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Ethiopia: Peace increasingly elusive as violence escalates

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Growing pressure from the international community to end the violence is falling on deaf ears. As the conflict escalates, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed himself is now on the front lines to personally conduct war operations.

Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and former soldier, arrived on the front lines of the ongoing Tigray conflict on Tuesday as a government spokesperson officially announced Wednesday. No details have been given on his precise location

Abiy’s decision is being widely interpreted as an attempt to mobilize Ethiopians in the fight against Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) forces.

“You could comment if it is wise or not, but it surely signifies a very serious situation in Ethiopia,” Jan Abbink, a senior researcher at the African Studies Center at Leiden University in the Netherlands told DW.

  • Residents of Tigray's capital Mekele sift through burning wreckage

    Ethiopia: Tigray crisis one year on

    A city burns

    Residents of Tigray’s capital Mekele sift through wreckage following an airstrike by government forces on October 20. The military said it was targeting a weapons manufacturing facility operated by the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which the rebel Tigray forces have denied.

  • Smoke from a recent military airstrike rises above the streets of Mekele.

    Ethiopia: Tigray crisis one year on

    The haze of war

    Smoke from a recent military airstrike billows above the streets of Mekele. Tigrayan fighters have accused the government of killing civilians, while the federal government maintains it is targeting arms depots. Locals have confirmed that at least one major industrial compound in Mekele has been destroyed.

  • Captured Ethiopian government soldiers and allied militia members sit in rows after being paraded by Tigray forces through the streets.

    Ethiopia: Tigray crisis one year on

    Captured troops

    Ethiopian government soliders captured by Tigrayan forces sit in rows and wait to be taken to a detention center on October 22. The soldiers were paraded through the streets of Mekele in open-top trucks in a show of force following the fourth day of airstrikes on the capital.

  • An Ethiopian Red Cross Society (ERCS) vehicle makes its way through Mekele following government airstrikes.

    Ethiopia: Tigray crisis one year on

    Help on the way

    An Ethiopian Red Cross Society vehicle makes its way through Mekele following government airstrikes. The Red Cross has been working to provide medical treatment and basic shelter in the Tigray region. Amid a regional telecommunications blackout, the organization is also key to helping reconnect families separated by the conflict.

  • A cargo plane belonging to aid organization Samaritan's Purse unloads aid supplies at Mekele Airport

    Ethiopia: Tigray crisis one year on

    Rare aid

    A cargo plane from the aid organization Samaritan’s Purse unloads supplies at Mekele Airport back in March. The flow of humanitarian aid into Tigray has since been severely disrupted, with roadblocks on key routes stopping convoys from getting through and airstrikes forcing aid flights to be aborted.

  • Heath workers stage a protest outside the UN office in Mekele.

    Ethiopia: Tigray crisis one year on

    A desperate plea

    Heath workers stage a protest outside the United Nations office in Mekele, condemning the deaths of patients due to severe shortages of food and medicine. Stocks of vital supplies are dwindling in the capital, with malnutrition rates among children skyrocketing. The UN recently announced it would withdraw half of its workers from Ethiopia.

  • A victim of the Togoga airstrike is treated in hospital.

    Ethiopia: Tigray crisis one year on

    A victim of war

    A victim of the Togoga airstrike is treated in hospital. On June 22, the Ethiopian Air Force launched an airstrike on the Tigrayan town of Togoga on a busy market day, killing 64 civilians and injuring 184. Ambulances attempting to reach the scene were initially blocked by soldiers before another convoy made it through and brought 25 of the wounded to a hospital in Mekele.

  • People hold protest banners.

    Ethiopia: Tigray crisis one year on

    International protests

    On the other side of the world, hundreds rallied in Whitehall, London on October 19 bearing flags and slogans as they called for an end to the violence and to the aid blockade in Tigray. Many of the protesters are members of the Tigrayan, Ethiopian and Eritrean diaspora.

  • Demonstrators protest against Tigray aid in Addis Ababa.

