The UN World Food Program’s (WFP) suspension of food aid to Dessie and Kombolcha after the liberation of these two strategically important cities in the war-torn northern Ethiopian state, Amhara, is a “travesty of the highest degree”, said Horn of Africa TV’s editor, Elias Amare.
The UN has cited as its reason the looting of WFP’s warehouses and the intimidation of its staff in these cities by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The TPLF started the war by attacking a federal army base in Tigray in November 2020, and subsequently invaded the neighboring states of Amhara and Afar in July 2021.
However, the UN’s decision to suspend aid to the two cities came after the TPLF was pushed out of it by the joint force of the national army and Amharan militias. “All this while, when the TPLF had been occupying these cities and other towns in Amhara and openly raiding the UN’s storage facilities, they said nothing about it,” Amare told Peoples Dispatch in a phone interview.
Suspending food-aid to cities brought back under government control – while continuing to send aid into TPLF-controlled Tigray where over a thousand aid-trucks are allegedly being commandeered by TPLF for military purposes – “is a crime,” he said. “It amounts to using food-aid as a weapon of war.”
Despite the support the TPLF is receiving from allegedly partisan international bodies and from the US, which is using its “client states in the region” to diplomatically isolate and encircle the Ethiopian state, Amare remains confident that the TPLF is losing.
While the fight is ongoing in Weldiya [about 120 km to the north of Dessie], the TPLF’s forces “are in a disarray” he said. “More importantly, the federal government’s forces have taken control of the highway connecting Weldiya to Tigray’s capital, Mekele. So their logistics line and their route to retreat has been choked. Apart from this, it is mostly some villages along the border with Tigray and some mountain areas that remain under TPLF’s control in Amhara. Soon, TPLF will be kicked back to its base in Tigray.”
Amare believes the government will pursue the TPLF into the state of Tigray, and not stop at the border and seek negotiation – an end towards which the US appears to be mobilizing the diplomatic positions.
“TPLF has to be held accountable for the massive atrocities in the Amhara and Afar – killing of civilians, sexual violence and rapes, destruction of medical facilities, schools and what have you,” he said. “It has committed war crimes.. It has openly declared its intention to march on Addis Ababa and overthrow the government. So it is an existential threat.”
Reports of civilians fleeing Tigray into Amhara, Afar and even Eritrea to avoid conscription by the TPLF is an indication of its weakening military and political position inside its home-state.
“Every family is forced to provide at least one son or daughter for conscription. The use of child soldiers is a common practice,” he added. “It’s a very terrible situation inside Tigray. Many families are beginning to openly ask where their children are.”
Frontlines are closing in on this eroding base of TPLF inside Tigray from Amhara in the south and from Afar in the east. Eritrea on its north is supporting the Ethiopian government. While Sudan is alleged to be supporting the TPLF, the region of Welkait and Humera along the border with Sudan is held by a joint force of federal army and Amharan militias, blocking TPLF’s corridor to Sudan.
“They are surrounded. This is the beginning of TPLF’s end,” he said. Following the phone interview, reports emerged on December 12 that the TPLF had recaptured the Amharan town of Lalibela (about 115 km to the west of Weldiya). Asked in a follow up conversation if this could be an indication that the direction in which the frontline is moving is once again changing in favor of the TPLF, Amare replied in the negative.
Rather than having captured the town of Lalibela, the TPLF, he argued, is trying to break through it to find an alternative escape route to Tigray for its forces surrounded in Weldiya, since the highway connecting it to Mekelle has been cut-off.
Having been marginalized by mass pro-democracy protests in 2018, after 27-years of dictatorial rule over Ethiopia, the TPLF, while capable of causing much destruction, is highly unlikely to be able to reign over Ethiopia again.
Nevertheless, Amare maintains, the US continues to support it, “because when imperialism cannot control an area, it seeks to unleash chaos and destabilize it until such time as it can take control.”
Controlling the Horn of Africa is a strategically important objective for the US because the region “is a part of the Red Sea Arena and the Nile Basin. It is part of the Belt and Road Initiative of China. The US believes that in order to control Africa, it has to expand US Africa Command (AFRICOM) across the Horn of Africa.”
But the coming together of Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia for the “New Horn of Africa Project”, after the TPLF was sidelined and Abiy Ahmed took charge as Ethiopia’s prime minister, is a major setback to the American ambitions. It is to neutralize this threat to its objectives, posed by the prospects of peace in the region, that the US is attempting to destabilize the Horn of Africa by supporting the TPLF, he argued.
However, the civil society’s resistance to this attempt – started by the Ethiopian, Eritrean and Somali diaspora who organized the #NoMore movement in the US – has become an important factor that will determine the outcome.
“It started as an opposition to the war in Ethiopia and the destabilization of the Horn of Africa, and grew into a pan-African movement against imperialism. Tomorrow its echoes might be heard in Latin America as well,” he said, adding, “It has the potential to evolve into a global anti-imperialist movement against endless wars.”
