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By refusing to lift the siege, Ethiopia’s leaders made renewed war in Tigray inevitable

Tigray’s leaders vow to break the siege either peacefully or militarily.

While both sides accuse each other of being responsible for the resumption of hostilities, Ethiopian authorities are using the siege to suffocate Tigray and, long before 24 August, have been planning a renewed offensive.

According to Tigray’s Central Command, Ethiopian forces — comprised of Amhara Special Force divisions, Fano militias from Wello, and Ethiopian National Defense Force’s (ENDF) 6th and 8th infantry divisions, alongside the 2nd, 6th, and 8th mechanized divisions ― launched an “extensive offensive” against Tigrayan positions on 24 August at 5am local time in the direction of Chube Ber, Janora, Gubagala, Yalow, Alamata, Bala, and Bisober.

In contrast, the Ethiopian Government Communications Service said that “at 5 am today [the TPLF] has attacked the Eastern Front from Bisober, Zobel and Tekulshe direction.” It added that “by carrying out such measure, [the TPLF] has effectively broken the ceasefire”, and claimed Ethiopia has “a legal, historical and moral obligation to save the country.”

Amid conflicting reports, one thing is clear: the fragile ceasefire is ruptured and fighting has resumed.

With this, the “peace process” appears to be dead before the talks ever started, although it remains to be seen whether the Tigray government’s statement on 11 September that it is ready to “participate in a robust peace process under the auspices of the African Union” will change the course of events.

Planned offensive

The evidence shows that the Ethiopian government was preparing for this renewed offensive.

Even during the so-called humanitarian ceasefire, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared on 24 June, Ethiopia was quietly preparing for war by recruiting, training, and rearming. Reyot Media reported that, on 28 June, 113 containers laden with weapons, including 100,000 Kalashnikovs, 2,000 sniper rifles, and millions of ammunition rounds arrived in Djibouti.

Tigrayan forces warned of renewed conflict following ENDF’s 15 August hour-long barrage on their defensive positions around Dedebit, a town in northwestern Tigray, using tanks and heavy artillery.

Federal authorities had also ramped up their vitriolic propaganda campaign against Tigray’s government. On 19 August, Billene Seyoum, Abiy’s press secretary, accused aid agencies of arming Tigray forces under the guise of delivering humanitarian assistance and said that money is being funneled into the TPLF’s coffers—presumably by aid agencies.

In a 20 August article in the Ethiopian Herald, a state-owned daily newspaper, government officials also vowed to “bury” the “power-crazed” TPLF “soon”.

Shortly thereafter, videos surfaced on social media that reportedly showed Ethiopian soldiers being transported towards Tigray.

On 23 August, Tigray’s President, Debretsion Gebremichael, warned of a “looming military attack on Tigray” and accused the international community of not doing enough to avert it.

Debretsion also called on the Ethiopian federal government to fulfil its legal obligations, including the restoration of basic services in Tigray, allowing unfettered humanitarian access, the withdrawal of foreign forces from Tigray, ending ongoing war crimes, pursuing accountability for war crimes committed, and the restoration of Tigray’s prewar borders.

Hussein Nura, a resident of Kobo―an Amhara town near the border with Tigray that the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF) swiftly captured after fighting resumed―told the New York Times by phone that Amhara militias began pouring into the area on 23 August.

“Last week, I saw Amhara special forces and Fano (militia) heading to the front by bus,” another Kobo resident told Reuters.

Three other residents around Kobo also told Reuters that there had been movements of ENDF soldiers, Amhara Special Forces, and Amhara Fano militias days prior to the start of hostilities.

The fighting started on 24 August, hours after the ENDF issued a statement warning that anyone found spreading “secrets of the army” would be punished. It also warned against “reporting on the activities of the enemy” as it “will disrupt the daily lives of our people.”

Since then, the ENDF has launched multiple airstrikes on Mekelle, including one that reportedly killed seven people after hitting a playground.

There were also preparations for renewed fighting on the Tigrayan side, as its leaders said they were prepared to lift the siege via negotiations or militarily.

On 24 August, the day fighting broke out, the federal government claimed to have downed an airplane coming from the direction of Sudan carrying weapons to the Tigrayan forces. Federal authorities accuse Sudan of supporting TPLF, an allegation Khartoum denies.

Government duplicity

For Tigray’s leaders, the federal government’s refusal to restore basic services and allow unfettered humanitarian access in the region is the biggest reason why fighting has resumed.

