Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali and the Ethiopian government persistently allege the war on Tigray was triggered when the government of the Tigray region launched a surprise attack on a federal military base. However, the chronology of events leading up to war shows clear intent on the part of Prime Minister Abiy and his collaborators to attack Tigray well before its flashpoint.
The ramp up to war began almost as soon as the prime minister assumed the premiership. A disagreement between the federal and Tigray region governments over elections would provide a pretext for an attack. And in the latter half of 2020, the federal government and its allies put into motion the final phases of an operation to strike the Tigray region. The operation was thwarted when Tigray region defense forces suddenly commandeered the Northern Command of the federal military. Almost as soon as the plot was upended, Prime Minister Abiy attempted to salvage the operation by waging total war on Tigray.
Abiy Ahmed Ali Becomes Prime Minister
On April 2, 2018, Abiy Ahmed Ali was sworn in as the prime minister of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. Until his nomination to lead the ruling EPRDF political coalition, Abiy was a low-profile member of the Oromo Democratic Party (ODP)—the ethnic Oromo faction of the ruling coalition. He was all but unknown to the public at large and his ascent to the premiership came as a surprise to the country’s political enthusiasts. Nonetheless, upon his debut as prime minister he would capture the public’s adoration through stirring speeches. Western media feted the new prime minister for his promises of a wide range of political and economic reforms. The intensity of the fanfare surrounding the new prime minister was aptly dubbed “Abiy-mania”.
On June 23, 2018, less than three months after being sworn in, there would be an attempt on the life of the prime minister. During a massive rally in support of his proposed reforms, including a yet to be finalized peace deal with Eritrea, a grenade was thrown from the crowd towards the stage where he was sitting.
Shortly after the grenade exploded, the crowd erupted into chants of “down down Woyane” and “Woyane thief”—Woyane, a term commonly used to refer to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the ethnic Tigrayan faction of the EPRDF. The crowd had apparently decided in that instant who was to blame.
Prime Minister Abiy would later describe the incident as an “unsuccessful attempt by forces who do not want to see Ethiopia united”. He spoke familiarly of those forces stating, “You need to stop doing this. You weren’t successful in the past and you won’t be successful in the future.” In his statements addressing the issue, he fell short of naming those his accusations were aimed at.
On November 12, 2018, Attorney General Berhanu Tsegaye issued an arrest warrant for former Intelligence Chief, Getachew Assefa, a high-ranking member of the TPLF and ethnic Tigrayan. He was accused of orchestrating the grenade attack, as well as a litany of human rights abuses that allegedly took place during his tenure as intelligence chief.
In that same press conference the attorney general issued arrest warrants for dozens more ethnic Tigrayans alleging human rights abuses and financial corruption.
The attorney general’s November 2018 press conference marked the beginning of a crackdown targeting ethnic Tigrayans within the federal government and military.
The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) is a political party hailing from Ethiopia’s Tigray region, one of ten federated ethnically-based regions. The TPLF began as a liberation movement in 1975 that fought and eventually overthrew Ethiopia’s communist junta government, commonly referred to as the Derg. Following the overthrow of the Derg in 1987, the TPLF along with other ethnic-based parties formed the EPRDF political coalition that ruled Ethiopia for nearly three decades. The TPLF remained an influential part of the EPRDF from its inception until the nomination of Prime Minister Abiy.
Nearly three decades of Tigrayan ascendency in Ethiopian politics, military and intelligence would breed resentment among ordinary citizens as well as the political elite. Prime Minister Abiy would seize on this discontent to consolidate power. He would do this by purging Tigrayans from high positions and coalescing the country’s federal system into a unitary system that can exert control from the center.
The crackdown conducted by the government would embolden others to target ordinary Tigrayans as well. At the end of 2018, Amhara region militia leader, Mesafint Teka, said in a public address that Tigrayans who do not rebuke the TPLF should leave Amhara lands or be met with violence. He said unequivocally if permitted, his forces would even invade the Tigray region. Amhara militias would indeed invade Tigray almost a year later when Prime Minister Abiy waged total war on the region.
Two years after the grenade attack five non-Tigrayans were convicted. All others accused were released or had their charges dropped. Other high-profile Tigrayans swept up by the attorney general would be released without charges in 2020 after blanket amnesty was granted. Nonetheless the objective was met; members of the old guard were humiliated and sidelined.
