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Media report Ethiopia on the brink of “irreversible state collapse”

International alarm mounted this week over the escalating war in Ethiopia as the Guardian newspapers reports Tigrayan rebels claims they were getting even closer to the capital, Addis Ababa. Meanwhile, more more foreign citizens are being told to leave.

France has become the latest nation to advise its citizens to get out of Ethiopia. The UN has also ordered the evacuation of family members of international staff. The rebel Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) has claimed this week it had taken a town just 135 miles (220km) from the capital, although such claims are hard to verify. On Monday, the Ethiopian prime minister, Abiy Ahmed – a Nobel Peace Prize Winner – said vowed to head to the battlefront to lead his soldiers to battle.

“We are now in the final stages of saving Ethiopia,” said Abiy.

The latest developments cast doubt on hopes of a peaceful solution to the conflict, despite frantic diplomatic efforts, led by the African Union, to secure a ceasefire. Thousands of people have been killed since the fighting erupted in northern Ethiopia in November 2020, triggering a humanitarian crisis that the UN says has brought hundreds of thousands of people to the brink of famine, and displaced more than 2 million. The conflict erupted when Abiy sent troops into the northern Tigray region to topple the TPLF after months of tensions with the party, which had dominated national politics for three decades before he took power in 2018.

The UN on Tuesday launched a drive to bring food aid to two towns in northern Ethiopia. The UN’s World Food Programme said the “major food assistance operation” would serve more than 450,000 people during the next two weeks in the Amhara towns of Kombolcha and Dessie, which lie at a strategic crossroads on the main highway to Addis Ababa. Meanwhile, African journalists have recently begun to ring the death knell for Ethiopia’s immediate political future.

Ethiopia is facing an “existential crisis”, said Haitham Nouri in Al-Ahram (Cairo). As the country’s civil war entered its second year this month, the rebel Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) was advancing deep into territory controlled by federal forces, and threatening to march on the capital Addis Ababa. On Facebook, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed called on all Ethiopians “to organise and march… using every weapon and power… to prevent, reverse and bury the terrorist TPLF”.

The war has been brutalsaid Robbie Corey-Boulet in The Mail & Guardian (Cape Town); the federal army and its Eritrean allies were accused of committing mass atrocities against Tigrayans. And “a mostly hidden feature” of the civil war since has been “a mass campaign of arbitrary arrests” targeting Tigrayans in Addis Ababa and elsewhere in Ethiopia. The government has described it as a legitimate operation to stamp out TPLF terrorist cells, but reports suggest an “indiscriminate operation” ensnaring everyone from soldiers to day labourers to clergymen. “TPLF-supporting” businesses (i.e. those owned by Tigrayans) have been closed down. Amnesty International reports that more than 1,000 people are held at one camp in squalid conditions. Military courts have handed down death sentences to “traitorous” Tigrayan officers.

If Addis Ababa falls, there is a risk of major ethnic strife, said The Nation (Nairobi). “A mosaic of more than 80 ethnicities, Ethiopia may find itself mirroring the fate of the former Yugoslavia.” As the TPLF advances, it is likely to “encounter stiff resistance from Amhara military fighters who have mobilised in large numbers”. But taking the capital “may not be what the rebels have in mind”. They have captured the strategic towns of Dessie and Kombolcha in Amhara, and are moving east to capture the road to the port of Djibouti. This would ease humanitarian access to Tigray, where the UN says hundreds of thousands are on the brink of famine – thanks, the TPLF claims, to a government blockade. Capturing the road would also allow Tigrayan fighters to block the crucial supply route to Addis Ababa. “The strategy seems to be to strangle Addis rather than take it.” This would put the rebels in a stronger position for future negotiations.

There is little prospect of a ceasefire, said The Addis Standard. Abiy is demanding that the TPLF withdraw to Tigray, and recognise the government’s legitimacy. The TPLF has rejected those demands. There are “no easy solutions”, said Seifudein Adem in Foreign Policy (Washington DC). The basic issue is how much autonomy Ethiopia’s regions should have. The TPLF, which was in power until 2018, dismantled Amhara dominance of Ethiopia. The Amhara – ironically, led by an Oromo PM, Abiy – want to restore it. Ethiopia is now on the brink of “irreversible state collapse, which would also have regionwide consequences”. It “is reaching a stage where it cannot save itself”. Ideally, the African Union would step in to save it, but it is headquartered in Addis Ababa, and is “unlikely to upset its host”. The idea of US intervention – American forces are stationed in Djibouti – is unpopular. But in truth, “only the West has the willingness and capacity to rescue the Ethiopian state from devouring its own citizens – and eventually itself”.