When Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia launched an offensive against rebel forces in the northern Tigray region last November, he vowed that the fighting would be over in a matter of weeks.
Months later, the war is still raging.
Tigrayan rebels have rebounded, taking on thousands of new volunteers, and on June 28, they entered the regional capital Mekelle after Ethiopian forces retreated.
Over the past eight months, the conflict has led to thousands of deaths, displaced 1.7 million people, and led to charges of atrocities, including ethnic cleansing and horrific sexual violence, mostly committed allegedly by government forces and their allies.
Last month, a senior UN official declared that parts of Tigray were in the throes of a famine, the world’s worst since 250,000 Somalis died in 2011.
Ethiopia, Africa’s second-most populous country with about 115 million people, was grappling with daunting economic and social challenges well before a political feud between Abiy and the TPLF erupted into violence.
Combined with surging ethnic violence in other parts of Ethiopia, including its most populous region, Oromia, the Tigray war has stoked fears of a wider crisis with the potential to tear Ethiopia apart.
There is fear it could spread to neighbouring countries, destabilizing the entire Horn of Africa.
More than five million people, the great majority of Tigray’s population, urgently need assistance, United Nations and local officials say.
Fighting has displaced 1.7 million people from their homes, and more than 63,000 have fled to Sudan.
Even before the war, Abiy appeared bent on breaking the power of the TPLF, a political group of rebels turned rulers who had dominated Ethiopia for nearly three decades.
A former intelligence officer, Abiy had once been part of the TPLF-dominated government.
But after he took office in 2018, Abiy set about draining the TPLF of its power and influence in Ethiopia, infuriating its leadership.
The TPLF retreated to its stronghold in Tigray, in the mountainous north of Ethiopia. Tensions grew.
In September, the Tigrayans defied Abiy by going ahead with regional parliamentary elections that had been postponed across Ethiopia because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Weeks later, Ethiopian lawmakers cut funding to the region.
On the night of Nov. 3-4, 2020, TPLF forces attacked a federal military base in Tigray and attempted to steal its weapons.
The TPLF said it had struck pre-emptively because federal forces were preparing to assault Tigray.
Hours later, Abiy ordered the military offensive into the region.
Internet and phone communications were restricted, and his cabinet declared a six-month state of emergency in Tigray.
The Ethiopian military, dominated by Tigrayan officers, was divided, and fighting erupted between rival military units inside Tigray, according to US officials.
Abiy bolstered his forces by deploying militia fighters from Amhara, south of Tigray, who swept into western Tigray amid accusations of attacks on civilians.
Then troops from Eritrea, Ethiopia’s former enemy, flooded across the border into Tigray from the north to fight alongside Abiy’s forces.
At 44, Abiy is among the youngest and most closely watched leaders in Africa.
After taking power, he aroused great hope for transformational change in Ethiopia.
As well as making peace with Eritrea, he freed thousands of political prisoners, relaxed a repressive security law, and helped mediate conflicts abroad.
His international profile soared after he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019.
But his reputation has since taken a beating, and now appears irreparably damaged by the Tigrayan war and his alliance with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki.
In November, the peace prize committee issued a rare and not so tacit rebuke of one of its honourees.
“The Norwegian Nobel Committee follows the developments in Ethiopia closely, and is deeply concerned,” it said in a statement.
Son of a Muslim father and Christian mother, he promised to heal ethnic divisions.
But as criticism of Abiy mounted, he resorted to old tactics like shutting down the internet, arresting journalists and detaining protesters and critics by the thousands.
The security forces have been accused of killing hundreds of people.
One of his most potent rivals, Jawar Mohammed, could not contest the June 21 election because he was in prison facing terrorism and treason charges.
Abiy is also engaged in a high-profile standoff with Sudan and Egypt over a hydroelectric dam that Ethiopia is building on the Blue Nile.
Once completed, it will be Africa’s largest dam.
The African Union (AU) needs to step in to mediate and put pressure on Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the leadership of the TPLF to negotiate a peaceful settlement to this rather unfortunate phase the country is going through.
Dialogue is the only answer to this problem, not military victory.
On July 4, the Tigrayans accepted a ceasefire proposal but demanded the withdrawal of Eritrean and Amhara troops from their region.
Amid the stalemate, fighting continues.
Abiy needs to think of the Tigrayans’ suffering who also happen to be Ethiopians.
Dr. Mustafa Mheta is Senior researcher/Head of Africa Desk at the Media Review Network, Johannesburg, South Africa