The Ethiopian flag was shot down, fireworks set off, and thousands of people went out to the streets cheering. TPLF rebels took over power yesterday in Mekele, the capital of the northern region of Tigray, from the interim government established by the federal government of Ethiopia. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia announced a truce. Unilaterally, without conditions, after eight months of war.
“It‘s a dramatic cover,” says correspondent Koert Lindijer. Jan Abbink of the Afrika-Study Centre in Leiden also didn’t see it coming: “It‘s a thunder in clear skies. Everyone struggles to give meaning, but there may be positive aspects.”
The truce certainly lasts until the end of the farming season, early October, Ethiopia announced. “It’s good that the hostilities are stopped, with the motive of letting farmers go to sowing,” says Abbink. “But there‘s not much reason to cheer, because we have to wait for the responses of the TPLF troops.”
Perhaps the truce of food aid in Tigray can start now, Lindijer thinks. According to the UN, millions of people need food aid. It concerns 90 percent of the Tigrean population. 350,000 Tigreans are in the highest state of need. Their situation is catastrophic, the UN says. Ethiopian and Eritrean forces would stop humanitarian aid. The TPLF is also guilty of food scarcity, says Abbink: “Local farmers have been pressurised in recent months to avoid sowing and planting.”
The famine is just one of the aspects of the humanitarian crisis in Tigray. International organizations say that all warring parties have been guilty of war crimes. In addition to the deliberate starvation of the population, these include rape, extrajudicial executions, ethnic cleansing and mass murders. There are no reliable figures on the total number of victims.
Back to the beginning first. The TPLF was the ruling party in Ethiopia for 27 years until 2018, until the current Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power. Abiy wanted to get rid of ethnic-federalist politics in Ethiopia and founded the Prosperity Party, in which several parties united.
The TPLF did not join it. When Abiy postponed the 2020 election due to the corona crisis, the TPLF revolted. In November, they attacked a federal army base in Tigray. Then the Ethiopian Army invaded Tigray to put an end to the rebellion. There was a conflict where Eritrea also joined on the side of the Ethiopian government army.
Tigray was far from being accessible to journalists, but correspondent Elles van Gelder received access to the region this month:
The misbehaving of the Eritrean army in particular would have been a reason for many young people to join the TPLF, says Lindijer: “That has caused fresh blood.” Over the past few weeks, the TPLF has stepped up offensives on Ethiopian and Eritrean forces: “They attacked convoys, exploiting weapons and building confidence.”
Rebels captured villages and towns nearby. An airstrike of Ethiopian troops in Togoga, according to emergency workers, dozens of deaths were killed. Ethiopia itself claims to have fired terrorist targets.
Yesterday was the biggest change: the Tigre capital Mekele fell into the hands of the TPLF. That would barely have fought. “Ethiopian troops dropped with the tail between the legs. To proclaim a ceasefire if you have suffered a defeat is not that much,” says Lindijer.
Abbink has another lecture: “There is no question of a conquest by the TPLF. The interim government in Tigray, appointed by the Ethiopian federal government, has asked for a truce and the federal government has proclaimed it. The troops then positioned themselves outside the city.”
Power Balance Changed
Ethiopian troops plundered during their retreat, eyewitnesses say to CNN. Soldiers would have invaded banks and Unicef offices and the World Food Programme. Unicef condemned the actions.
With the truce, the hope is that there will be some rest for the time being, says Abbink. He is particularly concerned about the TPLF, which ruled Ethiopia for years very repressively: “The most desirable scenario is for the federal government to talk to less dogmatic members of the TPLF to achieve reconciliation and reconstruction. The opportunity is now, but the situation remains explosive and volatile.”
“Nobody knows what’s about to happen,” says Lindijer. “That‘s the hardest question that’s open right now. But the balance of power has changed very much.”