Ethiopia: Uncertainty in Tigray after rebels take control of restive north  | DW

July 9, 2021

The former ruling party in Tigray said it took back control of the regional capital Mekele on Monday after Ethiopia’s federal government troops controlled the city for eight months.

The Tigray Defense Forces (TDF) is “in control of Mekele and people are now dancing in the streets,” said Million Haileselassie, a DW correspondent based in the city. 

The TDF is the military wing of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) party, which ruled Tigray until being ousted by the federal government in November 2020. 

“Residents are celebrating in different parts of the city. Fireworks were seen in the sky, cars and motorcycles honking. I saw people in the streets waving regional Tigray flags, dancing, chanting, and singing,” Haileselassie told DW.

The news agency Reuters also reported that after rebel forces surrounded the Martyrs’ Memorial Monument, some civilians entered the streets to celebrate.

“The capital of Tigray, Mekele, is under our control,” a spokesperson for the TPLF told Reuters.

Earlier on Monday, residents reported seeing government soldiers pack up vehicles and withdraw from positions they held in Mekele.

What has happened so far?

Last week, the TDF launched a major offensive that coincided with Ethiopia’s highly anticipated national elections, which unfolded in much of the country — though not in Tigray.

Results from polling stations have yet to be announced, but they are widely expected to deliver Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed a formal mandate.

An airstrike last Tuesday in Togoga, a village in Tigray, killed 64 people and injured at least 180. The Ethiopian military said the strike was aimed at rebels. 

The aid organization Doctors Without Borders (MSF) reported that three of its staff were found dead on Saturday.

Maria Hernandez, an emergency coordinator; Yohannes Halefom Reda, assistant coordinator; and driver Tedros Gebremariam Gebremichael were in a vehicle when MSF said it lost contact with them. 

“We all today share deep sadness, anger and horror and deep condolences for their families,” MSF said a statement. 

On Monday this week, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) accused the Ethiopian government of destroying its satellite equipment in the Tigray region. 

UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore said on Twitter that the act “violates UN privileges and immunities and the rules of international humanitarian law regarding respect for humanitarian relief objects.”

Also on Monday, the Ethiopia government declared an “immediate, unilateral” cease-fire in its Tigray region after the TDF rebel forces entered the regional capital.

The federal government said the cease-fire “will enable farmers to till their land, aid groups to operate without any military movement around and engage with remnants [of Tigray’s former ruling party] who seek peace.” Ethiopia said the cease-fire would last until the end of the farming season in Tigray in September.

Reuters reported on Tuesday that Eritrean forces were no longer visible in Shire, a town north of Mekele in Tigray region. Many claimed on Twitter that the towns of Shire and Axum had fallen to TDF fighters.

Federal government on the edge

Fighting between federal troops and Tigrayan soldiers began on November 4, 2020, after Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered a military response following attacks on federal army camps in Tigray.

TPLF denied any responsibility and called the accusation a pretext for an “invasion.” Abiy rejected calls for peace talks as his army shelled and advanced on Tigray.

He considered military operations “complete” on November 28, 2020.

This week’s major turn of events comes after eight months of intense fighting. TDF fighters had launched multiple assaults against federal Ethiopian forces and also clashed with Eritrean Defense Forces.

Ethiopia’s federal forces were in control of Mekele, while Eritrea’s military, albeit unofficially, had under their control the towns of Shire, Adwa and Axum, which are close to the Eritrean border.

“It may be that the assault of the last few weeks has been quite draining for the [Ethiopian National Defense Forces],” said Clionadh Raleigh, the executive director of ACLED, a real-time data collection site on political violence and protest events.

“There’s clearly some dissension between [Ethiopia’s and Eritrea’s forces], and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed needed to effectively get over the line with the election before he made any new moves in Tigray.”

Kjetil Tronvoll, a professor of peace and conflict studies at Norway’s Bjorknes University, described the cease-fire as a capitulation.

“We have to understand that the TDF just entered Mekele and the cease-fire call from the government is more of a declaration of defeat,” Tronvoll said.

  • Asmara, 11, holds her 1-year-old brother Barakat at the doorway to a classroom now used as their living space, at the Tsehaye primary school, which was turned into a temporary shelter for people displaced by conflict

    Ethiopia: Tigrayans flee as fresh conflict erupts

    A temporary home

    11-year-old Asmara holds her 1-year-old brother Barakat at the doorway to their living space at Tsehaye primary school in the town of Shire, which has been turned into a temporary shelter. Four months after the Ethiopian government declared victory over the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), tens of thousands of Tigrayans are again being forced to flee their homes.

