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Making Sense of Abiy’s War on Tigray: Reflections on the Context, Cause, and Consequences

Tsegaye R Ararssa (10 December 2020)

Ethiopia today is in the throes of a protracted war. Although the Ethiopian government says that the war it has waged on Tigray is already completed, to date, fighting has not stopped. In what follows, I will try to describe the war, its origin and its immediate context, its cause, and its consequences so far.


The war: How it Started and in what Context


On the 4th of November 2020, Abiy Ahmed Ali formally declared war on Tigray under the pretext of conducting a “law enforcement operation”. This, he said, is done because the Tigray Liberation Front (TPLF), the party that governs the Tigray National Regional State (TNRS), has attacked a division of the Northern Command of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF). While, the true character and full consequence of this war is still unfolding, Abiy Ahmed’s war on Tigray is only one in a long series of similar wars he was conducting in various parts of Ethiopia in the course of the last two years and a half. The ongoing wars on Oromia, Wolaita, and Konso; the brutal military assault and the repressive violence on the Sidama in the days preceding the referendum for statehood; were the forerunner instances of this open conflict that has so far involved the use of air bombing, missile and rocket attacks, shelling from heavy mechanized facilities, drone attacks, and bloody combats among waves and waves of foot-soldiers.

This piece is an attempt at making sense of the war by making a close description of the ongoing war in Ethiopia and to urge those concerned, especially the international community, to take appropriate measures to stop the war and the atrocities thereof. In the face of the impending genocide now, it is imperative that the international community is apprised of this so that it can make a timely intervention.

Abiy Ahmed’s war on Tigray was characterized by the regime as “a surgical law enforcement operation” that lasts no longer than three days. However, as we can see now, it has become a full-fledged war that has lasted six weeks with no sign of abating any time soon. On the aftermath of the declaration of war, Abiy Ahmed also issued a State of Emergency (SOE) that restricts activities of the people in Tigray while allowing his security forces to take “all” measures against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) (which is only a code word for the entire people of the region). This was followed by a massive deployment of the Ethiopian Defense Forces (ENDF), almost in its entirety, on the areas bordering Tigray, especially in the South (Rayya) and South West (Walqayit) of Tigray. Accordingly, in addition to deploying the EDF, Abiy mobilized the Special Forces, the State Police, the Militia, and the civilian volunteers of the neighboring Amhara National Regional State (ANRS) in order to invade Walqayit and Rayyaa areas one after the other. At the same time, the Ethiopian Air Force (EAF) started bombing Mekelle, the capital of Tigray, partially destroying a hotel in the inner city (apparently because Abiy’s intelligence suspected of hosting a meeting of the TPLF Leadership). The goal was eliminating the members of the government of the TNRS. It did not succeed.

In the days that followed, Abiy mobilized the Eritrean army (taking advantage of the personal friendship he has forged with the Eritrean President Isayas Afeworki, if only in a bid to form a tactical alliance--or a war pact, as it turned out--against TNRS) to launch a war on the Ethio-Tigray border, the area that had been disputed during the 1998-2000 Ethio-Eritrean war. Abiy also transported his troops from Addis Ababa to Asmara (Eritrea) in preparation for the invasion of Tigray in collaboration with Isayas’s soldiers. In addition to defending the borders on all fronts, the government of TNRS also launched a missile attack on the air bases in Azezo (Gonder), BahrDar (the capital of ANRS), and Asmara (the capital of Eritrea) in a bid to stop the air attacks launched from these bases.

Despite Abiy’s repeated denial that this is a civil war, it became evident that beyond being an Ethiopian civil war, it is increasingly evolving into an international one owing to the involvement of a third country, Eritrea. Later, when Abiy utilized United Arab Emirates (UAE) drones from the Eritrean port of Asab to bomb Mekelle and several other towns of Tigray, the war’s regional dimension started to emerge to full sight. At the same time, Abiy’s treasonous ally with foreign forces became conspicuous as he conspired with a foreign leader (Isayas) and other foreign elements to forcibly occupy the territory of the constituent unit (i.e., Tigray) of his own country. As if this is not enough, because of the initial blow dealt to his campaign by the TNRS forces within the first three days, Abiy started to enlist other neighboring countries (e.g. South Sudan, The Sudan, Kenya, Uganda, etc) to support him militarily in his war of decimating Tigray and crashing the federalist dissent in the country. South Sudan is reported to lend him an army of about 4000. Kenya and The Sudan advised Abiy to pursue negotiation to resolve the problem. So did Uganda, if only with much more sympathy with, and deference to, Abiy than the former two.

To date, about 18 Divisions of the ENDF; the entire State Police, Special Force, and State militia of the ANRS; 6-7 Mechanized Divisions of Eritrea’s army; and several other regiments of Special Forces mobilized from various States of the Federation are deployed to fight this war against Tigray. Moreover, on the 23rd of November, Abiy’s regime issued a ‘warning’ to shell the entire city of Mekelle indiscriminately unless the government of Tigray surrenders within 72 hours. It called on the residents directly to hand over its leaders in order to “save themselves from the onslaught of shelling.” A day after the expiry of the 72 hours, the ENDF started shelling Mekelle. By that time, the TNRS had decided to leave the city and retreat into the rural areas to try and help spare the civilian population from the heavy shelling. When, some of Abiy’s soldiers and the Eritrean forces arrived in Mekelle, they found no combatant to fight them. Unhindered, they launched an assault on the civilian population, sometimes going house to house, often just looting property and vandalizing the premises of offices and enterprises.



The actual damage of the war is yet to be determined. The information black out in Tigray did not allow to verify any of the claims by Abiy’s regime or those by the TNRS. Although no one could put numbers on the casualties so far, judging from the mass of refugees who are fleeing to the Sudan and the number of internally displaced persons trapped within Tigray, it is clear that the number of casualties that will eventually come out will be staggering.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions of the authors expressed herein do not necessarily state or reflect ethioobserver position. ethioobserver  does not exercise any editorial control over the information therein. ethioobserver cannot accept any responsibility or liability for any actions taken (or not taken) as a result of reading the material displayed.