Date: Wednesday, 25 November 2020
The deadline to surrender before Ethiopia bombards the northern city of Mekelle from the air is just hours away.
Failing a surrender, the Ethiopian military says it will bombard the regional capital, a city with a population of half a million people.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed rejected on Wednesday growing international demands for dialogue or a halt to the deadly fighting in the northern Tigray region. He referred to such as calls as “interference”, adding his country will handle the conflict on its own as the 72-hour surrender expires today at 16:30 GMT.
In mid-November, the AU Chair, South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa, appointed three special envoys to mediate the conflict. The panel consists of three ex-presidents: Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia, Joachim Chissano of Mozambique, and Kgalema Motlanthe, one of Ramaphosa’s predecessors in South Africa.
Meanwhile, PM Abiy sent his Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Demeke Mekonnen on a regional shuttle diplomacy covering Kampala, Kinshasa, Nairobi, and Kigali. Former foreign minister and now National Security Advisor Gedu Andargachew showed up in Khartoum and Djibouti City, as Addis Ababa seeks to explain itself to its neighbours.
One of the fears behind the concerted efforts at diplomacy is that the conflict could spread into other places in Ethiopia and beyond. In the three weeks since Addis Ababa begun its military onslaught on Tigray, the latter’s ruling TPLF has claimed responsibility for several rocket attacks on Bahir Dar and Gondar, two major cities in Amhara, and Asmara, the capital of its nemesis, neighboring Eritrea.
On Tuesday 24 November, the UN Security Council held a meeting to discuss the ongoing conflict in Ethiopia. Part of the urgency of the meeting was the looming deadline of a 72-hour ulimatum for unconditional surrender issued by PM Abiy Ahmed on Sunday November 22nd. In what he called the “final and third phase” of the military onslaught, the Ethiopian leader said federal forces were closing in on Mekelle, the capital of Tigray. “Like terrorist groups we have seen in some countries that do not care about the people or the country, they have taken Mekelle city hostage and are treating it as a war zone rather than the home that it is for many innocent Ethiopians,” he said in the statement.
“He doesn’t understand who we are,” the TPLF leader, Debretsion Gebremichael, responded, according to the AFP, “We are people of principle and ready to die in defence of our right to administer our region.”
Point of no return
With the expiry of the 72-hour ultimatum to the TPLF to surrender, Ethiopia’s federal government is set to begin its assault on Mekelle this week. Analysts, regional watchers and human rights defenders have warned against the collective punishment and human rights violations of attacking a capital city of half a million people, but PM Abiy Ahmed is now too dug in to retreat. While the battle for Mekelle city might be short or drawn out, the real dangers lie in the scars and human carnage the entire conflict will leave in Ethiopia, as well as the damage it will do to Abiy Ahmed’s reformist credentials.
At least 600 people were killed in a single night of ethnic cleansing in the ongoing conflict between the Ethiopian federal government and Tigray’s regional government, according to an Ethiopian government human rights body.
In a preliminary report released on 24 November, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) confirmed reports of the widespread massacre in Mai Kadra, a rural town of between 40,000 to 45,000 people in the Western Zone of Tigray Region. The attack began on the afternoon of 9 November and lasted until the wee hours of the next morning.
The EHRC report provides further details on the targeted massacre of male seasonal labourers, many from the neighbouring Amhara region, by a Tigrayan militia group. The night-long massacre was first reported by Amnesty International on November 12th.
Then, at 3:00pm on November 9th, the ethnic cleansing begun with the summary execution of an Amhara man called Abiy Tsegaye in front of his family. “…the group of perpetrators forced Abiy Tsegaye out of his house and had him shot in front of his family by a local militia and former colleague called Shambel Kahsay, before throwing his body into the raging fire that engulfed their house,” the report says.
The EHRC report was briefly mentioned in a statement by PM Abiy Ahmed on Wednesday November 25th as mounting evidence of “crimes against humanity and war crimes” by the TPLF and its militias. In the same statement, PM Abiy asked the international community “to refrain from any unwelcome and unlawful acts of interference” in the ongoing conflict. This follows concerted efforts by the African Union, which is headquartered in Ethiopia’s capital, to bring the two sides to the table.