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.