The Tigray war takes a sharp turn

4 July, 2021

Tiger War. Captived Ethiopian soldiers are led to Mekele.
Tiger War. Captived Ethiopian soldiers are led to Mekele.

The Ethiopian army, reinforced by Amhara militias and Eritrean and Somali troops has been driven out of the Tigrayan capital, Mekelle. The Tigray war has been turned on its head as the unstable imperialist balances between Arab countries and the U.S. have shifted against the government in Addis Ababa. And despite the announcements, the Tigray war is not over yet, although it has already left mass killings, ethnic cleansing with tens of thousands of dead, crimes against humanity, famine and destruction. At issue now are the future of Ethiopia and the fear of an extension of the war to other regions of the country.

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A u-turn in the Tigray war

Thousands of prisoners of the Ethiopian and Eritrean armies parade yesterday defeated through the streets of Mekelle, in a turnaround of the war in the Tigray
Thousands of prisoners of the Ethiopian and Eritrean armies parade yesterday defeated through the streets of Mekelle, in a turnaround of the Tigray war.

After over eight months of war, the combined forces of the Ethiopian army, Amhara militias and the Eritrean army have been expelled from the Tigrayan capital of Mekelle. In the course of a disorderly retreat, thousands of soldiers were captured by local forces and paraded as prisoners through the city in what appears to be a ceremony designed to politically weaken Ethiopian Prime Minister, Nobel Peace Prize winner and champion of Tigray war, Abiy Ahmed.

Shortly before, in the midst of the fighting, the Ethiopian government tried to save face with a unilateral cease-fire that has been described by Tigray’s leaders as a joke in bad taste given the UN’s requests to join it. As of today the Tigrayan government’s position is to recapture all of its territory and then negotiate its fit into a new Ethiopian order or independence.

So far there have been months of killings and murders, provoked famine as a form of ethnic cleansing, war crimes, deliberate destruction of hospitals,bombings of civilian populations and shelling of civilians. What is to come is not to be celebrated either. Open and conscious barbarism is followed by famine, epidemics and a devastated productive fabric.

Where did the Tigray war originate from

Read our article: A Bit of History to Understand Ethiopia's Tigray War

The Tigray war and the disarticulation of the Ethiopian state

Refugees from the Tigray war
Refugees from the Tigray war

The long-running Ethiopian crisis is a powder keg that threatens not only the spread of war in the Horn of Africa, but also the imperialist balances of the entire Middle East. The rise of Abiy Ahmed and the so-called Ethiopian miracle were merely the result of a billion-dollar bid by the Emirates and Saudi Arabia to seize control of the region by propping up one of the competing factions in the Ethiopian ruling class, in the hope that the arrival of massive investments would heal the major power fractures and lessen the centrifugal forces pulling the central power apart from the regions.

The Tigray war was, in principle, the proof that the internal contradictions of the Ethiopian ruling classes ran much deeper. But no sooner had the war broken out than the specter of a much wider imperialist conflagration was present.

For starters, Ethiopia and Sudan have been waging a long-running diplomatic conflict – always on the brink of war – with Ethiopia on account of the Renaissance Dam.

No sooner had the invasion begun when Ethiopia called in the army from the neighboring Amhara region. Among other barbarities, Amhara troops pursued Tigrayan refugees by killing them in the camps, while Eritrean troops did the same to Eritrean refugees living in camps in Tigray. The viciousness of both armies, which claimed an estimated 20,000 lives, did not stop at the border with Sudan… resulting in a border war between the Amhara and Sudanese armies.

The brutality of the massacre opened the floodgate for a series of racist crimes against Amhara neighbors in Benishangul-Gumuz, the neighboring region… where the Renaissance Dam is located… which ended up being occupied by Amhara troops without criticism from the central state, too busy suppressing the nationalist uprisings in Oromia, the largest region of the country, who see in the situation the opportunity to definitively dynamite the Ethiopian union.

Imperialist intervention in the Tigray war

Renaissance Dam, one of the keys to the evolution of the Tigray War
Renaissance Dam, one of the keys to the evolution of the Tigray War

External imperialisms have been on the front line since the beginning of Tigray war. In November, the Ethiopian offensive quickly reached Mekelle, dismantling the resistance of Tigray’s army thanks to Emirati drones, according to the latter.

Egypt initially distanced itself. Its main fear was that a rapid collapse of Ethiopia would generate a situation in which Al-Shabaab, the Islamic State or another jihadist group would try to create a front of its own. His initial gamble was to take advantage of the international cost of the crisis to Abiy Ahmed and try to leverage leverage in the negotiations over the Renaissance Dam.

