Hundreds perish and thousands flee to Sudan as war in Ethiopia’s Tigray region continues

The fighting between the forces of the federal government and that of the Tigray regional government began on November 4. It has triggered fears of a full-blown civil war in Africa’s second most populous country

November 12, 2020 by Pavan Kulkarni
Ethiopia conflict
(Photo: Atlantic Council)

Hundreds have reportedly died and thousands have fled across Ethiopia’s western border into Sudan as airstrikes and ground fighting in the Tigray region of the country entered the second week on November 12, Thursday. 

The fighting between the armed forces of the federal government and that of the Tigray regional government – which have declared each other illegitimate – began on November 4. The fighting has triggered fears of a full-blown civil war in Africa’s second most populous country. 

The region of Amhara, which flanks Tigray on the south, has already been drawn into the conflict. Due to a long-standing animosity against Tigray, the Amhara regional government’s militia is backing the federal government’s troops.  

According to state media Fana Broadcasting Corporate (FBC), federal troops have killed 550 personnel of Tigray’s armed forces. Other news agencies have reported that hundreds have died on the federal government’s side as well. 

Over half of the armed forces in Ethiopia are loyal to the Tigray regional government, led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The TPLF was in the forefront of the war with Eritrea on its northern border during 1998-2000. 

It was also the dominant political force in the country since the 1990s, after the collapse of the communist regime, until Abiy Ahmed became the prime minister. Abiy came to power as a reformer in the backdrop of the 2018 anti-government protests. 

Increasing tensions between the TPLF and the Abiy-led government escalated into a military conflict after Abiy declared a state of emergency in Tigray and deployed federal troops to dislodge the TPLF from regional power. He accused Tigrayan troops of attacking a base of the federal army in the city of Mekelle on November 4. 

Including the militias supporting it, the Tigray forces are estimated to number around 250,000. “But despite their numbers, they lack airpower. The federal government has been conducting airstrikes on targets across the region,” Emmanuel (name changed), a journalist based in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, told Peoples Dispatch.

After the Tigray regional government claimed on Sunday that it had shot down a fighter jet of the federal government, hundreds on social media shared a picture of a wrecked aircraft, claiming it to be that of the downed fighter jet. Also widely shared were the photos of an S-400 missile defense system claimed to be in possession of the Tigray forces. However, these claims were proven to be fake

“They may have some anti-aircraft weaponry, but nothing close to surface-to-air missiles,” Emmanuel said. 

The federal government on Tuesday claimed that it had seized control of the airport in the city of Humera. The regional government cited Tigray TV reports to claim that residents of Humera were going about their normal lives, without denying or admitting the former’s claim of controlling the airport.   

Despite the federal government’s domination of air and the backing from Amharan militias, its troops on the ground are facing a tough resistance from the combat-experienced Tigrayan forces.     

Redwan Hussein, spokesperson of the federal government’s State of Emergency Task Force for the Tigray conflict, said that the Tigrayan forces remained in control of the Northern Command – the heavily armed federal military base which the PM accused the Tigrayan forces of attacking on November 4, triggering the armed conflict. 

The TPLF, on the other hand, claims that the Northern Command had defected to its side. “The entire northern command defecting is too good to be true,” according to Emmanuel. “May be the senior ranks, largely composed of officers from the Tigray ethnic group. But the command as a whole is ethnically very diverse. It would be difficult to bring everyone along.” 

“There were also rumors that the soldiers in this command were massacred,” he said, adding that it is very difficult to verify the claims from either side because communications have been shut down and reporters from outside are not being allowed into Tigray.

Conflict is drawing in Eritrea and Sudan

Hussein also said that the federal troops were forced to retreat across the northern border into Eritrea, where they regrouped and returned to fight. Meanwhile, Tigray regional government’s president, Debretsion Gebremichae, accused the Eritrean president Isaias Afwerki of sending his troops to support the Ethiopian federal troops. The Eritrean foreign minister has denied the allegation.

The TPLF was unhappy about the peace agreement which Abiy negotiated with Eritrea in 2018, soon after becoming the prime minister, which won him the Nobel Peace prize in 2019. 

“It would be a serious blunder if the PM now seeks to involve Eritrea in this conflict. Already a lot of fingers are being pointed at Eritrea. They have never been on good terms with Tigray,” Emmanuel said. The fact that Eritrean territory was used by the Ethiopian federal troops to retreat and regroup before attacking again has already opened the potential to escalate the conflict across the northern border.

3,000 people have fled across the western border with Sudan into the State of Qadarif, according to Alsir Khaled, who heads Sudan’s refugee agency in Kassala, located to the north of Qadarif.

According to the Sudanese state media, those who have crossed the border include armed soldiers, although it is not clear whether these were soldiers of the federal government or that of the Tigray regional government.  

Sudan is also in a transitional phase, rocked by internal ethnic tensions. A continued flow of refugees from the second most populous country in Africa can have a destabilizing effect on Sudan. While Sudan has officially closed its border with Ethiopia, it remains highly porous. 

“Most of the border is not guarded. People can easily cross over. Once they make it to Sudan, they automatically become refugees,” Emmanuel said. 

The UN warned in a report on November 7 that up to nine million people could be displaced if the conflict in Tigray continues. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who has offered to mediate for a peaceful resolution, has also spoken to Sudanese prime minister Abdalla Hamdok, who chairs the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). IGAD is a trade block comprising eight countries in the region, including Ethiopia. 

Following his conversation with the African Union chief Moussa Faki Mahamat, the latter appealed on Tuesday “for the immediate cessation of hostilities and.. (called) on parties to respect human rights and ensure the protection of civilians.” 

The Tigray regional government is willing to negotiate. Its president, Debretsion Gebremichael, had written to the AU on Friday, seeking help to end the fighting. However, prime minister Abiy maintains that the negotiations can start only after the TPLF has been disarmed and the federal government’s authority in the region is restored.