A political evolution with theatrical traits in Ethiopia, where on November 22 Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced the transfer of powers to his deputy Demeke Mekonnen – who also holds the position of Foreign Minister – to wear the army uniform and personally coordinate the counter-offensive against the Tigrinya forces of the TDF and the Oromo forces of the OLA.
It is not clear at present under what conditions the transfer of power took place, as well as the actual scope of the transfer and its duration, while Abiy Ahmed’s presence at the frontline has been confirmed by government spokeswoman Billene Seyoum, according to whom the former prime minister would have joined the frontline units on November 23.
The coup de théâtre of Abiy Ahmed going to the front line at the head of his troops was accompanied by the diffusion of a rhetoric strongly hinged on the need for martyrdom as the only solution for the salvation of the Ethiopian nation, thus trying to play the only card apparently left available in the hands of the government: nationalism imbued with evangelical messianism.
In the face of what in recent weeks has seemed to be the unstoppable advance of opposition forces towards Addis Ababa, and in conjunction with a climate of tension that has led to the indiscriminate arrest of Tigrayans residing in the capital and in the federal state of Oromia – on charges of aiding and abetting the ruling party of Tigray, TPLF – Abiy Ahmed wanted to respond with a call to arms with blatantly apocalyptic tones and according to a recurring script of Ethiopian history, characterized by the commitment of the leadership in the defense of the country.
In spite of Abiy Ahmed’s scenographic political choice to attribute a character of serious drama to the government’s decisions, it seems rather unlikely that a real transfer of power has actually characterized Ethiopia’s institutional dynamics.
The entire dynamic of the evolution of the crisis underway, in fact, constitutes an element closely linked to personal evaluations and choices of the Prime Minister, who today fears a traumatic epilogue to the crisis that began just over a year ago, thus trying to collectivize his feelings.
In this context, therefore, it does not seem possible to identify a specific willingness of Abiy Ahmed to abandon the government of the country to undertake the mere role of fighter. On the contrary, there is an attempt to exploit nationalism – burdened by the strong tones of evangelical messianism that is typical of the religious community to which Abiy Ahmed belongs – as a last instrument to convince the Ethiopian population to take up arms en masse against the Tigrinya threat.
If there are few doubts about Abiy Ahmed’s actual will to transfer the effective exercise of power, the analysis of the options that actually characterize this controversial evolution of the conflict is more complex.
The hypothesis of a massive response to the call to arms of the PM appears in fact scarcely credible, thus making the possibility of a military defeat of the federal units of the ENDF a concrete and imminent option. In this context, many wonder if Abiy Ahmed is actually devoted to bear the test of martyrdom to which he often refers in his rhetoric or if, on the contrary, he has planned for himself and his circle of loyalists the option of an escape outside the country.
In the latter case, the decision to abandon the capital under the pretext of wanting to command the troops from the front line could represent an attempt to escape the risk connected to the fall of Addis Ababa, locating the center of its interests in a safer place – and with a wider margin of maneuver.
The government’s indications regarding information from the media on the progress of the conflict also seem to move in this direction, through a recent reference to the law on the state of emergency, which essentially prohibits providing any indication on the evolution of the clashes in progress, citing the need to prevent the disclosure of untrue information conveyed by what is constantly defined as the Tigrinya’s ability to feed disinformation.
The foreign press is thus the object of a continuous attack by the federal institutions of Ethiopia, which accuse the main international information networks of openly siding with the Tigrinya opposition forces, spreading information that does not correspond to the real evolution of the conflict with the intention of striking and discrediting the image of the government in Addis Ababa.
The ban on commenting the evolution of national political dynamics has however been widely extended to every sphere of Ethiopian society, where a recent measure threatens academics at national universities with the loss of their titles if they are accused of disseminating Tigrinya-produced propaganda.
In a seemingly unstoppable drift, many foreign embassies have also been accused of sympathizing with the Tigrinya cause, and have been hit with restrictive measures and expulsions, as in the case of the Irish diplomatic representative, which was ordered to expel six of its diplomats after the Dublin government repeatedly accused Ethiopia of human rights violations during the conflict.
Most European countries, on the other hand, have advised their citizens to urgently leave Ethiopia, recording a progressive and rapid deterioration of security in the country.
At the same time, however, demonstrations of support for the government and PM Abiy Ahmed are multiplying, both in Ethiopia and through the diaspora network, with a direction and the adoption of a rhetoric of the slogans that leaves little room for the credibility of the independence of such initiatives.
The evolution of the conflict
During the last week, the most interesting element in the evolution of the conflict’s dynamics concerned what many have defined as a progressive crisis in relations between the authorities of the regional state of Amhara and the federal government in Addis Ababa.
Criticism of the federal government for the continuous military defeats has multiplied, especially in the informality of communication through social media networks, complaining in particular about the failure to transfer weapons and equipment to the Fano militia, considered by the Amhara as a valuable element in the military effort against the TDF and OLA forces.
The Fano militia, in fact, would represent the main element of the offensive that during the last week has been launched against the cities of Lalibela and Sekota, under the control of the TDF, where, although not succeeding in the reconquest, have severely committed the Tigrinya forces for at least three days.
Intense fighting was also recorded along the border between the regional state of Afar and that of Amhara under the control of the TDF and the OLA, near the towns of Bati and Chifra, with the intent to counter the persistent attempt of the TDF Tigrinya forces to advance towards the city of Mile, which is the main land road junction to Djibouti and its port terminal.
The importance of this combat front is witnessed by the first public appearance of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed at the front, on November 26, just behind the Afar border, where the local military forces together with the federal ones announced they had launched a double counteroffensive ideally oriented to regain the cities of Woldiya in the north (via Chifra) and Komblocha in the south (via Bati).
Should the federal counteroffensive be successful, the advance towards the capital of the TDF forces would be compromised – or at least severely limited – allowing a radical overturning of the balance of power along the entire front line.
The forces of the TDF and the OLA have lost control of the small village of Kasa Gita, along the regional road B11 in the direction of Mile, thus having to retreat their defensive capabilities around the town of Bari, where there has been intense fighting in recent days.
The government offensive has been conducted also through the use of air forces and especially drones, which have repeatedly hit the capital of Tigray, Macallè, and further south the road between Debre Sina and Shewa Robit, where the TDF and OLA forces are engaged in the offensive towards the south along the A2 highway.
No significant change has been recorded during the last week in the west and north-west of the capital, Addis Ababa, where OLA forces continue to maintain control over a vast and uneven geographical area, waiting to rejoin forces coming from the north-east to finally encircle the city and block the A3 and A2 highways.