Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed called for the launch of military operations in the northern Tigray region this week as he dismissed further calls for dialogue.
The “large-scale law enforcement operation” has "clear, limited and achievable objectives: to restore the rule of law and the constitutional order,” he said on Friday, calling out the Tigray region’s Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) leadership as “fugitives from justice ... using the civilian population as human shields."
Telecommunications are still cut off in the Tigray region.
While some commentators characterized his statements as a call to ‘war’, others shied away from the word, saying that lack of information on the ground made them cautious about making a statement.
“Clearly, it’s a declaration of war by a prime minister who just won the Nobel peace prize last year,” says Awol Allo, Senior Lecturer in Law at Keele University in the UK.
Abiy made a statement on state television on Wednesday announcing the military responded to an attack by TPLF forces on a military base in the regional capital.
A six-month State of Emergency was imposed on the Tigray region as well.
Political and ideological battle
This conflict has been building for the last two years, according to political analyst Endalkachew Chala, assistant professor at Hamline University in Minnesota.
“There was an intense power struggle within the EPRDF ruling coalition, as it tried to bring all political parties into one, the Prosperity Party, but TPLF refused. It tried to build its own Federalist Forces coalition,” Endalkachew tells RFI’s Africa Calling podcast. “That was the start of the crisis.”
TPLF, the former ruling party, had the opportunity to make a Federalist structure work, Awol tells RFI.
“Instead of allowing the autonomy it promised, it ruled for 27 years with an iron fist in a very authoritarian way. Now it’s dislodged from power, its painting itself as a defender of national federalism,” he says.
TPLF’s years at the helm of the country could serve it well in this battle with the Federal government, according to Endalkachew.
“TPLF had been in control of the security and intelligence apparatus, and people who are running the Tigray government right now were running the Federal government for 27 years—they know the security structure, they know how the intelligence works,” says Endalkchew.
“That’s why we saw a lot of disturbances and instability across the country; but now, TPLF is limited in their mobility. Most of those figures who were senior figures of the TPLF is only limited to Mekele, the capital,” he adds.
The government has tried to cut off the region completely, including all flights. Airports in Mekele, Shire, Axum and Humera are all closed for services, according to the Ethiopian civil aviation administration.
As the continent’s second most populous country, and a major player in the Horn of Africa region, some fear that extended fighting could destabilize the region.
“This could be an issue in Somalia because Ethiopia plays an important role in controlling al-Shabaab in Somalia,” says Awol.
“If Ethiopia is facing an armed confrontation with a powerful aggressor within the Ethiopian state, it would not have the resources it was doing to do the work in Somalia,” he says.
Endalkchew says that there is a general mutual understanding within the region.
“Ethiopia and Sudan have agreed to close the borders,” he says, as Sudan News Agency reports that the acting governor of Kassla province closed its border with northern Ethiopia “until further notice.”
Ethiopia has also come to an agreement with Djibouti, as well. “If there is agreement within the Horn of Africa, I don’t see this escalating tensions,” he adds.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet on Friday called for a de-escalation of violence in Tigray and to come to the table for talks.
“I call on all actors to engage in a genuine, inclusive and credible dialogue to solve any differences through peaceful means,” she said.