Ethiopian Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed issued a call on 10 August for all eligible civilians to join the armed forces as fighting raged in multiple regions of Africa’s second-most populous country. “Now is the right time for all capable Ethiopians who are of age to join the Defense Forces, Special Forces and militias and show your patriotism,” Abiy’s office said in a statement released less than two months after he declared a unilateral ceasefire against Tigrayan rebels.
Abiy sent troops into Ethiopia’s northernmost Tigray region last November to topple the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the regional ruling party which dominated national politics for nearly three decades until 2018. The move came in response to TPLF attacks on federal army camps, said Abiy, winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize.
Although Abiy promised a swift victory, the war took a stunning turn in June when Tigrayan forces recaptured the regional capital Mekele and the Ethiopian army largely withdrew. Abiy also declared a unilateral ceasefire, saying it would facilitate aid access to a region where 400,000 people are facing famine-like conditions, according to the UN. Since then, the TPLF has pushed east into neighbouring Afar and south into the Amhara region. Recently, its forces seized the Amhara town of Lalibela, home to 12th-century rock-hewn churches that are a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
On Tuesday, the government’s patience appeared to have run out, with its statement ordering security forces “to halt the destruction of the treasonous and terrorist TPLF organisation and the machinations of foreign hands once and for all”.
Ahmed’s call came in the wake of its neighbour Sudan recalling its ambassador to Addis Ababa on 8 August, frustrated by the stance of Ethiopian officials whom it said were refusing Sudan’s offer to mediate in the ongoing conflict in Tigray.
“Ethiopia will improve its position if it considered what Sudan could do. ..instead of completely rejecting all of its efforts,” a statement from the Sudanese foreign ministry read.
Sudan’s Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok spoke with U.S. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, on Wednesday about the conflict in the northern Ethiopian region of Tigray, which has led to an influx of 53,400 refugees since late 2020. Hamdok’s offer came within the framework of his presidency of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a grouping that includes Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, Djibouti, Sudan, Uganda and Somalia, the statement said. Relations have been soured by disputes over Al-Fashga, an area of fertile land settled by Ethiopian farmers that Sudan says lies on its side of a border demarcated at the start of the 20th century, which Ethiopia rejects. The border tensions come at a time when Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt are also trying to resolve a three-way row over Ethiopia’s Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.
Ethiopia’s internal crisis has remained in the news and this has to be uncomfortable for an Addis Ababa administration that goes to great pains to cultivate its image. Running any political system with semi-autonomous ethno-regional blocs in any pluralistic state is dicey and often a precursor for instability – perhaps a cautionary tale for many clamouring for the restructuring in countries such as Cameroon, Chad and Nigeria.
The enlisting of paramilitary forces from other regions and the call to have eligible civilians join the war effort highlights both the desperation of Addis Ababa and the obvious fact that Tigrayan forces are punching above their weight against federal troops, as they expand their hold beyond their regional capital Mekelle towards neighbouring Afar and Amhara regions. The longer the crisis lingers, the greater the challenge for Mr Abiy as his country stares down the tripartite threats of imminent famine, an expensive war it is struggling to finance and a coronavirus pandemic that has battered its economy.
Ethiopia’s rejection of Sudan’s request to mediate in the crisis speaks to several issues between both countries. For Sudan, a country still struggling to find its feet after the deposition of Omar al-Bashir, it is clearly worried about a conflict spillover. Both countries share a 744 km border – Amhara and Tigray border Sudan on the Ethiopian side – that has been in dispute since the 19th century; especially the fertile agricultural region of al-Fashaga. From Ethiopia’s perspective, Khartoum cannot be a trusted partner, seeing that it evicted thousands of its farmers from the region in December 2020. In fact, Sudan had quietly deployed troops to the region while Ethiopia had its hands full with the Tigrayan crisis. There is also the remote possibility that given Ethiopia’s recalcitrant stand around the Grand Renaissance Dam project, Sudan could lend its support to Tigrayan forces – its border with Tigray was a key supply route for the rebel movement in the 1980s. There are currently an estimated 70,000 Tigrayan refugees that have fled the war-torn region to Sudan.
As it stands, both countries have a cocktail of domestic crises and it is hoped that a bilateral (or likely, a multilateral) solution is found in order to quieten what is rapidly becoming one of Africa’s emerging hotspots.