Ethiopia’s federal government has declared war on its northern region of Tigray, leading to fears of a protracted conflict in Africa’s second-most populous country. The Tigray region is one of 10 semi-autonomous federal states organised along ethnic lines in Ethiopia, and home mostly to the Tigrayan people who make up about 6 percent of Ethiopia’s population of more than 110 million. Tigrayans have long been a centre of power and influence, controlling the country’s government for three decades.

TIGRAY AND ERITREA HISTORY

In 1975, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) launched a protracted war against the Derg military government in Addis Ababa, which they eventually toppled in 1991. The TPLF then dominated the ruling alliance composed of four ethno-regional parties, until Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, a member of the Oromo ethnic group, came to power in 2018.

The other parties in the coalition were: the Oromo Peoples Democratic Organization, the Amhara National Democratic Movement, and the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement. Tigray’s battle-hardened, powerful military also took the lead in Ethiopia’s war against neighbouring Eritrea that raged from 1998 to 2000 over disputed border territory.

The war was only declared officially over in 2018 in a peacemaking effort by Abiy, which won him the Nobel Peace Prize. but despite their improvement in relations with Addis Ababa, Asmara continues to remain hostile to Tigrayans and their leaders because of the war.

RECENT ACTIVITY

When Ethiopia’s domestic conflict began earlier this month, observers had feared that it would spill outside the country’s borders and have ramifications in the Horn of Africa region at large. Now with the involvement of neighbouring Eritrea earlier this week, it appears that these concerns were not unfounded, The conflict escalated this week when Tigrayan forces in northern Ethiopia fired rockets across the border into Eritrea, claiming that the Ethiopian government was using an Eritrean airport to attack Tigray.

On Saturday night, there were reports of rockets landing near the airport in Asmara, Eritrea’s capital, but there were no casualties. According to a BBC report, Tigrayan leader Debretsion Gebremichael had said that over the past few days, his forces have been fighting 16 divisions of the Eritrean army. Tigrayan leaders have also accused Eritrean forces of entering Ethiopia to support the federal government in its fight against Tigray. These accusations were denied by Ethiopia’s prime minister Abiy Ahmed who stated in a tweet on Sunday that Ethiopia was more than capable of achieving its objectives in Tigray “by itself”. The leader did not specifically address Debretsion’s claims or mentioned Eritrea.

IS THIS END?

Ethiopia said its forces are marching on Tigray’s capital Mekelle after making major military gains, and accused Tigrayans of destroying bridges en route to the city. The Tigrayans say they are defending the town of Alamata, which lies on the road north to Mekelle. In a Facebook post, Mr Abiy said the operation by the federal forces was nearing a conclusion. “The final critical act of law enforcement will be done in the coming days,” the prime minister said. He thanked TPLF fighters who, he said, had taken advantage of the deadline to switch sides but he did not give a number. and Mr Abiy added that his government was “ready to receive and reintegrate our fellow Ethiopians fleeing to neighbouring countries”.

Meanwhile, TPLF adviser Fesseha Tessema, a former Ethiopian diplomat, said that civilian sites in Mekelle were being bombed by federal forces according to a BBC article”[The people of Tigray] haven’t done anything wrong, they are in their own homes, churches,” The federal government has denied targeting civilians and said that air attacks are aimed at the Tigrayan military.

HUMANITARIAN CRISIS

The UN’s refugee agency, the UNHCR, has said that “a full-scale humanitarian crisis is unfolding” and thousands have been fleeing the fighting. The agency was “on stand-by to provide assistance in Tigray when access and security allow” spokesman Babar Baloch said in an article.

There have been reports of blocked roads, with internet and communication lines being cut off in Ethiopia. Prior to the start of this conflict, there were already several thousand civilians who were internally displaced in Tigray, in what researchers say was an aftermath of the Ethiopia-Eritrea war. Now, this latest conflict has only increased the number of displaced people and may lead to a humanitarian crisis.

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