November 30, 2020
Government troops took the Tigrayan regional capital of Mekelle this weekend with little opposition. But the conflict could continue as an insurgency.
Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed praised his troops Monday for their victory over rebels in the northern province of Tigray. But analysts warned it could be premature to declare an end to the conflict, as rebel leaders vowed to fight on.
Government troops swept into Mekelle, the capital of the Tigray region, on Saturday, capturing the city of 500,000 people with almost no resistance.
s after the offensive was launched in response to a TPLF attack on a federal army base.
“Our constitution was attacked but it didn’t take us three years, it took us three weeks,” said Abiy, praising the national army as “disciplined and victorious.”
Abiy had said Saturday that the government’s focus would now switch to rebuilding the region, while police hunted down the TPLF leaders.
But TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael told news agencies Monday that the fighting was ongoing, and would “continue until the invaders are out,” raising the spectre of a drawn-out guerrilla insurgency.
“I’m close to Mekelle in Tigray fighting the invaders,” the 57-year-old told Reuters in a text message. In an interview with The Associated Press, he called on Abiy to withdraw federal troops and insisted fighting was continuing “on every front.”
William Davison, International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Ethiopia, told VICE World News that the TPLF leadership’s determination to keep fighting meant the conflict could continue as an insurgency.
But that depended on the ability of the Tigrayan security forces to continue their fight – and the level of support they continued to command from the Tigrayan public, after dragging the region into a conflict that has killed hundreds, if not thousands, and forced the displacement of tens of thousands of people.
“We see the Tigray leadership’s intent to fight on, but what capabilities do they have?” he said.
“We don’t know how depleted they are after some fairly brutal fighting, and their fighters may have dispersed to some extent as well.”
He said the prospects for any sustained insurgency would also depend on the support the TPLF commanded from the Tigrayan governing class, and the public at large in the region of about 6 million people. While Abiy has stressed the federal intervention is targeted at the “criminal clique” of TPLF leaders, the party has deep roots throughout Tigrayan society, which could potentially resist federal efforts to impose a provisional government on the region.
“Ultimately the TPLF is a mass-based political party – it permeates through society, running every single government institution in Tigray down to the village level,” he said.
“What’s going to be the attitude of that broader governing class as well as the people to this provisional administration imposed by the federal government?”
He said the communications blackout that had been largely imposed over Tigray during the conflict made assessing the situation on the ground and answering both questions difficult.
But his impressions from conversations with Tigrayan sources were that anger at the federal intervention in the region ran deep.
“It’s anecdotal, but I have barely spoken to any Tigrayan who isn’t seething with anger,” he said. “Even the anti-TPLF Tigrayans I know, opposition guys, they’re horrified at this intervention.”
Addisu Lashitew, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, told VICE World News that while it was difficult to anticipate how the TPLF would be able to launch a long and protracted insurgency, it was likely that it would be able to sustain a low-level insurgency for at least a period of time.
“The brief conflict has shown the massive power imbalance between the federal government and the TPLF. The party also lacks any external support, and is encircled by hostile forces on all sides, most prominently by its arch-enemy, Eritrea,” he said.
However, he said, the party had a degree of popular support among Tigrayans, and “deep pockets from decades of dominance in federal rule.” “It is therefore likely that the TPLF will be able to sustain a low-scale insurgency for some time,” he said.
The TPLF is a guerrilla movement-turned-political party that became a dominant force in Ethiopian politics for nearly three decades after it played a key role in ousting the country’s Marxist dictator in 1991.
But since Abiy came to power in 2018, Tigrayans have complained of being increasingly sidelined, and in 2019 the TPLF quit his ruling coalition.
Davison said while it was reasonable for the federal government to trumpet its success in capturing Mekelle, apparently without the widespread loss of civilian life that many feared could result, it didn’t necessarily spell the end of the conflict.
“It doesn’t mean it’s the end of armed resistance, and it definitely doesn’t mean it’s going to be plain sailing to bring peace and stability and a new political settlement for Tigray.”