The Ethiopian war plan that went astray

What was touted as a quick operation is sinking into a quagmire of violence.

On 5 November, two days after the war broke out in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said his campaign has “clear, limited and achievable objectives.”

On 14 November, his office issued a statement outlining the four objectives of the evasively named “law enforcement operation.” They were to disarm the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), bring its leaders to justice, appoint a new administration for the Tigray region, and enhance law and order.

Did Abiy succeed?

Disarming TPLF

He declared victory on 28 November after his troops captured Mekelle, the capital of Tigray region. The federal forces faced little or no resistance as the Tigray regional forces left their positions after sustaining huge losses.

As one observer noted, the planes and drones obliterated Tigrayan tanks, howitzers, fuel depots, and ammunition. The 42 divisions of the Tigray regional forces succumbed to the federal army’s combined might, plus the Eritrean troops and forces from the Amhara regional state.

If not wholly neutralized, the military capabilities of Tigray’s regional fighters were decimated. Three weeks into the conflict, their long-range missiles and rocket launchers were silenced.

Here, Abiy and the federal forces can claim to have achieved their objective of disarming their opponents, albeit the fighting continues today with the deployment of lighter weaponry.

Bringing to justice

A couple of weeks into the conflict, Abiy’s government issued arrest warrants for over 76 members of the TPLF. The number has grown since. However, to date, less than 25 senior members of the party are officially announced to have been captured and appeared in court.

The leader of the TPLF and the president of the ousted regional government, Debretsion Gebremichael, is still on the battlefield. On 19 February, his forces laid out eight conditions for a possible peace talk with Abiy’s government.

CNN recently interviewed him, and Debretsion demanded an independent investigation of the widely reported war crimes and crimes against humanity. His advisor, Getachew Reda, also appears on social media now and then.

The public appearances of these embattled yet defiant leaders suggest that they are far from falling into the hands of their adversaries.

Hence, the objective of “bringing TPLF leaders to justice” is yet to be achieved by the federal government.

Interim administration

Abiy established a new administration in Tigray led by Mulu Nega, who looks more like a tired school principal than a crisis manager that the position badly needs.

General Yohannes Gebremeskel Tesfamariam, the former head of the United Nations Force for Abyei in Sudan, was appointed to oversee the State of Emergency in Tigray.

The plan reads like an attempt to have these two men, who are from Tigray, somehow pull the region out of the current quagmire.

However, Western and Southern Tigray are no longer under the jurisdiction of this new administration. The contested areas around Humera, Welkait, Tsegede, and Raya are already subsumed into the Amhara regional state’s territory.

The new administration itself is now demanding a return to the status quo ante. But, it’s unlikely that the Amhara regional government will give the areas back to Tigray.

The feeling among the Amhara is that they have fought hard to bring back these areas under their territory. They would only give them up over their dead bodies. Perhaps this is the main sticking point of Tigray’s return to peace and stability.

Northern Tigray has also fallen into the hands of a foreign force. Eritrean troops, allies of Abiy, currently control large expanses of land in Sheraro, Shire, Axum, Adwa, Adigrat, and many places around these towns.

Although Abiy and Isaias Afwerki are amusingly tight-lipped about Eritrean troops’ presence in Tigray, the U.S. has asked repeatedly for them to leave. The United Nations has also asked for the withdrawal of Eritrean troops.

The response from Addis Ababa seems to be, “don’t meddle with our internal affairs,” a position that garnered support from Russia, China, and India at the UN Security Council meeting held on 4 March.

Abiy could boast about his success in replacing TPLF’s administration in Tigray, but he cannot claim to have met his objective when a good portion of Tigray’s constitutionally mandated territory remains in the hands of Amhara and Eritrean forces.

Rule of law

Residents of Tigray, international organizations, and independent observers have rung the alarm bell as early as November about the human rights violations that started at the onset of the war.

It started with the massacre in Mai Kadra, and got worse by the day since. Amnesty International’s report, released one week into the conflict, stated that scores of civilians not involved in the ongoing military offensive were shot, stabbed, and hacked to death.

Civilians were caught in the crossfire between the federal and Tigrayan forces, resulting in thousands of people fleeing to Sudan and over half a million displaced internally.

Then came a series of reports on gang rapes, looting, extrajudicial killings, indiscriminate shelling of cities, destruction of properties, and the bombing of holy places.

The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission reported alarmingly high levels of rape cases in just the three Tigrayan cities it managed to carry out its investigations.

The Human Rights Watch reported that the federal forces carried out indiscriminate shelling of urban areas in violation of the laws of war. The historical al-Nejashi mosque and Debre Damo monastery were among the sites damaged by indiscriminate shelling.

In the last two weeks, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and CNN uncovered the massacres of hundreds of civilians by Eritrean troops in Axum and Dengelat. Both incidents potentially amount to crimes against humanity.

