In a scene similar to the fights that bloodied the streets of Germany during the last days of the Third Reich, the sight of thousands of Ethiopian soldiers marching in the capital city of Tigray region, Mekelle, shows the crushing military defeat of the Ethiopian army. The scene was the logical result of a series of tactical and leadership tremors that has affected the mentality of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has assumed power.
The difficult transformation from a militia to a regular army
Maybe the main issue that faced the Ethiopian army following the independence of Eritrea was to change from paramilitary forces that have the same armed militia internal structure into a regular army with full internal composition. The way the new institution was managed, and its doctrine formed in the post-independence Eritrean era was mainly influenced by the fact that this military entity was the result of an alliance of all militias and paramilitary groupings that were fighting against Eritrea, especially the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, whose former leaders continued to dominate over senior leadership positions in the Ethiopian army, since the early 1990s until mid-2019.
In this time, a wide range of purges in the Ethiopian army officers’ ranks had taken place to reduce, as much as possible, the number of officers who hail from the Oromo and Amhara ethnic groups. As a result, the Tigray amounted to 70% of the working officers in the Ethiopian army in 2006.
In mid-2019, General Seare Mekonnen, the Chief of General Staff of the Ethiopian National Defense Force, who during the war with Eritrea was an officer in the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, was assassinated. His killing took place during his attempt to prevent a coup d’état in the Amhara region, and the details of his death are unclear. That move is the second coup attempt under the rule of Prime Minister Ahmed, after the first attempt in October 2018. The Ethiopian government claimed that several armed soldiers had attempted to break into the Ethiopian Prime Minister’s residence to assassinate him.
Putting aside the details of the attempted coups, they are considered an indication of the “militia” thought adopted in the leadership ranks of the Ethiopian army. The second attempted coup resulted in a radical change in the Chief of General Staff selection process. For the first time a Chief of General Staff from the Amhara ethnic group was appointed, General Adem Mohammed, who was the chief of the Ethiopian National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) during this attempt. The appointment was an indication of the Ethiopian prime minister’s approach to depend more on the Amhara ethnic group and adopt an anti-Tigray approach, which was confirmed months later.
The main leadership positions in the Ethiopian military and security institutions were exposed to more shocks with the beginning of the military operations in Tigray in November 2020. The Ethiopian PM sacked Chief of General Staff Mohammed, NISS Chief Deputy Demelash Gebremichael, and Commissioner General of the Ethiopian Federal Police, Endeshaw Tasew. These decisions had unclear reasons but estimations show that the three leaders oppose attacking the Tigray region. The appointment of the current Chief of General Staff of Ethiopia, General Birhanu Jula, has shifted the Ethiopian military doctrine to a different level, but it is still far from what Addis Ababa targets.
General Jula previously served as the Force Commander of the United Nations Interim Security Force (UNISFA) on the borders of Sudan and South Sudan from 2014 to 2016. UNIFSA was formed in 2011 and since then Ethiopian officers have headed it. This comes within the Ethiopian desire to increase the involvement of the Ethiopian army in peacekeeping missions, to overcome the problem of the inadequate military training and qualification in the Ethiopian military institutes, as well as the insufficient number of Ethiopian officers attaining advanced military training courses from abroad. This is evident by the participation of the Ethiopian peacekeeping forces in Liberia, Burundi, Afghanistan, and Iraq under the command of officers from other countries.
Gradually, Ethiopia managed to take the lead in peacekeeping efforts in Somalia and South Sudan. This approach has led the Ethiopian military performance to generally follow the same tactics used in peacekeeping operations. As a result, it has largely affected the performance of offensive operations implemented by the Ethiopian army, like the attack on Somalia in December 2006 and the attack on Tigray in November 2020.
Defeat in the Tigray battlefield
The Ethiopian performance on the tactical level and in the field in the Tigray fight exposed the dilemmas and problems facing the Ethiopian military institution. It all began with the flagrant contradiction in the military statement on the field operations in the Tigray region, where the Ethiopian prime minister announced in November 2020 the end of military operations in all the areas of the region. However, what the Ethiopian army faced the following months after the statement is deemed as an integrated war of attrition. This in turn has made the statements of the Ethiopian prime minister concerning the military matter controversial and unreliable.
