Battle-hardy Tigray back in spotlight as Ethiopia conflict flares

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Once again, troops are rushing into a rugged corner of Ethiopia that has been at the heart of momentous events for decades, from war with Eritrea to the toppling of a Marxist dictatorship.

This time, it is the federal government sending jets and soldiers against the restive northern Tigray region in an offensive with ethnic undertones that threatens to destabilise both Ethiopia and the wider Horn of Africa.

Reuters reporters in the area this week saw trucks full of militia fighters and pickups with machine-guns rushing along windy mountain tracks to the front line in support of federal troops’ offensive against Tigrayan forces.

Helicopters flew overhead and some villages were deserted.

Conflict and hardship are nothing new to Tigrayans.

They were the leading force among rebels who wrested power from the brutal Marxist Derg regime in 1991.

This time, it is the federal government sending jets and soldiers against the restive northern Tigray region in an offensive with ethnic undertones that threatens to destabilise both Ethiopia and the wider Horn of Africa.

Reuters reporters in the area this week saw trucks full of militia fighters and pickups with machine-guns rushing along windy mountain tracks to the front line in support of federal troops’ offensive against Tigrayan forces.

Helicopters flew overhead and some villages were deserted.

Conflict and hardship are nothing new to Tigrayans.

They were the leading force among rebels who wrested power from the brutal Marxist Derg regime in 1991.

In September, Tigray defied Abiy to hold a regional election after the government postponed voting nationwide due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Tigray’s poll was declared illegal and its budget cut.

Then last week, Abiy accused the TPLF of attacking a federal military base and launched his offensive.

HISTORY OF RESISTANCE

The history of guerrilla resistance looms large in a society that used its highland terrain and foreign borders to its advantage through years of armed struggle in the 1980s.

Fighters, both men and women, marched with AK-47s on their back and some with plastic sandals on their feet, to the capital Addis Ababa, 1 000 km south in 1991 to overthrow Mengistu Haile Mariam’s “Red Terror” regime.

A museum in Tigray’s capital Mekelle recounts the bravery of the “martyrs” and local TV still shows footage of the march.

Though Tigray has modern roads and several airports – an indication of the group’s dominance before Abiy – many of its people remain poor. About 600 000 depend on food aid to survive.

The central bank has ordered all banks in Tigray closed.

Abiy appears bent on crushing the local leadership, diplomats say, but that is no easy task.

Tigrayan forces and militia are battle-hardened, have large stocks of military hardware and number up to 250 000 men, experts say. Federal authorities have restricted access to the region, making it hard to verify details of the fighting.

However, there are indications that Tigrayans in the powerful Northern Command, which accounts for about half of the federal army’s manpower and its best divisions, are defecting.

Local forces are already in control of its headquarters in Mekelle and other army facilities in Tigray, according to a United Nations internal security report seen by Reuters.

Ethiopia expert Alex de Waal said Abiy may have underestimated the Tigray leaders’ skills at both politics and war.



The Tufts University academic recalled the words of Tsadkan Gebretensae, a Tigrayan who once commanded Ethiopia’s army against Eritrea, in a conversation with him: “War is primarily an intellectual activity.”