“The 72-hour period granted to the criminal TPLF clique to surrender peacefully is now over and our law enforcement campaign has reached its final stage,” Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed twitted this morning. The government gave the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) 72 hours on Sunday to lay down their arms or face an assault on Mekelle, the regional capital of 500,000 people.
This same Wednesday three former African presidents arrived in Ethiopia with the aim of mediating in the confrontation and preventing this final assault which was announced early this morning. The three high-level envoys from the African Union were former Mozambican president Joaquim Chissano, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia and Kgalema Motlanthe of South Africa.
The African Union and other institutions such as the European Union are watching with concern the development of the conflict which has been shaking Ethiopia for some weeks now, as it is considered that it could have a major impact on East Africa. EU High Representative Josep Borrell warned this Tuesday of the consequences of the conflict, which has already displaced more than 40,000 people, although the United Nations estimates that this figure could be up to five times higher. In addition to the growing number of refugees who have begun to arrive in Sudan, Eritrea has mobilised its troops to the border with the Ethiopian region, after suffering several missile attacks on the territory.
Although this escalation originated in early November, friction between the government of the Tigray region and the central government has been going on for some time. It should not be forgotten that, although the TPLF represented six percent of the population, it was the majority political party that held de facto power in the country through the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front and, until the arrival of Abiy Ahmed in 2018, had imposed an authoritarian regime dating from the early 90s. Following Abiy Ahmed's arrival this platform of parties, which also included the party of the now prime minister, was dissolved and a new pan-Ethiopian, and therefore less federal one, was created.
The country was then facing a series of political, economic and social reforms -the signing of peace with Eritrea brought the Nobel Peace Prize-which were not well regarded by the TPLF, which saw how it was losing all the weight it had held over the past two decades. One of the alleged reforms, the result of this unifying intention, was precisely the progressive centralisation of this federal country, seeking to reduce the ethnic confrontation that was taking place in the territory and fuelled by the aforementioned TPLF, among other players.
In this political context, the tension between regional and central government has been growing -in October people voted for a reduction in the funds allocated to the region- until the prime minister accused the TPLF of attacking a military post and attempting to steal artillery elements on November 4. This marked the beginning of an escalation which now appears to be coming to an end. However, organisations such as Human Rights Watch are warning of the possibility of this conflict concealing Abiy Ahmed's ulterior motives, the consequences of which could be ethnic cleansing in the northern region of Tigray and even genocide. These organisations fear the region is being subjected to a blockade of communications, including the Internet, in addition to physical access to the territory, and they cannot corroborate the situation in which the civilians find themselves.
According to the International Crisis Group, the TPLF has paramilitary and militia forces estimated to number over 250,000, which could make the confrontations with the Ethiopian national army bloody and cause great collateral damage. Many elements cast doubt on the true nature of these operations, for although Abiy Ahmed's government has carried out major reforms, it has also been not oblivious to reports of political repression and excesses, particularly in the Tigray region, the only ethnic group not represented in the unification sought by the prime minister. The Nobel Committee has already announced that it is following developments with concern. Not few voices criticised the hasty choice of Abiy Ahmed as laureate, and pending recent events, perhaps they were not mistaken.