ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (AP) – Ethiopia’s prime minister on Wednesday ordered the military to confront one of the country’s regional governments after he said it attacked a military base overnight, citing months of “provocation and incitement” and declaring that “the last red line has been crossed.”
The statement by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s office, and the reported attack by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, immediately raised concerns that one of Africa’s most populous and powerful countries could plunge back into war.
Ethiopia already was under the stress of a dispute with Egypt over a massive Ethiopian dam project that has drawn rare attention by President Donald Trump to Africa, and a multi-layer crisis is unfolding with the COVID-19 pandemic, deadly ethnic violence and a locust outbreak.
The TPLF had been a major part of Ethiopia’s governing coalition before Abiy took office in 2018 and announced sweeping political reforms that won him the Nobel Peace Prize last year. Those reforms, however, have opened space for old ethnic and other grievances.
There was no immediate word from the TPLF, and all internet and phone lines were cut in the northern Tigray region following the announcement. On Sunday, a senior TPLF official, Getachew Reda, told The Associated Press his side will not accept a negotiation with the federal government.
“What we need now is a national dialogue, not a negotiation,” he said, adding that efforts by outside bodies are not bearing fruit so far. The TPLF says the release of detained former officials is one precondition to open talks.
The TPLF has shown increasing signs of discontent, and in September people in Tigray voted in a local election, defying the federal government and increasing political tensions. Tigray officials warned at the time that an intervention by the federal government would amount to a “declaration of war.”
Tigray officials have objected to the postponement of Ethiopia’s national election, once set for August, because of the coronavirus pandemic and the extension of Abiy’s time in office.
Abiy’s statement asserted that the TPLF attacked a military base in Tigray in the early hours Wednesday and attempted to take artillery and other equipment. The statement accused the TPLF of arming and organizing irregular militias in the past few weeks.
The attack “has been premised on TPLF viewing the Ethiopian National Defence Forces as a foreign army,” the statement said. It did not mention any casualties.
After months of “extreme patience” by the federal government, “a war however cannot be prevented only on the goodwill and decision of one side,“ the prime minister’s statement said. ”The last red line has been crossed with this morning’s attacks and the federal government is therefore forced into a military confrontation.”
Observers have worried for months about the growing tensions and their implications for the long-turbulent Horn of Africa region, where Abiy cast himself as a peacemaker shortly after taking office.
A new report by former U.S. diplomats and military officials, issued last month by the United States Institute of Peace, said the fragmentation of Ethiopia “would be the largest state collapse in modern history, likely leading to mass interethnic and interreligious conflict … and a humanitarian and security crisis at the crossroads of Africa and the Middle East on a scale that would overshadow the existing conflicts in South Sudan, Sudan, Somalia, and Yemen.”