Ghosts of 1991
After several defeats suffered by the federal government, many analysts recalled that in May 1991, the TPLF had already taken over Addis Ababa, which was also preceded by bloody clashes with the government. On the surface of it, the conflicts look similar: in the 1980s, the government of socialist Ethiopia bombed areas outside of its control, and the TPLF gradually liberated rural communities and recruited the war-weary rural poor into its ranks.
First, the TPFL enjoyed broad support among regional players, such as Somalia, Sudan and the Eritrean separatists. Political assistance was no less important than financial assistance and supplies. In 1991, the Eritrean and Sudanese leaders mediated contacts between the TPLF and the Oromo rebels in the first weeks of forming the new government in Ethiopia, when the sheer number of differences in the victors’ camp threatened to lead to a new round of clashes.
The current realities are starkly different, since Somalia and Sudan are preoccupied with internal problems and lack strong consolidated governments capable of taking any of the possible position on the conflict between Tigray and the federal government. Eritrea took the side of Addis Ababa, not the rebels, from day one of the conflict.
Second, in recent months, however, military luck has turned away from the Tigray Defence Force. Operation Sunrise failed in August 2021. Its goal was for the Tigray units to access Lake Tana (located to the west along the Weldiya-Wereta highway) and cut off direct transport links between the Amhara state and the central regions of the country. With great difficulty, the TDF units reached the town of Debre Tabor
which is located 30-40 kilometres away from the final destination, but were then forced to retreat almost 100 kilometres to the east. The failure of Operation Sunrise had little to do with the federal troops’ actions. The expert resistance offered by the Amhara state security forces, the militias and youth brigades of the Amhara ethnic group was enough to get the job done.
Third, in 1991, the attitude towards the TPLF in Ethiopia was more neutral. Even though socialist Ethiopia’s state propaganda did quite a lot at that time to demonise this organisation, the population did not always trust information from official sources. Today, the TPLF is, in fact, a former ruling party, which has been leading the country towards a brighter future for 27 years.
A huge number of complaints against the TPLF have piled up over this period, especially in large cities in southern and southwestern Ethiopia. After Abiy Ahmed came to power in 2018, a new campaign to demonise the TPLF began, this time marked by broad-based social support.
Taken together, these factors make the federal government’s position more stable, despite military setbacks and greater diplomatic pressure from outside players.
Game theory offers a wonderful model called “chicken,” when players threaten to inflict maximum damage on each other until one eventually backs down. The point of “chicken” is to create extreme tension which causes one side to make a mistake. We can understand the situation in Ethiopia through this lens. On the one hand, the federal authorities have outlawed the TPLF, destroyed almost the entire business network operated by the Tigray party functionaries and are waging war with them to the bitter end. On the other hand, Tigray and its new allies are accusing its opponents of genocide, gradually cutting off the federal centre from international trade, and making statements about the need for a constitutional overhaul. Winning this game is possible only in the case of mutual concessions. Any other scenario will imminently lead to the defeat of one or both sides. Since the federal and Tigray governments are raising the stakes and rejecting compromise, only the worst-case scenarios remain on the table.
Three factors suggest that Tigray’s southward offensive is likely to fail.
First, the TPLF detachments are spread to the south from Tigrayan motorway towards the capital for tens of kilometres, which makes them extremely vulnerable to a possible attack from the west. Even if this attack is carried out by a contingent of the Amhara state security forces without the support of federal troops, it could stop the advance of the Tigray Defence Force and, provided favourable circumstances, cut off a significant portion of the units from the parent state in the north.
Second, the TPLF allies can be extremely unreliable. Among the nine organisations that formed the United Front of the Ethiopian Federalist and Confederalist Forces
, there is no clear understanding of the ultimate goal of the confrontation - it can be either a transitional government or talks with the current government. Moreover, in addition to the TPLF, the new alliance includes the powerful Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), which has a similarly long history of guerrilla warfare, including under TPLF rule.
In a bipolar structure like that, the ethnic organisations may well get distributed between two centres of gravity where political associations of the Agaw, Afar and Kemant ethnic groups will gravitate towards the TPLF, while those of the Somalis and Sidamas will gravitate towards the OLF. Given the uncertainty over goals, the emergence of dividing lines in a new anti-government alliance is all but unavoidable.
Third, resistance to TPLF operations will grow as they get closer to the densely populated highlands in central Ethiopia. One gets the impression that TDF is most effective in mountainous and rural areas, while operations within a radius of 200 kilometres from the capital will require completely different material and organisational resources that the Tigray forces simply do not possess yet.
There is a number reasons the federal government may fail. Following a series of resignations and dismissals of high-ranking supporters of the former regime, the military command of the Ethiopian National Defence Forces was essentially incapable of military planning, namely, to concentrate the forces and means necessary to eliminate clear threats, or to set and pursue several objectives at once. The current federal government’s situation is a direct outcome of failures in military planning, and prospects for improvement are slim, since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has no other staff to rely on.
The worsening socioeconomic situation in the country and weakening support for the current government are another reason. Amid the pandemic, GDP per capita dropped to 2014 levels, and inflation grew by 15 to 20 percent annually. [World Bank data. ]. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, droughts and locust infestations in eastern and southeastern Ethiopia in 2019-2021 put at least 12.9 million people on the brink of starvation, or, in UN terminology, “are expected to face high levels of acute food insecurity.
” In addition, Ethiopia is home to 4 million internally displaced persons, concentrated in the country’s central and southwestern regions.
Many forced migrants have been unable to return home for years now and remain in tent camps, upsetting the locals. Disturbances between them have been quite commonplace for a long time now. Add to that the numerous disagreements and clashes between ethnic groups, and it appears inevitable that the current federal government’s base of support will continue to shrink, making it harder to mobilise resources and maintain numerical supremacy over the Tigray Defenсe Force.