People shout slogans as a ceremony is held to support the Ethiopian military troops who is battling against the Tigrays People Liberation Front in Amhara Region on November 7, 2021 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (Photo by Getty Images/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Advancing to Addis

History appears to be repeating itself as Ethiopia’s capital could once again fall to Tigrayan rebels

No matter what disaster befell Ethiopia when I lived there, as another state of emergency was declared, the bars of the old Piazza area in the centre of Addis Ababa remained open and frisky. The rambunctiously endearing Ethiopian capital — always just Addis to those of us who fell for its charms — exists as a bubble and parallel dimension to the rest of the country, untouched while bedlam breaks out elsewhere. But clearly it can’t be entirely impervious, and while Ethiopia has continually managed to pull back from the brink, it seemed to me that if ever those Piazza bars actually fell silent, then you would know that Ethiopia really was in serious trouble. 

According to a good friend in Addis, the Piazza bars are all but deserted now.

If ever those Piazza bars actually fell silent, then you would know that Ethiopia really was in serious trouble

Last week the Ethiopian government declared another national state of emergency. What was different this time, was the declaration was accompanied by instructions from Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed for residents to arm and ready themselves to defend the capital. The barbarians are at the gate, is the message. Abiy has a point, and his government may well be toppled, with all the potentially dreadful fallout that may bring. At the same time, you can’t but hand it to the barbarians in terms of military nerve and acumen. 

Last November, Ethiopia’s most northern region of Tigray was invaded by Ethiopian federal forces following months of acrimony between the government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the region’s governing party. The shock and speed of the government’s advance saw the rapid fall of Tigray cities. By 27 November, Abiy proudly declared victory after the capture of the regional capital Mekelle. Tigrayan forces were rounded up while the hunt began for TPLF leadership that fled into surrounding mountains. Captures and arrests subsequently followed. It seemed the TPLF was truly done for, while Tigray fell apart and descended into humanitarian crisis, which I wrote about in Ethiopia weeps again. But by June 2021, Tigrayan forces regained control of Tigray, with federal forces “redeploying”, as the government framed it. A surprising turnaround, it represented an impressive regain. But there was little to indicate the likelihood of what followed next.

Tigrayan forces pushed south into the neighbouring Amhara region—and kept going. Crucially, they were joined by the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), an outlawed armed group from Oromia, the country’s most populous region. Abiy is himself from Oromia, but he clearly appears to have lost his base. Now the combined rebel factions appear to have captured the strategic towns of Dessie and Kombolcha, some 250 miles north of Addis. It’s an amazing reversal of fortunes that also speaks to how much has been lost.

“Rarely can the prospects of any nation have imploded so spectacularly as those of Ethiopia,” was how the Financial Times’ Africa editor David Pilling put it in Ethiopia’s year of living recklessly has come to a bitter conclusion

The unfolding events also offer a strange redux of history, echoing events in 1991 when Tigrayan forces led another revolutionary army that advanced on Addis to overthrow the country’s military communist dictatorship. That a Nobel Peace Prize winner could get himself in a similar position to a communist dictatorship perhaps says something about the Nobel Committee’s selection system or the current evolution of modern-day politics

The thought of what could result from a military assault on Addis and its five million population by a triumphantly fired-up Tigrayan force — who could also have some score settling in mind — should give pause. Mekelle, which I fondly remember exuding a fun Mediterranean vibe, with its palm-lined avenues and friendly bars and cafes, is now pockmarked by bullets, its buildings smashed by artillery. At this time of the year, the population of Addis are usually basking in the succour of crisp high-altitude sunshine and heading to those Piazza bars to celebrate following three months of continuous rainfall from the main Kiremt rainy season. 

As a journalist, one does his best to remain neutral regarding the opposing sides. Added to which, even if you wished to choose a side, good luck parsing the complexities and contradictions to resolve the good guy-bad guy dynamic in all this. Reporting all over Tigray, I developed a soft spot for the Tigrayans’ vigour and friendly boldness. Numbering only 6 million out of Ethiopia’s giant 110 million population, Tigrayans have long been vulnerable to ethnic-based agitation, often tainted through association with the TPLF, who are loathed by many Ethiopians for their track record after 1991 when they came to dominate Ethiopian politics.  

During my trips around Tigray, it was clear that the disregard for ordinary Ethiopians exhibited by the TPLF during its often authoritarian and cruel tenure at the helm of the country also extended to its own people. In Addis many of the beggars were Tigrayan single mothers who had made a daunting journey southward to escape a rural existence in Tigray that struck me as not dissimilar to what European life during the Middle Ages was like. Rank corruption throughout its regime saw a Tigrayan elite monopolising lucrative deals in the economy, while their relatives and accolades would be observed splashing out on oversized shiny pick-up trucks and drinking bottles of Black Label whiskey in the capital’s swanky new hotels that seemed to pop up daily and were owned by the same elite.

Good luck working out who holds the moral high ground

Thus, when Abiy emerged in 2018 promising much needed reforms, including pushing the TPLF to the side-lines, he was greeted with genuine jubilation by many Ethiopians who hoped that finally here was a chance for the country to fully embrace its namesake of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. But now Abiy appears increasingly authoritarian himself. I believe he is the first Nobel Laureate to have a Facebook post deleted due to violating the platform’s policies against inciting violence. In addition to at times sounding “unhinged,” in the words of Pilling, Abiy has increasingly demonstrated a hallmark of Ethiopian leadership, aptly demonstrated by the TPLF and by all the others, such as Emperor Haile Selassie, that came before when ruling Ethiopia: ordinary Ethiopians are dispensable in the quest for what really matters: mengist, the Amharic word for power.

If sifting all that wasn’t challenging enough, throughout the conflict, both federal and Tigrayan forces and the militias aligned with them have unleashed hellish violence and stand accused of war crimes, ranging from massacres in churches to cliff-top summary executions. So good luck working out who holds the moral high ground. Perhaps that might explain the apparent inability or unwillingness of the West, and especially of the UK and US governments that provide Ethiopia with the most funding, to bring effective influence to bear (admittedly the US government has upped the ante lately; I’ve no idea what the UK foreign office is thinking or saying about Ethiopia’s situation). 

The UN Security Council was called upon to weigh in when Ethiopia’s conflict was limited to Tigray’s borders. It didn’t. And now matters could be at a point from which there is no turning back—neither for Abiy nor for the TPLF.

“The only plausible way out is to talk,” Pilling says. “Tragically, that appears to be the least likely option.”  

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