Ethiopia’s prime minister Abiy Ahmed has promised military victory in Tigray. He says he will capture the capital, Mekelle, and the leadership of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which he calls a criminal junta. If he succeeds, it will be a pyrrhic victory – prospects for peace, democracy and protection from famine in Ethiopia will be set back a generation.
There are artillery barrages, airstrikes, armoured assaults. The Ethiopian army announces a Tigrayan town captured every other day and this week it plans to surround Mekelle. But there’s something missing. We’re not seeing pictures of prisoners of war, recovered military equipment, or newly-captured towns with local people welcoming their liberators. Perhaps the TPLF evacuated the towns and retreated to the mountains. Or maybe there are things that Ethiopian TV doesn’t want the world to see.
Abiy refuses to call it war–, saying this is an operation to enforce constitutional order and the rule of law. He says that the TPLF started it by overrunning army bases and slaughtering non Tigrayan officers. This may turn out to be true, but it is a war under any recognisable definition, and whatever Abiy’s initial justification, he will be judged according to the same international legal code as his adversaries. If his forces commit war crimes, the argument that the other side started it won’t hold water in a court.
As the conflict intensifies, it generates its own terrible logic. If the Ethiopian army triumphs in Mekelle, Abiy won’t be declaring peace. For the Tigrayans, it is likely to be the beginning of the “third woyane” – the first being the 1943 rebellion against Haile Selassie , put down by the RAF bombing Mekelle from its base in Yemen, the second being the TPLF insurgency that began in 1975, running for 16 years against a military government that announced its “final offensive” every year until the rebels defeated him.
This time it might be worse. Hostilities have spread to civilians, and there is reason to fear inter-communal pogroms on a scale that Ethiopia hasn’t seen before.
Not only Tigrayans are fearful. So too are the historically marginalised Oromo, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group. Three years ago, Oromo protests brought the country to a halt, and the crisis was resolved with Abiy Ahmed, an –Oromo-appointed prime minister. The Oromo demands included jobs, freedoms, and a share in political power commensurate with their numbers.
Ethiopian refugees who fled the fighting in the Tigray region gather on the banks of a border river with Sudan on 22 November.