Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali and his wife Zinash Tayachew take part in a memorial service for the victims of the Tigray conflict organized by the city administration, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on November 3, 2021.
Ethiopian Prime Ministry Office | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has reportedly traveled to lead his security forces from the frontlines in the war effort against advancing Tigrayan rebels.
Abiy, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, announced on social media on Monday that he would personally “mobilize to the front to lead the defense forces,” and urged Ethiopians to “rise up for (their) country.”
State-affiliated news outlet Fana reported on Wednesday that Abiy had left for battle, with Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekonnen Hassen taking charge of the government in his absence.
Abiy will be joined by Olympic heroes Haile Gebrselassie and Feyisa Lilesa, both of whom have declared their intent to assist in the fight against an alliance of rebel groups led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
The prime minister served in the Ethiopian army during the 1998-2000 border war with Eritrea and obtained the rank of lieutenant colonel. As leader, he later ended nearly two decades of tension between the neighboring countries by signing a landmark peace deal in 2019.
Upon assuming office in 2018, Abiy sought to stabilize the country by centralizing power in the federal government, a move that alienated the TPLF, which benefited under the previous devolved system and put it on a collision course with the new administration that has been exacerbated in recent years.
A year of fighting between Ethiopian National Defence Forces and the TPLF and other rebel groups has caused a humanitarian crisis and killed thousands, while displacing more than 2 million people, according to the U.N.
A genuine fight, or a ‘PR stunt’?
Earlier this month, nine anti-government factions announced the formation of an alliance dubbed the United Front of Ethiopian Federalist and Confederalist Forces, threatening to march on the capital Addis Ababa.
The TPLF has said it is advancing toward the capital, a claim denied by the Ethiopian government. A media and communications blackout across much of the north of the country has rendered it difficult for such claims to be independently corroborated.
Robert Besseling, CEO of geopolitical risk consultancy Pangea-Risk, told CNBC on Wednesday that Abiy’s dramatic move to the front was likely a “PR stunt to stir up patriotic or ethnic sentiment to counter the Tigrayan advance.”
He said there are very few federal troops on the frontline for Abiy to command, with government-supporting militias in the northern Amhara holding back opposition groups.
People hold lit candles in a memorial service for victims of the Tigray conflict organized by the city administration, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on November 3, 2021.
Minasse Wondimu Hailu | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
“I also ask where the supposed ‘frontline’ is located and where Abiy intends to join it. That said, the move to the frontline will stir nationalism and probably boost recruitment of civilians to join the army and militias,” Besseling said.
“If the Tigrayans are held outside of Addis, Abiy will claim credit and receive a political dividend.”
With the prime minister heading to battle and citizens being urged to take up arms, the outcome of the conflict will also have significant ramifications for the country’s economic future.
Ethiopia’s export-driven industries, ESG profile and key policy reforms will remain on tenterhooks, according to a client research report published Wednesday by political risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft.
Rebels unlikely to seize the capital
Pro-government forces were forced to withdraw from Tigray state in June this year after their control over the region deteriorated, despite early signs of success when fighting first broke out in November 2020.
However, Verisk Maplecroft suggested that there is little binding the nine anti-government groups comprising the rebel coalition beyond opposition to Abiy, meaning it could prove a “fractious and short-lived arrangement.”
“The military momentum is currently with the rebels, but we do not expect the immediate collapse of the Ethiopian military nor the fall of the capital,” the Verisk client note said.
Amhara militia men, in combat alongside federal and regional forces against the northern region of Tigray, receive training in the outskirts of the village of Addis Zemen, north of Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, on November 10, 2020.
EDUARDO SOTERAS/AFP via Getty Images
“The Ethiopian National Defense Force is regularly resupplied with military equipment by international allies from the Persian Gulf and likely retains the capacity to halt the rebel advance.”
Verisk Maplecroft believes the TPLF-led coalition has little genuine intention of assailing the capital since a static siege like this would limit its mobility, which has helped its cause in the fighting so far.
Instead, analysts believe threats to Addis will continue in a bid to draw Abiy to the negotiating table, a strategy that looks increasingly perilous in light of recent events.
Abiy designated the TPLF a terrorist organization in May this year, hampering prospects of a negotiated settlement, and has struck a defiant and combative tone in light of the rebels’ aggression.
Supply chains in jeopardy
Verisk Maplecroft analysts noted that consumer goods supply chains feeding into western markets are already feeling the effects of the conflict, with a number of multinational clothing companies suspending operations, and warned that the situation may deteriorate further.
“The TPFL and its allies will look to put pressure on the government to enter into negotiations by seeking to disrupt the flow of goods dependent on the country’s principal export route, the Addis-Djibouti railway and road network,” they said.
“If the rebels were to either seize or disrupt this transport corridor, the country’s export-orientated industries would find their only reliable export route cut-off. “
Export-oriented Ethiopian manufacturers will also lose tariff-free access to the U.S. market from Jan. 1 after the country was suspended from the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) earlier this month, on allegations of human rights violations by state forces.