Read the edited interview below:
Peoples Dispatch: Can you begin by explaining the strategic importance of the retaking of Dessie and Kombolcha by government forces?
Elias Amare: Dessie is the capital of Amhara’s Wollo province. Kombolcha is an industrial town. It is a center of manufacturing and production. So retaking those two towns means that the entire province of Wollo will be liberated soon.
PD: Which portions of Amhara and Afar remain under the TPLF’s control?
EA: Afar is completely liberated. TPLF has been kicked out of the region. In Amhara, fighting is ongoing in Weldiya [about 120 km to the north of Dessie]. But their forces are in a disarray. More importantly, the federal government’s forces have taken control of the highway connecting Weldiya to Tigray’s capital, Mekele. So their logistics line and their route to retreat has been choked. Apart from this, it is mostly some villages along the border with Tigray and some mountain areas that remain under TPLF’s control in Amhara. Soon, TPLF will be kicked back to its base in Tigray.
PD: Does it seem to you that the government intends to stop at the Tigray border and seek to negotiate, or is it likely to pursue the TPLF into Tigray?
EA: I doubt it would stop at the border. TPLF has to be held accountable for the massive atrocities in the Amhara and Afar – killing of civilians, sexual violence and rapes, destruction of medical facilities, schools and what have you. It has been exposed as an ethno-fascist group. It has committed war crimes. Many human rights organizations are condemning this. It has openly declared its intention to march on Addis Ababa and overthrow the government. So this is an existential threat. I don’t think the government will stop at Tigray’s border.
PD: Inside Tigray, the TPLF remains strong militarily and politically, doesn’t it?
EA: Well, it’s difficult to say because it is inaccessible right now. But from reports we are hearing, civilians are fleeing Tigray to Amhara and Afar region. Some are even fleeing to Eritrea. Fear of conscription by TPLF is the number one reason. Every family is forced to provide at least one son or daughter for conscription. The use of child soldiers is a common practice. It’s a very terrible situation inside the Tigray. Many families are beginning to openly ask where their children are.
Initially, when the TPLF expanded the war into Amhara and Afar after the government’s unilateral ceasefire on June 29, Tigrayans forced to join the war were told that the TPLF would undertake a quick march to Addis Ababa and capture the capital in two or three months. Now it has been six months. They have suffered massive losses and are being forced into retreat.
PD: The frontlines appear to be closing in on the TPLF in Tigray from the south in Amhara and the east in Afar. With its historic enemy, Eritrea as its northern neighbor, it appears that if TPLF’s forces have to retreat and regroup, the best chance is to push across the western border into Sudan, which is believed to be supporting it. How well defended is this border region of Western Tigray, which for now remains under the control of Ethiopian army and Amharan militias?
EA: The Welkait and Humera region, which has come to be known as Western Tigray, was never traditionally a part of Tigray. Tigrayans did not live in this part; it was Amaharan land. Tigray did not have a border with Sudan. The TPLF annexed this land when they took Ethiopian state power in 1991. But this portion of the land has been reclaimed into Amhara during the war.
When the government had withdrawn its forces from Tigray after declaring the unilateral ceasefire in June, it was only from traditional Tigray that it had withdrawn – the land to the east of Tekeze river on today’s Tigray map. To its west is Amharan land, which is very well defended. The TPLF cannot access it anymore. In fact, they had waged several military campaigns since the ceasefire to break through Welkait and Humera and open the corridor to Sudan. They were defeated every time. They are surrounded. This is the beginning of TPLF’s end.
PD: If TPLF’s end has begun, what about the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), which had joined forces with the TPLF? OLF is one of the oldest political parties with deep roots in Ethiopia’s largest state, Oromia.
EA: It is not correct to say that OLF [as a whole] has joined the TPLF. OLF has several factions. Only its most extreme [ethno-centric] faction has joined the TPLF, waging an insurgency in the Western part of the country. But I don’t think they are a significant threat. This faction does not have that much of a following in Oromia. It was the TPLF which was a real threat, with all the financing and armed force it had. Once the TPLF is finished off, all other ethno-nationalist insurgencies in the country do not pose a major threat.
PD: What is the picture emerging from the recently liberated towns of Dessie and Kombulcha? Have they suffered serious destruction?
EA: An inventory is being made. The government is yet to come out with figures. But from reports and pictures, we know that destruction has been massive, systematic and wanton. 80% of the enterprises in Kombolcha have been looted. Factories and industrial centers have been destroyed. Any machinery the TPLF could not take with them to Tigray has been destroyed. Other institutions like schools and hospitals have also been vindictively attacked when they had to retreat. Rebuilding these two cities, especially Kombolcha which is an industrial hub, will take many years.
PD: The UN has suspended food aid to Dessie and Kombolcha after they were liberated and brought under government control. This is reportedly because of widespread looting of its storage facilities and intimidation of the UN staff while it was under TPLF’s control. But what is the rationale behind suspending aid after the TPLF has been pushed out of the area?
