Ethiopia’s military said Thursday it was at “war” with the ruling party of the country’s northern Tigray region, as fighting continued for a second day and troops reportedly amassed at the region’s borders.
“Our country has entered into a war it didn’t anticipate. This war is shameful, it is senseless,” Berhanu Jula, the deputy army chief, told a press conference in Addis Ababa.
“We’re working to ensure the war won’t come to the centre of the country. It will end there” in Tigray, Berhanu said.
Abiy announced Wednesday that he had ordered military operations in Tigray in response to an “attack” by the region’s ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), on a military camp there.
The TPLF denies the attack occurred and accuses Abiy of concocting the story to justify deploying the military against it.
What has been initiated against us is clearly a war, an invasion,” Tigray President Debretsion Gebremichael said at a press conference Thursday.
“This is a war we’re conducting to preserve our existence,” he added.
Internet and phone connections in Tigray were cut for a second day, making any tolls difficult to verify.
State of emergency
Lawmakers in Addis Ababa on Thursday unanimously endorsed a six-month state of emergency in Tigray that had been announced the previous day by Abiy’s government.
According to Ethiopia’s constitution, under a state of emergency the government has “all necessary power to protect the country’s peace and sovereignty” and can suspend some “political and democratic rights”.
A senior government official told AFP that in Tigray this could lead to a curfew, searches without warrants, transportation and communications restrictions and the detention of “any person that [officials] suspect is taking part in illegal activities that threaten the constitutional order”.
The state of emergency could also be extended beyond Tigray if needed, the official said.
Ahead of Thursday’s vote, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, the national rights body, pointed to the need to maintain key services and supplies for civilians.
Lawmakers “should in particular consider ensuring humanitarian access and support including for food, medicine and other essential civilian services to avoid a complete blockage of communication and transport facilities,” it said.
‘Foreign hand’ cited in Ethiopia military order on Tigray
Meanwhile, Addis Ababa received intelligence reports that the administration of the autonomous region had received external support against the federal authority.
Highly placed Ethiopian government sources have confided in the Nation that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is going in for a “decisive response” after gathering intelligence that the local Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) was receiving foreign support, which reportedly emboldened TPLF to attack a military camp.
Prime Minister Abiy’s office on Wednesday said a military camp in Tigray run by the Ethiopia National Defence Forces had been ambushed by the TPLF who “attempted to rob” it of artillery.
His office has not released the number of casualties, although there was an indication that there were deaths in the Wednesday morning incident.
Ethiopian government officials told the Nation there was “credible information of foreign interference,” but declined to name the country. The TPLF has publicly stated that it wants to remove Abiy from power.
The Lower House of Ethiopian Parliament on Thursday endorsed a six-month State of Emergency on Tigray, after the Council of Ministers ruled that “the situation had reached a level where it cannot be prevented and controlled by regular law enforcement mechanism.”
The State of Emergency will initially be restricted to the Tigray Region in the north, but could be expanded in future, giving the special taskforce formed on Wednesday a free hand in imposing restrictions.
Under Ethiopian law, a State of Emergency may involve restrictions of movement, freedom of speech and assembly and other “democratic rights.”
Ethiopian authorities often shut down internet services in such situations.
Why military option?
So why did Ethiopia go for military might for one of its own federal regions? If claims of foreign interference are true, it could point to political controversies surrounding the Grand Renaissance Dam, a $4.5 billion hydro-electric project on the Blue Nile, but which Addis Ababa has yet to agree on a filling formula with riparian neighbours Sudan and Egypt.
Addis Ababa, Khartoum and Cairo have been engaged in heated negotiations on the dam. The talks resumed on Tuesday, but there have, in the past, been threats of military involvement if there is no consensus on the issue.
A number of experts, however, told the Nation that Tigray’s problem is mostly a historic internal issue, and that the external entities may only be profiting from the chaos.
“The Tigrayans are opposed to PM Abiy Ahmed because they are the elites and remnants of (former Prime Minister) Meles Zenawi. They oppose his policies and are powerful because they took advantage of Meles’ years in power to enrich themselves,” said Dr Abdiwahab Sheikh Abdisamad, an analyst of the Horn and author a book on ‘Ethnicity and Politics in the Horn of Africa.’
Prime Minister Zenawi, who died in 2012, was a Tigrayan by ethnicity and led the country for nearly two decades. Though he created a federal system based on ethnic blocs, to prevent previous civil wars, his critics charge that it allowed him an unfair distribution of wealth that saw Tigrayans, only 6 per cent of the population, dominate the politics and economy of the country.
“That allowed them to prosper and probably equip their local militias. You also have to remember that they dominated the military for a long time too,” Abdisamad explained.
After Premier Abiy directed a military response on Wednesday, the TPLF issued a statement saying the soldiers had refused to honor the directive. The Tigray regional government claimed in a statement that all the federal forces that were stationed in Tigray had decided “to stand with Tigray in a struggle to remove PM Abiy-led unconstitutional government.”
Opposed or even threatened by Abiy’s policies, the Tigray may want to take back their power by force or negotiate with Eritrea for some form of political union, he added, referring to the fact that Eritrea has a significant number of Tigrayans.
“For twenty odd years, TPLF terrorists conducted massacres in Bani Shangul, Gambela, Amhara, Oromo, Somali and Afar Regions. TPLF unbridled impunity must be tamed now.
They had the audacity to attack a Federal Military Command in Tigray. Mainstream Tigray people will stand with PM Abiy and isolate TPLF thieves. Most Tigray militia will surrender to Eritrea or to ENDF,” he said.