Ethiopia: The attack on the Northern Command

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This is a brief take from Getting Ethiopia Dead Wrong by Veteran Horn of Africa Correspondent, Rasmus Sonderriis

On the third of November 2020, around one thousand senior Ethiopian commanders stationed in Tigray went for a dinner party with regional government officials. The invitation, however, was a ruse to take them prisoner.

That same night, while the world was focused on vote-counting in the US presidential election, a total of five federal military bases in Tigray came under fire. Defenders were killed or captured, though those in the Sero Base, near the border with Eritrea, held out for a grueling ten days. Tigrayan soldiers turned on their comrades of other ethnicities, many of whom had lived in Tigray for decades, working alongside the local communities. Reports about soldiers killed in their pyjamas and arbitrary cruelty shocked the Ethiopian public.

Thankfully, Michael Pompeo, Secretary of State under the outgoing Trump administration, condemned it immediately.

U.S Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s message on X (formerly Twitter), acknowledging the surprise attack on Ethiopia’s Northern Command by TPLF forces.

Wisely, Secretary Pompeo left it open to interpretation how to “de-escalate tensions”, but surely “immediate action to restore the peace” meant arresting those responsible for such a ferocious assault on the constitutional order.

For the first year or so, the world press downplayed or omitted this manifest casus belli altogether, even in longreads on the war, which focused obsessively on the prime minister’s personality and on how the Nobel Peace Prize had gone to his head.

The Economist, for instance, as late as October 2021, while TPLF troops were marching on Addis Ababa, published a shockingly defamatory and inflammatory leader, to which we shall return in Part 3, attributing the cause of the conflict to an “increasingly paranoid and erratic” Abiy Ahmed deciding to attack the regional government of Tigray, “which he accused of rebellion”. This shallow phrasing amounts to speculating that the attack on the Northern Command was made up.

In fact, only ten days into the war, the high-ranking TPLF leader, Sekoture Getachew, speaking on Tigrayan televisionconfirmed that an elaborate plan had been executed, using soldiers from inside and outside the bases, with the aim of taking over the firepower of the Ethiopian army. Some two weeks later, this was admitted by Getachew Reda, with the excuse that “whatever we did, we did in self-defense”. In January 2021, Kjetil Tronvoll mentioned it in an article, as did, in March 2021, the diehard pro-TPLF magazine Tghat, albeit portraying it as a preemptive strike justified by an enemy plan to commit genocide. Accordingly, the world press eventually began to incorporate this event into its timeline.

High-ranking TPLF official, Sekoture Getachew, speaking on Tigray Television confirmed what he dubbed, “a lightening speed surprise attack to incapacitate Ethiopia’s northern Command”

From the first day of the war, Declan Walsh and co-author Simon Marks, writing in The New York Times, put the war down to the notion that “Mr. Abiy presented a radically different face”, from his Nobel-Peace-Prize face that was. They studiously ignored the crucial dispute over the control of the army, except for stating that “Mr. Abiy said his hand had been forced by Tigrayan leaders who brazenly defied his authority”. Of course, there is no quotation mark around the prime minister saying: they brazenly defied my authority. But this is how The New York Times interprets his denunciation of the attack on the Northern Command, which it does not even bother to mention. What the New York Times would take for granted at home in the US, namely state monopoly on violence under democratic rule of law, is reduced for Ethiopia to the big man exercising “his authority”.

Then acting U.S Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of African Affairs, Robert F. Codec unequivocally declared TPLF as initiator of the war.

Eleven days into the war, Mr. Walsh and Mr. Marks did report “a purported Tigrayan attack on an Ethiopian army base in Tigray early this month”. This is when Kjetil Tronvoll is introduced in the New York Times as a “a scholar of Ethiopian politics”. Conversations with him might have colored Mr. Walsh’s views, as he continued to overlook not only the foregoing two and a half years of political developments as the source of the tension, but also the attack on the Northern Command as the point of no return. The New York Times explanation would continue to focus on the “messianic” prime minister, who had “plunged Ethiopia into a war”. Finally, by December 2021, Declan Walsh must have felt challenged, as the attack on the five federal bases had become acknowledged as fact and was getting more mention in the media. This accounts for the timing of the “new evidence” that the prime minister “had been planning a military campaign in the northern Tigray region for months before the war (…)”. Mr. Walsh was rationalizing his early choice of virtually ignoring the attack on the Northern Command.

That this is how the war began is no longer controversial. Yet even as of 2023, The Guardian’s official view frames it as a mere accusation: “Fighting broke out in November 2020 when Ethiopia’s prime minister Abiy Ahmed deployed the army to arrest Tigrayan leaders who had been challenging his authority for months and whom he accused of attacking federal military bases.”

Once again, legitimacy to rule Ethiopia is reduced to the big man exercising “his authority”. And “challenging his authority” is a hell of a euphemism for raiding national armories and usurping the command of the national army.

To read the full story of Getting Ethiopia Dead Wrong: Click Here

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