Ethiopia’s regional and international allies are blunting at calls for dialogue with the embattled Tigray People’s Liberation Front on which Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered a military operation on November 4.

Instead, the calls have now been directed at peace, after parties showed no regard to sit down and talk.

The change of tone could be one of the fruits of Ethiopia’s recent shuttle diplomacy to the region last week. Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Demeke Mekonnen and National Security Advisor Gedu Andargachew last week visited the Horn and Great Lakes regions pitching why Ethiopia has to crush the TPLF.

Dr Demeke visited Nairobi, Kampala, Kinshasa and Rwanda where he explained to the hosts that the TPLF had escaped justice and committed atrocities. Mr Gedu, until recently the Foreign Minister, was in Sudan and Djibouti.

And while all the leaders agreed any violence was unnecessary, there was little mention of dialogue as had been suggested earlier in the week.

In Nairobi, President told Dr Demeke of the danger of a “full-blown war” but first advised that the two sides open humanitarian channels for civilians.

“President Kenyatta has urged parties to the ongoing internal conflict in Ethiopia to find peaceful means to end the crisis,” a statement from State House, Nairobi, said after their meeting on Monday evening.

“While acknowledging the internal efforts being made to end the conflict, President Kenyatta urged the warring parties to prioritise humanitarian needs of local populations by opening up corridors for essential supplies.”

In Kampala, President deleted a comment calling for dialogue, and instead sustained against ethnic federalism.

“Africa’s problem is we never discuss ideology, focusing so much on diplomacy. I totally disagree with politics that focus on ethnic federalism,” President Museveni argued after meeting Dr Demeke.

Each of Ethiopia’s ten regional states are segmented or even named, based on the dominant ethnic group and each has certain rights to self-determination by following a procedure established in the Constitution.

Yet, even as fighting continued, the US admitted the tough stance taken by each side has made it almost impossible to hold dialogue.

Tibor Nagy, the US Assistant Secretary of State told a media briefing on Thursday night that Washington was pushing for peace and a halt to a humanitarian crisis, but will leave the parties to decide when to talk.

“It is not the US government that has to stop the fighting. It is the two sides engaged in the conflict to stop it. We are looking for opportunities to promote the return to peace, but when it comes to stopping the fighting, it is up to the parties that are engaged,” he told a virtual press conference.

“Anybody who has worked with these two sides, and I am sure they can appreciate, will know they have very strong opinions. Mediation is not the goal, a return to peace is,” added Mr Nagy during a question-and-answer session.

Recently, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed spent several days dispelling calls for dialogue. He sees the TPLF as a ‘junta’ who must either surrender or be crushed.

His officials say they have done enough to protect civilians.

So how did the party that ran Ethiopia for 30 years become a criminal gang as described by the PM?

Mustafa Y Ali, the chairman of the HORN International Institute of Strategic Studies in Nairobi said the party became self-entitled and could not stand a challenger.

“To be fair to Prime Minister Abiy, we need to note that the TPLF has been behaving like a ‘supremacist gang’, entitled (to power) and a raft of benefits at the expense of 100 million Ethiopians,” he told The EastAfrican.

“Perhaps they were used to power having ruled for decades. So the Prime Minister had to take action after his pleas for negotiations went unanswered.”

The TPLF, formed in 1975, later toppled the Derge regime of Mengistu Hailemariam in 1991.

Under former PM Meles Zenawi, the TPLF coalesced with other parties to form the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). Ethiopia’s economy grew, the country federated along ethnic lines, but the dominant TPLF also created untouchables allergic to dissent.

Fighting emperors

During his reign, former PM Meles jailed many opponents, reportedly killed others and banned political freedoms. The tensions were always high.

“Big ethnic communities hated the dominance of TPLF. But the smaller Tigray had fought the high handedness of emperors. It was hard to make everyone happy,” said a retired Kenyan diplomat who did not want to be named as he previously worked for Meles.

PM Abiy, he argued, was a consensus candidate. But, he should have expected opposition just like his predecessor Hailemariam Desalegn. “The smallest tribe had the biggest elites. The new PM wasn’t one of them. They were uncomfortable,” the diplomat said.

