NAIROBI, Kenya — Secret meetings with a dictator. Clandestine troop movements. Months of quiet preparation for a war that was supposed to be swift and bloodless.
New evidence shows that Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, had been planning a military campaign in the northern Tigray region for months before war erupted one year ago, setting off a cascade of destruction and ethnic violence that has engulfed Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous country.
Mr. Abiy, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate seen recently in fatigues commanding troops on the battlefront, insists that war was foisted upon him — that ethnic Tigrayan fighters fired the first shots in November 2020 when they attacked a federal military base in Tigray, slaughtering soldiers in their beds. That account has become an article of faith for Mr. Abiy and his supporters.
In fact, it was a war of choice for Mr. Abiy — one with wheels set in motion even before the Nobel Peace Prize win in 2019 that turned him, for a time, into a global icon of nonviolence.
Tigrayans routed the Ethiopian troops and their Eritrean allies over the summer and last month came within 160 miles of the capital, Addis Ababa — prompting Mr. Abiy to declare a state of emergency.
Recently, the pendulum has swung back, with government forces retaking two strategic towns that had been captured by the Tigrayans — the latest twist in a conflict that has already cost tens of thousands of lives and pushed hundreds of thousands into famine-like conditions.
Analysts say that Mr. Abiy’s journey from peacemaker to battlefield commander is a cautionary tale of how the West, desperate to find a new hero in Africa, got this leader spectacularly wrong.
“The West needs to make up for its mistakes in Ethiopia,” said Alex Rondos, formerly the European Union’s top diplomat in the Horn of Africa. “It misjudged Abiy. It empowered Isaias. Now the issue is whether a country of 110 million people can be prevented from unraveling.”
The Nobel Committee Takes a Chance
Accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in December 2019, Mr. Abiy, a former soldier, drew on his own experience to eloquently capture the horror of conflict.
his first months in power, Mr. Abiy, then 41, freed political prisoners, unshackled the press and promised free elections in Ethiopia. His peace deal with Eritrea, a pariah state, was a political moonshot for the strife-torn Horn of Africa region.
Even so, the five-member Norwegian Nobel Committee knew it was taking on a chance on Mr. Abiy, said Henrik Urdal of Peace Research Institute Oslo, which analyzes the committee’s decisions.
announced to applause that he was nominating Mr. Abiy for a Nobel Peace Prize.
Back in Sweden, Dr. Kontie persuaded Anders Österberg, a parliamentarian from a low-income Stockholm district with a large immigrant population, to join his cause. Mr. Österberg traveled to Ethiopia, met with Mr. Abiy and was impressed.
at least two nominations for Mr. Abiy that year.
In selecting Mr. Abiy, the Nobel Committee hoped to encourage him further down the path of democratic reforms, Mr. Urdal said.
Even then, though, there were signs that Mr. Abiy’s peace deal wasn’t all it seemed.
reopened borders, were rolled back or reversed in a matter of months. Promised trade pacts failed to materialize, and there was little concrete cooperation, the Ethiopian officials said.
Eritrea’s spies, however, gained an edge. Ethiopian intelligence detected an influx of Eritrean agents, some posing as refugees, who gathered information about Ethiopia’s military capabilities, a senior Ethiopian security official said.
The Eritreans were particularly interested in Tigray, he said.
Mr. Isaias had a long and bitter grudge against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which dominated Ethiopia for nearly three decades until Mr. Abiy came to power in 2018. He blamed Tigrayan leaders for the fierce border war of 1998 to 2000 between Ethiopia and Eritrea, a former province of Ethiopia, in which as many as 100,000 people were killed. He also blamed them for Eritrea’s painful international isolation, including United Nations sanctions.
For Mr. Abiy, it was more complicated.
He served in the T.P.L.F.-dominated governing coalition for eight years and was made a minister in 2015. But as an ethnic Oromo, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, he never felt fully accepted by Tigrayans and suffered numerous humiliations, former officials and friends said.
visited the ancient Amhara city of Gondar in November 2018, chanting, “Isaias, Isaias, Isaias!”
