Cape Town Rarely has a war taken such a dramatic turn in such a short period of time as it was recently in Ethiopia. Almost exactly twelve months to the day after Ethiopia’s head of state Abiy Ahmed attacked the rebellious Tigray region in the north of the country and the local Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) with a massive military offensive, the tide has turned completely.
This is astonishing because the Ethiopian armed forces together with troops from the neighboring state of Eritrea had already conquered almost all of Tigray and its capital Mek’ele last November.
But since the middle of this year the Tigrin army, believed to be defeated, has experienced a surprising comeback. Led by experienced military personnel and highly motivated soldiers, they could now begin an attack on the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, where the African Union (AU) is also headquartered. The AU is an association of 55 African countries.
It is unclear whether this attack actually takes place in the end and when exactly. In addition, the Tigrin people in Addis Ababa are not particularly popular because of their long dominance of the country. The main war goal of the TPLF is therefore initially only the overthrow of Prime Minister Abiy.
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Despite its increasingly precarious situation, the latter has so far refused to accept any negotiations – and instead recently again called for the political leadership in Tigray to be destroyed. He plays into the hands of his opponents and invites them to march through.
Even more important for the Tigrin Armed Forces (TDF) than taking the capital, which is around 300 km away, is the control of an important traffic axis. A railway line connects Addis Ababa with the strategically important port in the neighboring country of Djibouti. The capital is largely supplied with food and gasoline along the route.
Tigray continues to be influential
But how did this radical turnaround come about? The main reason is probably that until Abiy came to power in 2018, the Tigrin people had almost completely dominated not only the Ethiopian military but also the governing coalition politically for almost 30 years.
The reforms that Abiy initiated from mid-2018 onwards have fueled old tensions. In view of the perceived exclusion, the Tigrin Liberation Front left the ruling coalition two years ago and withdrew to their home region, from where they also acted militarily against Abiy from now on.
Although Tigray only makes up a small part of the total Ethiopian population of 112 million with six million people, the region has always had far more influence in the country. This is likely to be the case again from now on, even if the Tigrins – due to the recent war, but also the hateful propaganda of the government against this ethnic group – enjoy little sympathy outside their home region in the north.
Most experts, like the Norwegian peace researcher Kjetil Tronvoll, therefore also believe that the TPLF will seek an independence referendum for Tigray if Abiy wins. Especially since a large majority of the local population, after the excesses of the Ethiopian army during the occupation of Tigray last year, now wants nothing more than a state of its own.
Despite support, Ethiopia is still on the defensive
As a close ally of Ethiopia, the United States, through its special envoy Jeffrey Feltman, has repeatedly warned of a further escalation of ethnic violence. To this end, they are trying to prevent the rebels from advancing further on Addis Ababa. There are also growing concerns about ethnic unrest between the two largest ethnic groups in the country, the Oromos and Amhars.
If the situation does not improve by the end of the year, Ethiopia threatens to be forced out of a special trade agreement with the USA (African Growth and Opportunity Act, AGOA for short), which guarantees many African countries duty-free access to almost all of their goods on the US market.
For Ethiopia, the agreement has an extremely high economic value, especially since many foreign investors have linked their presence in the country to AGOA. But it could be too late for such negotiations by now.
West is again in a crisis of conscience
Ethiopia expert Ludger Schadomsky, head of the Amharic editorial team at Deutsche Welle in Bonn, sees the roots of the conflict primarily in Ethiopia itself: “The culture of mistrust deeply rooted in the Ethiopian DNA, paired with an incompetent and ethnocentric political caste, suffocates even the most tender Attempts at democratization, ”he says.
Accordingly, it will take a long time to establish a culture of political compromise in the country on the Horn of Africa. Even the scientist Kjetil Tronvoll sees no great prospect of success in possible negotiations between the arch enemies: “There will probably no longer be a change of power through negotiation,” states the peace researcher. “We can and must reckon with a long conflict.”
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