While most of Ethiopia’s ethnic communities got some solace from ethnic federation, the Amhara resented it because it broke the imperial dominance. PM Abiy insists on crushing the TPLF militarily because they were the strongest opponents to his centralisation programme.

“Many people may oppose PM Abiy’s centralisation plan, but it is the Tigray who amassed greater weaponry, enough to challenge the regime in Addis Ababa,” said one Ethiopian historian, choosing to speak anonymously to avoid antagonising authorities in Addis Ababa.

“The Oromo are populous, but have fewer arms so they often demonstrate. Most of them have been jailed for that. The TPLF have refused to surrender and think they can fight. If they win, that can be risky for the federation,” he added.

TPLF opposed PM Abiy from the moment he resumed ties with Eritrea, Meles’ old enemy. Then he dissolved the EPRDF coalition to form the Prosperity Party. TPLF refused to dissolve and join. Then he purged the military and the executive arm of government, eliminating old guards of the TPLF.

In September, they organised their elections, when the entire country had postponed polls. Then they rejected Abiy as Prime Minister.

“They have placed him between a rock and a hard place. He was begging to make peace with them, until they conducted their election and refused to recognise him as the country’s Prime Minister,” said Abdiwahab Sheikh Abdisamad, a Horn of Africa analyst in Nairobi.

“Before PM Abiy, Ethiopia was a police state and TPLF’s international partners have never repudiated it nor examined their inappropriate investment in the TPLF welfare. International analysts have failed to raise the TPLF’s maladministration and intransigence in their assessment of this current crisis,” Dr Abdisamad argued, while criticising those calling for dialogue.”

Ethiopia has since indicted 94 TPLF leaders including Tigray President Debretsion Gebremichael. On Wednesday, Ethiopian Attorney-General froze accounts of 34 companies linked to the Front and PM Abiy said all armed TPLF members will now be hunted down.

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The sparks that ignited the Tigray conflict

The Ethiopian government declared “war” on the Tigray region, after Addis Ababa said they had “crossed the last red line.”

The spark was ignited after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed claimed the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) had attacked a local command of the Ethiopian National Defence Forces, and “attempted to rob” artillery.

The TPLF has been uncomfortable with PM Abiy’s radical reforms since he came to power in 2018. His purge of senior government and military officers facing integrity questions was seen as targeting the old guard and elites, mainly Tigray. He then proposed to dissolve the coalition into the Prosperity Party. TPLF refused to dissolve arguing the move could kill federalism.

PM Abiy argued last week that the dissolution of the coalition was meant to encourage democracy, because the top leadership of the coalition had been skewed to favour some ethnic communities like the Tigrinya.

The TPLF then chose to go ahead with local elections. When Addis Ababa cut the budget for Tigray, TPLF responded by declaring Abiy an illegitimate PM, rejected a military commander sent to Tigray and launched local attacks on neighbouring Amhara.

Though numbering just about six per cent of the country’s 110 million people, the Tigrinya dominated Ethiopian politics and economic scene for much of former PM Meles Zenawi’s tenure.

An estimate by the International Crisis Group shows that the local security forces allied to TPLF could be as high as 250,000 fighters and are generally popular among civilians.

In 1998, led by Meles Zenawi, the TPLF fought the war against Eritrea between 1998 and 2000. Analysts think they still possess modern arms given their proximity to Eritrea, with whom they still haven’t settled scores.

Ethiopia has called the TPLF criminals and said it will crush the group to stop “impunity.” PM Abiy said he will not negotiate with the TPLF because they have no “good faith” and there is little chance it will lead to permanent peace. TPLF leaders, he argued, had rejected and violated federal laws including court orders, making them extremists.

The TPLF say they want PM Abiy removed from power. But, their call to the international community to intervene has not yielded anything. Last week, PM Abiy rejected calls for dialogue. His officials say Addis Ababa is reluctant to give legitimacy to a group it considers terrorist.

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