The tide of Ethiopia's bloody war has turned. An offensive into the Tigrayan region that a year ago was described by prime minister Abiy Ahmed as largely a police operation against terrorists which would "wrap up soon" has become a defensive war threatening Abiy's own rule as rebels close on the capital, Addis Ababa.
The Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), which recaptured its regional capital Mekelle from federal troops in June, has now linked up nine opposition rebel groups to form an armed "United Front", a political alliance aimed at establishing a transitional government.
The UN and humanitarian groups report that hundreds of thousands now face famine-like conditions and millions have been displaced in brutal fighting in which there have been widespread reports of civilian massacres, sexual violence and indiscriminate shelling on both sides. Both are also accused of using food supplies as a weapon of war.
Tigrayans, who dominated power for 27 years until 2018, were gradually purged from the government, army and security services after Abiy took office that year. The group’s oppressive record has meant it is deeply distrusted by the 21-million strong Amhara community south of Tigray, and the latter’s militias fought alongside government and thousands of Eritrean troops in Abiy’s Tigray offensive. The country’s two largest ethnic groups, the Oromo and Amhara, make up more than 60 per cent of the population, while Tigrayans, are six to seven per cent
The battle for power in Addis will be hard-fought with a real prospect of the country facing a prolonged, bloody civil war. Efforts by the US, which has cut aid, and the African Union to broker talks have been unsuccessful. Emboldened by advances, Tigrayan generals seem less willing than ever to call a halt, while Abiy enjoins supporters to give up their lives for Ethiopia and uses sweeping new powers to detain opponents.
The UN Security Council, which met yesterday on the crisis, must move rapidly to enforce an arms embargo on all sides.