Alamata, a small town in Ethiopia’s northern region of Tigray, usually famous for its beautiful green mountains, is now the battleground in Ethiopia’s unfolding civil war. The fighting broke out on November 4th between the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), and the federal government. The conflict stemmed from the Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed’s accusation that the TPLF had attacked a military camp and attempted to seize military hardware, an accusation which the TPLF deems fabricated.
On Monday (16/11), the central government announced that the military had seized the town of Alamata, suggesting that the Ethiopian army had made crucial gains. On November 17th, Ahmed claimed that the battle had entered its “final phase”, and that his troops were quickly approaching the Tigrayan Capital, Mekelle.
However, many journalists and international organizations alike have claimed it is too soon to suggest that the conflict can quickly be resolved. While it has faced several setbacks, the TPLF is showing no signs of slowing down. Last week, Rocket attacks spilled over into the Amhara Region and the bordering country Eritrea, raising concerns that the mounting conflict could drag Eritrea into an Ethiopian conflict, barely two years after the countries made peace.
The international community has urged both sides to back down and start talking. Many aid agencies have called for a temporary ceasefire in northern Ethiopia, to allow aid to reach the afflicted civilians. Aid agencies have had no access to the conflict zone, however, they fear that hundreds, if not thousands of civilians have been killed since the fighting began.
The UN has also raised concerns about the influx of refugees into Sudan, saying it is preparing for up to 200,000 displaced people to arrive, which could destabilize a nation which is already supporting approximately a million refugees from other African nations. Fisseha Tekle, a researcher for Amnesty International in Ethiopia said that the conflict needs to follow international law, and must protect its civilians, “human rights organizations, like Amnesty, should be given access to monitor the human rights situation”.
There have been many atrocities in the region, including reports of massacre, however, it is unclear who is responsible for it. A communications blackout in Tigray has made it hard to assess competing allegations about the fighting. While neither side is willing to back down, the international community and aid agencies must keep trying to enter the region in order to provide humanitarian services to those in need. There has been increasing pressure on Ahmed to call a halt and negotiate, however, he has so far refused, saying that this would legitimize those he sees as rebel leaders. While this may be true, the prime minister must weigh up this cost, with the cost of losing more lives, and further dividing a country in the midst of a global pandemic.
These hostilities are the culmination of years of rising hostility between Ethiopia’s central government and the TPLF. Since Ahmed came to power in 2018, he has pushed through economic reforms, freed political prisoners, and has formally ended the state of war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, which won him the Nobel Peace Prize. However, the TPLF has claimed to be unfairly marginalized by his government, while Ahmed has stated that his aim was only to enforce the rule of law and that no one is beyond it.
There are mounting concerns that the violence will continue, even if Ahmed achieves his aim of forcing out the TPLF and imposing federal authority on Tigray, making the likelihood of a quick resolution very unlikely. The two-week-old conflict threatens to further destabilize one of Africa’s most fragile regions.
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