Ethiopian Civil War Rages on as 9 Rebel Groups Team Up and March Towards Capital

Avoiding a series of massacres appears to be an impossible task for every actor involved.

5 min read
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It has been more than a year since civil war erupted in Ethiopia between the Abiy Ahmed-led Ethiopian government and the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), a group of rebels based in Tigray Province in Northern Ethiopia.

2019 Nobel Peace Prize winning Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has given no indication of even wanting to talk to the Tigray rebels.

A better understanding of the history and the details of the civil war can be found here.

Three new developments have happened recently in a civil war characterised by brutal mass killings and gang rapes, which have devastated Ethiopia and left millions on the brink of famine.

Firstly, eight rebel groups have joined hands with the TPLF, each of them having the same objective – the overthrow of the Abiy Ahmed regime which they perceive as oppressive and unjust.

Secondly, earlier this week on 2 November, Ahmed imposed a state of emergency for six months, which gives the troops of the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) sweeping powers and impunity to arrest anyone whom they suspect has ties to the TPLF (which is designated as a terrorist organisation by the Ahmed government), Reuters reported.

Justice Minister Gedion Timothewos justified the emergency by claiming that Ethiopia is "facing a grave danger to its existence, sovereignty and unity" and the government "can’t dispel this danger through the usual law enforcement systems and procedures."

And finally, the TPLF and its allies have been capturing multiple towns in the past few days, thereby boosting their march towards the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.

In this article, we examine these three developments in some detail.

It should also be noted that in June earlier this year, ENDF troops that were stationed in Tigray after taking control of the province and establishing a provisional government there, were driven away and thousands of its soldiers were captured and taken prisoner after the TPLF recaptured Mekele, the capital of the province.

Once in a much superior position in the civil war, the Ahmed government now finds itself on the backfoot as the rebels eye Addis Ababa.


Abiy Ahmed's Enemies Unite

The civil war between the Ahmed government and the Tigray forces that has been raging for over a year, is also borne out of ethnic differences and disagreements over power sharing.

The rebels belong to the Tigrayan ethnicity, who are the fourth largest ethnic group in the country, while Ahmed belongs to Oromo people, who constitute the largest ethnic community in Ethiopia.

The country's population comprises of more than 80 ethnic groups.

Tensions throughout the country have always existed over issues of land and language, but most recently, the issue of power imbalances between the central and regional governments has led to frictions.

These ethnic tensions have now culminated into an anti-Ahmed alliance of nine rebel groups – the TPLF, the Oromo Liberation Army, the Afar Revolutionary Democratic Unity Front, Agaw Democratic Movement, Benishangul People's Liberation Movement, Gambella Peoples Liberation Army, Global Kimant People Right and Justice Movement/ Kimant Democratic Party, Sidama National Liberation Front and Somali State Resistance, according to multiple sources like AFP and Africa News.

All the above-mentioned groups have similar grievances about the repressive and totalitarian rule of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.

The OLA, an organisation that has historically promoted self-determination for the Oromo community, is a splinter group of the Oromo Liberation Front which is now outlawed.

The OLF was banned before Ahmed became the PM in 2018.

However, many of the OLF's political leaders have been jailed under the incumbent government.

Odaa Tarbii, speaking on behalf of the OLA, confirmed reports about the grand coalition.

He said that the future of the civil war was completely contingent on Ahmed's moves. "Of course, we prefer if there's a peaceful and orderly transition with Abiy being removed", but "the goal is to be as inclusive as possible."

Acknowledging that the transition to a post civil war government would require time and consideration of all the participants of the alliance, Tarbii said that Ahmed's Prosperity Party would be investigated for committing crimes against humanity if the current establishment was ousted, Africa News added.



On Tuesday, 2 November, the Ahmed administration declared a state of emergency and asked its citizens to arm themselves in order to prepare for a siege by rebel forces on Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia.

In a Facebook post on 31 October, Ahmed wrote that "our people should march... with any weapon and resources they have to defend, repulse and bury the terrorist TPLF," BBC reported.

That post has now been removed by Facebook for violating Facebook's policies.

A spokesperson for the social media giant told the BBC that the company was "made aware of a post by Ethiopia's Prime Minister" and that they "removed this for violating [our] policies against inciting and supporting violence."

But a government statement asked Ethiopians of the same preparation as Ahmed had demanded in his Facebook post.

"Residents can gather in their locality and safeguard their surroundings" and "those who have weapons but can’t take part in safeguarding their surroundings are advised to hand over the weapon to the government or their close relatives or friends."

Acting on the directives of the emergency provisions, thousands of Tigrayans are being picked up across the country, especially in Addis Ababa, for suspected tied to the TPLF.

The justice minister also declared that anyone violating the rules of the emergency would face jail time, especially for providing financial, material or moral support to “terrorist groups”, Reuters reported.

The police forces in Addis Ababa had arrested "many people" since the declaration of emergency, spokesperson Fasika Fanta said on Thursday, 4 November.

While there seemed to be nothing more or less than normalcy in the capital after news of the emergency spread, residents have expressed an uneasy sense of calm, Reuters added.

The state of emergency was declared after a TPLF announcement that claimed that it had captured several towns and was considering marching to the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, which is approximately 380 km south of their current forward position, The Guardian reported.


The Rebels Have Momentum 

Last weekend between 30-31 October, the TPLF took control of two important towns that eventually lead to Addis Ababa.

These towns are called Dessie and Kombolcha.

Kombolcha also happens to be on a highway that connects Addis Ababa to the port of Djibouti.

Fighting ended after the TPLF dominated local forces and seized both towns.

The captures have sent alarm bells ringing throughout the Ethiopian administration, as the capital appears to be next in line.

Despite the rapid advances made by the rebels, UN political affairs chief Jeffrey Feltman, who is also the US special envoy for the Horn of Africa, said that while the "military logic is prevailing" at the moment, "we do not believe that either side will be able to assert themselves militarily... they will not be able to win militarily. So we've been saying that one needs to look at other means," Reuters reported.

The United Nations (UN) Security Council has called for a ceasefire between the rebels and the Ethiopian government.

The American embassy in Addis Ababa also announced that it had permitted some staff and family members to leave the capital due to the conflict.

Other powerful individuals have also expressed concern.

The Secretary-General of the UN, Antonio Guterres, said he had a conversation with Prime Minister Ahmed on 3 November, and offered to assist talks between the government and the rebels.

Ahmed, however, has categorically rejected the prospect for talks.

To rely on the TPLF for the cessation of hostilities also seems too much to hope for, given that it has made clear from its side that peace depends totally on Ahmed.

Its plans to prosecute Ahmed's party if it successfully ousts his government is bound to lead to a conflict in which neither side backs down.

Avoiding a series of massacres seems more and more impossible every passing day.

(With inputs from BBC, Reuters, The New York Times, The Guardian, and Africa News.)

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Topics:  Ethiopia   Abiy Ahmed   Tigray 

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