A conflict between the federal government and the region of Tigray in Ethiopia erupted during the early hours of November 4, 2020. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), at the time the ruling party of the region, attacked a military camp run by the Ethiopian National Defence Forces (ENDF) stationed in Tigray.
TPLF separated the soldiers in the camp and cut off their communication and power. They started attacking mostly non-Tigrayans; they killed them, left them tied up and naked. They were able to rob the ENDF camp of artillery. After the attack, they planned on capturing major cities and bombing institutions. They hoped to disrupt Ethiopia and eventually take overpower. The federal government was able to respond quickly and galvanize troops, altering further damage by TPLF and providing the necessary support to the Northern Command‒ENDF military camp stationed in Tigray.
“For twenty odd years, TPLF terrorists conducted massacres in Bani Shangul, Gambela, Amhara, Oromo, Somali and Afar Regions. TPLF unbridled impunity must be tamed now. They had the audacity to attack a Federal Military Command in Tigray,” said Farah Maalim, a former Kenyan Deputy Speaker of Parliament, now a law lecturer at the University of Nairobi.
“Our rule of law operation is aimed at guaranteeing peace and stability once and for all by bringing perpetrators of instability to justice,” tweeted Abiy Ahmed, Prime Minister of Ethiopia.
The immediate cause of the attack on the Northern Command was the national election, which would have taken place in May of 2020, but got postponed due to COVID-19. Against the will of the federal government, Tigray held its own election on September 9, 2020. The election was not supported by the Ethiopian Constitution thus declared unlawful by the federal government.
TPLF officials said they no longer recognize Ahmed’s administration after the first week of October, which would have been the expiration date if the election was not postponed. They have publicly stated they want to remove Ahmed from power, which is threatening as they have deposed the Derg regime (a military junta that led Ethiopia from 1974-1991).
The goal of the federal government is to dissolve TPLF and restore them with a transitional government in the Tigray Region. Abraham Belay–a member of the Prosperity Party–has replaced Mulu Nega, appointed in November, as head of interim government. Billene Seyoum, the spokesperson for Ahmed, said the replacement is “a result of a six-month performance review.” TPLF had refused to join the Prosperity Party and also claimed they have rights to self-rule, guaranteed by the Ethiopian Constitution.
On the days leading up to the attack, federal troops were building up along the southern borders, and Eritrean forces on the borders by Tigrays north. The Eritrean-Ethiopian war fought by then-leader Meles Zenawi between 1998 to 2000, has left TPLF and Eritrea to be sworn enemies. Eritrea and Ahmed have historical grudges against TPLF and close relationships with each other, thus it worries TPLF to be geographically stuck in the middle of the two.
15 days before the November 4 attack, TPLF officials had a lunch meeting with the commander of the Northern Command. In retrospect, people around him presumed that he got poisoned.
On November 2, then president of the Tigray region, Debretsion Gebremichael, told the region to prepare for war, which is also the day dozens of Amhara civilians were morbidly murdered in the Oromia region.
Previously reports said: the federal army is fighting alongside the Amhara, Oromia, and Afar special forces and militia only, who are neighbors to the Tigray region. TPLF has about 250,000 troops combined, paramilitary forces, and a well-drilled local militia. This tests the national military cohesion, particularly the Northern Command, more than half of the military’s personnel and mechanized divisions have a large number of Tigrayan officers.
Back in March, Ahmed finally acknowledged the presence of Eritrean troops on the northern border of Tigray. Eritrea cited their reason for being on Ethiopian soil, as concerns over the attack from TPLF. “Eritrean people and government did a lasting favour to our soldiers,” said Ahmed.
As of November 28, federal troops have seized the city of Mekelle, marking the completion of the third and last phase of the law enforcement operation. TPLF officials and armed supporters have fled to rural and remote mountain areas where the fighting has continued.
The first phase was to remobilize and strengthen the attacked defense forces then restore the broken chain of command. The second phase was to remove the TPLF militia from different areas, decrease its destructive capabilities, liberate the people of Tigray and then encircle Mekelle which is the city TPLF had a hiding fort using the citizens as human shields.
“The clique has made it clear that it has no compassion for its people, its history, its culture, its heritage and its beliefs,” said Ahmed in a statement.
During the second phase, federal forces have also recovered stolen weapons and campsites, seized strategic weaponry from TPLF before they were able to use them, rescued hostages, buried the deceased national heroes, and protected endangered and vulnerable citizens in the region.
