‘We’re Ready to Die’ – Ethiopian Civil War Reaches Crucial Stage

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has given the Tigray regional forces a 72-hour ultimatum to surrender. So far they haven’t.
Children play in front of a hotel damaged by mortar shelling, in Humera, Ethiopia.
Children play in front of a hotel damaged by mortar shelling, in Humera, Ethiopia, on November 22, 2020. Photo by EDUARDO SOTERAS/AFP via Getty Images

The future of 500,000 people is on a knife-edge after Ethiopia said government troops had surrounded the capital of Tigray but regional leaders said they would fight to the death.

On Sunday, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed gave forces in the northern region 72 hours to surrender, a deadline that expires on Wednesday.

“The second phase of the law enforcement actions we began in the Tigray Region has been completed,” Abiy said in a statement. “We are now in the final and third phases. Your journey of destruction is coming to an end, and we urge you to surrender peacefully within 72 hours, recognising that you are at the point of no return." 


But the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which controls the region, rejected the call. Debretsion Gebremichael, TPLF leader, said Abiy "doesn't understand who we are. We are people of principle and ready to die in defence of our right to administer our region.”

The war began on the 4th of November following months of tension between Abiy and the Tigray regional government when the prime minister accused TPLF forces of attacking an army base stationed in northern Ethiopia. 

The government issued a six-month state of emergency in the area and continued military operations, which have included aerial and ground attacks for three weeks. Mekelle, home to some half a million people, is the last front on this offensive.

Aid agencies have warned of a massive humanitarian crisis in the north of the country. More than 38,000 Ethiopians have fled to seek refuge in Sudan, according to the UN, with the organisation preparing to host as many as 200,000 refugees and warning an additional 1.1 million people may need aid in Tigray and two neighbouring regions due to the conflict. 

“The conflict in the Tigray region has already claimed hundreds of civilian lives, left many more injured, and forced thousands into refugee camps in neighbouring Sudan,” said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Director for East and Southern Africa. “As Ethiopian federal troops begin preparations to encircle Mekelle, Amnesty International reminds all parties that deliberately attacking civilians and civilian objects is prohibited under international humanitarian law, and constitutes war crimes. Indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks are also prohibited.


Still, the Ethiopian government continues to bear down on the capital of Tigray, while TPLF leaders are claiming counter victories in Raya, a district in the southern Tigray. 

Tigray’s region leaders have also taken responsibility for a third rocket attack on Bahir Dar Airport, in Amhara region, on Monday, as well as taking down a helicopter and several tanks, according to Gebre Gebretsadik, a spokesperson of the regional force, who called the government’s declaration of victories “cheap false propaganda.”

“By and large, the Tigray region is under the control of our defence forces,” government spokesman Redwan Hussein told reporters on Monday. “Now, it is moving forward to Mekelle.”

Prime Minister Abiy came to power in 2018 on a wave of reforms: releasing political prisoners, welcoming exiled opponents and appointing a gender-balanced cabinet. The country has however been rocked by ethnic-based conflict over the same period leading to the death of hundreds of people. The government has often accused the TPLF, who ruled the country as the pre-eminent member of a ruling coalition, Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, EPRDF, since 1991. In September, Tigray went ahead with regional elections despite a postponement of the vote by the national electoral board due to coronavirus, raising tensions further.

The federal police issued arrest warrants against some TPLF officers for a range of charges, including high treason, armed rebellion and terrorism. The assets of some 34 companies – most of which are subsidiaries of the Endowment Fund for Rehabilitation of Tigray, a conglomerate controlled by members of the TPLF – have been frozen, according to the Office of the Attorney General. In October, the federal government also diverted budget subsidies to the Tigray regional government, instead of allocating the funds to local authorities directly. 


Abiy, last year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, says the government has been “very careful not to harm civilians, to the extent where missions have been aborted on identifying civilians around target areas.” There are, however, several reports of civilians falling victim to aerial attacks including at a University and places of worship. Federal forces accuse TPLF of destroying roads, bridges and the Axum Airport.

The Tigray regional forces that are estimated to number upwards of 250,000, according to Reuters, are calling on more residents of the region to enlist in the forces. Tigray regional forces also accuse neighbouring Eritrea of assisting Abiy by sending forces and launching drone attacks in Tigray. In response, Tigray launched rockets on Asmara, the Eritrean capital, last week. Eritrean officials are yet to publicly respond. 

Even before the attacks started, Tigray was home to some 90,000 Eritrean refugees, and another 100,000 internally displaced people. 

The Ethiopian government has declined calls for mediation by neighbouring countries and international bodies, including Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and the African Union (AU), terming the conflict as an internal matter of restoring constitutional order. On Friday, AU Chairperson, President Cyril Ramaphosa, appointed a three-person panel of envoys to “mediate between the parties to conflict.” 

The panel is made up of former heads of state – Joaquim Chissano, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and Kgalema Motlanthe – and is expected in Ethiopia in the coming days, the AU Chair said in a statement. Ethiopia however dismissed the potential for mediation clarifying only the PM would meet with the envoy.

“The primary task of the Special Envoys is to engage all sides to the conflict with a view to ending hostilities, creating conditions for an inclusive national dialogue to resolve all issues that led to the conflict, and restoring peace and stability to Ethiopia,” the AU Chair said in a statement on Twitter.

If the war goes on, Ethiopia, the seating headquarters of the African Union and the second-largest country by population in Africa, risks falling into another protracted conflict and humanitarian crisis in a region already prone to insecurity.