Civil war in northern Ethiopia turns in favor of federal government, reversing last month‘s advances by TPLF 

Following their victories in the western and eastern front, the joint forces of the federal government and the Amharan militias have recaptured the strategically important towns of Dessie and Kombolcha

December 07, 2021 by Pavan Kulkarni
Civil war in Ethiopia
Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed. (Photo: Abiy Ahmed Ali/Twitter)

The civil war in northern Ethiopia has taken a decisive turn in favor of the federal government after several strategic towns in the regional States of Amhara and Afar were recaptured from the US-backed Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

On Monday, December 6, the joint forces of the federal army and the Amharan militias recaptured Dessie and Kombolcha, two strategically important towns in the Wollo region of Amhara, reversing the TPLF’s short-lived gains on the war’s central front.

“Dessie is one of the biggest cities in Amhara, and Kombolcha is an important industrial town in the region. From here, the TPLF had hoped to march over 350 kilometers down south to the capital Addis Ababa. But this obviously was not going to work,” Mohamed Hassan, former Ethiopian diplomat and currently an adviser to the president of Ethiopia’s Somali regional State, told Peoples Dispatch. “The TPLF,” he said, “over-extended 400 kilometers away from their Tigray base into an area whose population is against them.”

While details from Dessie and Kambolcha are yet to emerge, killings of civilians, rape of women, looting of supplies and destruction of medical facilities, hotels, banks and supermarkets have been reported from Debre Sina and Shewa Robit. These towns – further down south in Amhara’s North Shewa Zone, half way between Dessie and Addis Ababa – were liberated last week along with eight other towns in the region.

Simultaneously, the TPLF also suffered a defeat on the western front from where it had hoped to connect to the border with Sudan, which is alleged to be supporting the TPLF. Gashena and surrounding smaller towns were retaken on December 1. Later on the same day, Lalibela, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with ancient rock-hewn churches, was also recaptured from the TPLF which had taken over the town in August. These towns on the western front are to the northwest of Dessie and Kombolcha.

By then, failure of the TPLF offensive had already become evident on the eastern front in the Afar State where it had hoped to capture the district of Mille. A critical highway which connects land-locked Ethiopia’s capital to the port in neighboring Djibouti passes through this district. On November 28, the joint forces had recaptured the town of Chifra from the TPLF. Less than 50 kilometers from Mille, it was from Chifra that the TPLF had intended to attack the district. 

Located at the junction of the three war-affected States – Amhara, Afar and Tigray – Chifra is a strategic town less than 150 km to the northeast of Dessie and Kombolcha. Thus outflanked from south, northeast and northwest, TPLF’s siege on these two critical cities on the highway to Addis Ababa finally ended with their liberation on Monday.   

Tigrayans in Addis Ababa protest against TPLF

On Sunday, thousands of Tigrayans residing in Addis Ababa held a rally in support of the federal government, against which the TPLF started the war over a year ago. Raising the slogan “Tigrayans and the TPLF are not the same,” the demonstrators called on the Ethiopian government to go on to liberate Tigray from the TPLF. 

After 27-years of US-backed dictatorial rule in Ethiopia, the TPLF, which was marginalized to a regional State power limited to Tigray in 2018 due to pro-democracy protests, plunged northern Ethiopia into a civil war in November 2020 by attacking an army base in Tigray’s capital Mekelle.

The killing of over 6,000 army personnel in this base led prime minister Abiy Ahmed to order federal troops into Tigray to dislodge the TPLF from the State government. After what it had expected to be a short war continued on, the federal government unilaterally declared a ceasefire at the end of June 2021 and withdrew troops in order to facilitate a peaceful farming season to avert famine. 

However, the TPLF escalated the war by invading the neighboring regional States of Amhara and Afar. Over the 13 months since the war broke out, thousands have been killed and an estimated three million have been displaced from their homes. 

Even as hunger has pushed around 10 million people in the three States towards dependency on emergency aid, hundreds of food-aid trucks sent into Tigray by the UN since July have failed to return. These are reportedly being used by the TPLF to mobilize its fighters for attacks on Amhara and Afar.

US remains belligerent

Nevertheless, the US continues to accuse the Ethiopian government of deliberately blocking aid to the regions under the TPLF’s control. While this allegation has been dispelled by the report of the joint investigation by the UN and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC), the US government has continued sanctions on Ethiopia on the basis of this allegation. 

Possibilities of laying the charge of genocide on the Ethiopian government is also being explored by the US, even though no evidence of it was found in the investigation. The US and its western allies have for long been seeking to force the Ethiopian government to declare another ceasefire, which would mean leaving not only Tigray, but also vast parts of Amhara and some regions in Afar under the control of the TPLF. 

“No compromise on Ethiopia’s unity and sovereignty” was another popular slogan at the rally by Tigrayans in Addis Ababa on Sunday, denouncing Western powers, particularly the US, for backing the TPLF. 

#NoMore campaign crucial in resisting US intervention

The resistance to western support for the TPLF has been growing globally with the expansion of the #NoMore movement led by the Ethiopian diaspora. Diaspora members of Eritrea and Somalia – whose relations with Ethiopia have developed in a peaceful and cooperative manner under Abiy Ahmed after the end of TPLF’s reign – are also a part of this movement. 

Following the protest under the banner #NoMore on November 21 in 27 cities around the world, including in Washington D.C outside the White House, a series of demonstrations have been held. These were in cities including in Eritrea, South Africa, Djibouti, Burkina Faso, Niger and Sudan. More demonstrations are being planned in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, South Sudan and the DRC.

“What had begun as protests by Ethiopians and Eritreans, became a pan-African movement which spread globally,” Simon Tesfamariam, director of the New Africa Institute, told Peoples Dispatch

Tesfamariam is one of the founding members of the #NoMore campaign. His Twitter account, along with that of many others, which played an important role in this movement, was suspended at the end of November when the reversal of TPLF’s gains began. Nevertheless, the movement has continued to grow.

In the West, in addition to the US, demonstrations have also been witnessed in Switzerland, Germany and Spain. On December 5, a march was held in Beirut, Lebanon, followed by a demonstration on December 6 in Tokyo, Japan. 

These mobilizations have played a critical role in “sending a message to the Pentagon and providing a sort of diplomatic and political cover for Abiy Ahmed to go to the frontlines and make advances. And Abiy, right before going to the front, tweeted #NoMore. This of great significance,” Tesfamariam said.

He argued that the US government is showing signs of growing discomfort about anger brewing among Ethiopian-Americans against US’ policy. He pointed to the U.S. Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa, Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman, going out of the way to address the “Ethiopian Americans” in his state department briefing on November 23. 

Feltman went on the Ethiopian Satellite Television (ESAT) earlier this month in an attempt to once again appeal to the diaspora. This “shows a certain level of insecurity that the US state department has begun to feel regarding its policy towards Ethiopia,” Tesfamariam said.