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“We have to deal with anyone who’s still shooting,” Getachew Reda, spokesperson for the Tigrayan forces, said earlier this month. “If it takes marching to Addis to silence the guns, we will.” In fact, Tigray’s army has already covered about a third of the distance to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, since it took back its own provincial capital, Mekelle, in late June.
The fighting has been bloody, for the Ethiopian army is much larger, but the Tigrayan army is more professional and determined. Not only has it liberated all of Tigray except the far west, but it has also seized around a third of neighboring Amhara, the province that is the historic core of the Ethiopian empire.
Seven million Tigrayans defeating the army of a country of 110 million people may seem odd, but Ethiopia is a patchwork quilt of different ethnic groups, languages and religions that was held together in the past by a centralized monarchy or dictatorship backed by ruthless military force. Until quite recently, it was Tigray that provided that force.
The Tigrayans earned that job by being the most effective guerrilla force in the long struggle to overthrow the former Communist regime, the Derg. They parlayed that role into an ethnic dictatorship that lasted from 1991 until just a few years ago. But the other ethnic groups then united to install a new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, who started to dismantle that corrupt autocracy.
He did it, but the Tigrayan military elite withdrew to their own homeland and sulked. It was a well-armed sulk, for almost half the Ethiopian army was based in Tigray, and it consisted largely of ethnic Tigrayans. When it became clear that Abiy’s project to destroy the old ethnic pecking order was not negotiable, they rebelled.
This was all pretty inevitable, but then the Ethiopian prime minister decided to invade Tigray and end the problem for good. That was bound to end badly for Ethiopia, because he was making a direct attack on what is practically an African Sparta.
The Tigrayan army pulled out of the province’s cities for a while, and by last November Abiy Ahmed declared the war over. But the Tigrayan leaders were just mobilizing their forces, and in June they counterattacked. The Ethiopian forces broke and ran, and most of Tigray was liberated without a fight.
If it had stopped there, some sort of Ethiopian state would have survived, albeit with a semi-detached Tigray, but Abiy then made the serious mistake of resorting to a blockade to starve the Tigrayans out. By now many people in landlocked Tigray are close to famine, but their leaders have countered with an invasion of Amhara province.
They are now within striking distance of the roads that carry 95 percent of Ethiopia’s import and export traffic between Addis Ababa and the port of Djibouti. Their success has also emboldened the Oromo Liberation Army, a rebel army seeking autonomy or even independence for Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, to make an alliance with the Tigrayans.
Suddenly Ethiopia starts to look a lot like former Yugoslavia just before the civil wars of the 1990s split it into six different countries. Yet Abiy is rolling the dice once again, hoping to build a rapidly expanded army that will reconquer Tigray and occupied Amhara. That is unlikely to happen.
If Abiy makes a quick deal with the Tigrayans that ends the blockade and recognizes their independence and borders, he may have enough troops and credibility left to suppress the Oromos and other ethnic insurgents who will soon come out into the open. If not, Ethiopia probably splinters, and it’s Yugoslavia all over again.
And what would the Tigrayans do next? Some of them are confident enough to dream of invading Eritrea and taking down President Isaias Afwerki, who sent troops to help Abiy invade Tigray. Afwerki has ruled the country of 5.3 million with an iron hand for three decades, and he is so unpopular that 1 in 10 Eritreans has fled abroad.
Some of the Tigrayan elite may even be speculating about uniting the two countries. After all, half the Eritrean population speaks the same Tigrinya language, and joining the two together would give Tigray access to the sea, which sometimes comes in handy.