These reports triggered Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, to demand an independent investigation. In a long-overdue but welcome development, Abiy’s government also agreed to “unfettered humanitarian access and joint investigations”.

The United Nations says it’s still receiving information about ongoing fighting across Tigray as well as incidents of house searches, looting, killings, and gender-based violence against civilians.

Four months into the conflict, not only the war failed to achieve the goal of enhancing the rule of law, but it also made the situation worse.

In the final analysis, Abiy can hardly claim to have achieved his “clear, limited and achievable objectives” he set out when he declared the war back in early November.

Now, he would be better served by adopting a new strategy that will bring peace to Tigray and the rest of Ethiopia.

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This is the author’s viewpoint. However, Ethiopia Insight will correct clear factual errors.

Main photo: Prime Minister Abiy announcing the beginning of the military offensive in Tigray on ETV; 4 November, 2020; AFP.

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About the author

Fassil Hailu

Fassil is a pen name for a regular Ethiopia Insight columnist. He is an independent analyst and writes on development and political economy, with a special focus on the Horn of Africa.


  • For the past years until November 2020, Tigray had been the most stable and secure region in the country, and as a result, Tigray had been the envy of the Amharas and the dictator in the North, who has been ruling the people of Eritrea with an iron fist.

    It is clear to all the Tigreans and any human being across the globe, the assault by Abiy, Essays, and the Amharas was not merely on the TPLF but on the entire population of Tigray.

    The Tigrayan people did not invade anyone nor have they taken anyone’s land. The war was imposed on them by three savage groups, the Amhara Kilil, Abiy, and the dictator in the North.

    Now, the Tigrayan people have no choice but to fight until the end. There is no doubt they will pay a heavy price, but for them, the alternative is to live under the subjugation of the Amharas, similar to the oppression they experienced in the aftermath of Emperor Yohannes IV’ death, when the Amharas’ kings like Menelik and Haile Selassie stole their lands from the south and west and gave it away to the Amharas.

    All this talk I hear now from the Amhara about defeating the TPLF is hogwash because you cannot defeat people who are aspired to be free; you cannot defeat people who are united against a common merciless enemy; you cannot defeat freedom fighters. It can never happen.

    The Tigreans main problem now is the dictator in the North, but he won’t live forever; he will soon die or toppled. It’s evident the next government of Eritrea will be sympathetic to Tigray, and may even agree to form some type of federation if not outright unity between Tigray and Eritrea. I was born in central Eritrea, as were both of my parents. The people of Eritrea and Tigray share thousands of years of common history, language, culture, religion, and it will make sense to me that they join hands. As for the Amharas, a catastrophic danger is waiting. They will be badgered from many corners: from Sudan, Benshangul, Tigray, Oromo, and Afar. I feel sorry for the ordinary Amhara, because they are the ones who will pay the price and not the Alemayehu’s who live in the USA.

  • I believe what went wrong is that:

    1. If a crime has been committed, then punish using existing laws and target those who committed it

    2. This war was VENGEANCE against every Tigriya speaking people

    3. Involving outside actors is a no return point for Ethiopia

    4. Using rape against women and children went toward.

    5. Blackout of the region with no transparency makes the whole world stand up against tyranny and wrongdoing.

    6. Using starvation to punish the entire population is a no return deed

    7. Looting including mundane everyday household items is a new dawn in atrocity for Ethiopia

    8. Allowing the Amhara militia to act as vigilantes was creating a society of no rule of law. The government should step in and manage land related issues not anyone taking the law into their hand.

    I am not pro tigray or anyone for that matter but I stand up for humanity and for justice!

    Having said that the most constructive conversation is how does the country move forward from this mess?

    It will be an uphill battle and I know that I don’t know how.

    Peace to all

  • The aftermath of this war is a deep wound in the Tigrai’s psyche, a windfall for Egypt and other actors, endless war in the region, poverty and pestilence across the whole area, and finally the unraveling of Ethiopia. It is a pandora box that only an unearthly power could control.

  • I agree with Saba, TPLF triggered the war and should be responsible for the mayhem. Of course, the people of Tigray should not suffer one bit if at all possible becasue of the war. However, any suffering, loss of harvest, power etc. should fall directly on TPLF.

    TPLF is a disgraced junta and it should have no place in the Ethiopian politics. It planted hate and division that makes life impossible for most Ethiopians.

    Now digital woyane is distorting the facts and shifting the blame. Hope their scheme will fail and Ethiopia’s name and reputation will be restored, as a civilized and law respecting nation.

  • The war on Tigray has its beginnings 3 years ago when the political climate turned into unrelenting antagonism against TPLF with an underlying tone of tribal animosity towards Tigray. Abiy wanted to impose total subordination of Tigray. Amhara animosity and their desire to grab land, to go after TPLF/Tigray as they often said “once and for all” – words similar to the expression “the final solution” used about the holocaust in WWII. And then there is Isaias, his personal desire to exact revenge. This is war as an act of vengence, retribution, war crimes and atrocities. In this war Ethiopia has created its own “Rwanda moment”.

