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Ethiopias military offensive in Tigray accompanied by atrocities and internal repression

Source: IPIS Research Briefing | Arms Trade Bulletin November – December 2020

On 4 November 2020 the Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF) launched a military offensive against the Tigray regional government. Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed dubbed it a “law enforcement operation” reportedly “to restore the rule of law and the constitutional order”. The military intervention by the ENDF was a retaliation for an alleged surprise attack by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), in the early morning of November 4, against the ENDF’s Northern Command bases in Tigray. The federal government declared a six-month state of emergency in Tigray, blocking all internet, mobile and landline communications, claiming “illegal and violent activities” were threatening the country’s sovereignty.

Internal Repression and Possible War Crimes

Meanwhile the Ethiopian News Agency announced that the House of People’s Representatives had lifted the immunity of 39 members of the House, including the President of Tigray Regional State. On 7 November police arrested two journalists. One of the editors of the Addis Standard was accused of “attempts to dismantle the constitution through violence,” and “outrage against the constitution”, while journalist Bekalu Alamirew of online Awlo Media was accused of “interviewing Tigray region officials, producing reports undermining the government, producing articles in order to defame the government and undermine its credibility in collaboration with foreign forces, producing articles photographs aimed at inciting inter-communal violence, and inciting a civil war”. Several days later the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission reported the arrest of 4 more journalists.

In the days that followed calls for dialogue were dismissed by the Prime Minister. Air strikes continued to hit Tigray. Reports of possible war crimes emerged from the region. One of which took place in Mai Kadra. Two alternative accounts have been presented for the Mai Kadra massacre. One blamed a local militia linked to the TPLF, others blame Amhara militia with assistance from the ENDF. The Ethiopian army and the regional Amhara “Fano” militia have allegedly killed civilians and looted the hospital, banks, businesses, supermarkets and private houses while reportedly taking control of Humera. Tens of thousands Tigrayans fled to Sudan. The Ethiopian army chief of staff alleged that the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), who is Tigrayan and a member of the TPLF, had attempted to obtain weapons for the TPLF. This strongly denied by the WHO Director-General.

An internal U.N. security report seen by Reuters alleged that Ethiopian police visited a World Food Programme office in Amhara region to request a list of ethnic Tigrayan staff. Ethnic profiling of Tigrayans seems to have begun before the recent conflict. The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission said it was “gravely concerned” at reports of ethnic profiling of Tigrayans, “most notably manifested in forced leave from work and in stopping people from travelling overseas including on work missions, for medical treatment or studies”. According to William Davison, an analyst at the International Crisis Group, “the ethnic profiling demonstrates that despite the government’s stated intention to target only the TPLF leadership, this conflict is also having a much broader negative impact on Tigrayans outside of Tigray”.

The Tigrayan regional government accused Eritrea of attacking Tigray’s northern border. This was strongly denied by both the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments. But when Hitsats Refugee Camp was captured by troops fighting for the Ethiopian government on 21 November, witnesses claimed that the armed men who entered the camp were Eritrean. The New York Times was told by aid workers that the Eritrean soldiers looted aid materials and vehicles, and burnt crops. Meanwhile multiple witnesses in Humera had told AFP that during the battle for Humera they witnessed mortar bombs coming from the direction of Eritrea. In December the U.S. government cited satellite images, intercepted communications and anecdotal reports from Tigray region as evidence of Eritrean involvement.

“There Will Be No Mercy”

On 22 November the Ethiopian forces had reached Mekelle, the capital of Tigray. Earlier the ENDF warned Mekelle’s 500,000 residents that the army would “encircle” the city and attack it with artillery fire. “There will be no mercy,” a spokesman reportedly said. On 28 November PM Abiy Ahmed announced the fall of Mekelle.

On 8 December the Ethiopian government admitted that federal troops had fired at and detained United Nations workers, proclaiming it did not need a “baby-sitter”. In Geneva U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet reported that her office had received substantiated reports of human rights violations: “We have corroborated information of gross human rights violations and abuses – including indiscriminate attacks against civilians and civilian objects, looting, abductions and sexual violence against women and girls. There are reports of forced recruitment of Tigrayan youth to fight against their own communities”.

