The civil war that erupted a year ago between the Ethiopian government and its Eritrean and ethnic militia allies on one side, and rebel fighters from the northern region of Tigray on the other, has reached a critical juncture. Now there is a very real possibility that the Tigray rebels could topple the government.

Last week, Ethiopia declared a state of emergency. The government has called for veterans and retired troops to rejoin the military in the fight against the armed wing of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). It has also asked the people of the capital, Addis Ababa, to join the war effort with whatever weapons they have.

Over the weekend, the United States and Canada authorized the voluntary departure of non-emergency government staff and family members because of the deteriorating security situation. 

Tigray rebels Ethiopia
Tigray rebels have taken three towns on the road to the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa.

The UN, United States, and the EU have called for an immediate ceasefire and an end to the blockade in the Tigray region to avert a large-scale famine. A UN report from July stated that there were already 400,000 people that had “crossed the threshold into famine,” with 1.8 million more on the brink. In addition, about 46,000 people had fled into Sudan while 1.8 million people were internally displaced. 

The fighting has ignited long-standing ethnic tensions between Eritreans and Tigrayans. There have been numerous reports of both sides conducting atrocities including extrajudicial executions, torture, rape, and attacks on the civilian populace.

In an NPR report, Cameron Hudson from the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center said the worst human rights abuses in Tigray have been carried out by Eritrean soldiers. “They have tried to eliminate the Tigrayans,” Hudson said, “and there’s no telling what the Tigrayans might be interested in doing if they were able to seize the upper hand against the Ethiopian government.”


‘An Existential War’

The TPLF once ruled and dominated politics in the country. It was supported by the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), a rebel group from Ethiopia’s most populous Oromia region that was fighting for the rights of the region’s people.

The rebels claim to have taken three towns including Dessie and Kombolcha, two key towns 200 miles on the road to the capital.

On Saturday, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed posted on Twitter that “A nation of great potential and immense cultural, historic and national wealth, #Ethiopia will persevere through our current challenges. In unwavering unity, we will remain on our path towards greater heights. #ResilientlyOnwards.”

But just a day later, Facebook removed a post of his for inciting violence where he called on the Ethiopian people to take up arms against Tigrayan forces. “Our people should march… with any weapon and resources they have to defend, repulse, and bury the terrorist TPLF.”

Ethiopia soldiers on pick-up truck
Ethiopian soldiers are involved in heavy fighting with Tigrayan rebels. (AP)

The diplomatic community is hard at work trying to find a way to create a ceasefire and ease the humanitarian situation. The U.S. special envoy for the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, arrived in Addis Ababa to press for a start to ceasefire talks. The African Union Commission, and neighboring Uganda, Kenya met with Feltman in the hope of getting the fighting to stop. 

For now, the Ethiopian government of Abiy has resisted calls for a ceasefire. “We are fighting an existential war,” the government said in a statement issued by its communication service.

Washington and the EU have grave concerns that if Ethiopia becomes a failed state, it will open the door for international terrorists to flood into its territory. Ethiopia has been helping the government of Somalia and has been successful at keeping a lid on the terrorist group al-Shabaab. 

The Ethiopian government seems to be teetering on the edge as the rebels advance on the capital.