Later, a troupe of Eritrean singers and dancers visited Amhara. But the delegation included Eritrea’s spy chief, Abraha Kassa, who used the trip to meet with Amhara security leaders, the senior Ethiopian official said. Eritrea later agreed to train 60,000 troops from the Amhara Special Forces, a paramilitary unit that later deployed to Tigray.
advocated an effective merger of Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti — a suggestion that dismayed Ethiopian officials who saw it as straight from the playbook of Mr. Isaias.
Aides also saw the remarks as further proof of Mr. Abiy’s impulsive tendencies, leading them to cancel his news conference during the Nobel ceremonies in Oslo 10 months later.
Irreconcilable Visions Lead to War
Mr. Abiy viewed the Tigrayans as a threat to his authority — perhaps even his life — from his first days in power.
The Tigrayans had preferred another candidate as prime minister, and Mr. Abiy told friends he feared Tigrayan security officials were trying to assassinate him, an acquaintance said.
At the prime minister’s residence, soldiers were ordered to stand guard on every floor. Mr. Abiy purged ethnic Tigrayans from his security detail and created the Republican Guard, a handpicked unit under his direct control, whose troops were sent for training to the United Arab Emirates — a powerful new ally also close to Mr. Isaias, a former Ethiopian official said.
The unexplained killing of the Ethiopian military chief, Gen. Seare Mekonnen, an ethnic Tigrayan who was shot dead by a bodyguard in June 2019, heightened tensions.
violent clashes between police officers and protesters erupted across the Oromia region, culminating in the death in June 2020 of a popular singer.
publicly appealed to both sides to halt “provocative military deployments.” The next evening, Tigrayan forces attacked an Ethiopian military base, calling it a pre-emptive strike.
Eritrean soldiers flooded into Tigray from the north. Amhara Special Forces arrived from the south. Mr. Abiy fired General Adem and announced a “law enforcement operation”in Tigray.
Ethiopia’s ruinous civil war was underway.
A New York Times reporter contributed reporting from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
NAIROBI, Kenya — Eritrean troops continue to commit atrocities in the northern Ethiopian region of Tigray, despite assurances by Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, that they were leaving, a senior United Nations official said Thursday.
Mr. Abiy has come under pressure over reports of massacres, looting and sexual assaults by Eritrean troops. Last month, he flew to the Eritrean capital, Asmara, and announced that his ally, the autocratic Eritrean leader Isaias Afwerki, had agreed to bring his soldiers home.
But the U.N. and its humanitarian partners have seen no evidence that such a withdrawal has taken place, Mark Lowcock, the top U.N. humanitarian official, told the Security Council. In fact, Mr. Lowcock said, Eritrean soldiers had begun to disguise their identities by wearing Ethiopian military uniforms, and some had killed civilians during indiscriminate attacks as recently as Monday.
The Times obtained a transcript of Mr. Lowcock’s remarks, which were made in a private briefing. They paint a grim picture of the violence in Tigray, where a clash between Mr. Abiy and regional leaders in November has degenerated into a chaotic and pitiless conflict that threatens to destabilize the entire Horn of Africa region.
“ethnic cleansing” earlier this month by the United States Secretary of State, Antony J. Blinken.
Hunger is spreading with up to 150 people starving to death recently in one district south of the Tigrayan capital, Mekelle, Mr. Lowcock told the Security Council.
involve sexual violence, the majority by men in uniform, he said. Girls as young as eight have been targeted.
In one instance, Mr. Lowcock said, Eritrean soldiers gang raped a woman in front of her children, days after her husband had been killed and she had lost a newborn baby.
said in a statement. “The U.N.’s most powerful body needs to end its paralysis.”
Rick Gladstone contributed reporting from New York.
NAIROBI, Kenya — After months of denial, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia admitted this week that Eritrean troops had been fighting in Tigray, the war-torn northern Ethiopian region where the brutal conflict between pro-government and local fighters has become a byword for atrocities against civilians.
On Friday, under mounting American and international pressure, Mr. Abiy went one step further and announced that the Eritrean soldiers had agreed to go home.