Eritrea and Ethiopia have a long and intertwined history fraught with grievances. The most recent grievances stem from a 1998–2000 border war between the two nations which, according to a ruling by an international commission in the Hague, was triggered by Eritrea. The parties would eventually agree to a cessation of hostilities and the establishment of an UN-backed boundary commission to settle the disputed border. Tensions would come to a head once again over the boundary commission’s decision on the border town of Badme. The commission decided that this town belonged to Eritrea; Ethiopia did not accept the ruling. This would trigger a nearly two-decade standoff between the countries referred to as the period of “no war, no peace”.
Isaias Afwerki, Eritrea’s de-facto president for life, used this standoff as the premise to ramp up the national service—a system where every able-bodied Eritrean is conscripted into the military. The statutory period of service would be increased from 18-months to life. For President Isaias, Woyane would prove to be a politically expedient enemy. From this point forward, he would instruct his people to stand ready against a supposedly ever-imminent threat posed by Woyane as a way to justify totalitarian rule and secure his political future.
In July of 2018, the rapprochement Abiy promised months earlier would come to fruition. The prime minister broke the thaw between Eritrea and Ethiopia by agreeing to implement the resolution of the border commission from nearly fifteen years prior. Delegations from each country convened in Asmara at the Eritrea–Ethiopia peace summit where they signed a joint declaration to normalize relations. On the last day of the summit, Prime Minister Abiy requested the UN lift a 2009 arms embargo that was imposed on Eritrea for its support of Al-Shabaab militants. The UN would grant that request in the following months.
Conspicuously absent from the Ethiopian delegation was Dr. Debretsion Gebremichael, chairman of the TPLF and president of the Tigray region. The exclusion of the Tigray region president is glaring as it was along the Eritrea–Tigray border that the border conflict took place. The TPLF would criticize the settlement for not having been brought before the EPRDF council for a vote. Residents of Badme living under Ethiopian (i.e. Tigray region) administration prior to the settlement would protest the decision to cede the town to Eritrea.
Even though “peace” had been achieved, Eritrean indefinite national service would continue, Eritrea would ramp up its war readiness and the TPLF would remain Eritrea’s archenemy. All the while, the relationship between Prime Minister Abiy and President Isaias would grow stronger, marked by frequent off-the-record meetings and outward displays of affection.
The Northern Command
At the time of Abiy’s nomination to the premiership, the Northern Command was one of six regional commands of the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF). Situated in the Tigray region, it was tasked primarily with containing the threat posed by neighboring Eritrea, and for that reason was home to the ENDF’s “best divisions” and “more than half of the federal army’s fighting men”—many of whom were ethnic Tigrayans.
Almost as soon as Abiy became prime minister, he began restructuring the ENDF. In December of 2018, almost five months after the Eritrea–Ethiopia peace summit, high-level officers of the ENDF convened in Addis Ababa to announce that the number of regional commands would be reduced from six to four.
The Northern Command would remain, but because normalization of relations with Eritrea had ostensibly diminished its strategic importance, the ENDF would motion to transfer divisions and heavy arms of Northern Command outside of the Tigray region. The move would be shelved due to strong opposition by the TPLF as well as the people of Tigray.
Nearly six months after the announcement to restructure the ENDF, General Se’are Mekonnen, Chief of Staff of the ENDF, former head of the Northern Command and ethnic Tigrayan, would be assassinated at his home in Addis Ababa under questionable circumstances.
Following the general’s assasination, in an apparent search for men amenable to Prime Minister Abiy’s will, there would be two successive appointments to chief of staff and three successive appointments to Northern Command head.
Operations in Somali and Tigray Regions
In August of 2018, the ENDF conducted an operation to apprehend the president of the Somali region, Abdi Mohomud Omar (a.k.a Abdi Illey), on allegations of gross human rights violations. Federal forces descended on the Somali region capital where they surrounded the Somali president’s palace and forcefully brought him into federal custody. A key player in the operation was former head of the Eastern Command, Brig. Gen. Belay Seyoum, a figure who will reappear as total war approaches.
Not long after the ENDF operation in the Somali region, a mysterious military transport aircraft took off from Sudan and landed at a civilian airport in the capital of the Tigray region. The aircraft was transporting a group of 40 armed Ethiopian men in Ethiopian Federal Police livery. Upon landing, the men were met by Tigray region special forces. The arrivals—who claimed to have arrived in the Tigray region “by mistake” were disarmed, detained, and swiftly sent back. The assumption at that time was that this team had been sent to the Tigray region capital to apprehend the leadership.
