June 11, 2021
“I recognize that, in the end, everyone is entitled to their opinions. Only history will judge whether the Federal Government under my leadership could have done anything else to resolve the existential crisis my old and proud nation faced on that fateful night of 03 November and its aftermath.” PM Abiy Ahmed, December24, 2020
1. The political context of the recent conflict in Tigray, Northern Ethiopia
On March 27, 2018, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) elected Dr. Abiy Ahmed as its Chairman who was sworn-in as a Prime Minister of Ethiopia on April 2, 2018. PM Abiy immediately began political, social and economic reforms. Political prisoners were released, press freedom and rights to speech and assembly restored. Major reforms were made in the security, police and defense sectors. A peace initiative with Eritrea led to a thawing out of two decades of hostilities. In December 2019, PM Abiy Ahmed was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
On December 1, 2019 PM Abiy helped establish a new multi-ethnic Prosperity Party (PP) by merging three EPRDF member parties, the Amhara Democratic Party (ADP), the Oromo Democratic Party (ODP) and the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM) and five other regional parties which were kept unequal to the TPLF. The new party is set to run for the first time as a unified party in the general election on June 21, 2021. One of the partners of the former EPRDF, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) declined to join Prosperity Party. Instead, TPLF launched covert and overt campaigns to undermine and weaken PM Abiy’s Administration. TPLF leaders orchestrated violence and destruction in different parts of the country by recruiting, training and financing disaffected individuals to instigate regional and inter-ethnic violence. Over the past 2 years, TPLF-sponsored attacks resulted in untold deaths and destruction and left millions of people internally displaced.
In May 2020, the Ethiopian House of Federation (HoF), citing constitutional authority, decided to postpone the general election set for August 2020 because of the Covid-19 emergency. The TPLF rejected the HoF’s decision outright and conducted its own unconstitutional regional election on September 9, 2020 in defiance of the Constitution of the country. The TPLF further claimed the current Ethiopian government is illegal after September 30, 2020. The TPLF claimed to have won 98.2% of the seats in the regional parliament. The HoF declared the TPLF election illegal. TPLF leaders countered, by questioning, the legitimacy of the Prime Minister, the Parliament and the Election Board. They demanded the resignation of the entire Federal Government. PM Abiy sought to solve the disagreement through peaceful dialogue. Recounting his efforts to resolve the problem peacefully, PM Abiy recently said “when the TPLF leadership rejected my personal invitations to engage with my administration in constructive dialogue on the future of our nation, I encouraged the country’s most senior religious leaders, community elders and notable business community representatives to travel to Mekelle, the capital of the Tigray Region, and help federal and regional political leaders resolve the differences peacefully. Regrettably, these most revered community and religious leaders were rebuffed by the TPLF leadership, treating them with utmost contempt and sending them back with nothing.”
2. Who is responsible for the onset of the conflict in Tigray?
On November 3, 2020, the TPLF leadership planned and orchestrated a large-scale attack on the Federal Northern Command base in Tigray. In a coordinated attack, the TPLF simultaneously attacked two hundred military barracks located in Tigray region. Scores of Ethiopian soldiers were massacred and heavy military weaponry looted. Thousands of non-Tigrean soldiers and many high-level officers were taken hostage. The TPLF proudly claimed responsibility for these actions.
On November 4, 2020 Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed informed the nation and the Ethiopian Parliament of the unprovoked TPLF attack against the Northern Command by TPLF forces. He ordered the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) to protect the sovereignty of the country, enforce law and order and round up the ringleaders of the criminal act. He stated the objective of the ENDF operation is to preserve the constitutional order and enforce the law. The Council of Ministers declared a six-month State of Emergency in Tigray and the House of Peoples Representatives (HPR) unanimously approved the decision.
Despite TPLF admissions they had started the attack as a preemptive measure, some in the international media and TPLF foreign supporters have alleged that the Federal Government of Ethiopia “started a war in Tigray to punish the TPLF for conducting regional election”. This is a deliberate disinformation campaign aimed at misleading the international community. Here is a fact-check:
- On November 13, 2020, TPLF propaganda chief, Seku Toure Getachew, proudly claimed responsibility for starting the attack against Northern Command on TPLF official TV “Dimtsi Woyane Television”. He said, “We had to take this preemptive action as anticipatory self-defense. We had to incapacitate the threat of this force. It was a preemptive and blitz operation that took only 45 minutes. It was similar to Israel’s surprise attack against the Arabs in 1967. There is no force called Northern Command in Tigray Region anymore”.
- On November 17, 2020, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo issued Press Statement which reads: “The United States strongly condemns the attack carried out by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) on the airport in Asmara, Eritrea, on November 14. We are deeply concerned by this blatant attempt by the TPLF to cause regional instability by expanding its conflict with Ethiopian authorities to neighboring countries. We also continue to denounce the TPLF’s November 13 missile attacks on the Bahir Dar and Gondar airports in Ethiopia.” [From: https://2017-2021.state.gov/the-united-states-condemns-the-attack-on-eritrea-by-the-tigray-peoples-liberation-front/index.html ]
- On November 19, 2020, at a Press Briefing at the US Department of State, US officials asserted that “from the first attacks on November 3rd by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) on Ethiopian National Defense Force bases in the Tigray region, we have publicly and privately highlighted our grave concern.” [From: https://2017-2021.state.gov/briefing-with-assistant-secretary-for-african-affairs-tibor-p-nagy-and-u-s-ambassador-to-ethiopia-michael-a-raynor-on-the-situation-in-ethiopias-tigray-region/index.html ]
- On December 1, 2020 in his Interview with BBC Radio, Ambassador Tibor Nagy, US Assistant Secretary for African Affairs “made his stance clear again saying TPLF waged war on Ethiopia to restore its lost power.”
- On December 24, 2020, in a statement issued by the Office of the Prime Minister, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed described the situation as follows: “Using traitors recruited from within the army along ethnic lines, not only did the TPLF leadership cause the massacre of unarmed soldiers in their pajamas in the dead of night, but they also took possession, illegally, of the entire military arsenal of the Northern Command. I was thus left with a decision only of how, not whether, to fight and defend the integrity of my country and restore the constitutional order.”[https://www.pmo.gov.et/articles/8/]
3. What were TPLF’s objectives in attacking the Federal Military Base in Tigray?
While the reform program is in full swing throughout Ethiopia, TPLF leaders entrenched themselves in Tigray and began organizing their own military force by recruiting and training a so-called Tigray Special Forces and militia. By some estimates, by the end of summer 2020, the TPLF had assembled a 250,000-strong military force to engage Ethiopian federal forces. The TPLF effort completely failed as Ethiopian Federal troops defeated the TPLF in three weeks, secured the region and established a provisional government.
Informed commentators have shared their perspectives on why the TPLF sought a military solution. At a Press Briefing organized at the Department of State on November 19, 2020, US officials noted that “… it seems like they (TPLF) were doing this more to depose the Prime Minister from power and to reassert themselves into the prominent position that they had atop the Ethiopian political spectrum for