Mr. Abiy’s statement, issued after a meeting with President Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea, offered a faint glimmer of hope amid a stream of horrific reports about widespread looting, massacres and sexual violence in Tigray.
soldiers from Eritrea — even as Mr. Isaias, the dictatorial leader of the notoriously secretive country, denied that his troops were even present in Tigray.
Mr. Abiy flew to meet Mr. Isaias on Thursday, days after an envoy sent by President Biden pressed the Ethiopian leader to halt the carnage, and to reinforce American calls for an immediate withdrawal of Eritrean troops.The United States has publicly called for Eritrean soldiers to be withdrawn from Tigray.
On Friday Eritrea’s information minister, Yemane Ghebremeskel, appeared to confirm Mr. Abiy’s declaration that an Eritrean troop withdrawal had been agreed upon. Public statements from both governments “underline full agreement and consensus on all issues discussed,” he said in a text message after Mr. Abiy had left the Eritrean capital, Asmara.
Mr. Abiy launched a military campaign in Tigray on Nov. 4, accusing rebellious Tigrayan leaders of orchestrating an attack on a major military base and trying to topple the federal government.
As the fighting gathered pace, reports of gross abuses against civilians began to emerge from Tigray. Ethiopian soldiers, allied fighters from ethnic Ahmara militias, and fighters loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front all faced accusations.
But United Nations officials and human rights groups singled out Eritrean troops for many of the worst violations. Last weekend, Mr. Abiy spent five hours in talks with U.S. Senator Chris Coons, who had been sent to Ethiopia by President Biden to convey his alarm at the deteriorating situation.
In a briefing to reporters on Thursday, Mr. Coons said that the talks were “forthright” at times, and that Mr. Abiy had reiterated his promise to investigate human rights abuses in Tigray, including “credible reports of sexual violence as a tool of war.”
But Mr. Abiy has fallen short on such commitments before, Mr. Coons said, and the United States intends to keep up the pressure.
“It’s actions that are going to matter,” he said.
On Friday a State Department spokeswoman welcomed Ethiopia’s announcement, calling it “an important step” toward de-escalation.
In a mark of the impunity that has come to characterize the Tigrayan conflict, Ethiopian soldiers dragged civilians from a bus on a major road in Tigray and executed four of them in front of aid workers from Doctors Without Borders, the group said in a statement Thursday.
a landmark peace deal soon after Mr. Abiy came to power.
The pact earned Mr. Abiy the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 and helped Mr. Isaias, one of the world’s most repressive leaders, to emerge from international isolation. After the Tigray war erupted in November, though, critics said the two leaders were mostly united by their shared hostility toward the leaders of Tigray.
It was unclear on Friday whether Mr. Abiy’s announcement signaled a potential breakthrough in ending the fighting in Tigray or another feint by two leaders under international pressure.
In his statement, Mr. Abiy said Eritrea had agreed to withdraw its forces “out of the Ethiopian border,” where, effective immediately, Ethiopian soldiers were to assume border guarding duties.
But it was unclear if that included Eritrean troops stationed deep inside Tigray, where many of the worst atrocities have occurred.
Amnesty International has blamed Eritrean forces for the massacre of hundreds of civilians in Axum, a city in northern Tigray. Sexual violence survivors from Tigray have blamed horrific assaults on Eritrean troops.
over 500 rape cases have been reported at five clinics in Tigray, although the actual number is likely far higher.
“Women say they have been raped by armed actors, they also told stories of gang rape, rape in front of family members, and men being forced to rape their own family members under the threat of violence,” the official, Wafaa Said, said.
Exactly how many Eritrean troops are stationed inside Tigray and where is unclear. Much of the region remains out of bounds for aid workers and reporters, and sporadic fighting continues in rural and mountainous areas.
Still, the departure of all Eritrean troops would likely pose a serious military challenge to Mr. Abiy.
The Ethiopian army fractured in the early days of the war, when hundreds and possibly more Ethiopian soldiers defected to the rebel side, according to Western officials. Since then, Mr. Abiy has regained control of a swath of Tigray with help from his allies — ethnic Amhara fighters and soldiers from Eritrea.
Were the Eritreans to leave en masse, some analysts say, government forces might struggle to maintain their grip on the parts of Tigray that they now control.