Translated article

A few months ago, the rebels in Tigray seemed defeated, now they are threatening to cut off supplies to Addis Ababa. How is this possible?

English translation of the article published in Neue Zürcher Zeitung, the leading newspaper in Switzerland:

Reconstruction of a dramatic – but explainable – turn. Samuel Misteli, Nairobi 23.07.2021

Sie schafften eines der erstaunlichsten Comebacks der jüngeren Militärgeschichte: ein Kämpfer der tigrinischen Rebellen in der Nähe der Ortschaft Hawzen.
They made one of the most amazing comebacks in recent military history: a fighter of the Tigray rebels near the locality of Hawzen. Ben Curtis/AP

At the end of May, the man some consider one of Africa’s best military strategists gave an interview. He was sitting in front of a stone wall somewhere in the hinterland of Tigray, he was talking to a local journalist, and what Tsadkan Gebretensae said sounded full-bodied.

“We can clearly see that their defeat (that of the occupying forces) is approaching. We have created several brigades and cells within a few months, we will soon use them effectively. We still have to plug a few holes, but we’re working on that.”

Tsadkan is a legendary guerrilla leader, he defeated an Ethiopian government thirty years ago. But at the time of the interview, hardly anyone outside the Ethiopian region of Tigray would have bet money that what Tsadkan had announced would happen. The Tigray Defense Forces (TDF), whose central command includes Tsadkan, had entrenched themselves in the mountains, waging war from ambush against the troops who had invaded Tigray in November 2020. The TDF seemed strong enough not to be defeated – but too weak to launch an offensive.

But then, at the end of June, the rebels did just that. Within days, they overran the Ethiopian army in Tigray. They conquered large parts of the region and also took the capital Mekele. “Operation Alula” was the name of the offensive. It was one of the most amazing comebacks in recent military history.

What’s more, the TDF have now penetrated the neighbouring region of Afar, apparently trying to cut the connection between the port in Djibouti and Addis Ababa. It is by far the most important supply route for the Ethiopian capital. If the TDF succeeds in this, the civil war will enter a completely unpredictable phase. There are rumors that the militarily hapless Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed could face a coup.

How did it come to this?

Devastating drone attacks

Before the rebels made an amazing comeback in Tigray, they suffered an amazing defeat. In early November 2020, the Ethiopian army began its offensive against Tigray. The conflict had been brewing since Abiy Ahmed was promoted to prime minister in the spring of 2018. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), Tigray’s main political force, had previously dominated Ethiopian politics for nearly three decades. Abiy put an end to this, he removed the Tigray faction from important posts in the military, politics and administration. The TPLF withdrew to its region of origin, soon the signs were pointing to war – on 4 November 2020 it broke loose.

It was a one-sided conflict at first, after less than four weeks it seemed decided. The TPLF troops had quickly lost ground, and on 28 November they also lost the capital Mekele. Prime Minister Abiy declared the offensive, which he had defined as a “punitive action”, to be over.

Attack from several sides: Members of an Amhara militia on their way to Tigray in November. Tiksa Negeri / Reuters
Hundreds of thousands of civilians were displaced by the Tigray War. Here, Tigrayan refugees arrive at the Sudanese-Ethiopian border. Nariman El-Mofty/AP

The Norwegian political scientist Kjetil Tronvoll, who is in regular contact with the rebel leadership, cites two reasons why the fight in November was so one-sided: First, the Tigrayan troops were not prepared for being attacked by three fronts; In addition to the Ethiopian army, the Eritrean army also advanced from the north and militias from the neighboring region of Amhara from the south. Second, drone strikes that the Ethiopian-allied United Arab Emirates flew from a base in Eritrea would have had a devastating effect. The attacks destroyed Tigrayan tanks and heavy military equipment and killed several TPLF leaders.

The accusation that the Emirates would support the campaign in Tigray with drones had been expressed earlier on by TPLF representatives – experts consider this possible, though it is not proven.

In December and January, the rebels were concerned with survival. The Ethiopian government kept a “Most Wanted” list of 167 TPLF leaders. Within two weeks in January alone, the Ethiopian army captured – or killed – 47 of those wanted. The most prominent victim was Seyoum Mesfin, a 71-year-old former foreign minister who was shot dead by Ethiopian soldiers.

It seemed a matter of time before the list would be ticked off. But things turned out differently.

The return of the almost 70-year-old general

For those who had saved themselves in the mountains of Tigray were not helpless politicians, but some of the most experienced military personnel of Ethiopia. The core of the TPLF leadership was a group of men who had already waged a guerrilla war against the Ethiopian central state forty years ago. Debretsion Gebremichael, for example, the TPLF chairman, had joined the TPLF in the 1970s when it was a rebel organization fighting the communist Derg regime.

Or Tsadkan Gebretensae, the man who predicted the defeat of the Ethiopian army in an interview. According to the BBC, he had joined the TPLF in 1976, when it had only a few hundred fighters. He became one of its most important commanders and led the attack on Addis Ababa in 1991, which put an end to the Derg regime. By that time, the TPLF had become an army of over 100,000 fighters.

