The Ethiopian government’s war against the Tigray regional government in the country’s north is approaching a decisive moment, as a string of military advances have paved the way for an imminent “final” assault on the regional capital, Mekelle.
Holed up in Mekele, after multiple defeats elsewhere, are forces loyal to the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
Barely three weeks since the start of the government’s ground and air offensive, the federal troops have dislodged TPLF forces from nearly every large urban centre in the region, including the towns of Axum and Adwa, as well as Humera in western Tigray and Alamata in the south.
A communications blackout has made it hard to verify the information on the ground, but the fighting is estimated to have killed thousands of people and forced some 40,000 to flee for the safety of refugee camps in Sudan, including the survivors of a massacre of hundreds of civilians in the town of Mai Kadra on November 9.
But while the Ethiopian military has told residents of the encircled regional capital to “save themselves” in advance of an assault scheduled for Wednesday, warning that “anything can happen”, TPLF officials said that even the fall of Mekelle would not spell the end of their fight.
“Our forces still control much of rural Tigray, and our governing structure remains intact in these areas,” said Fesseha Tessema, a TPLF adviser. “There’s no military solution, only a negotiated political one.”
The TPLF was launched as a fledgling movement in the 1970s.
Seventeen years of armed struggle culminated in the capture of Addis Ababa by TPLF rebels in 1991 and the overthrow of the Communist government of Mengistu Haile Mariam.
For nearly the next 30 years, the TPLF would rule at the helm of a repressive government populated largely by Tigrayan elites. The victorious Tigrayan commanders became omnipresent in Ethiopia’s new-look military and intelligence sectors.
Under the TPLF’s leadership, Ethiopian soldiers were regularly deployed to crush domestic uprisings of any sort.
In 2005, 193 unarmed demonstrators protesting against the results of general elections were shot dead in the capital, Addis Ababa. A few years later, a particularly brutal campaign against rebels in the country’s Somali region left thousands dead or displaced from their homes.
But after mass demonstrations forced a change of administration in 2018 and the appointment of Abiy Ahmed as prime minister, the unpopular Tigrayan elites were dismissed from posts at the helm of Ethiopia’s political and security institutions.
Pushed out of Addis Ababa, the TPLF was reduced to governing Tigray. Long-serving stalwarts of Ethiopia’s military and intelligence, many with years of experience battling fighters in neighbouring Somalia or embedded with United Nations peacekeeping missions in South Sudan, departed to Mekelle.
Hence, many predict a protracted deadlock in the ongoing conflict that could drag on for months. It is believed that in addition to well-trained special forces said to number as many as 250,000, the region has been able to count on a generation’s worth of Ethiopian military castaways, demoted or dismissed after the reshuffle of power since Abiy took office.
The likes of Getachew Assefa, Ethiopia’s former Intelligence Service chief, described in a leaked 2009 US cable as being “hawkish and significantly influential,” are believed to be in Mekelle, home to some half-a-million people.
Many have invaluable years of experience under their belts and the ability to still wield some influence over the army’s rank-and-file.
Last week, the Ethiopian government appeared to be targeting these officers, when it announced that it had issued 76 arrest warrants for officers it accused of “treason”.
The near entirety of the list were Tigrayans, including many army veterans who know the ins-and-outs of the Ethiopian military. They are accused of collusion with the TPLF in its current war effort.
Among them are four Major Generals, 10 Brigadier Generals and 47 colonels, including Colonel Gebregziabher Alemseged, who in 2006, was commander of the Ethiopian troop contingent deployed to battle fighters of the Islamic Courts Union in Somalia.
This is why the apparent inability thus far of the Tigrayan military leadership to put up a resolute defence against army divisions it trained and commanded for years is somewhat puzzling.
“The TPLF made big strategic mistakes,” says Rashid Abdi, a Kenya-based researcher and Horn of Africa analyst. “It is putting up a conventional fight against Ethiopia’s conventional armies, which is an artillery force, across multiple battlefronts. We saw government forces put their skill to devastating use. The TPLF can either retreat to the mountains and start a guerilla campaign, surrender, or put up a last stand and lose.”
Before the Ethiopian government’s expected assault on the TPLF’s stronghold on Wednesday, rights groups have called for the protection of civilians and civilian infrastructure, warning that deliberate attacks against them “is prohibited under international humanitarian law and constitutes war crimes”.
When asked if the government had plans for a post-war Tigray, Abiy’s Press Secretary Billene Seyoum referred Al Jazeera to a recent news conference in which Mulu Nega, who has been appointed as head of the region’s transitional administration, spoke of post-conflict aspirations, including the holding of elections.
But Mulu may be getting ahead of himself. Despite the battlefield setbacks, some expect a faction of the now-outlawed TPLF could melt back into the mountains of rural Tigray, where the organisation was founded half a century ago.
“The guerilla warfare option is on the table, although I doubt the transition would be easy,” said Abdi. “The TPLF leadership have been softened by power and ease of life.”
The entire Tigray region has been put under siege since Abiy announced the start of the military operations in the early hours of November 4, with phone and internet services cut and journalists barred.
Refugees who fled to Sudan spoke of mass killings perpetrated by government forces. Hospitals ran out of supplies and banking services were halted, leaving millions unable to withdraw vital funds.
“Tigrayans are unanimous in their belief that this is a war against all Tigrayans,” Fesseha said.
“In addition to our right to self-administration being eroded, the government is committing brutal atrocities against the civilian population.”
The government has denied targeting or discriminating against ethnic Tigrayans, insisting its operations “target primarily the disgruntled, reactionary and rogue members of the TPLF clique”.
However, the siege exacerbating the humanitarian disaster has fuelled resent for Abiy among Tigrayans. Whether that may play into the hands of a generation of battle-hardened tacticians remains to be seen.