Meanwhile the Tigray regional state interim administration, installed on 7 November by the House of Federation of Ethiopia, cautioned residents of Mekelle to hand over their firearms to federal forces until December 15. It was claimed that there would be a door-to-door search and whoever was found with firearms would be held accountable. Eritrean troops in Mariam Dengelat reportedly killed 37 civilians. Ethiopian ENDF soldiers reportedly shot at unarmed civilians, and looting by Amhara militia was reported.

The UNHCR has reported the displacement of millions. Tension along the Sudan-Ethiopia border has risen due to clashes between Sudanese and Ethiopian forces.

Prelude

Ethiopia is a federation of regional ethnic states, and constitutionally large autonomy is granted to the regions. Until 2018 all regional governments were linked directly or indirectly to the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), an alliance of four regional parties [the Oromo Democratic Party (ODP), the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM) and the Amhara Democratic Party (ADP)], which used to govern Ethiopia. The TPLF was the dominant force until being displaced by an alliance of the two largest Ethiopian ethnicities, the Oromo and the Amhara.

Shortly after becoming Prime Minister in April 2018 Abiy Ahmed had begun to accuse the TPLF of trying to destabilise the country. In the media the TPLF were scapegoated for all the wrongs in the country. Which led to complaints from Tigrayans that they are persecuted in a crackdown on corruption and past abuses. “It has become fashionable to blame TPLF for everything that goes wrong in the country,” said a TPLF spokesperson. In November 2019 three of the four regional parties under direction of Abiy, with the exception of the TPLF, merged into a single national party – the Prosperity Party. The 2020 elections were postponed by the Ethiopian government, due to covid-19. The TPLF saw this as a means for the PM to hold on to power, and declared to hold elections anyway. The Ethiopian government ruled the Tigray government was unlawful and in return Tigray said it no longer recognised Abiy’s administration.

According to the United Nations Comtrade database the major exporters of armaments to Ethiopia in the last decade have been Slovakia, Israel, India, Sudan and Russia.

Exports arms and ammunition to Ethiopia 2010-2019

Country

Value (usd)

Description

India

3.9 million

Various munitions

Israel

4.8 million

Civilian firearms, various munitions

Russia

22.4 million

Various munitions

Slovakia

8.4 million

Armoured vehicles, various munitions

Sudan

4.5 million

Military weapons, various munitions

Source: Comtrade HS 87.10 & HS 93

The United Nations Register of Conventional Arms adds Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary and Ukraine to that list. In August 2020 trade publication Janes published that Turkish armoured vehicles worth USD20.7 million had been offloaded in Djibouti with likely end destination Ethiopia.

United Nations Register of Conventional Arms, exports to Ethiopia 2010-2019

Year

Exporter

Item

Quantity

2010 Russia Attack Helicopter

8

2012 Ukraine Main battle tank (T-72)

99

2012 Bulgaria Large calibre artillery system (122mm howitzer)

64

2012 Czech Rep. Large calibre artillery system

64

2013 Bulgaria Combat aircraft (MiG-23)

12

2013 Hungary Attack Helicopter (Mi-24)

12

2019 Czech Rep. Small arms

7,742

Peter Danssaert

Further Reading

The secret war in TigrayEthiopia Insight, 23 December 2020.

Did Ethiopia’s attack on Tigray violate international laws?The Conversation, 9 December 2020.

Instant Non-international Armed Conflict? Classifying the situation in Northern Ethiopia under IHLArmed Groups and International Law, 9 December 2020.

Five reasons why Ethiopia ended up at war, Ethiopia Insight, 1 December 2020.

Ethiopia’s Tigray Crisis: Escalating Violence and Mass Displacement Threaten Ethiopian and Regional SecurityJust Security, 25 November 2020.

Teflon TPLF, Ethiopia Insight, 12 December 2019.

The Republic of Tigray?Ethiopia Insight, 28 September 2019.

Is Tigray really a drop in the bucket for Abiy’s administration?Ethiopia Insight, 17 January 2019.