  • Displaced people queue for food at the Tsehaye primary school

    Ethiopia: Tigrayans flee as fresh conflict erupts

    Waiting for food

    Displaced Tigrayans queue for food at the temporary shelter. These people weren’t driven from their homes by fighting between the Ethiopian government and the rebels. According to witnesses and members of Tigray’s new administration, regional forces and militiamen from neighboring Amhara are now violently trying to settle a decades-old land dispute in the Tigray region.

  • A general view shows the town of Adigrat, Tigray region

    Ethiopia: Tigrayans flee as fresh conflict erupts

    Disputed territory

    The town of Adigrat in Tigray, which is also considered a strategically important gateway to Eritrea. Amhara officials say about a quarter of Tigrayan land was taken from them during the almost 30 years that the TPLF dominated power in the region. However, Tigrayan officials say the area is home to both ethnic groups and the borders are set by the constitution.

  • Ethiopian soldiers on a truck near the town of Adigrat, Tigray region

    Ethiopia: Tigrayans flee as fresh conflict erupts

    On patrol

    Ethiopian soldiers on the back of a truck near Adigrat. Fighters from Amhara first entered Tigray in support of federal Ethiopian forces during the TPLF conflict. They have remained in the region since the fighting subsided, with local officials accusing them of driving out Tigrayans.

  • A man carries a mattress into the Tsehaye primary school

    Ethiopia: Tigrayans flee as fresh conflict erupts

    Basic comforts

    A man carries mattresses into the Tsehaye primary school in Shire. The latest territorial dispute threatens to worsen an already precarious humanitarian situation. According to Tewodros Aregai, the interim head of Shire’s northwestern zone, the town was already hosting 270,000 people before the latest influx of refugees and is running out of food and shelter.

  • A bus carrying displaced people arrives at the Tsehaye primary school

    Ethiopia: Tigrayans flee as fresh conflict erupts

    New arrivals

    A bus carrying displaced Tigrayans arrives in Shire. It is difficult to verify the exact number of people who have fled in recent weeks, as some have been displaced several times. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) says some 1,000 arrive in Shire every day, while the Norwegian Refugee Council says between 140,000-185,000 arrived over a two-week period in March.

  • Displaced people are seen at the Shire campus of Aksum University, which was turned into a temporary shelter for people displaced by conflict

    Ethiopia: Tigrayans flee as fresh conflict erupts

    From campus to shelter

    Displaced Tigrayans try to make themselves at home at the Shire campus of Aksum University, which has also been turned into a temporary shelter. The four centers set up in the town to house new refugees are almost full. Some families squeeze into classrooms, halls and half-finished buildings, while others make do camping under tarpaulins or on open ground.

  • A woman holds an infant inside the Adiha secondary school

    Ethiopia: Tigrayans flee as fresh conflict erupts

    Holding loved ones close

    A woman holds an infant inside a temporary refugee shelter at the Adiha secondary school in Tigray’s capital, Mekelle. Many of the Tigrayans who have fled their homes have described attacks, looting and threats by Amhara gunmen, with some bearing scars from their ordeal.

  • A burned tank stands near the town of Adwa, Tigray region

    Ethiopia: Tigrayans flee as fresh conflict erupts

    An echo of conflict

    A burned-out tank near the town of Adwa stands as a stark reminder of the simmering conflict in the Tigray region. The United Nations has already warned of possible war crimes taking place in Tigray, while US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said ethnic cleansing is taking place and called on Amhara forces to withdraw from Tigray.

    Author: Ineke Mules (with Reuters)

Political violence expert Raleigh agrees that the TDF “were the superior fighting force and they have been able to best the ENDF,” but believes there are other plausible arguments for the federal government to offer a cease-fire.

“It’s very likely that the UN and the international community have pushed for some sort of a humanitarian cease-fire. We were hearing about that in the last few weeks, and there wasn’t really a lot of discussion about it. And now there’s this. 

“So it may be a way in which the federal government is trying to put a good face on what’s occurred. But it also very plausible because the needs were quite great,” Raleigh told DW.

It is unclear whether the cease-fire would be enforced or respected, as the offer came from the interim government in Tigray — with many of the interim officials reportedly now having left the capital city.

“There should be a cease-fire — but not [on] the empty words of the federal government today,” said Alex de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

“What’s needed is a comprehensive cease-fire as the basis for protecting civilians, ending famine, removing Eritrean forces, and bringing about a definitive political settlement.”

Political violence expert Raleigh argues that a possible peace negotiations with the TPLF would be dangerous for the federal government of Abiy Ahmed because “the majority of people [outside of Tigray] don’t like the TPLF.”

Headshot of Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed

The war plans of Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed have faltered

“They found the experience of being effectively run by the TPLF-dominated EPRDF an extremely bad one,” Raleigh said, referring to the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, a political coalition that ruled Ethiopian politics from 1991 to 2019.

Prime Minister Abiy dissolved the EPRDF in November 2019 and merged most of the constituent parties of the coalition, except for TPLF, into a new party called the Prosperity Party.

