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December 1, 2020

Africa

ETHIOPIA: Abiy takes Mekelle, but can he win the peace?

BY Malte Liewerscheidt

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Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has announced what could be game-changing events in the one month-old conflictwith the Tigray regional leadership. Over the weekend, Abiy announced that the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) had taken control of Tigray’s capital Mekelle, though top Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) leaders have disputed his claim that fighting has ceased. Now apparently focusing on a manhunt of top TPLF leaders, today, 1 December, the Abiy administration announced the apparent “surrender” of Keria Ibrahim, former speaker of the House of Federation and one of nine senior TPLF leaders.

It is not yet clear whether the army’s takeover of Mekelle represents a true breakthrough in the conflict. Also still unclear is the human cost of Addis Ababa’s campaign fought via airstrikes, large-scale deployments of ENDF troops and militias. Beyond future security consequences, the seeming ‘blitzkrieg’ strategy could have dire fiscal consequences, particularly if donors and financiers withdraw budget support.

Abiy could struggle to keep the peace and avoid a protracted low-level conflict in a regional state that fears marginalization by Addis Ababa. Already in recent days TPLF leaders have threatened to launch a guerilla war. On 29 November, six rocket explosions were reported in the Eritrean capital Asmara, which appears to have been supporting the ENDF at least tacitly in its campaign against the TPLF. The TPLF has also claimed that it has retaken the town of Axum from the ENDF. Yet a continuing media blackout means that none of these claims have been independently verified.

Next steps will undoubtedly prove crucial for Tigray’s and the country’s stability outlook, not to mention Abiy’s international standing. First and foremost will be the question of whether Addis Ababa agrees to any international mediation or political talks, and precisely with whom on the Tigrayan side, given that the federal government deems the current TPLF leadership illegitimate.

The Abiy administration is in the process of setting up a new regional government under Mulu Nega, a former deputy minister, but this could fail to win widespread support given the toll of the conflict and the apparent overwhelming support for the TPLF in the recent elections carried out in defiance of Addis Ababa. Mulu apparently plans to dismantle all the political structures created by the TPLF and appoint professional administrators.

Perhaps the federal government could make tentative progress if it can arrest a significant number of top TPLF leaders. Nevertheless, at a minimum the region’s large fighting force (comprising Tigray’s special forces and militias) will represent an underlying threat to the stability of Tigray and the Ethiopian federation.

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