Ethiopia’s military has said it is “at war” with the ruling party of the country’s northern Tigray region, amid unconfirmed reports of fighting, artillery duels and air raids.
There appears little hope of averting conflict in Africa’s second most populous country, with senior officials on both sides apparently determined to seek military advantage before any negotiations designed to defuse the crisis.
Analysts and diplomats have been warning for weeks that a standoff between the federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) could plunge Ethiopia into a bitter and bloody civil conflict.
“Our country has entered into a war it didn’t anticipate. This war is shameful, it is senseless,” Berhanu Jula Gelalcha, Ethiopia’s deputy chief of defence staff, told a press conference in Addis Ababa on Thursday.
On Wednesday, the prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, accused the TPLF of attacking a military camp in the region and attempting to loot military assets.
The TPLF denies the attack occurred and accuses Abiy of concocting the story to justify deploying the military against the organisation.
“What has been initiated against us is clearly a war, an invasion …. This is a war we’re conducting to preserve our existence,” Debretsion Gebremichael, chair of the TPLF and president of the Tigray region, said at a press conference.
Debretsion said fighting persisted in western Tigray and that federal troops were gathering on the border in the neighbouring Amhara and Afar regions.
There were also claims that military aircraft had conducted air raids around its capital, Mekele.
Diplomats in Addis Ababa said there were casualties on both sides, but with internet and phone connections in Tigray cut for a second day there was no confirmation or details of the reports.
The fighting in Tigray has drawn expressions of concern from the UN, US and EU. Experts fear a “protracted and disastrous,” conflict that could “seriously strain an Ethiopian state already buffeted by multiple grave political challenges, and send shockwaves into the Horn of Africa region and beyond”.
“A war that many Ethiopians feared was possible but hoped would never happen appears to be under way. …. Unless urgently halted [it] will be devastating not just for the country but for the entire Horn of Africa,” the International Crisis Group said in a briefing on Thursday.
The TPLF dominated Ethiopia’s governing coalition for decades before Abiy took office in 2018 and announced sweeping political reforms. Those reforms, however, have allowed old ethnic and other grievances to surface and led to instability.
Tigray’s people make up 5% of Ethiopia’s 109 million population, but the region is wealthier and more influential than many other, larger, regions.
Under Abiy, who won last year’s Nobel peace prize for ending a war with neighbouring Eritrea, Tigrayan leaders have complained of being unfairly targeted in corruption prosecutions, removed from top positions, and blamed for the country’s problems.
One factor in the latest crisis is the postponement of national elections due to the Covid-19 pandemic. National polls were due to take place in August, but electoral officials ruled in March that all voting would be delayed until the threat from the virus had eased.
When parliamentarians voted to extend officials’ mandates – which would have expired in early October – Tigrayan leaders went ahead with regional elections in September that Abiy’s government deemed illegal.
Now each side sees the other as illegitimate, and federal lawmakers have ruled that Abiy’s government should cut off contact with, and funding to, Tigray’s leadership.
The Tigray region is home to a large portion of the federal military personnel and the location of much of its equipment, a legacy of Ethiopia’s 1998-2000 border war with Eritrea, its northern neighbour.
Some analysts estimate that Tigray could muster more than half of the armed forces’ total personnel and mechanised divisions, meaning that neither side could be confident of a swift victory.
There are widespread fears that open conflict will exacerbate inspire further secessionist sentiment in other parts of Ethiopia.
“We’re working to ensure the war won’t come to the centre of the country. It will end there in Tigray,” said General Berhanu.