On 28 July, Redwan Hussien, the Prime Minister’s National Security Advisor, said that the government “is ready to talks anytime, anywhere (and) talks should begin without preconditions.”

Ethiopian authorities have maintained that they were not able to restore basic services to Tigray without further arrangments as they otherwise feared for the safety of the workers who would be sent to Tigray.

However, Tigray’s government called their bluff by providing the international community with a letter to be passed to the federal government guaranteeing the security of anyone who would be sent to Tigray to restore those services.

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The 2 August joint statement by the EU and US envoys said that “with this security assurance there should be no obstacle for the restoration of services to begin.” However, the federal government shifted the goalposts once again by demanding that a negotiated ceasefire should be agreed upon before the resumption of basic services to Tigray.

This was a clear indication that Addis Ababa was not really interested in peace, as a negotiated ceasefire would probably take months to finalize. By using humanitarian aid and basic services as bargaining chips, federal authorities are leveraging the suffering of millions of Tigrayans to try and extract concessions from Tigray’s government.

In their statement following their visit to Mekelle in late July, the EU and US envoys called for the “swift” restoration of basic services in Tigray, unfettered humanitarian access, the lifting of restrictions on cash, fuel, and fertilizers, and for federal authorities to facilitate access to the newly established International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia.

However, the Ethiopian government chastised them for failing to “press for unequivocal commitment for peace talks” and accused them of siding with TPLF.

Continued siege

Tigray’s government indicated to the EU and US delegations that they would break the siege militarily if Ethiopia doesn’t agree to unfettered humanitarian access, the restoration of basic services, and a reversal of the unconstitutional Amhara takeover of Western Tigray.

Ambassador Wondimu Asaminew, part of the Tigray delegation that met with the envoys, said that they had made it clear to them  that “this is the last chance for peace.”

Subsequently, Tigray’s government refused to receive a delegation led by the African Union’s High Representative for the Horn of Africa, Olusegun Obasanjo. They told him that they were not interested in empty talks anymore as they only wanted to hear a definite answer to the EU-US envoys’ promises to facilitate unfettered humanitarian access and the swift restoration of basic services.

Ethiopia further escalated the situation by delaying and denying a permit to another aid convoy. As a result, in the weeks prior to hostilities restarting, there was little to no movement of humanitarian convoys towards Tigray.

On 19 August, the World Food Programme (WFP) said that the nearly two-year war in Tigray has left almost half the population of the region in “severe” need of food aid. According to the UN agency, despite the delivery of some food aid to the region, malnutrition rates have “skyrocketed” and are expected to worsen.

Despite the resumption of humanitarian convoy movements on 1 April, the number of people in need of food aid has risen to 89 percent, up from 83 percent in January, while those with “severe” need of food aid has risen from 37 percent in January to 47 percent in August, as aid workers are struggling to distribute the food aid due to cash and fuel shortages.

The UN says that the total amount of fuel that entered the region since 1 April is about 1.8 million liters, but an estimated two million liters are required every month for humanitarian operations, including fuel for humanitarian convoys entering and leaving Tigray.

Tigray’s government has been accused of sending armed men to seize over half a million liters of fuel from the WFP compound in Mekelle. However, Tigrayan officials maintained that they were simply taking back the more than 600,000 liters of fuel that had previously been loaned to WFP.

Due to lack of fuel, only 1.4 million people in Tigray (about 25 percent) have been reached so far, while less than 20 percent of the needed fuel and 15 percent of the cash needed for humanitarian operations has been allowed into Tigray.

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Consequently, across Tigray, half of the pregnant or lactating women as well as a third of children under five are malnourished, leading to a spike in stunting and maternal death.

The UN Humanitarian Air Service flights accounted for more than 60 percent of all medical supplies brought into Tigray. However, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the airlifting of these life-saving critical supplies into Mekelle has actually slowed instead of increasing to accommodate the increase in demand.

Teame Aredom, Head of the Tigray Food and Drugs Administration Office, said that less than five percent of the needed medical supplies have so far made it to Tigray. He added that less than 2.5 percent of the vital drugs, less than ten percent of essential drugs, and around fifteen percent of non-essential drugs have reached Tigray.

Hospitals and NGOs are not getting the critical medical supplies that they requested, as the bulk of the medical shipments thus far have been masks, gloves, and sanitizers. No critical drugs, including cancer treatments, anesthetic drugs, antibiotics, and supplies needed for dialysis treatment, have reached Tigray.

