Tigrayan soldiers outside Mekelle, the capital of the Tigray region of Ethiopia, on June 29, 2021. (Finbarr O'Reilly/The New York Times)
Secret meetings with a dictator. Clandestine troop movements. Months of quiet preparation for a war that was supposed to be swift and bloodless.
New evidence shows that Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, had been planning a military campaign in the northern Tigray region for months before war erupted one year ago, setting off a cascade of destruction and ethnic violence that has engulfed Ethiopia, Africa’s second-most-populous country.
Abiy, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate seen recently in fatigues commanding troops on the battlefront, insists that war was foisted upon him — that ethnic Tigrayan fighters fired the first shots in November 2020 when they attacked a federal military base in Tigray, slaughtering soldiers in their beds. That account has become an article of faith for Abiy and his supporters.
In fact, it was a war of choice for Abiy — one with wheels set in motion even before the Nobel Peace Prize win in 2019
that turned him, for a time, into a global icon of nonviolence.
The Nobel win stemmed largely from the unlikely peace deal Abiy struck with Isaias Afwerki, the authoritarian leader of Eritrea, within months of coming to power in 2018. That pact ended two decades of hostility and war between the neighboring rivals, and inspired lofty hopes for a transformed region.
Instead, the Nobel emboldened Abiy and Isaias to secretly plot a course for war against their mutual foes in Tigray, according to current and former Ethiopian officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid reprisals or protect family members inside Ethiopia.
In the months before fighting erupted in November 2020, Abiy moved troops toward Tigray and sent military cargo planes into Eritrea. Behind closed doors, his advisers and military generals debated the merits of a conflict. Those who disagreed were fired, interrogated at gunpoint or forced to leave.
Still dazzled by Abiy’s Nobel win, the West ignored those warning signs, the officials said. But ultimately it helped to pave the way to war.
“From that day, Abiy felt he was one of the most influential personalities in the world,” said Gebremeskel Kassa, a former senior Abiy administration official now in exile in Europe.
“He felt he had a lot of international support, and that if he went to war in Tigray, nothing would happen. And he was right.”
Abiy’s spokeswoman, the information minister of Eritrea and the Norwegian Nobel
Committee did not respond to questions for this article.
The quick and easy military victory Abiy promised has not come to pass. The Tigrayans routed the Ethiopian troops and their Eritrean allies over the summer and last month came within 160 miles of the capital, Addis Ababa — prompting Abiy to declare a state of emergency.
Recently, the pendulum has swung back, with government forces retaking two strategic towns that had been captured by the Tigrayans — the latest twist in a conflict that has already cost tens of thousands of lives and pushed hundreds of thousands into faminelike conditions.
Analysts say Abiy’s journey from peacemaker to battlefield commander is a cautionary tale of how the West, desperate to find a new hero in Africa, got this leader spectacularly wrong.
“The West needs to make up for its mistakes in Ethiopia,” said Alex Rondos, formerly the European Union’s top diplomat in the Horn of Africa. “It misjudged Abiy. It empowered Isaias. Now the issue is whether a country of 110 million people can be prevented from unraveling.”
The Nobel Committee takes a chance
Accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in December 2019, Abiy, a former soldier, drew on his own experience to eloquently capture the horror of conflict.
“War is the epitome of hell,” he told a distinguished audience at Oslo City Hall. “I know because I have been there and back.”
To his foreign admirers, the soaring rhetoric was further proof of an exceptional leader. In his first months in power, Abiy, then 41, freed political prisoners, unshackled the press and promised free elections in Ethiopia. His peace
deal with Eritrea, a pariah state, was a political moonshot for the strife-torn Horn of Africa region.
Even so, the five-member Norwegian Nobel Committee knew it was taking a chance on Abiy, said Henrik Urdal of Peace Research Institute Oslo, which analyzes the committee’s decisions.
Abiy’s sweeping reforms were fragile and easily reversible, Urdal said, and the peace with Eritrea centered on his relationship with Isaias, a ruthless and battle-hardened autocrat.
“My partner and comrade in peace,” Abiy called him in Oslo.
In selecting Abiy, the Nobel Committee hoped to encourage him further down the path of democratic reforms, Urdal said.
Even then, though, there were signs that Abiy’s peace deal was not all it seemed.
Its initial fruits, like daily commercial flights between the two countries and reopened borders, were rolled back or reversed in a matter of months. Promised trade pacts failed to materialize, and there was little concrete cooperation, the Ethiopian officials said.
Irreconcilable visions lead to war
Abiy viewed the Tigrayans as a threat to his authority — perhaps even his life — from his first days in power.
The Tigrayans had preferred another candidate as prime minister, and Abiy told friends he feared Tigrayan security officials were trying to assassinate him, an acquaintance said.
At the prime minister’s residence, soldiers were ordered to stand guard on every floor. Abiy purged ethnic Tigrayans from his security detail and created the Republican Guard, a hand-picked unit under his direct control, whose troops were sent for training to the United Arab Emirates — a powerful new ally also close to Isaias, a former Ethiopian official said.
The unexplained killing of the Ethiopian military chief, Gen. Seare Mekonnen, an ethnic Tigrayan who was shot dead by a bodyguard in June 2019, heightened tensions.
The rift with the Tigrayans was also driven by profound political differences. Within weeks of the Nobel Prize decision, Abiy created the Prosperity Party, which incarnated his vision of a strong, centralized Ethiopian government.
But that vision was anathema to the millions of Ethiopians who yearned for greater regional autonomy — in particular the Tigrayans and members of his own ethnic group, the Oromo.
In September the Tigrayans went ahead with a regional election, in open defiance of an order from Abiy. Abiy moved troops from the Somali and Oromia regions toward Tigray.
In a video conference call in mid-October, Abiy told governing party officials that he would intervene militarily in Tigray and that it would take only three to five days to oust the region’s leaders, said Gebremeskel, the former senior official now in exile.
On Nov. 2 the EU foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell Fontelles, publicly appealed to both sides to halt “provocative military deployments.” The next evening, Tigrayan forces attacked an Ethiopian military base, calling it a preemptive strike.
Eritrean soldiers flooded into Tigray from the north. Amhara Special Forces arrived from the south. Abiy fired Adem and announced a “law enforcement operation” in Tigray.
Ethiopia’s ruinous civil war was underway.
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