Now that the Tigrayan rebel army is advancing towards the metropolis of Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian government panicks. Hundreds of Tigrayans, including bank directors, priests, elders and children, have been arrested without a clear rationale.
De Standaard, 12 November 2021: Ethiopië arresteert honderden Tigreeërs en VN-personeel [in Dutch]
Friday 12 November 2021
About a year ago, the war between the Ethiopian army and the rebels of the northern Tigray region broke out. It cost the lives of thousands of people and brought famine to half a million civilians.
The immediate cause of the conflict was the political battle between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and some powerful Tigrayan politicians and ex-generals. The latter had been in power for thirty years, but since the rise of Abiy they have increasingly been marginalised. The Eritrean army also launched an offensive against the Tigrayan rebels and emerged as the cruelest fighting machine of the conflict.
Initially, the Ethiopian government army seemed to have the upper hand, but in June the odds turned and the Tigrayan rebels captured their capital Mekelle, after which they advanced to the city of Kombolcha: a strategic crossroads on the highway that connects Addis Ababa with the port of neighboring Djibouti (see map). The rebels may leave it at that: access to Djibouti allows them to bring food and other necessary products to Tigray, which could end the famine.
Identity card required
Yet, it cannot be ruled out that the rebels will launch an offensive on the capital Addis Ababa in order to regain the lead of the national government. The Tigrayan fighters are now 300 kilometers from the capital and are better equipped than the government army.
According to Professor Jan Nyssen (UGent), a geographer who spent years doing research in Ethiopia and who currently investigates the humanitarian casualties of the war, the government army is imploding. “The national army has to get it done with hastily trained recruits and is led by younger officers with little experience. The Tigrayan army, on the other hand, consists of former generals and experienced soldiers and has also been able to capture modern weapons in recent months.’
The fact that a military offensive on the capital is among the possibilities leads to great nervousness in the circles of Prime Minister Abiy. Evidence: the appeal to all citizens of Addis Ababa who possess a weapon to defend their city tooth and nail.
The magnitude of the panic is also evident from the fact that hundreds of Tigrayans have been arrested in recent days. Among them some politicians, the CEO of a large bank and about forty clergy.
“The national army has to get it done with hastily trained recruits and younger officers, while the Tigrayan army consists of former generals and experienced soldiers”
According to the government, those are Tigrayans who provide support to the rebels. But the fact that the arrested also include elders and children makes that claim dubious. Human rights organizations are also concerned about the obligation for all residents of Addis Ababa to carry their identity card. Based on the name and place of birth, police officers and soldiers can easily deduce whether or not someone is from Tigray.
Another controversial issue is that the authorities arrested sixteen Ethiopian employees of the United Nations, nine of whom are still in custody.
If the Tigrayan rebels advance further towards Addis Ababa in the coming days, there is a good chance that many more arrests will follow and, according to human rights organizations, it can no longer be ruled out that a real manhunt will be opened on Tigrayans.
Nyssen holds his heart for such a scenario. According to him, a military battle for Addis Ababa will lead to enormous chaos and even more bloodshed. ‘The consequences can hardly be imagined: Addis Ababa is a city with five to six million inhabitants and is an ethnic melting pot.’
While there is outrage over Prime Minister Abiy’s repressive approach, there is also sharp criticism of the way the leaders of the Tigrayan army are threatening with the country’s collapse. “The Tigrayan political and military elite is playing with the future of the country,” says a Western diplomat who wishes to remain anonymous for security reasons. “They know they have the upper hand militarily and no longer seem to be willing to come to a negotiated solution. They remained in power for thirty years and used that power to arrest thousands of opponents, journalists and human rights activists. Now they are threatening to plunge the country into chaos.’
Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, who is currently the Special Envoy of the African Union, held talks with both Abiy and the leaders of the Tigrayan army. He notes that the time to find a diplomatic way out is ticking away quickly. “All the leaders involved individually agree that the contradictions can only be resolved politically. But discussions with the leaders of both camps show that the chance of such a negotiated solution has become very small.’
 In the original interview, Jan Nyssen said: “The national army (…) is led by relatively junior generals”