“[Many] don’t believe that the TPLF should be negotiated with or there shouldn’t be a transaction of power over what they believe was an illegal start to a war,” said Raleigh.

According to Raleigh, the TPLF made Tigray completely ungovernable to prevent the interim government instituted by the federal government from effectively running the region.

“The TPLF has been assassinating several government officials in the last few months … and are the ones who are being associated with the killing of the MSF staff last week,” she said.

Hidden horrors of Ethiopia’s war

The brutal war in Tigray has been marked by massacres, widespread sexual violence and other abuses.

The United Nations has also warned that the conflict has pushed hundreds of thousands of people to the brink of famine.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Monday he had spoken with Abiy, winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, and was “hopeful that an effective cessation of hostilities will take place.”

A woman lies on a stretcher with a bandaged arm

This woman is among more than 180 injured in the government’s airstrike on Togoga

Britain, the United States and Ireland have called for an emergency UN Security Council public meeting, which could happen on Friday.

On the Facebook page of DW’s Amharic service, the reactions were mixed.

“If the people don’t support, you can’t win. The government seems to have lost its goal. It seems that they cannot protect people’s safety. It is not easy to control Tigray without respecting the people,” wrote Oumer Robie.

Wabbe Shable said: “Good news, congratulations to the people in Tigray, we are also happy.” Another user wrote: “One should wait for what is in written to be put into practice.”

Free and fair elections?

A local human rights body reported that no major rights violations took place at the 404 polling stations in 99 poling districts that they monitored. 

“I don’t think it’s any coincidence that [the Mekele assault] occurred after the election in Ethiopia,” said Raleigh.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed had touted the elections as the most democratic polls Ethiopia would ever see.

Several local and international observer missions reported minor irregularities but claimed it could not affect the overall outcome of the elections.

“In our overall assessment in the places we visited we didn’t see major massive, widespread and systematic human rights abuses,” said Daniel Bekele, head of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission.

The commission is a government-affiliated yet independent body. Although it did not receive permission to observe the polls, the rights body still deployed around 100 staff across the country to monitor abuses.

Another opposition political party in south Ethiopia, the Sidama Unity Party, boycotted the ongoing election process. Party leaders are complaining of harassment and ballot rigging.

  • A member of the civil guard rescues a baby that was separated from its parents, who were migrants, in the sea off Ceuta, Spain

    Refugees: Fleeing danger worldwide

    Saved from the sea

    This baby was just a couple of months old when a Spanish police diver saved it from drowning. In May 2021, Morocco temporarily relaxed its control of the border with Ceuta. Thousands of people tried to enter the Spanish enclave by swimming along the North African coast. This photograph is seen as an iconic representation of the migration crisis in Ceuta.

  • African migrant day labourers seeking small jobs, wait under a bridge in the Libyan capital Tripoli to be hired by potential employers

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    No prospects

    The Mediterranean Sea is one of the world’s most dangerous migration routes. Many African refugees who try and fail to cross the water to Europe get stuck in Libya. They are constantly fighting to survive, and often have to work in miserable conditions. These young men in Tripoli, many of them still minors, are waiting in the hope of picking up casual work.

  • A Rohingya refugee carries her belongings to a temporary shelter after a fire destroyed a Rohingya refugee camp

    Refugees: Fleeing danger worldwide

    Life in a suitcase

    Some 40% of refugees are children. In recent years, 1.1 million people from the Rohingya Muslim minority have fled violence by the Myanmar military and crossed into Bangladesh. The Cox’s Bazar refugee camp is one of the largest in the world. SOS Children’s Villages, an NGO, has warned that violence, drugs and human trafficking are a growing problem there, as are child labor and child marriage.

  • An Ethiopian woman stands at a window of a temporary shelter at the Village 8 refugee transit camp

    Refugees: Fleeing danger worldwide

    Latest crisis

    Recently, the civil war in the Ethiopian region of Tigray has triggered another major refugee movement. More than 90% of the Tigray population is currently dependent on humanitarian aid. Around 1.6 million people have fled to Sudan — 720,000 of whom are children. They are stuck in transit camps, facing an uncertain future.

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    Refugees: Fleeing danger worldwide

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    The Greek islands are refugee hot spots, with people from Syria and Afghanistan regularly attempting to reach them from Turkey. Many refugees were housed in the Moria camp on the island of Lesbos — until it burned down last September. After that, this family came to Athens. But what happens next? The EU has been trying for years to agree on a communal strategy and refugee policy, without success.

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    A harsh existence

    There’s no school for these Afghan children, who live in a refugee camp in Pakistan. The camp has existed ever since the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in 1979. Living conditions there are bad: The camp lacks both drinking water and proper accommodation.

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    Vital support from aid organizations

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    Author: Sabine Faber

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