue.

Instead, Addis Ababa has intensified a mass army recruitment drive and is hoping that a reported shopping-spree acquisition of an arsenal of drones and other weapons, as well as an inflow of Eritrean troops made available by close ally President Isaias Afwerki, could give them an edge.

The message came shortly after reported losses suffered during the weekend, at the most recent epicentre of fighting, in and around the strategic Amhara city of Dessie, 400km (250 miles) northeast of Addis Ababa.

Tigrayan forces claimed to have captured Dessie, as well as the neighbouring town of Kombolcha which bisects the Addis Ababa road to neighbouring Djibouti.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he was “alarmed” about reports of the capture of both towns and urged the Tigrayans to halt their advance.

But the gains appear to have emboldened Tigrayan forces. For months, Tigrayan officials, who say the reported attack on federal camps a year ago was a ploy for a “coordinated” assault on Tigray, maintained that negotiations were the only way to end the conflict.

But in comments made during an interview on Monday with the regional Tigrai TV, Tigrayan commander General Tsadkan Gebretensae appeared to suggest that his forces would no longer settle for a mediated settlement.        - Agencies

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