Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has said the military plans to launch an offensive on Mekelle, the capital of the northern region of Tigray. Mr Abiy’s government had previously issued the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) with an ultimatum to surrender, which expired on Wednesday. In a statement, the Prime Minister said: “the last peaceful gate which had remained open for the TPLF clique to walk through has now been firmly closed as a result of TPLF’s contempt for the people of Ethiopia.”

It has been just over three weeks since the federal government first launched airstrikes against the TPLF, in retaliation for the group’s attack on an army installation in Tigray. Hundreds of lives have been lost as the Ethiopian army has seized Tigrayan territory. Alarmingly, humanitarian groups have reported that at least 600 civilians, mostly ethnic Amharas, were killed by a Tigrayan militia in the town of Mai Kadra. 

Relations between the TPLF and the federal government soured after the election of Mr Abiy in 2018. The Tigrayans had previously dominated Ethiopian politics for 27 years, but despite Ethiopia’s economic success, the TPLF’s oppressive rule was unpopular. Tigrayans make up only 6 per cent of the population, and the two largest groups, the Oromo and Amhara, led anti-government protests which eventually swept Abiy Ahmed to power in 2018. 

Although Mr Abiy drew international praise for brokering a peace deal between Ethiopia and Eritrea, winning a Nobel Peace Prize in 2018, he also caused a great deal of resentment by expelling high-ranking Tigrayans from federal institutions. In 2019, Mr Abiy then dissolved the ruling alliance and set up a new party, which the TPLF declined to join. When the Abiy government announced that the 2020 general election would be rescheduled due to COVID-19, the TPLF accused Abiy of unlawfully extending his term of office, and in September proceeded to set up its own electoral commission and hold regional elections in Tigray. Tensions between the federal government and the Tigrayans reached a breaking point, and when the TPLF launched its assault on the military base, Abiy declared that “the last red line has been crossed.”  

The conflict now risks spiralling out of control and deepening the divisions in Ethiopia’s ethnically-based federal system. In July, hundreds were killed in the region of Oromia as deadly protests erupted following the death of a popular singer. There is also a danger of instability spreading across the Horn of Africa. According to the latest UN estimates, 41,000 refugees have already fled from Tigray to Sudan, potentially risking the stability of Sudan’s fragile transitional military government. Furthermore, the TPLF has launched rockets at the Eritrean capital of Asmara, accusing Eritrea of helping the Ethiopian government to carry out airstrikes.

As the offensive on the Tigrayan capital of Mekelle begins, Mr Abiy called on the international community for non-intervention, whilst refusing to see the situation as a civil war, instead referring to it as a “law enforcement campaign” against the TPLF. Although Ethiopia has publicly refused mediation efforts, an African Union delegation has arrived in Addis Ababa to find a resolution. Whilst Mr Abiy has said the army will avoid collateral damage against Tigrayan civilians, this is difficult to guarantee, and the battle in Mekelle could descend into guerilla warfare as TPLF try to halt the army’s advances. As food and water runs out, and the number of people reliant on humanitarian assistance grows, the fighting is reversing much of Ethiopia’s progress towards achieving its SDGs. What is already a major humanitarian crisis could yet worsen, whilst hopes of a ceasefire and trip to the negotiating table for both sides seem slim.

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