Prime Minister Abiy would later admit to reporters that federal soldiers were indeed sent to the Tigray region capital “for work” and had returned “after they had finished what they were sent to do”—a blatant contradiction of accounts given by media sources.
Tigray region president, Dr. Debretsion, described the incident as a plot to draw Tigray into conflict. He said his government elected to settle the incident “maturely” and in a “calm manner” in order to prevent an escalation that would “take the country backwards”.
A New Political Order: The Prosperity Party
The EPRDF was a coalition of ethnically based political parties, each hailing from a corresponding ethnically-based region. This structure, introduced after the fall of the Derg, was designed to address historic grievances by giving ethnic groups the right to determine their political, economic and cultural future.
In spite of his years of service as an EPRDF member, Prime Minister Abiy would pronounce ethnic-based politics the scourge of the nation. In actuality, Prime Minister Abiy found the collective and multilateral nature of the federal system incompatible with his desire for centralised control over the regions. So on December 1, 2019 Prime Minister Abiy dissolved the EPRDF coalition and merged its constituent and affiliated parties into the Prosperity Party.
When members renounced their former ethnically based parties, their regions’ lost the ability to set their own agendas at the federal level. Each party’s manifesto was supplanted by the Prosperity Party doctrine—a quasi-religious philosophy dictated solely by Prime Minister Abiy.
The TPLF would be the only party to decline the merger, stymying the prime minister’s quest to consolidate his power.
In early 2020, the world became embroiled in the coronavirus pandemic. Under the guise of safeguarding public health, Prime Minister Abiy’s government used contentious legal interpretations to postpone upcoming national, regional and municipal elections indefinitely. The government said it would instead schedule elections “when the pandemic is over”.
The Tigray region government decided to proceed with its regional elections as called for in the constitution in spite of the decision by the federal government and the national electoral board.
In May of 2020, Prime Minister Abiy directly addressed the Tigray region’s decision to hold its regional elections. He called any moves to take power through “unconstitutional” elections “unacceptable”. He would go on to say “fly-by-night” elections would endanger the public therefore the government would be forced to “take action” in order to protect the nation’s security. He however failed to expound on what he meant by “take action”. His comments on the issue would close with this ominous remark:
“Politicians need to take care that they don’t endanger young people and mothers to grab power. Young people need not die, mothers need not cry or homes need not be destroyed or people displaced for politicians to grab power.”
In July of 2020, Prime Minister Abiy seemed to do an about-turn claiming that “the federal government had no intention and interest to attack its own people [in Tigray]”. However, that same month former Army General Kassaye Chemeda would appear on government-affiliated Walta TV and say unequivocally “The [federal] government should plan well, and they [Tigray] should be attacked”.
At the beginning of August 2020, the TPLF staged a parade of its regional defense forces in Tigray. Not long after, Ethiopia’s upper house of parliament penned a letter to the Tigray region instructing its leaders to halt its “unconstitutional” election and added that the federal government could order an “intervention” to contain acts that threaten constitutional order. The exact meaning of “intervention” was not explained.
Just weeks before the Tigray region’s elections were to take place, TPLF spokesman Getachew Reda, made the following statement:
“We know there is an open threat by Abiy to militarily intervene against Tigray and to cut funds, but we will still go ahead with the vote … We know there will be consequences.”
On September 9, 2020, Tigray held its regional elections which concluded without incident. The election resulted in an overwhelming victory for the TPLF with no TPLF seats changing hands. Having thus been elected, the newly formed government of Tigray maintained that the federal government’s constitutional mandate would end on October 5th, 2020, therefore it would not enact federal laws passed after that date. To address the federal leadership crisis that would follow, they called for a caretaker government to be installed. In recognition of the palpable anxiety felt throughout the country over various unfolding issues including elections, they also called for national reconciliation.
General Berhanu Jula, Deputy Chief of Staff of the ENDF, would reject calls for an “unconstitutional” caretaker government. He warned those who claim the federal government’s constitutional mandate ends on October 5, 2020 to “refrain from such illegal acts” and that the army would be forced to take measures against anyone planning to impose their will by “violating the constitution” (recall it’s the federal government’s position that Tigray’s regional elections were a violation of the constitution).