  • “The key military objectives of the operation carried out by Ethiopian Federal Defense Forces (EDF) is the neutralizing of TPLF”

    Wrong, mass-murder of everyday human beings, Mass-rape of innocent people(inluding children), destruction of 4000 year old cultural heritage, looting of farmers, those are not military objectives.

    “its armed wing from being a threat to the federal government.”
    Wrong, Abiy Ahmed didn’t hold elections that were due in october 2020, he lost all legitimacy.

    “This goal is achieved in two weeks through the skillful and coordinated deployment of the army, airforce, and regional militia.”

    Wrong, massacres, plundering, attrocites of any kind were achieved, not much more.

    ” The TPLF criminal group is now degraded into a fugitive group that is on the run.”
    Wrong again, undeclared war, invasion of tigray in breach of the constitution makes Abiy’ Ahmed’s Prosperity Party a criminal group, their illegal invasion of Tigray turned soldiers into crimnals.

    “The rehabilitation of Tigrai from this catastrophie will take a long time.”
    wrong, this is not a catastrophe but a crime commited, against Tigray, the victim doesn’t need rehabilitation but the perpetrator Prospertiy Party!

    “The reckless miscalculation TPLF leaders took has set back Tigrai and its inhabitants decades.”
    Wrong the unconstitutional invasion and mass murder in Tigray is what set us back, the murder of possibly a million people is what caused the problem, in short Prosperity Party’s reckless miscalculation is what has toren Ethiopia apart and lead to war all over the country.

    “It is going to be a long process to repair the damage inflicted to infrastructure, bureaucracy, and the physical and psyhcological trauma experienced by the inhabitants of Tigrai.”
    The Abiy Ahmed administration inflicted this, nobody can trust the perpetrator of rape and murder to repair the damage, how do you repair dead people anyways? If you think that mass-murder is something that can be repaired or fixed at a later time, you are more ignorant than i thought possible.

    ” TPLF crimical leadership is singularly responsible for triggering this disaster.”
    One more time the criminals are the eritrean army, ethiopian army, amhara militia who are commiting crimes against humanity in Tigray. TPLF has been elected in free and fair elections. Abiy Ahmed’s administration has yet to be elected by the people of Ethiopia.

    • Sure. Keep on drinking the KoolAid hot shot. You remind me of the dude who went to sleep in the penthouse and woke up in the basement the following morning and had a hard time adjusting to the new reality. The rapid collapse of tplf after all the bravado is a bitter pill to swallow to its supporters. It will take time to adjust to reality. In the meantime innocent people in Tigray are suffering. If you really love Tigray you should denounce the criminal leadership of tplf for the reckless gamble they took. You should also ask for the remnants of tplf gunmen to surrender so that people can move on with their lives. Tplf is finished. Get used to it.

  • The key military objectives of the operation carried out by Ethiopian Federal Defense Forces (EDF) is the neutralizing of TPLF and its armed wing from being a threat to the federal government. This goal is achieved in two weeks through the skillful and coordinated deployment of the army, airforce, and regional militia. The TPLF criminal group is now degraded into a fugitive group that is on the run.

    The rehabilitation of Tigrai from this catastrophie will take a long time. The reckless miscalculation TPLF leaders took has set back Tigrai and its inhabitants decades. It is going to be a long process to repair the damage inflicted to infrastructure, bureaucracy, and the physical and psyhcological trauma experienced by the inhabitants of Tigrai. TPLF crimical leadership is singularly responsible for triggering this disaster.

    • Dear Tolosa,
      “TPLF crimical leadership is singularly responsible for triggering this disaster”. You are certainly within your rights to hallucinate on the basis of your imaginations. But, it has been widely reported that Abiy and Esaias were preparing to wage war on TPLF for over two years. TPLF took a preemptive measure to forestall an imminent attack. They had no choice. Abiy certainly had many choices but he somehow felt he could subdue TPLF easily and rule Ethiopia as the 7th king happily.

      • They certainly had many choices. They could have recognized that war will be a disaster on Tigray and agreed to give back Badme to Eritrea. They could have stopped arming Eritrean oppossition forces. Just these two would have taken Isiais out of the formula.

        They could have made peace with the central government, peacefully worked with Oromo parties to form an opposing coalition.

        If they had not insanely miscalculated, they would kept their special forces intact, and the people of Tigray would have not suffered.

        Instead, they went for the only path they know, the militant violent path, of “armed struggle” and other crap. What were they thinking? That once they the Ethiopian national army is neutralized, they can defeat the Eritrean army and Amhara forces At what cost? And even if they held their own, what next?

        Stupids. Former TPLF leader Aregawi was right when he said the TPLF leadership is brain dead.

        They made Tigray kneel down to beg help from America to save them.

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