NAIROBI, Kenya – Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered military action against a regional government in the country’s north as early as Wednesday, during a massive escalation of a smoldering conflict the risk of pushing the country into a new turbulent period.
In a statement, Abiy accused the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the ruling party in the region, of trying to provoke war by staging a militia attack on a major Ethiopian Army base. at Tigray at the beginning of hours on Wednesdays.
“The red line was finally crossed with the attacks this morning, and the federal government was forced to confront it militarily,”; he said. He added, the army had been ordered to Tigray to “carry out a mission to save the country and the region”.
Hours later, Abiy’s spokesman said that military operations were underway, although she did not specify what they entailed.
The government then declared a six-month state of emergency in Tigray, granting itself broad powers to suspend political activity and democratic rights.
It is impossible to immediately verify that the intervention Abiy described, apparently with the aim of capturing artillery and other military equipment, has actually taken place. His statement, which said the attack happened that morning, came at 2 a.m., which would make it a remarkably quick response.
Mr Abiy’s statement, given as global attention is focused on the vote count in the US presidential election, has raised concerns that Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous country and has shaken by violent ethnic tensions in other regions, the brink of a potentially disastrous internal conflict.
“Abiy just made the worst strategic mistake of his career,” Rashid Abdi, an analyst at Horn of Africa based in Kenya, said on Twitter. Any conflict over Tigray could have “devastating consequences across the entire subregion”, he added.
Tensions between Tigray and the federal government have been growing since September, when Tigray defied Abiy by holding elections that were canceled in the rest of Ethiopia because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
At a press conference on Monday, Debretsion Gebremichael, president of Tigray, warned that Mr Abiy was planning to strike the area as a penalty for that defiance.
Regional television reported that after Mr Abiy made his statement on Wednesday, Tigray announced that it had closed its airspace and restricted road movement in the area. The Tigray administration also called on the Ethiopian Army’s generals and armies to “give up the dictatorship”, in a clear call for a rebellion against the government.
The Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which started out as a group of rebels, has dominated Ethiopia for decades. In 1991, it overthrew the country’s longtime dictator, Mengistu Haile Mariam, and held power for the next two decades under Meles Zenawi, who came from Tigray and ruled as president and later. was prime minister until his death in 2012.
But the party’s influence has dwindled under Abiy, who came to power during a wave of reforms in 2018, and its leaders increasingly assert that they are deliberately out of favor. other areas.
Tigray makes up only 5% of Ethiopia’s 109 million population, but its history and wealth have given it greater political influence than in more populous regions.
Last year, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front split from Mr Abiy’s ruling coalition, then proceeded in September with regional Parliament elections.
Mr Abiy’s strong statement is particularly impressive from a 2019 Nobel Peace Prize-winning leader for making peace with Eritrea. After coming to power, he won praise for his attempt to modernize Ethiopia by allowing new freedoms and promoting an ambitious economic growth program.
In the summer, Mr Abiy was embroiled in a diplomatic dispute with Egypt over a $ 4.6 billion hydroelectric dam that Ethiopia is building on the Nile, and begins to be filled in July. President Trump, who attempted to reconcile the dispute in the spring, recently speculated that Egypt could launch a military strike on the dam.
At home, Mr Abiy has struggled to cope with requests long held back from the patchwork of ethnic groups in Ethiopia for greater autonomy from the central government. Human rights groups said on Sunday the attackers killed at least 54 Amharas ethnic Amharas in western Oromia.
Abiy attributed the attack to a group known as the Oromo Liberation Army, which he believed was supported by the Tigray government. Tigray denies any role in that.
Some analysts speculate that Mr Abiy chose to go against Tigray when world attention is being lured by the US presidential election. “I guess the most important determinant of the timing of the war was not the TPLF attack but the US election,” said Semir Yusuf, a senior researcher in the Horn of Africa program at the Institute. Research on Security in Addis Ababa, capital of Ethiopia, said. text messages.
Zemelak Ayitenew, associate professor of government studies at Addis Ababa University, said Mr Abiy’s statement was “sad but not a surprise.”
“Tigray is a seriously militarized area,” he added. “I hope people know what they’re doing.”
Declan Walsh reports from Nairobi, and Simon Marks from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.