The stand-off with Tigray began almost as soon as Abiy Ahmed, who comes from the larger region of Oromia, became prime minister in April 2018 © Michael Tewelde/AFP via Getty

“War is the epitome of hell,” Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s prime minister, told an audience in Oslo last December on accepting the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating peace with the neighbouring country of Eritrea. Now Mr Abiy is at war again — this time with his own people.

In the early hours of Wednesday, after months of escalating tension, Ethiopia’s prime minister ordered troops into the restive northern region of Tigray after what he said had been an attack by Tigrayan soldiers on a federal army base.

Phone and internet lines to Tigray were cut and a six-month state of emergency declared, effectively sealing off the region. Both sides have reported casualties amid heavy fighting.

The conflict in a part of the country known for its hardened fighters and resistance to central authority threatens to wreck any chance of the peaceful democratic transition promised by Mr Abiy, prime minister since 2018. That in turn could derail one of Africa’s most promising economic success stories after years of strong growth and development in a country of 110m people, the continent’s second most populous.

For Mr Abiy, at 44 Africa’s youngest leader, the declaration of hostilities is likely to further undermine, if not destroy, his fading reputation as a leader who can unite Ethiopia under the banner of liberal democracy. “A war against the member of the federation is an epic tragedy,” said Tsedale Lemma, editor in chief of Addis Standard, an independent website, in a tweet. “Abiy’s failed nation-building project has now morphed into a civil war.”

The stand-off with Tigray began almost as soon as Mr Abiy, who comes from the larger region of Oromia, became prime minister in April 2018. Mr Abiy purged many Tigrayans from senior positions in the military, security services and politics, ending nearly 30 years of dominance by the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front.

Ethiopian Orthodox Christians light candles and pray for peace during a church service at Medhane Alem Cathedral in the capital Addis Ababa © Mulugeta Ayene/AP

After years steering Ethiopia’s economic revival under the visionary, if authoritarian, leadership of the late Meles Zenawi, a former prime minister, senior TPLF members returned to Tigray to lick their wounds. “It’s very clear it was anti-Tigray,” Debretsion Gebremichael, chairman of the TPLF, told the Financial Times from his home base last year, referring to Mr Abiy’s ousting of senior Tigrayans, including from business.

This September, in defiance of a postponement of national elections blamed on Covid-19, the TPLF organised and won a regional poll. Mr Abiy’s government responded by cutting federal funding to a government it said was no longer legitimate.

This week Mr Abiy, a former security chief, made the case that he had no option but to act in the face of repeated provocation. “The TPLF has been arming and organising irregular militias,” he said in a statement, alleging that it had crossed a red line by attempting to steal artillery and military equipment from a national army base.

Map of Tigray region in Ethiopia

Christopher Clapham, an expert on Ethiopia at Cambridge university, said it was impossible to verify whether such an attack had taken place. If it had, he said, Mr Abiy would have had little option but to respond.

But Tigray was only one of Mr Abiy’s problems, Prof Clapham said. “Where Abiy has failed is in putting together a coalition of political forces including in Oromia and Amhara which could have formed the stable base for a government,” he said, referring to the two most populous regions. “He seems to have gone pretty much alone.”

Amhara, a traditional seat of Ethiopian power, has come to rhetorical blows with Tigray over old land disputes and there have been unconfirmed reports this week of fighting on the border. In Oromia, whose people make up more than a third of Ethiopia’s population, some resent what they regard as Mr Abiy’s betrayal of their interests and the arrest, on terrorism charges, of Jawar Mohammed, a popular Oromo leader.

In Tigray, Mr Abiy is accused of trampling on regional rights, enshrined in the constitution, under the guise of national unity.

A police officer stands guard at a check point in Mekele on the day of Tigray’s regional elections © Eduardo Soteras/AFP via Getty

“The whole idea of this pan-Ethiopianism is bullshit,” said Getachew Reda, an executive committee member of the TPLF, speaking before this week’s fighting. “It presupposes dismantling the federal amendment which we have fought bitterly for,” he added, referring to the 1995 constitution that devolved power to ethnically defined regions.

In his stand-off with Tigray, Mr Abiy had “shown his true colours”, Mr Getachew added. “He has never been interested in the kind of fairy tale democratic reforms the west is very much enamoured with.”

Mr Abiy, a devout Pentecostalist, was born in a small town in Oromia, the son of a Muslim father and a Christian mother. He speaks Amharic and Tigrinya in addition to Oromo. His PhD thesis in conflict resolution has helped shape his ideas about forging national unity from ethnic diversity.

But a senior foreign diplomat said TPLF defiance had posed an existential threat to his vision of a unified Ethiopia. “Abiy has a messiah view of himself,” he said. “He genuinely wants to change the country and he’s obsessed with legacy.”

Not everyone is disenchanted with Mr Abiy, whose concept of a unified Ethiopian state still appeals to many. “Abiy wants a united country for all of us,” said Mesfin Worku, who sells maps of Ethiopia in central Addis Ababa. “And that is a very good thing for all of us Ethiopians.”

Prof Clapham said Mr Abiy lacked a willingness to compromise that would be necessary to translate his grand vision of pan-Ethiopian unity into reality. “The hope was two years ago that the miraculous succession of an Oromo leader would be the basis to create a political settlement,” he said. “But it just hasn’t happened.”

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