npr– A year after civil war erupted between the Ethiopian government and its Eritrean and ethnic militia allies on one side, and soldiers hailing from the northern region of Tigray on the other, a once-unlikely scenario looks like a real possibility: the rebels could topple the government.
This past week, Ethiopia declared a state of emergency amid fears that soldiers from the armed wing of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, or TPLF, would march through the streets of the capital, Addis Ababa. The federal armed forces have appealed to retired soldiers and veterans to rejoin the military. And they have asked residents of Addis Ababa to join the war effort with whatever weapons they have.
The TPLF, supported by the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) — a rebel group from Ethiopia’s Oromia region — are a bit more than 200 miles from the capital, but it could still take days or weeks of fighting across mountainous and hostile terrain for them to close the distance, the latest reports from inside the country suggest.
Saturday the U.S. State Department ordered “non-emergency U.S. government employees and their family members” to leave Ethiopia. The White House has declared the situation in Ethiopia “an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States,” and the U.S. special envoy for the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, arrived in Addis Ababa on Thursday to push for cease-fire talks.
Neighboring Kenya issued a plea to end what it calls a “nationwide social convulsion.” China and Russia, who had been reluctant to weigh in on the conflict, joined a U.N. Security Council statement calling for an “end to hostilities.”
On Friday, the TPLF and OLA signed an alliance with seven other rebel groups. “Definitely we will have a change in Ethiopia before Ethiopia implodes,” Berhane Gebrechristos, a former foreign minister and Tigray official, told reporters at a signing ceremony in Washington, D.C.
For Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, it has been a sharp turn of events. He’s gone from freshly minted Nobel Peace Prize laureate to international outcast in less than two years. Abiy now faces grim prospects: continue a war that could easily spill into the densely populated capital, a defeat at the hands of a renegade army or a negotiated settlement that would severely weaken his position.
Before the prime minister came to power in 2018, the TPLF ruled Ethiopia for more than a quarter century and waged two intensely bloody wars: a 15-year conflict that toppled a communist military dictatorship and saw the country’s Eritrean region win independence, and years later a much shorter but brutal border conflict with the newly formed country.
One of Abiy’s first moves was to extend an olive branch to his Eritrean counterpart, President Isaias Afwerki, an overture that led to the Ethiopian leader receiving the Peace Prize in 2019.
But there remains “a lot of bad blood” between Eritrea and the Tigrayans, says Michelle Gavin, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. She says there’s “a lot of historical grievance coming from the Eritrean elite and [aimed] very specifically at the TPLF from that era,” adding that the Eritreans still nurse a “sense of betrayal” over the years of violence.