Nov 30, 2020 - World

Ethiopia's Abiy declares victory in Tigray conflict

Abiy addresses parliament today. Photo: Amanuel Sileshi/AFP via Getty

Ethiopia's army on Saturday stormed into Mekelle, a regional capital that had been controlled by a renegade political faction, leading Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to declare victory after three weeks of fighting in the northern region of Tigray.

Why it matters: The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) has vowed to fight on, raising the prospect of an insurgency. The warring parties are exchanging allegations of war crimes and even genocide.

The big picture: Abiy ordered the offensive on Nov. 5 after a two-year power struggle with the TPLF, a rebel group turned political party.

  • The TPLF controls Tigray and was also the most powerful faction in national politics before Abiy took power in 2018.
  • Abiy sidelined the TPLF as he set out to liberalize and centralize Ethiopian politics.
  • Abiy's reforms were applauded internationally and by many Ethiopians, but they also met sharp resistance — particularly in Tigray, which is home to around 5 million of Ethiopia's 110 million people.

Tensions grew after Abiy postponed national elections in August, citing COVID-19.

  • Tigrayan authorities declared that Abiy had overstayed his mandate and defied him by proceeding with their own regional elections in September.
  • The standoff continued to escalate until the TPLF allegedly attacked an Ethiopian army base. Abiy then announced his offensive.

Driving the news: After federal troops reached Mekelle last week, Abiy and his generals vowed to use whatever force was necessary to take the city of 500,000 people. Days later, they appeared to do so with little resistance.

  • TPLF-aligned fighters appear to have "melted into the civilian population and hide-outs elsewhere in the state," per the WSJ. Their leaders — now in hiding and targeted by a manhunt — insist they'll retake the city.

What they're saying: William Davison of the International Crisis Group said this appears to be "the end of the phase of conventional conflict." Now the federal government will be tasked with restoring order and installing a provisional government.

  • It's unclear how strong the resistance will be, both from the TPLF and from local populations, he noted.

Where things stand: More than 43,000 people have fled Tigray to Sudan to escape the fighting. The casualties are almost certainly in the thousands, though a total communications blackout makes it very difficult to verify claims from either side.

  • The reports that have emerged are grim. At least 600 civilians were massacred due to their ethnicities in the town of Mai-Kadra on Nov. 9, according to the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, which said Tigrayan youths carried out the attack aided by local authorities.
  • Meanwhile, some refugees arriving in Sudan from Tigray have described indiscriminate killing by federal soldiers against Tigrayans.

The latest: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he urged dialogue and a "complete end to the fighting" in a call Monday with Abiy.

  • Jake Sullivan, the incoming national security adviser to Joe Biden, has also called for dialogue and expressed concern over "potential war crimes."
  • Abiy has insisted the conflict will be resolved without international mediation.
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