The Ethiopian official statements of “withdrawing” from the Tigray region last month showed another facet of the flagrant contradiction.
The statements were contradictory to the scene where thousands of Ethiopian soldiers and officers appeared captured by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. On the top of the prisoners are high-ranking officers who were among the main field command of the attack on the Tigray region. Among the high-ranking officers are Colonel Hussein Mohamed and Colonel Desalegn Sahl. This was a strong response to Addis Ababa’s attempts to claim that the Ethiopian Army has tactically withdrawn from the east and center of the Tigray region, to prepare for possible confrontations in other areas.
The Ethiopian political and military leadership management methods used in the Tigray fight management is a second reason for consolidating the “militia” mindset in the members of the Ethiopian army, as they saw their leaderships resort to the Eritrean army to reinforce field operations in the region. Besides, it has also resorted to Amhara paramilitary militias. This has changed the centers of control in the region into Ethiopian army affiliated zones and an Eritrean army zone in the north of the region, as well as zones controlled by Amharic militias in the western division of the region.
In addition, the Ethiopian army units resorted to bloody intimidation tactics to submit the people of the Tigray region and its defense units. Systematic operations targeting civilians in the region, mainly in the western part, were counted and monitored. The United Nations announced that the refugee camps in the western area in the region were attacked by the Ethiopian army units, resulting in the disappearance of 12,000 refugees whose fate remains unknown.
The most important example of this approach is the series of massacres, documented by several global news agencies, which took place about 15km south of Aksum town. The Ethiopian army units had interrogated a group of people in the region and shot them dead. This was documented in videos published last March.
In their fights in the Tigray region, the Ethiopian military units used all available munitions and combat capabilities, including the internationally prohibited ones like the Russian “RPK-250” cluster bombs. These bombs make it impossible for the farmers and locals to move freely in their area because they are largely scattered.
In addition, the Ethiopian forces directly targeted civilians, particularly in the last phases of the Tigray fight. The most evident example is the air raid that targeted a local market in the Togogwa area, in the northwest of the capital Mekelle. These Ethiopian army unilateral reprisal methods continued until it withdrew from the Tigray region. The Ethiopian army robbed the premises of the international relief institutions, killed about 12 of their employees, and destroyed the two main bridges in the region.
The dispersion of the Ethiopian army forces, since the beginning of the Tigray fights, was a negative result of the Addis Ababa policy. The army units have been fighting in eight fronts, between the borderlines with Sudan, the Oromia region bordering the capital, and several areas of the Amhara region, along with the Afar, Somali, and Benishangul regions. These fights have exhausted the forces. This was reflected in the outcomes of the Tigray region fights.
The situation worsened after the Ethiopian army had lost the 162,000 combatant active forces. They were an important part of its total number after thousands of soldiers were killed and captured in the Tigray region, given that the Ethiopian army does not have a reserve military service system. Added to that, the Ethiopian army has completely lost the Northern Military Zone, which is one of the four military zones that make up the Ethiopian military system.
As for the equipment, during the Tigray fights, the Ethiopian army has lost large quantities of weapons and combat systems, particularly field guns, mortars, anti-aircraft machine guns, as well as a number of tanks and armored personnel carriers, which have been destroyed over the past months, in Tigray People’s Liberation Front raids on key roads in the north and east of the region.
The losses also include two aircraft shot down during the months of fighting in the region. The first is a MiG-23 fighter, and the second is a C-130 civilian transport aircraft used by the Ethiopian Air Force in the last days before the fall of the region’s capital, to transport supplies there.
All in all, the Ethiopian military has been drastically affected by the bitter defeat in the Tigray region given the growing ethnic rivalry in several other regions, and the increasing regression of the rule of law in favor of militias and local paramilitary forces. This institution may be about to lose control of its branches, given the experience of the Northern Military Command in Tigray. Thus, it is paying the price of the exclusionary policy that exploits the historical differences between the Ethiopian ethnic groups, which have been manipulated by Prime Minister Ahmed since his ascent to the helm.