Ethiopian rebels target Eritrea: Here’s what’s going on

Saturday’s missile strike by Ethiopia’s Tigray rebels is a sign that a conflict is brewing between the country’s ethnic minority, who once dominated the national government, and the current government of Nobel Peace Prize winning Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.

“We will fight them (Eriteria) on all fronts with whatever means we have,” Debretsion Gebremichael, the leader of the Tigray region, told AP, and asserted that around 16 Eritrean divisions are fighting in what he termed a “full-scale war”.

Who is Aiby Ahmed?

Aiby Ahmed, the son of a Christian mother and a Muslim father, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for his role as a mediator in the conflict with Eritrea, and in the regional conflict between the neighbouring nations of Sudan, South Sudan, Djibouti, Kenya and Somalia.

The conflict comes at a time Ahmed is already battling on several fronts: Ethiopia is engaged in a stand-off with Egypt over a hydroelectric dam in the Nile, the country is fighting a debt-laden economy and a raging Covid-19 pandemic, and people of Ahmed’s Oromo tribe are growing dissatisfied with the lack of progress despite his many promises.

Why did the federal government launch airstrikes on the Tigray region?

Tigray is the northernmost region of Ethiopia, and home to the Tigrayan people, a politically affluent group, who account for only 6% of the country’s total population.The Tigrayans enjoyed unrestricted access to power in the federal government until the current Prime Minister took office.

After fighting the military dictatorship that ruled Ethiopia in the 1970s and 1980s, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), emerged as the leader of the coalition, known as the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, that took power in Ethiopia in 1991. The coalition also consisted of four other parties and was divided along ethnic lines.

Anti-government protests against the Democratic Font catapulted Aiby, who belongs to the Oromo ethnic group, to the Prime Minister’s office. Soon, Tigrayan officials were excommunicated from positions of power and Aiby pushed for a national integration under the federal government by reducing autonomy of regional players. This became a bone of contention between the two parties.

A year ago, the TPLF withdrew from the ruling coalition after Abiy merged it with the nationwide Prosperity Party. The feud intensified after the TPLF decided to hold its own elections in September, defying the government’s orders of postponing polls due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Ethiopian lawmakers voted to cut funding to the region in October, a move that further enraged Tigray leaders.

Following this, Tigray leaders announced the “closure” of their airspace, restricted road movement in the region, and declared that soldiers from the Northern Command of the Ethiopian military had defected and sided with the Tigray people, which the federal government has declared to be untrue.

The Ethiopian government declared the regional Tigray government unlawful and TPLF retaliated by announcing it does not recognize Aiby’s administration anymore. In the final act which the International Crisis Group termed a “sudden and predictable” descent into conflict, Aiby announced on November 4 that TPLF had forced a military confrontation by attacking a federal military base in Tigray.

The TPLF, in response, has called this a “deliberate concoction” by Aiby’s administration to justify their deployment of armed forces to the northern region.

Experts fear a full-blown war between the federal forces and the TPLF, many of whom have fought in the Ethiopian-Eritrean war between 1998 and 2000, would cause serious unrest in the fragile Horn of Africa, impacting neighbours Somalia, Djibouti, Eritrea, and Sudan.

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