Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s ultimatum for the Tigray People’s Liberation Front to lay down its arms will expire in a matter of hours, and Amnesty International has called for both sides to refrain from targeting civilians.
Ahmed said on Sunday that the group, which runs the Tigray regional government, had 72 hours to give up or Tigray’s capital, Mekelle, would be attacked. The deadline expires on Wednesday.
If the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) refuses to concede in the three-week-long war, there could be a bloodbath, foreign governments and humanitarian groups say.
Hundreds have already been killed, tens of thousands have fled and the conflict could spill into neighboring countries.
According to Amnesty International, the Ethiopian military spokesperson, Col. Dejene Tsegaye, said on national television: “We want to send a message to the public in Mekelle to save themselves from any artillery attacks and free yourselves from the junta…. After that, there will be no mercy.”
Fisseha Tekle, Amnesty’s researcher for Ethiopia and Eritrea, told The Media Line that the battlefront had shifted to Mekelle.
“We are really concerned about the human impact of that conflict because Mekelle is home to about 500,000 residents and a number of civilian institutions like hospitals and churches,” he said.
Tekle notes that the population of the Tigray region, in northern Ethiopia, is 5 to 6 million, including some 100,000 Eritrean refugees. The researcher said he is concerned that the population’s basic needs will not be met.
“What is really concerning is that people, in Mekelle especially… are still having a water shortage. Food has become extremely expensive. Banks are closed, so people can’t withdraw money to buy food,” he stated.
Local news media reported that 500 people were killed in a massacre in the town of Mai Kadra on November 9.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says that at least 30,000 people have to fled to Sudan. Amnesty says all communications with Tigray have been severed.
Assistant US Secretary of African Affairs Tibor P. Nagy told journalists last Thursday: “We continue to press the Ethiopian government to restore communication in the region as an act of accountability and transparency and to enable greater contact with civilians, including American citizens in the region.”
The fighting started on November 4 when Ahmed sent the Ethiopian National Defense Force, the nation’s army, into Tigray after the local military attacked a government military installation, with resulting deaths.
The TPLF has said that the prime minister unlawfully extended his term in office by indefinitely delaying elections scheduled for September because of COVID-19. Voting on the national level was halted, but the Tigray region held elections anyway.
Terje Ostebo, an associate professor at the Center for African Studies at the University of Florida and chairperson of its Department of Religion, told The Media Line that the situation escalated until neither side’s leaders were willing to recognize the other, and Ahmed cut funding, including money meant to fight the pandemic.
“That put the regional government in Tigray in a difficult spot,” said Ostebo, whose book Islam, Ethnicity and Conflict in Ethiopia: The Bale Insurgency, 1963-1970 was published this year.
The bloodshed was predictable and could have been prevented, he said.
“If this had happened four or five months ago, I would [have been]… surprised, but the way things were escalating, particularly from September, it looked like this was going to be what would happen,” he noted.
“The rhetoric became more and more hostile from both sides, and in October we saw military parades in Tigray,” Ostebo continued. “It became clear that things were brewing and that the violent conflict would be immense.”
The professor says he is concerned that the unrest could spread throughout Ethiopia.
“Over the past few years, there has been an increase in local ethnic conflicts that, to a certain extent, are isolated from each other,” he explained. “The fact that most of the security forces… [have been] moved to the North means that there really is a potential for local conflicts to flare up.”
Ostebo is particularly concerned about the Oromo region, where people have been protesting the national leadership for years. He adds that Ahmed has not been open to dialogue with TPLF although the group has indicated it is willing to come to the table.
“Ahmed views this as a law-enforcement operation where he labels the Tigrayan regional government as criminals,” he told The Media Line. “There are several envoys in the country, the African Union being the largest [group represented], but so far there has been no indication that he is willing to negotiate.”
Ostebo says that Ethiopian regions have been disappointed with the government of Ahmed, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for improving relations with Eritrea.
“Abiy’s tenure was [at first] promising in the way that there were a lot of promises of reforms, and the negotiations with Eritrea started,” he said. “Unfortunately, what we have seen, particularly since late 2019, is a kind of a return to a mode of governance that relies heavily on force.”
He adds that Ethiopia has had oppressive leaders for decades, and Ahmed has turned out to be no better.
“The Abiy that we saw in the beginning is not the Abiy that we see today,” the professor said, adding: “I think it is a reminder for the Nobel Peace Prize [committee] to maybe see some more results before they choose the candidate….”
He feels that the TPLF’s endgame is difficult to ascertain.
“At the moment,” he said, “I think they are just fighting for survival.”
Jon Abbink, an expert on Ethiopia who chairs the Researchers’ Assembly at Leiden University’s African Studies Centre in the Netherlands, says the way to stop the fighting is for the national forces to defeat the TPLF, which does not seem to have the support of the majority of the Tigray region’s population.
“The best way to end it is for the federal army to finish the battle against the TPLF elite and its core militias, and arrest the… top political and military leadership, bring them to court, and initiate reconstruction and reform of the regional administration, he told The Media Line.
Ostebo is particularly concerned about violence spreading in the region. There have been unconfirmed reports that the United Arab Emirates, which shares a base in Eritrea with Saudi Arabia, has sent drones to Tigray in support Addis Ababa.
Slightly more than a week ago, the TPLF fired rockets into Eritrea over its alleged aid to the Ethiopian government.
“The worst scenario is that Ethiopia implodes, the war continues and the region gets involved in local conflicts, [until] it ends in Addis Ababa,” he said. “I think we are far from that at the moment, but there is a slight potential that this could recalibrate the whole region.”
Abbink is not convinced that the conflict will expand.
“[The] consequences for the neighboring countries are limited, even if the fighting would continue for a couple of more weeks,” he stated.
“The announced 'humanitarian disaster' and the destabilizing effects of the campaign in and/or on Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea or South Sudan are not really materializing,” he went on. “[There is] no danger of the armed conflict in Tigray spilling outside the national borders.”
Amnesty’s Tekle says world leaders need to minimize the war’s effects on civilians, with Mekelle of special concern.
“We expect the international community, including the US, to pressure both parties in the conflict to respect their humanitarian obligations,” he said.
The US has made efforts in this direction, with Nagy saying Washington had allocated $320 million for the 2020 fiscal year toward the UNHCR and other aid organizations, some of which goes to Sudan.
“We… urge both sides to maintain access for humanitarian organizations to provide essential assistance to vulnerable groups in the region,” he said on Thursday.
“We are also closely tracking the outflow of civilians [to] neighboring countries and are in close contact with the UN and other humanitarian officials regarding contingency plans on their response,” he added. “We urge neighboring countries to keep their borders open to asylum seekers fleeing the violence.”
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