EA: It is incredible, isn’t it? All this while, when the TPLF had been occupying these cities and other towns in Amhara and openly raiding the UN’s storage facilities, they said nothing about it. But now, after the two cities have been liberated, the UN World Food Program (WFP) has suspended food-aid distribution. Now that the cities are in government control, they should step up the distribution. There are more than a million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Amhara, sleeping in temporary shelters. They are in critical need of food aid. Suspension of food aid under these circumstances is a travesty of the highest degree. It is a crime. It amounts to using food-aid as a weapon of war. The government, you see, is allowing food aid to go into the TPLF-controlled Tigray from air and via land through the Afar region.
PD: UN Ethiopia had revealed in September that more than 400 of its trucks which entered Tigray since mid-July had failed to return. These are reportedly being used by the TPLF for its military maneuvers. Has there any progress towards securing the return of these trucks?
EA: They have not been returned. And the latest figure now is 1,010 trucks. Ethiopia’s Ambassador to the UN, Taye Atske Selassie, recently said in a statement that 1,010 food-aid trucks of the UN are being commandeered by the TPLF for its military purposes. No condemnation whatsoever from the UN. And yet, they are making noise about three trucks that have apparently gone missing on the government’s side. They are playing politics with relief and food-aid. This had been going on all along the past year of this tragic conflict. There has been no neutrality, whatsoever.
In fact, UN personnel in the Tigray region have exposed the UN organizations to be working in cahoots with the TPLF. And they were suspended for exposing this. The UN WFP and USAID have been using this humanitarian crisis to prepare the grounds for Western intervention. This is what we are nearing, in my opinion.
PD: In the meantime, US Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa, Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman, has been on a tour to Turkey, UAE and Egypt to discuss this war in Ethiopia. How is the geopolitical alignment of Ethiopia’s neighboring countries evolving?
EA: Feltman has been traveling back and forth between Ethiopia’s neighboring Sudan and Egypt, East Africa and the Gulf countries to bring pressure on Ethiopia by encircling it. So I think his recent tour is a continuation of this shuttle diplomacy to isolate Ethiopia in the region. It is a precursor to the imposition of sanctions. But the Ethiopian government has been firm in its position that this war is an internal, sovereign matter and it will not give in to foreign pressures.
PD: It is quite evident that the TPLF retaking state power in Ethiopia is a highly unlikely scenario. Under the circumstances, what interests of the US, or of the neighboring states like Sudan and Egypt, are served by supporting the TPLF?
EA: Sudan and Egypt are simply toeing the US-line. None of their national interests will be served by destabilizing Ethiopia. But client states don’t have an independent foreign policy in such matters of geopolitical importance. They have to blindly follow their imperial patrons. And the US is putting all kinds of pressure on its client states in the neighborhood to isolate Ethiopia and prevent the emergence of what we call the New Horn of Africa: a Horn of Africa that is at peace with itself, stable and without the vicious cycles of conflict between its countries.
This coming together of Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia undermines the expansion of the US military garrisons in this region, which is strategically very important. It is a part of the Red Sea Arena and the Nile Basin. It is part of the Belt and Road Initiative of China.
The US further believes that in order to control Africa, it has to expand US Africa Command (AFRICOM) across the Horn of Africa, the Greater Horn of Africa and East Africa all the way to Congo and the Great Lakes Region. And always, when imperialism cannot control an area, it seeks to unleash chaos and destabilize it until such time as it can take control.
So it is doing everything it can to disrupt the New Horn of Africa Project. It has already sanctioned Eritrea. It is en route to sanctioning Ethiopia. And who knows, with Somalia beginning to reconstitute itself after decades of war, more proxy wars seem to be in offing there too.
PD: The Horn of Africa’s diaspora, particularly the Ethiopians and Eritreans in the US, have started #NoMore movement against the US sanctions on these countries and its support for the TPLF. How impactful has this movement been?
EA: This is really an incredible phenomenon. Within a month since it was started by the Ethiopian, Eritrean and Somali diaspora, it has grown global. Massive demonstrations and protests have been held in Washington D.C, in San Francisco and many other cities in the US and other Western countries, with the slogan: “Hands off Ethiopia; Hands off Eritrea; Hands off Horn of Africa”. They are saying “#NoMore” to western intervention; to economic warfare on countries in the form of sanctions.
Inside the continent, we have also seen demonstrations outside the Horn of Africa in countries as far as West Africa and Niger, raising the slogan “#NoMore Neo-colonialism” in French. Echoes of #NoMore are found in the murals on walls in South Africa. It started as an opposition to the war in Ethiopia and to the American attempts to destabilize the Horn of Africa, but grew into a pan-African movement against imperialism. Tomorrow its echoes might be heard in Latin America as well. It has the potential to evolve into a global anti-imperialist movement against endless wars.