Ethiopian PM’s week of dramatic disclosures evades root of Tigray crisis

Eritrea Ethiopia Tigray
Ethiopian PM Abiy Ahmed (L) meets with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki in Asmara, Eritrea, on March 25, 2021.
Ethiopian PM Abiy Ahmed (L) meets with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki in Asmara, Eritrea, on March 25, 2021. © Aron Simeneh, AFP

Days after Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed finally admitted Eritrean troops were in Tigray after months of denial, the Nobel Peace Prize winner on Friday said they would be withdrawing from Ethiopia. But the stunning announcements offered no word on military or political resolutions to a deep crisis and the devil lies in those details.

It was an extraordinary news week in Ethiopia. On Monday, troops from neighbouring Eritrea were not officially present on Ethiopian soil. For months, the Ethiopian government simply denied the involvement of Eritrean troops in the deadly conflict in its northern Tigray province.

But on Tuesday, March 23, it was suddenly official: Eritrean troops were indeed present on Ethiopian soil. After five months of denials, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed admitted that Eritrean defence forces had crossed the border to join the offensive against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

Addressing parliamentarians sitting stone faced behind pandemic masks, the country’s Nobel Peace Prize laureate-leader admitted that human rights violations had been committed during the conflict, but he omitted any official remorse.

On Friday morning, Abiy announced that the Eritrean troops who were officially not present on Monday would be withdrawing from Tigray

In a statement posted on Twitter a day after Abiy’s arrival in the Eritrean capital, Asmara, to meet Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, the Ethiopian leader said, “The government of Eritrea has agreed to withdraw its forces out of the Ethiopian border.”

And just like that, everything would be fine, Abiy’s statement suggested. “We will continue building on the spirit of trust and good neighborliness between our two countries,” said the Ethiopian leader.

The presence of Eritrean forces in Tigray – where witnesses have described them looting, killing and raping civilians – has been a thorny issue in Ethiopia since November, when Abiy sent federal troops into the northern region.

“One controversial aspect is that there has been complete denial of the Eritrean role in the conflict and indeed the federal government said all reports to the contrary were disinformation,” said William Davison, senior analyst for Ethiopia at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, in an interview with FRANCE 24. “But even worse has been the behaviour of the Eritrean troops, who’ve been systemically looting private and public property as well as committing atrocities against civilians in Tigray.”

The military operation in Tigray began on November 4 after the Abiy administration accused the TPLF of attacks on Ethiopian army camps in the northern region. It marked the start of an all-out confrontation between the administration in Addis Ababa and the TPLF, a political party with an armed wing that dominated Ethiopian politics for nearly three decades before Abiy – Ethiopia’s first ethnic Oromo prime minister – took office in 2018.

The exact toll of the latest Tigray conflict are still not known since the region of around 6 million people has been largely cut off from the world despite recent progress on access to the area for humanitarian teams. Last month, three Tigrayan opposition parties claimed at least 52,000 people have been killed in the conflict since November. But the Ethiopian prime minister’s office refuted the claim, warning that “enemies of the state” were spreading misinformation.

US senator visits Addis Ababa

Abiy’s sudden volte-face came days after US Democratic Senator Chris Coons met with the Ethiopian leader in Addis Ababa over the weekend.

Coons, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was on a mission by the Biden administration to “convey President Biden’s grave concerns about the humanitarian crisis and human rights abuses in the Tigray region and the risk of broader instability in the Horn of Africa”, according to a statement by US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan.

The influential US senator’s visit was widely viewed as a sign of Washington’s reengagement in the Horn of Africa – particularly on democratic and human rights issues – following the Trump administration’s lack of interest in the region.

But upon his return to Washington, Coons admitted that during his talks, Abiy maintained a tough position on a recent US government report, which concluded the Ethiopian government is conducting “a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing” in Tigray.

“He pushed back really hard on any attempt by me to characterise this as an ethnic conflict and insisted it was a conflict against the TPLF as a political actor and a political party that had engaged in an attack on federal forces,” Coons told reporters in Washington.

Abiy’s admission to parliament came the day the independent Ethiopian Human Rights Commission released a report on the November 2020 massacre of more than 100 civilians by Eritrean troops in the Tigrayan town of Axum. The report corroborated the findings of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and concluded the massacre could amount to crimes against humanity.

The combination of international and domestic developments made it “untenable for Addis to continue denying Eritrean involvement in the conflict. It seems the pressure from the US, the EU and other donors contributed to the shift from Abiy,” explained Davison.

Eritrean troops deep in Tigray

In his brief statement on the upcoming Eritrean withdrawal, Abiy noted that “the government of Eritrea has agreed to withdraw its forces out of the Ethiopian border. The Ethiopian National Defense Forces will take over guarding the border areas effective immediately”.

But reporting from Addis Ababa, FRANCE 24’s Maria Gerth-Niculescu sounded a note of caution: “It remains to be seen whether Eritrean soldiers will immediately pull out from the region especially because humanitarian sources and civilians on the ground are saying that the Eritrean presence goes far beyond the border areas, that they’re present throughout the region.”

Five months after Eritrean forces entered Ethiopia from northern Tigray, they have since expanded their presence to central, southern and southeastern Tigray. While Ethiopian government forces control Tigray’s cities, towns and major roads, Eritrean troops are situated in the rural areas, according to witnesses.

“With regards to the conflict dynamics, if there is a complete withdrawal of Eritrean troops, it would reduce the pressure on the TPLF, and the Ethiopian military may well not be able to defeat Tigray’s resistance without Eritrean support,” explained Davison.

The TPLF was a considerable fighting force during Ethiopia’s decades-long civil war, which ended in 1991 with a coalition of rebel groups, including the TPLF, ousting a brutal communist dictatorship. It remained a major political power in Ethiopia until tensions between the group and the Abiy administration escalated in recent years.

Amid rising tensions over budgets and federal powers, the TPLF increased its recruitment drives over the past two years. Since the November military campaign, most of the movement’s senior leaders have gone underground.

Tigrayan opposition party Salsay Weyane Tigray said Friday that any agreement about Eritrea’s withdrawal would be “useless” without “an international regulatory body to check”.

“It is another level of deception; a game they have been playing for a long time,” Hailu Kebede, head of the party’s foreign affairs department, said on Twitter. “Withdraw all forces and establish an international observatory team. The world mustn’t be fooled, again.”


Eritrean troops deep in Tigray

During his meeting with Senator Coons over the weekend, Abiy rejected US calls for a unilateral ceasefire in Tigray.

Coons told reporters he pressed Abiy during both days of their meetings on March 20 and 21 to declare a ceasefire but Abiy declined, arguing that the fighting had largely stopped and the situation by then amounted to “a law enforcement action where they are pursuing a few TPLF senior leaders”.

“So his response was that a ceasefire is not necessary,” Coons said, describing it as “a persistent point of disagreement” between them.

Abiy’s insistence on trying to deal with the Tigray situation solely by military and legal means fails to address the root political causes of the crisis, according to Davison. “It was divisive political disagreement that led to the war,” he said. “Addressing that dispute is key to ending the conflict, but there’s been no indication so far that Abiy is willing to pursue such talks, although that is what is needed to prevent further suffering and destabilisation.”


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