‘Starving Tigray is Abiy’s new strategy’

English translation of the article published on Knack (Belgium): https://www.knack.be/nieuws/magazine/tigray-uithongeren-is-de-nieuwe-strategie-van-abiy/article-normal-1754189.html

The Ethiopian army was driven out of Tigray. Or has it withdrawn for humanitarian reasons, as Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed claims?

Eight months ago, a civil war broke out in the Ethiopian state of Tigray, accompanied by massacres, mass rapes, refugee flows and famine. The Ethiopian army managed to drive the local power party TPLF and its troops out of the capital Mekelle and seemed to have the situation under control.

But last week it was revealed that the Tigray Defence Forces (TDF) had recaptured Mekelle, and that government forces had fled Tigray. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed spoke of a strategic withdrawal for humanitarian reasons: a unilateral ceasefire so that farmers can farm their fields. Implausible, according to Professor Jan Nyssen from Ghent, who has lived in Tigray for a long time and is following up on the humanitarian emergency.

Starving Tigray is Abiy's new strategy
FOOD DISTRIBUTION IN TIGRAY “The call for independence is strong,” © GETTY IMAGES

‘Abiy spoke very different language at a press conference. He patted himself on the chest for putting Ethiopia’s most developed state 20 years back in time. And he announced a new strategy: we’re going to starve Tigray. That is exactly what is happening: all food aid is being blocked, an important bridge over the Tekeze River has been destroyed. Still, it remains to be seen whether Abiy’s supporters believe that explanation, because it is indeed an ignominious defeat. The regional government of Tigray crows victory and the people want to declare independence.’

How unexpected is this turnaround?

Jan Nyssen: The rapid fall of Mekelle surprised me, but the advance of the TDF had been going on for weeks. The resistance has recruited and trained many young people in recent months. Passive waiting was not an option, young people risked murder and rape. It also shows the weakness of the Ethiopian army, which had mainly deployed inexperienced soldiers in Tigray. After all, Abiy has other cats to flogg: there are armed uprisings in Oromia, the Ethiopian Somali region and in Benishangul-Gumuz. In addition, a lot of military capacity was deployed for the elections at the end of May.

Has Eritrea, as a former bitter enemy of Ethiopia a noted ally of Abiy, also withdrawn?

Nyssen: They were driven out of Mekelle and even from Adigrat, a large city near the border where they had already started handing out Eritrean identity cards. There are indications that Eritrea has erected a line of defence behind the border against a possible attack by the Tigrayan army. The chances of war have been reversed.

How realistic is an independent Tigray?

Nyssen: Much depends on the recapture of West Tigray, a sparsely populated region that forms the link with Sudan. During the occupation, all ethnic Tigrayans were purged, so the region is now in the hands of Amhara militias. Without access to Sudan, Abiy can realise his threat and starve Tigray. But Tigray has assets like the power supply through the Tekeze dam. The call for independence is very loud, even in the diaspora. I do not rule out division as in Somalia. Somaliland and Puntland are not recognised by the international community, but are effectively independent.

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