A truce for Ethiopia is farther and farther away. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, Nobel Peace Prize winner, has announced that he is going to the front to fight the rebels and has called on citizens to resist. An appeal publicly received by Haile Gebrselassie – sports legend, one of the greatest middle distance runners and marathon runners in history – who declared that “he will defend his homeland from internal and external enemies” and is ready to go to the front. The two-gold medal winner accused the United States and its allies of meddling in Ethiopian internal affairs by escalating their “undue pressure” and described the alleged Western intervention in the conflict as a “wake-up call” for all to resist neo-colonialism. The Prime Minister’s appeal was also welcomed by Feyisa Lilesa, another marathon runner who from the podium in Rio 2016 denounced the abuses suffered by his Oromo ethnic group at the hands of the Government, then under the leadership of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Tigray.
Five years have passed, the roles have reversed but the future of Ethiopia could resemble its more recent past. “The time has come to lead the country with sacrifice,” Abiy Ahmed announced on his Twitter profile sharing a long statement. The Deputy Prime Minister, Demeke Mekonnen Hassen, will take his place for the entire period of his absence and will take care of ordinary tasks. The premier’s announcement was released as the TPLF rebels claimed the conquest of the town of Shewa Robit, just two hundred and twenty kilometers from the capital Addis Ababa. Abiy’s words, however, can be read in different ways. “He has announced that he will go to the front, but in reality not everyone believes it,” Tiziana Corda, researcher at the Network for the Advancement of Social and Political Studies (NASP) at the University of Milan, explains to Huffpost. “We have to see if and how it will go”, given that “we are not talking about a soldier”.
Rather, the appeal would seem “an incentive for people to go and fight”. Not surprisingly, the Ethiopian prime minister has called together “those who want to be among those children of Ethiopia who will be glorified by history” to follow him to the front. Many would be ready to leave, but the risk is that there is a massacre. “There is a misunderstanding at the base,” continues Dr. Corda. Missing is a strategy, without which the rebels are able to break through more easily than on other fronts where the situation is under control. As on the eastern front, where federal forces are making it difficult for TDF and OLA troops to cross the Afar regional borders.
However, it is not only the lines of defense that open up, but also the internal fractures. Some of the government’s allies “accuse Abiy of not doing enough”. Professor Kjetil Tronvoll, a researcher of studies on peace and conflicts, with particular attention to the countries of the Horn of Africa, seems to be on the same wavelength. For him, Abiy’s move looks a lot like “a sign of despair, a gamble. In the sense: will people follow him? We still don’t know ”.
The situation is dramatic. The US embassy has warned of the possibility of terrorist attacks and strengthened the military contingent in Djibouti, ready to lend a hand if the situation escalates. The warning to his fellow citizens is clear: “Don’t wait for the situation to get worse to decide to leave. Leave before things change ”. The UN is also in the process of evacuating the families of the staff involved in Ethiopia. But it is all Western governments that are concerned and are urging their own population to leave the country “without delay”, as requested by France. In fact, the appeals from the United States and Great Britain were joined by those from Paris, Berlin and Rome. “Due to the fluidity of the situation and the possible worsening”, we read on the Viaggiare Sicuri portal of the Farnesina, “we strongly advise against going to Ethiopia”. Those already present, however, are “suggested to use the commercial flights available to leave the state”. According to local reconstructions, many Turkish citizens are also participating in the flight.
The unpredictability of the events cited by the Foreign Ministry opens up a further analysis on the Ethiopian situation. If a year ago the government dismissed the Tigrinya rebellion as a simple police operation, now the stakes are so high that we have come to talk of an “existential war”. “This conflict has accustomed us to sudden changes of face,” recalls the NASP researcher. “Until June, the government seemed to be in control, then the Tigray offensive suggested a capitulation. In October, ”he continues,“ Addis Ababa seemed lost ”but an advance of federal troops had allowed the government to regain ground. Even now, the speed with which the Tigrinya rebels of the TDF and OLA have conquered the cities and are approaching the capital suggests a foregone conclusion of the war that, almost certainly, will not come through a handshake. “The diplomatic negotiation is going on but, after Abiy’s declaration to go to the front, everything goes up in the air”.
Jeffrey Feltman, the United States’ special envoy for the Horn of Africa, once back in Washington confirmed the increase in military operations. “There is some breakthrough in trying to shift the parties from a military confrontation to a negotiation process,” he told reporters. However, concern is a must, given that “this fragile progress risks being overtaken by alarming developments on the ground that threaten the overall stability and unity of Ethiopia”. Feltman has somehow tried to look positively at the talks the United States is having with both sides. His optimism, however, does not seem to characterize the spirit of those directly involved. Above all that of the government, which has blamed Western countries for favoring the rebels, underlining the interference in internal affairs by the international community. The foreign press has also been singled out as a servant of the “interests of the enemy forces”. The opposition, on the other hand, remains steadfast in calling for an end to the blockade in the Tigray region, which is leading to starvation of millions of people, and for Abiy’s resignation.
“As long as both sides believe they can win, the diplomatic channel appears very far away,” says Testa. To start serious discussions, we will have to wait for one of the two sides to get the better of the other, should this happen. “With the capture of these last cities it would seem that the rebels have regained vigor, but the closer they get to the capital, the harder the battle becomes. A massacre is feared. We must then understand what they will do once they arrive in Addis Ababa, if they ever get there. At the moment, no one accepts the other party. The project of a united Ethiopia will thus vanish, because the civil war has led to an insurmountable hatred among the Amara and Tigrinians ”.
Furthermore, Prime Minister Abiy’s decision clashes once again with the Nobel Peace Prize he was awarded only two years ago for his role in pacification with Eritrea, the terms of which have never been made public. TPLF spokesman Getachew Reda denounced on social networks the drift of the prime minister, whose “imitation of Ethiopian emperors in wartime has assumed an all too palpable schizophrenic tone. He has vowed to join forces on the battlefield in the honorable tradition of his “glorious predecessors”. Also of the same opinion the former US diplomat William Lawrence, who went hard against Abiy, “a Nobel Peace Prize winner who uses bellicose language to try to increase the stakes before the defense not only of Ethiopia, but of life and death “. Even Awol Allo, the law professor at Keele University in the UK who nominated him for the Prize, was surprised by the tones – “inherent in martyrdom and sacrifice” – used by the Ethiopian prime minister.
The doubts regarding his real descent on the battlefield are strong, therefore, and the possibility that there is something else behind this decision must not be excluded. “It could be a move to escape,” confirms Dr. Testa. On the other hand, “nobody really knows where he is and since he is no longer traceable by the media, he can easily escape. It is also true that many analysts are monitoring the situation and, should they ever notice the presidential plane in flight, the news would spread ”.
Nothing is excluded, therefore. Especially in an ever-changing situation. What is certain is that “there will be a change”, as the Defense Minister, Abraham Belay has guaranteed. “What has happened and what is happening to our people, the abuses that are being inflicted by this group of thieves and terrorists, cannot continue.” But the move by the prime minister has decided to abandon the institutional robes to wear military ones away from the diplomatic solution to give voice to weapons, with serious risks of destabilization for Ethiopia and for the area of the Horn of Africa.