AU’s weakness

This latest fighting is the result of the failed peace initiative put forward by the AU and its envoy Obasanjo.

At the outset of the war, the Chairperson of the AU Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, expressed his support for the Ethiopian government’s so-called “law enforcement operation” in Tigray.

At the beginning of June, Obasanjo claimed that the AU is taking the conflict seriously and that he was making progress “very slowly but steadily” on unfettered aid access to Tigray. Unfortunately, that remained elusive.

The AU’s unrealistic expectation of an imminent diplomatic breakthrough has been proven wrong. Tigray spokesperson Getachew Reda, in an open letter, recently wrote that “a negotiated ceasefire and a comprehensive political settlement are nowhere closer to being achieved now than they were at the time of Mr. Obasanjo’s appointment a year ago.”

Any peace process that isn’t in touch with the realities on the ground is destined to fail. However, for obvious reasons, Abiy considers the AU as his ally.

According to Crisis Group’s William Davison, Ethiopia insists on AU-led negotiations because it feels that the AU doesn’t have much coercive power at its disposal and, therefore, feels that it is a weak mediator that can be manipulated more easily.

Consequently, the Ethiopian regime has taken no practical steps to demonstrate its sincere commitment to peace except for the occasional disingenuous rhetoric of peace.

Obasanjo, in his brief to the AU Peace and Security Council, made no reference to the siege or the scale of the human suffering in Tigray and didn’t mention the need to restore basic services.

He also failed to mention the release of more than 4,200 Ethiopian prisoners of war by Tigray’s government in May as a confidence-building measure in the lead-up to the proposed peace talks.

Instead of reciprocating this goodwill gesture by releasing the thousands of innocent Tigrayans detained in concentration camps across Ethiopia solely because of their ethnic identity, the federal government actually denied that it ever had prisoners of war in Tigray.

Most astonishingly, Obasanjo recommended that the AU Commission extends a “formal invitation to the Republic of Eritrea to join the ongoing AU-led efforts aimed at lasting diplomatic solutions to the conflict between the Government of Ethiopia and the TPLF.”

The AU’s willingness to involve Eritrea made a mockery of justice and accountability, and it significantly increased the distance between the two warring parties.

Tigray’s leadership is not against AU mediation efforts in principle. Their objection instead relates to the credibility of the AU and the impartiality of its representative, Obasanjo.

On 23 August, Debretsion wrote, “while we, in principle, recognize AU’s role as a continental organization in seeking African solutions to African problems, we do not, however, consider them neutral and impartial brokers in the war in Tigray.”

In its 11 September statement, Tigray’s government has said that it will accept a credible AU-led process that includes mutually acceptable mediators and international observers overseeing the implementation of commitments.

It’s important to note that the AU, unless it works in tandem with the international community, may not guarantee the implementation of commitments, as the AU doesn’t have the military, diplomatic, or financial clout the international community has over Ethiopia.

The international community must take bold steps to bring the warring parties back to the negotiation table, end the war on the people of Tigray, and resolve the underlying political problems that led to the war.

The international community should also not underestimate Tigray’s ability to break the siege militarily. Tigray now has a proper army, the TDF, that is not only capable of defending Tigray but also capable of undertaking “strategic offensives” aimed at breaking the siege.

Debretsion has warned that if the international community fails Tigray again, “they will find themselves bystanders to the biggest and most dangerous state failure in Africa with tremendous ramifications for the region and beyond.”

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

Main photo: Youngsters playing in front of a damaged truck in Bisober, Tigray; Eduardo Soteras; 9 December, 2020; AFP.

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Published under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. Cite Ethiopia Insight and link to this page if republished.

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About the author

Yonas Nigussie

Yonas is a political economist who is interested in geopolitics and East African politics. You can follow him @Yonigussie

4 Comments

  • TPLF propaganda in steroids! The so called “TDF” is crumbling like a pile of ping pong balls before the eyes of the whole world. The bragaisio that they can break the so called siege is self deluding. The so called TDF are helpless youth forced to training camps for food. Enough said about this. On the other hand, the author and the TPLF junta called names to president Obasanjo and the AU. But again, they have no choice other than begging the AU and President Obasanjo to help them negotiate with GoE. Ethiopia Insight is a good place to check how high the temperature and pressure on the TPLF side are. Ethiopia shall prevail!!

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