For the third phase, which Ahmed has said “clearly, it requires a great deal of wisdom, caution, and patience” there are a couple of precautions: (1) for the people of Mekelle to stand in solidarity with the federal forces and bring TPLF to justice, (2) Tigray Special Forces and Militia, who are carrying out the TPLF mission, should consider surrendering within 72 hours, (3) for any TPLF members to take this last opportunity to surrender within 72 hours.
TPLF has destroyed many day-to-day infrastructures, schools, and health facilities. Like terrorist groups, TPLF had taken Mekelle city hostage and treated it as a war zone rather than home to innocent Ethiopians.
The Ethiopian Military has claimed to kill 15 members and captured 8 other members of TPLF. From those killed by federal forces: Seyoum Mesfin, former foreign minister for two decades, was one. From those captured: Sebhat Nega, founding member of the TPLF; Abay Weldu, former president of the region; and Abraham Tekeste, former vice president of the region, are some.
During the early phase of this law enforcement operation, journalists were not allowed in Tigray. Even now they are only allowed in certain areas, with the company of federal troops or they are closely monitored.
In late November, Ahmed was proudly reporting to Parliament that there was not a single civilian casualty. Even though there was much promise about the well-being of the Tigray people; we have seen their bodies used as a battleground. Particularly Eritrean and Amhara forces are claiming to ethnically cleanse the people of Tigray.
“After the Eritrean army crossed the border and was operating in Ethiopia, any damage it did to our people was unacceptable,” said Ahmed. “We don’t accept it because it is the Eritrean army, and we would not accept it if it were our soldiers. The military campaign was against our clearly targeted enemies, not against the people. We have discussed this four or five times with the Eritrean government.”
Hundreds of thousands of Tigrayans have fled from their homeland to Sudan in fear of military operation, with no clear end in sight. There have been unreasonable killings, rape of women in the most gruesome ways. Some drugged, gang-raped and held hostage. Many of the women have become STD positive, including HIV, and become pregnant; most are also physically abused.
One woman recalled a conversation with her attacker: “He pushed me and said, ‘You Tigrayans have no history, you have no culture. I can do what I want to you and no one cares.'”
Due to medical facilities being in the center of the conflict and oftentimes targeted there is a lack of medical service. That along with the stigma that surrounds sexual violence; the numbers getting reported are most probably not accurate and the doctors interviewed by CNN believe it to be much higher.
There have been many attempts in the Parliament and between Ahmed and TPLF to negotiate and come to an agreement. Traditionally in Ethiopia when there are disagreements the elders get together to listen to both sides and broker a peace agreement. It is a very sacred and respected practice, which TPLF has declined many times. Before November 4, the federal parliament was in the process of designating TPLF as a terrorist group.
Now the council of ministers has added TPLF and (Oromo Liberation Front) OLF-Shene, both armed, as terrorist organizations, after several attacks on different parts of the country.
“We call upon all Ethiopians to be their brothers’ and sisters’ keeper along the road to recovery and healing. Since we Ethiopians have a long history of mutual support, we must assist our people without waiting for external support, said Ahmed in a statement.”
President Biden has stated the abuses are “unacceptable and must end.” He is willing to work with Ethiopia to address humanitarian issues.
The United States is looking for humanitarian access and an independent investigation into the human rights abuse allegations. There have been reports of unreasonable killings, sexual assault, looting, intentional displacement of civilians, and forced return of Eritrean refugees. President Biden had sent Senator Christopher Coons of Delaware to meet and talk to the PM about the conditions in Tigray. U.S. Special envoy for the Horn of Africa Jeffrey Feltman will be leading all diplomatic efforts of America.
The concern of the international community is the humanitarian crisis that unfolded as a result of the conflict. On top of abuse accusations, the destruction of crops and cattle has increased the worry of famine. The Biden administration has posed a visa restriction against Ethiopian and Eritrean government officials, hoping to add pressure to the situation.
The conflict between TPLF and Ahmed’s government was unavoidable. Tensions have been rising between them and between ethnic groups of Ethiopia for years. TPLF is an organization that benefited from the division of Ethiopians; since the beginning, they have fanned the flames of division. Their propaganda isn’t in sync with Ahmed’s “መደመር” (medemer) or “unify” ideology; the conflict was in the plays well before November 4, 2020.
The election will take place on June 21, 2021, it will determine whether or not Ahmed’s administration will deliver on the promise of a new truly democratic Ethiopia. After about 3 decades, the TPLF era is finally over. As for the people, it’s time to move forward in unity.