    Ethiopia: Tigray crisis one year on

    Anger on both sides

    Demonstrators in the capital Addis Ababa gathered outside the office of the UN World Food Program in September to protest the sending of aid to the Tigray region. The TPLF has been designated a terrorist group by Ethiopia’s government. Officials and rights groups have also accused Tigrayan fighters of committing atrocities, including recruiting child soldiers.

    Author: Ineke Mules

Western nationals urged to leave

Anticipating an escalation in violence amid fears that Tigrayan forces might reach the capital Addis Ababa in the coming days, some Western countries — including Germany, France and the US — have urged their nationals to leave Ethiopia as soon as possible.

This has fueled accusations in Ethiopia that Western powers are trying to sow panic in order to weaken the Abiy government.

“The prime minister believes he has been cornered and that international partners such as the US and the EU are pushing for his removal,” Ahmed Soliman from the London-based research institute Chatham House told DW.

Perceived Western support for the Tigrayan forces “has been used to stoke this nationalist sentiment to mobilize resistance for the conflict,” he added.

For instance, in an apparent warning shot to the West, Ethiopia on Wednesday ordered four of six Irish diplomats in the country to leave within a week’s time over Ireland’s stance on the conflict.

Map of Ehiopia and the Tigray Region

Mobilization in full drive

Before leaving the capital for the front lines Tuesday, Abiy again called for every able citizen in the country of more than 110 million people to join the fight.

Tens of thousands of Addis Ababa residents have joined defense groups, and in recent months there have been reports of forced conscription.

National heroes, including Olympic medalists Haile Gebrselassie and Feyisa Lilesa, have publicly announced their readiness to take up arms against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), setting an example of loyalty to an increasingly besieged government.

Meanwhile, ire against the TPLF among Abiy’s supporters is growing — with many believing they threaten more than just the streets of Addis Ababa.

“One vision of the rebels is to fragment, Balkanize, crumble and delete the name Ethiopia from the world map,” Yonas Adaye Adeto, of the Institute for Peace and Security Studies (IPSS) at Addis Ababa University, told DW, contrasting this image to what he called the prime minister’s “vision of unity.” 

Fighters of the Tigray Defense Forces on a jeep being greeted by citizens of Mekelle

Tigrayan forces are advancing on the capital Addis Ababa at a steady pace

Dialogue necessary but increasingly unlikely

In view of the armed escalation, hopes for peace talks in the immediate future are waning.

US envoy Jeffrey Feltman on Tuesday told reporters he feared the ”nascent” progress in mediation efforts with the warring sides could be outpaced by the ”alarming” military developments.

Ethiopian observers are also pessimistic that any solution is possible through dialogue alone. 

“Unless there is some kind of divine intervention, I don’t see any chance for a peaceful resolution through dialogue, because the positions are highly polarized,” Kassahun Berhanu, a professor of political science at Addis Ababa University, told news agency AP.

The TPLF’s apparent unwillingness to negotiate was reinforced in a statement issued by its external affairs office, asserting that “any peace initiative whose principal objective is to save Abiy Ahmed from imminent demise is dead on arrival.”

Before Abiy took office in 2018, the TPLF dominated the federal government for 27 years. A simmering political rift turned into open war in November 2020.

”The conflict has caused unimaginable anguish,” said researcher Soliman, stressing that atrocities had been committed by both sides.

”Some might think it’s really time for the elites to put their self-interest aside and build a societal order based on mutual understanding and inclusiveness,” he added.

Analysts agree that the African Union (AU) is best placed to nudge both sides of the conflict into accepting a ceasefire and starting a dialogue. Former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo is leading the AU’s efforts in Ethiopia, where he has met with both Abiy and TPLF leaders. Calls for peace coming from Ethiopia’s neighbors and allies are also ”very consistent,” explained Soliman.

”This message takes the emphasis away from an external interference in Ethiopia’s internal affairs, aligning it with the continental cause within sub-Saharan Africa for the conflict to stop.”

Etienne Gatanazi contributed to this article

Edited by: Ineke Mules

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