The Pick- and- Bring War

Radio Erena: 16 November 2020

“A Nobel Peace Prize Winner Goes to War Inside his Country.” This and similar titles made the news in the first week of November, along with the American presidential election which was used as a smokescreen by the Ethiopian premier Abiy Ahmed to launch a war on the restive leaders of the Northern region of Tigray.

Declaring war came as surprise because the Ethiopian leader has promised earlier that he wouldn’t use force to solve the impasse with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF); and the second reason for surprise is that he won the Nobel Peace Prize less than 12 month ago. No doubt, his decision must have embarrassed the Nobel Peace Prize Committee; just as the accusations of genocide against the one-time winner of the prize Myanmar’s premier Aung Suu Kyi has embarrassed them formerly. Awkwardly, this will give the Nobel Prize Committee a free lesson to take all the conceivable precautions when awarding politicians the prize in the future. Regardless of the prize, Abiy Ahmed is trying to convince his people and the world that he is a ‘tough guy’ when it comes to defending the country and the constitution.

As in any conflict, the young premier wasn’t short of a justification for his war. Justifications of wars have always existed throughout history, though what remains in the end are the dire consequences of the battles. Abiy Ahmed furnished the reasons for his military campaign four days after the start of the military operations in Tigray. In a short speech, he described the Tigray regional leaders as an ‘outlawed clique,’ which, since 2018 has saved no effort to undermine the rule of law in Ethiopia. Indicating that the federal arrangement in his country is at real risk, he assured that: “Ethiopia can’t exist without the rule of law. The rule of law, especially in a federal arrangement requires that the regional states and the federal government respect the constitutional division of power.” He marked defiantly. He also reiterated that the aim of the military operations is to bring the outlawed junta to justice and establish an alternative regional government which respects the law and constitution.

Contrary to his expectations, the objective of capturing the TPLF leaders and bringing them to justice will not be an easy task. This is not going to be “like a picnic” as the deputy chief of staff of the federal army has said.

Leaders can undoubtedly start a war, but they can hardly decide its end. Abiy Ahmed’s war may take a dramatic turn if the people of Tigray convert it to a national popular resistance war, as the governor of the region Debretsion Gberemichael has warned before the start of the operations.

The conflict may at any point morph into a large-scale ethnic war. So far, reports have confirmed the participation of Amhara regional militias in the battles in western Tigray. Aside of the historic dislike between Amhara and Tigray peoples, the Amhara region leaders accuse the Tigrayans of illegal land grab in their region with passionate vows to return the land and redraw of the federal border between the two regions. Abiy Ahmed is adding an ethnic component to the conflict. In his recent war-dictated cabinet reshuffle, he entrusted the intelligence and security and the foreign ministry to influential Amhara leaders. He also called back to service retired army generals who are known for their enmity for TPLF, such measures send wrong messages and show the inevitable turn of the conflict.

Eritrea’s Involvement

In addition to the ethnic dimension, the war may also develop into a cross border war with the neighboring Eritrea. Asmara dictator’s Isias Afwerki has been the archrival of Tigray leaders in the past twenty years. His interference in Ethiopian politics after Abiy Ahmed’s ascent to power in Addis Ababa raised suspicions. The peace deal between Eritrea and Ethiopia in July 2018 granted the execution of the Eritrea-Ethiopia Border Commission’s (EEBC) ruling which stipulated the return of Eritrean territories to Eritrea including Badme area.

The final roadblock to Badme’s return to Eritrea was the vigorous objections of TPLF leaders, which showed concern and mounted reservations against any Eritrean military presence in Badme. The on-going conflict avails Eritrea the golden opportunity to regain Badme by force; as TPLF forces are engaged in fighting with the federal troops elsewhere. The governor of Tigray accused Eritrea of shelling Humara border town and engaging in fierce fight with TPLF troops in Badme, he further described the act as a second treason. Eritrea denied any involvement in the war which it labeled as an Ethiopian internal affair.

Comparing the two opposing statements, the Tigrayan leader’s statement is apparently more candid. First, Eritrea will not miss the golden opportunity to regain Badme and now is the best time for that. Secondly, it has the green light and the consent of Abiy Ahmed in advance; and finally, TPLF will not be able to resist any Eritrean attack at the present moment. What is surprising are not the accusations of Eritrean troops advances in Badme; rather the presence of Tigray troops in Badme while Tigray mainland is under massive attacks.

The catastrophic consequences of the conflict are undeniable fact. The region, especially Tigray and Eritrea are still suffering from the tragic repercussions of 1998-2000 war. Indeed, this war itself, in a way or another, is continuation of the previous war, only with some new players and new agendas. Wars pose serious questions and only wise people can answer them. A bold question jumps to the fore when thinking about Eritrea’s dictator standpoint of the war: what if Abiy Ahmed and his supporters win this war and defeat TPLF leaders, who would be the next enemy of the Eritrean people from the dictator’s point of view? Dictator Isaias Afwerki has been using the TPLF as bogeyman for more than twenty years to keep the Eritrean people on their nerves. Bearing in mind that he can’t rule Eritrea without inventing an enemy: one really wonders who the future enemy would be if TPLF disappears from scene.

By Fathi Osman