After the TPLF came to power, Tsadkan was Chief of Staff of the Ethiopian Army and led it into a war with Eritrea in 1998 that claimed the lives of nearly 80,000 people. Later, the general was dismissed for having fallen out with the then TPLF Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. In 2019, he was involved in mediation attempts between the TPLF and Prime Minister Abiy. These were unsuccessful – and after the war broke out, Tsadkan also joined the rebels. He later said:“I had the choice to surrender either to foreign forces or those of Abiy or to go into the resistance. I chose the latter.” Tsadkan again has a key military role, he is almost 70 years old.

In addition to Debretsion, Tsadkan and the other former guerrilla fighters, many other capable military personnel found themselves in the mountains of Tigray; Tadesse Werede, for example, the commander-in-chief of the Tigrayan troops, he had once led UN peacekeepers in Sudan. In addition, there were officers at all hierarchical levels who had either been expelled from the Ethiopian army or deserted.

One of the most militarized regions in the world

These experienced military personnel were now preparing to organize the resistance in Tigray. According to TPLF expert Kjetil Tronvoll, they received indirect support from the American government: After Joe Biden took office, the Americans had put pressure on the Emirates to end the drone attacks in Yemen. These were flown from the same base in Eritrea from which the attacks against the TPLF allegedly originated. According to media reports,  the Emirates largely took the base out of service in February.

The absence of drone strikes gave the Tigrayan rebels breathing space. At the same time, tens of thousands of volunteers flocked to newly established training camps. The mass recruitment was a consequence of the humanitarian drama that has been unfolding in Tigray since November. The Eritrean, Ethiopian and Amharic troops are blamed for numerous war crimes. Several thousand civilians were killed in massacres, hundreds of women were raped. Among others, the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke in connection with the events in Tigray of “ethnic cleansing”.

According to the UN, more than five million people in Tigray are in urgent need of help. Here, women and men in Mekele are queuing up for relief supplies. Jemal Countess / Getty
Also an ethnic conflict: A woman in the small town of Mai Kadra cries in the place where her husband and other relatives are buried. They were victims of a massacre committed by TPLF supporters in November 2020 against ethnic Amhara. Jemal Countess / Getty

Tronvoll says that many Tigrayans have seen no other way out than to go to the mountains and fight: “They said to themselves: If we stay at home, they come, rape our sisters, kill our mothers or us. If we want to survive, we have no choice but to join the rebels.”

In the training camps, the new recruits were trained by the experienced military. There was no lack of weapons, Tigray, located on the fragile border with Eritrea, is one of the most militarized regions in the world. According to Tronvoll, many of the new fighters brought weapons with them that were sufficient for guerrilla warfare; Kalashnikov rifles, for example.

Thus grew the Tigray Defense Forces, which consist not only of members of the TPLF, but of members of other parties, of deserters and militias, and tens of thousands of people who until recently were civilians. Tsadkan Gebretensae said in one of his interviews: “When you combine these two elements – experienced and capable commanders and a society with a military tradition – it only takes a short time to reorganize and take control.”

That actually seems to have happened.

The destroyed command structure of the Ethiopian army

In June, TDF commanders considered themselves strong enough to go on the offensive. Until then, they had carried out strategic attacks, which were often just pinpricks. But on such occasions, for instance, the TDF captured heavy military equipment that would soon be useful to them.

Finally, on June 18, the TDF launched Operation Alula, named after a 19th-century Tigrayan general. The offensive was a resounding success; the Ethiopian army, which had mainly occupied cities and main traffic axes, was surrounded in many places and cut off from supplies. Ten days after the start of the offensive, the TDF took the capital Mekele. Pictures and videos  from the city showed fighters parading through the city in a triumphal procession. The inhabitants celebrated the rebels, they waved Tigray flags, fireworks popped.

Received triumphantly: TDF fighters after the capture of Mekele at the end of June.
A weakened army: members of the Ethiopian army captured by the TDF in Mekele. AP

The stormy offensive of the TDF would not have been so successful if the Ethiopian army had put up fiercer resistance. But the army is weakened because it has suffered bloodletting of Tigrayan officers in recent years, who had formed the backbone of the Ethiopian army after 1991. Prime Minister Abiy had thousands of Tigrayan officers arrested for allegedly not trusting them. According to Kjetil Tronvoll, the command structure of the army has been practically destroyed – in the meantime, old commanders from the time of the Derg regime are once again playing a key role. They face their former adversaries from the TPLF, to whom they have already been defeated.

The TDF is in the meantime no longer waging guerrilla warfare, it is continuing its offensive. Their aim is to liberate the north and west of Tigray. In addition, they have penetrated into the neighboring regions of Amhara and Afar in order to apparently create a buffer zone.

“The TDF are currently running as fast as they can,” says Kjetil Tronvoll. On the one hand, they wanted to prevent the Ethiopian army from repositioning itself. On the other hand, they tried to open up access for humanitarian aid – according to UN figures,  more than five million people in Tigray are in urgent need of aid. The only access for help is currently through Afar.

The main supply route for Addis Ababa is also through Afar. Around 95 percent of Ethiopia’s import volume enters the country from the port of Djibouti via Afar, including fuel and food. In recent days, there have been increasing signs that the TDF may try to cut the route from Djibouti to Addis. For prime minister Abiy’s government, it would be a disaster.

For the old Tigrayan guerrillas and their highly motivated army, perhaps the moment when, thanks to them, the page would have definitively turned in the civil war.

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