But the first two rounds were unsuccessful. And the Amhara military intervention proved to be a source of concern to them. From the Egyptian and Sudanese point of view, for an Ethiopian regional government to invade the dam region and take effective control of it is tantamount to losing all hope for a negotiated solution. Since the Ethiopian central government can hardly be held accountable at this point for its regions.

With spirits increasingly running high among Egyptian farmers and with the official Cairo press pondering the possibilities of military action, the second dam-filling operation by Ethiopia amounted to a pre-war escalation. Sisi, instead, called for patience, organized an alternative water source strategy and put in place water rationing. Not because he had a principled position against the war, but because, strengthened in his relationship with the US by the Gaza crisis, he was unwilling to risk Egyptian global imperialist interests by bombing the dam in a unilateral action. His strategy was more sophisticated.

Sisi’s aim was above all to stop the Emirates… but the emirs were not convinced at the first attempt. Sisi then managed to get South Africa to jump on the negotiated exit without unilateral action bandwagon, as well as Djibouti, Tanzania, Qatar, South Sudan and others…. gaining a critical mass in East Africa and in the OAU (Organization of the African Union), but also stirring the European Union to lobby in order to avoid a war that could dynamite all regional balances from Mozambique to the Caucasus.

With those endorsements, the next step was to involve the U.S. in the dam negotiations. But Ethiopia flatly refused, maneuvering to have its main sponsor, the Emirates, put itself forward as an alternative. So Sisi played the Tigray danger card to the hilt in front of Washington. And Blinken sent a first signal by singling out the Ethiopian government as responsible for acts of ethnic cleansing and receiving the patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (who is part of the Tigrayan establishment). With no forthcoming response in Addis Ababa, the U.S. raised the tone by imposing sanctions. Within days Biden called for a ceasefire.

Biden’s direct involvement meant that not only the Ethiopian government, but the Emirates itself was in trouble with Washington. The almost immediate response was to dismantle the military base held by the Emirates in Eritrea. No base, no more drones. And without that support, the correlation of forces could no longer be the same. The withdrawal of Emirati military and financial aid has been the key to this week’s Ethiopian-Eritrean defeat.

Imperialist interests decant the Tigray war… but do not bring peace

Debretsion Gebremichael, TPLF leader and Tigray war strategist
Debretsion Gebremichael, TPLF leader and Tigray war strategist

But although the imperialist game has turned the tables between sides, it will not bring peace. Today the Mekelle government, formed by leaders of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, has set its first conditions for a negotiation with Addis Ababa: withdrawal of Ethiopian and Amhara troops from all territory in the region, international investigation into war crimes, recognition of the TPLF government and a commitment not to re-invade. But almost all media and analysts agree that we are only facing a phase change not an end to the fighting.

However, the TPLF’s main advantage today is not military, but political. When Debretsion Gebremichael does not rule out a declaration of independence in his New York Times interview he is sending a message to the new arbiter of the situation, the US. He knows that a declaration of independence could be the trigger for Ethiopia’s final explosion at a time when Oromia, the main region of the country, is already escaping from the control of the central power and creating a separate state apparatus parallel to the official one.

That outburst would not be peaceful or brief. It cannot be so when Saudi Arabia and the Emirates would see their big investments of recent years ruined. Most likely, the situation we have now seen in Tigray would escalate to the size of a country of 112 million people.

Also an accelerated collapse of Ethiopia would not only extend the war within the country. The government of what is left of Somalia depends on the Ethiopian military to keep it from disappearing at the hands of the jihadist group Al Shabaab, which already controls half the country and has carried out attacks in Kenya and trained some of the jihadist leaders who control northern Mozambique. If there is an Ethiopian war, the Somali disaster will enter a new and bloody phase in which a new U.S. intervention cannot be ruled out.

This being the case, it is likely that the alignments between imperialist powers will change again… and that other regional and global powers will be attracted by the opportunity for carrion. And the half a million starving and tens of thousands dead will be joined by hundreds of thousands more.

The prospect is dire. But not insurmountable. What we are seeing unfold in Ethiopia is not a distant problem, radically different from the reality of the crisis in the countries of the other continents. It is an expression of the same crisis, the same anti-human system and the same ruling class capable of sacrificing millions to keep accumulation going. The universal struggle against a system long since global, is the only hope…not just in the Horn of Africa.