By the end of September, Ethiopia’s Federal Police (a para-military force) conducted a parade in the nation’s capital under the banner “We Stand to serve and safeguard our people and country”.
War of Attrition
The federal government diverted the region’s budget, instructing the Ministry of Finance to disburse funds to lower-level administrative districts bypassing the executive bodies. The federal government also withheld funding for the safety net program, a cash subsidy program for the poor funded by western donors. In the midst of an ongoing locust invasion, they halted operation of chemical spraying aircraft and blocked the import of a chemical spraying drone donated by the Tigrayan diaspora.
The Tigray region government also accused the federal government of blocking the entry of Chinese professionals assigned to work on potable water projects, and neglecting Tigray when distributing coronavirus masks to students.
Even the federal sports commission would circulate a memo instructing national leagues to sever ties with the Tigray region.
In October of 2020, the federal government put into motion the final phases of an operation to strike the Tigray region.
Twenty-One Days to Total War
October 14, 2020:
- President Isaias of Eritrea visits the headquarters of the Ethiopian Air Force in Bishoftu, Oromia region.
October 25, 2020:
- Around this date there are renewed efforts to transfer divisions and heavy arms of the Northern Command to regional commands outside of the Tigray region, but it is firmly rejected by the TPLF.
October 27, 2020:
- Seyoum Mesfin, Ethiopia’s late former foreign minister, alleged that on this day Prime Minister Abiy makes “a one-day secret trip” to Asmara where he meets with President Isaias in preparation for an attack on Tigray. He added that while this was happening Eritrean military and security officials were already stationed in the recently established North-West Command located in the Amhara region capital.
October 29, 2020:
- Brig. Gen. Jamal Mohammed of the ENDF flies to Mekelle to assume his post as the new deputy head of the Northern Command. Upon arrival, he is turned away by Tigray region special forces.
- The newly appointed commander of the Northern Command, Brig. Gen. Belay, and his other deputy Brig. Gen. Seid Tekuye of the ENDF were “politely informed” in advance not to travel to the Tigray region to assume their new posts. The Tigray region government reiterated its stance not to implement federal directives following October 5 (the date they maintain the federal government’s mandate expired). Recall, Brig. Gen. Belay played a key role in the operation to forcefully apprehend the Somali region president. In all likelihood, Tigray region authorities acted in part to prevent him and his deputies from being embedded in the Northern Command as part of the currently unfolding operation.
November 1, 2020:
- Eritrea issues a menacing statement declaring it was “game over” for the TPLF and claiming it (TPLF) is “quivering in its deathbed”.
- Ethiopian federal forces are abruptly withdrawn from Guliso District of West Wellega Zone in Ethiopia’s Oromia region.
- Ethiopian federal forces are observed being transported by bus out of the city of Shilaabo in Ethiopia’s Somali region.
- 2,500 soldiers from the neighboring Federal Republic of Somalia are transported by bus overnight from Eritrea, where they were being trained, to Ethiopia’s Tigray region.
- The ENDF is ordered to be on “standby”.
November 2, 2020:
- A statement is issued by the European Union’s High Representative Josep Borrell, stating that all parties, as well as Ethiopia’s neighbors, should abstain from provocative military deployments.
- President of the Tigray region, Dr. Debretsion, tells reporters the federal government is going to attack Tigray. In a televised address he further states “we have prepared our special forces not in need of a war, but if the worst comes, to defend ourselves”. He also decries the October 14 visit of President Isaias to the headquarters of the Ethiopian Air Force stating, “The base is restricted even to our own citizens let alone to a leader whose soldiers are pointing their rifles right in front of us, hiding in their fortress”.
November 3, 2020:
- Before any fighting begins, the federal parliament proposes declaring the TPLF a terrorist organization.
- By late afternoon in Ethiopia, polls open for the highly contested US election between incumbent Donald J. Trump and Joe Biden. Coverage of the election would predictably saturate the media for the next several days. The events which follow are apparently timed to coincide with the global media storm as a form of cover.
- Sudan’s military leader Lt. Gen. Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan agrees to close the Ethiopia–Sudan border to “prevent border infiltration to and from Sudan by an armed party“.
- Senior TPLF official Wondimu Asamnew accuses the federal government of amassing troops on the southern border of the Tigray region.
- According to Belgian NGO, EEPA, by this date, Eritrean troops are already present in the Tigrayan town of Gerhu-Serenay along the Eritrea–Tigray border.
