Ethiopia’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning prime minister on Wednesday ordered the military to confront the country’s Tigray regional government after he accused it of carrying out a deadly attack on a military base, declaring “the last red line has been crossed” after months of alleged provocations.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s statement, and the reported attack by the well-armed Tigray People’s Liberation Front, raised concerns that one of Africa’s most populous and powerful countries could plunge back into war.
That would send a shock wave through one of the world’s most turbulent regions, the Horn of Africa. Ethiopia’s neighbours include Somalia and Sudan, and the prospect of spreading instability sent a chill down the spines of observers.
Signaling the gravity of the threat, the United States in the midst of its election drama quickly issued a statement urging “an immediate de-escalation of the current situation.”
Abiy in a televised address announced “several martyrs” in the overnight attack in Mekele, the northern Tigray region’s capital, and Dansha town.
He said “the end is near” for the regional force, based in Ethiopia’s most sensitive region, neighbouring Eritrea. The two countries made peace in 2018 after a long border war.
Fighting continued Wednesday afternoon, and the TPLF was claiming it had captured and killed Ethiopian army officers, a government statement said hours later.
The TPLF was the dominant part of Ethiopia’s governing coalition before Abiy took office in 2018 and announced sweeping political reforms that won him the Nobel last year. Those reforms, however, opened space for ethnic and other grievances.
The TPLF, feeling marginalized, left the coalition last year. Its strong military force has been reinforced in recent months, but analysts said it’s little match for the federal government.
Ethiopia declared a six-month state of emergency in Tigray on Wednesday, saying that “illegal and violent activities” there are “threatening the country’s sovereignty.”
A statement on Tigray TV accused the federal government of deploying troops to “cow the people of Tigray into submission by force,” and said the regional government was acting “to avert more destructive measures.”
It banned movement by Ethiopia’s military in Tigray and warned of “proportional measures” for any damage to people or property.
Tigray leader Debretsion Gebremichael on Monday warned a bloody conflict could erupt, accusing Ethiopian and Eritrean leaders of making “all necessary preparations to start war against Tigray.” There was no immediate comment from Eritrea.
Internet and phone lines were cut in Tigray, provoking distress among people who could not reach loved ones.
Tigray TV reported that airspace had been closed over the region, and it asserted that the Ethiopian military’s northern command had defected to the Tigray government. The prime minister’s office told The Associated Press the defection report was “not true.”
Ethiopia was already stressed by a dispute with Egypt over a massive Ethiopian dam project that has drawn rare attention by President Donald Trump to Africa, and by a multi-layer crisis with the COVID-19 pandemic, deadly ethnic violence and a locust outbreak.
Now the greatest test of Abiy’s rule has come, as the fighting in Tigray could inspire other restive regions in Ethiopia.
Tigray officials had objected to the postponement of Ethiopia’s national election, once set for August, because of the pandemic, and the extension of Abiy’s time in office.
In September, people in Tigray voted in an election, defying the federal government and increasing tensions over a region of some 5 million people that despite its small share of Ethiopia’s population of 110 million has had outsize influence.
Last month the federal government moved to divert funding for Tigray to local administrations instead of the regional government, angering the TPLF.
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