War clouds gather in northern Ethiopia: tensions between Tigray, Eritrea and Addis Ababa

2020-10-26 11:52:11 Written by  Martin Plaut Published in English Articles Read 201 times


Tensions ratcheting up

One does not have to look hard to see the warnings. The media are full of images of Tigray preparing for a conflict.

Rocket launchers Tigray

Long standing observers of Ethiopia (and Tigray in particular) like Professor Tronvoll, has sounded a warning.

Professor Tronvoll provided further details in a Facebook post. He warned of the dangers ahead and berated the international community for their lack of attention to this situation. Why, he asked, is there so little apparent action to prevent a conflict?His warning is timely.

Here are recent developments:

  • The Ethiopian parliament cut its ties with Tigray after the Tigrayans held a regional election on 9 September that the Addis government deemed “illegal”.
  • Tigray accused the federal government of freezing the quarterly budget of 285 million birr, that the World Bank provided for the implementation of safety net programs in the region.
  • The ruling Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF) issued a statement accusing Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of plotting war against Tigray. Over the weekend the TPLF called on the people of Eritrea and the Ethiopian defence forces to stand by its side to avert the bloodshed and end autocratic rules of the leaders. “The leaders are cementing personal relations by ignoring brotherly ties between the peoples of Eritrea and Ethiopia and the dictator leaders would be held accountable for all chaos that may happen,” the statement said.
  • Daniel Berhane – founder of Horn Affairs wrote in a Tweet: “#Ethiopia‘s army Northern Command in limbo. Former command head resigned and #Tigray wouldn’t accept Abiy Ahmed’s new appointee. Further, Tigray declared Abiy can not make any decision regarding the army. In effect, Tigray took over the most heavily armed wing of the military.”
  • In his first foreign interview with the Financial Times in February 2019 Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed underlined  tensions with Tigray. In the interview the prime minister professed to be unfazed by the forces he had unleashed. ‘”Yesterday they were on the streets of Mekelle insulting me,” he said, referring to the Tigrayan capital. “But I love that. That is democracy.” Mr Abiy said he wanted to secure peace by persuasion, not through military pacification. “Negative peace is possible as long as you have a strong army. We are heading to positive peace,” he said.’ That was then. Now the situation looks rather different.

Tigray acted earlier this year to prevent heavy weaponry with Ethiopia’s army’s Northern Command from being withdrawn from the region. Below is what was reported on this blog in January.

The situation is tense and it would take very little for a war involving Ethiopian federal forces and Eritrean troops against Tigray to erupt.

Below are two articles which provide the context for this situation.

Tigray protest halts army’s attempt to move heavy weapons to Oromia

Popular protests on Monday prevented the Ethiopian army from transferring its heavy weapons from north-eastern Tigray.

The events took place in Gulo Mekeda, close to the town of Zalambessa, which borders on Eritrea.

After a daylong standoff, the military held discussions with local people and agreed to remain there until replacements arrived.

The people of Tigray are sceptical about the policies of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, whom they accuse of working with Eritrean President, Isaias Afwerki. They believe this has made Tigray vulnerable to potential attacks from Eritrea.

Since reconciliation between Eritrea and Ethiopia and Prime Minister Abiy’s trip to Asmara in July, Tigrayans have been warily watching developments on both sides of the border. They have insisted that the army’s artillery stays in their area to protect them.

Why the military wants to move its artillery

Ethiopia’s federal army believes it requires its armaments to prepare for a possible conflict in Oromia.

Since the return of rebels of the Oromo Liberation Front from exile in Eritrea there have been clashes between OLF forces and government soldiers throughout the state of Oromia.

The Tigrayans mounting the roadblocks in Gulo Mekeda were not convinced, arguing that the OLF doesn’t have heavy weapons, while the Eritreans do.

The recent closure of the Eritrea – Ethiopian border has only fuelled Tigrayan distrust of President Isaias and Prime Miniser Abiy.

Ethiopia has experienced ethnic conflicts in many parts of the country after Prime Minister Abiy ended the dominance of the centre over regional parties.

Currently there are close to 3 million people displaced within Ethiopia.

Old enemies, old friends: the Eritrea – Tigray relationship

The complex and sometimes hostile relationship of the Eritrean and Tigrayan authorities appears to have hit another low.

An official statement from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) [below] contained strong warnings for President Isaias. He was told not to interfere in Ethiopian affairs.

Esteemed People of Eritrea

The people of Tigrai and TPLF have never wavered or compromised on the quest of the Eritrean people for freedom. As a result of the sacrifices we jointly made, we won over the brutal Dergi regime and achieved victory. You have determined your destiny and the people of Tigrai and the TPLF are, as always, proud of this achievement. Nonetheless, in the last 20 years we had been locked in an unnecessary conflict and we both paid dearly as a result. We all realize the scar this has left.

It should not be forgotten that the relationship between the TPLF and the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) have been littered with periods of cooperation and conflict.

The EPLF helped the TPLF when the Tigrayan movement was first formed, with training and equipment. They then fell out over strategy and tactics, before cementing an alliance that resulted in their forces co-ordinating the capture of Asmara and Addis Ababa in 1991. Eritrean troops even provided Prime Minister Meles with security in the first months of his rule.

But bitter disputes have also characterised their relationship. The Eritrean closed the route into Tigray at the height of the 1984-85 famine, leading to thousands of deaths. PM Meles warned his Eritrean hosts not to ‘scratch old wounds’ when he came to celebrate the formal independence of Eritrea in 1993. And – of course – there was the tragic border war of 1998, sparked by a conflict over the village of Badme.

Now there is increasing tension along the Eritrea-Ethiopia border once more. The TPLF blocked the removal of heavy weapons and equipment by the authorities in Addis Ababa in January 2019. The Tigrayans feared renewed fighting along the border.

Tigrayans blocked military trucks from leaving Shire and Zalambessa, January 2019

There is now a war of words once more, while the land border between Eritrea and Eritrea is closed.

The bitter words from the TPLF were matched by President Isaias, during his recent interview on Eritrean television.

An extract of what President Isaias had to say is below.


Last modified on Monday, 26 October 2020 13:03