- Brig. Gen. Mulualem Admasu of the ENDF reveals in an interview that on this date “tanks were readied, ammunition loaded and battalions deployed”.
- An aircraft purportedly carrying newly minted banknotes takes off from Addis Ababa destined for the Tigray region capital. The timing of this flight corresponds closely with reports of an aircraft transporting commandos which land in the Tigray region capital the following morning. This report is further corroborated by its striking similarity to the incident in 2018 when an aircraft of federal police arrived unexpectedly in Tigray.
- Amhara region police commissioner, Abere Adamu, said in a public address that on this date “deployment of forces had taken place on our borders [of the Amhara region] from east to west. The war started that night after we had already completed our preparations”.
- Amhara region special forces Sergeant Tadilo Tamiru and his 170-man unit are already situated in a small town along the Tigray–Amhara border before fighting commences. They later join the battle that breaks out in Dansha.
- Close to midnight, fighting breaks out in the town of Dansha, western Tigray.
November 4, 2020:
- At 1:00 AM, after the start of the fighting, the federal government disables all telecommunications (including internet and telephone services) in the Tigray region. Communication will not be fully restored from this point forward.
- At 1:54 AM Prime Minister Abiy declares war on Tigray via Facebook post alleging the TPLF had tried to “plunder” the Northern Command of weaponry.
Start of Fighting
The earliest mainstream media account of fighting describes a confrontation in the town of Dansha in western Tigray. Close to midnight on November 3, 2020, armed members of the Tigray region defense forces demanded to see the commander of the Northern Command camp located there. An argument broke out and the first shots were fired. The finer details of that confrontation, such as who shot first, are not on the public record. Fighting would then ensue at Northern Command camps across the Tigray region, as well as a civilian airport in the Tigray region capital. Fighting at the airport can be linked to reports of an aircraft carrying commandos that took off from Addis Ababa the previous evening.
On November 4, 2020, the Tigray region government announced that the Northern Command of the federal military had defected to Tigray (though it would take another ten days for the last and final camp to fall to Tigray region defense forces). Not long after, the Tigray region government publicly announced it had foiled a plot by the federal government to use the arms stationed in Tigray to attack the region.
Once commandeered, half the soldiers of the Northern Command would side with Tigray. Those who sided with the federal government were given safe passage to either the Amhara region or Eritrea. This is corroborated by first-hand accounts of pro-federal government soldiers caught in the clashes. They describe a firefight, being captured, and then released—far from the cold-blooded massacre Prime Minister Abiy would allege in the days following November 4.
The Tigray region government vowed to defend the region but welcomed negotiation and a stop to the fighting. Prime Minister Abiy on the other hand rejected any form of dialogue and vowed to continue fighting until the TPLF is apprehended.
TPLF on Who Started the War
Dr. Debretsion, president of the Tigray region, stated in a November 2020 text message to Reuters “We didn’t initiate any attack”. Similarly, senior TPLF official Wondimu Asamnew told AFP “There was no attack [by the TPLF]”. TPLF spokesperson Getachew Reda told the BBC “The invasion of Tigray was started in earnest well ahead of the November 3–November 4 incident … whatever we did, we did in self-defense”.
Ten days into the war, the federal government circulated a clip professed to be a confession by the TPLF. The clip features Sekuture Getachew on TPLF-affiliated television station, Dimtsi Weyane. Sekuture (who was mischaracterized as representing the TPLF when in fact he was acting as a pundit) said the TPLF had executed a “preemptive strike” on the Northern Command. The federal government fallaciously argued that this was proof the TPLF initiated the war. However, in doing so they implicitly admitted the Tigray region was facing an imminent threat that required preemption.
Who Started the War on Tigray?
The prime minister is emphatic that he was forced to wage war after the Tigray region launched a surprise attack on the Northern Command. Yet there is a preponderance of evidence that the prime minister ordered an offensive on the Tigray region before the Northern Command incident.
The prime minister asserts the extreme barbarity of the Northern Command incident demanded an instantaneous military response. Yet first-hand accounts of pro-federal government soldiers don’t back up his characterization of the incident.
The prime minister alleges the motive behind the Northern Command incident was to retake control of the federal government by force. Yet months earlier the TPLF accepted “there’s no appetite for a TPLF-dominated government in Addis Ababa again”.
The prime minister’s narrative is clearly dubious. All signs indicate that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali started the war on Tigray to eliminate his political rivals, the TPLF.