NAIROBI, Kenya — Barely a year ago Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia was globally acclaimed as a peacemaker, a youthful African leader awarded the Nobel Peace Prize after just 18 months in power for introducing democratic reforms after decades of repression, and for signing a peace deal with neighboring Eritrea.
On Wednesday Mr. Abiy presented a radically different face when he announced a sweeping military operation against one of his own regions. He issued a bellicose declaration that sent waves of alarm across the region and stoked fears that Ethiopia — Africa’s second-most populous country — was suddenly sliding toward a destructive civil war.
Mr. Abiy made his move against the region, Tigray, early Wednesday as the world’s attention was focused on vote-counting in the U.S. presidential election. Soon after Tigray’s internet and phone links went down, Mr. Abiy announced that he was deploying the military and imposing a state of emergency in the region, effectively isolating it from rest of Ethiopia.
Mr. Abiy said his hand had been forced by Tigrayan leaders who brazenly defied his authority for months, accusing them of “crossing the last red line.” He said he had ordered the Ethiopian Army “to carry out their mission to save the country and the region.”
But analysts and diplomats warned that Mr. Abiy’s attempt to consolidate his power constituted a high-stakes gamble that, if it goes wrong, risks plunging Ethiopia — an emerging regional powerhouse and the fulcrum of the Horn of Africa — into a period of uncertainty and violent tumult with potentially catastrophic outcomes
“Abiy has just made the worst strategic blunder of his career,” Rashid Abdi, a Horn of Africa analyst based in Kenya, said on Twitter. A war in Tigray, a region with tens of thousands of men under arms and a long history of battle against Eritrea, could have “devastating consequences across the entire subregion,” he added.
Several other analysts warned that Ethiopia risked being sundered like Yugoslavia in the 1990s, and the concern spread to the United Nations which expressed “alarm” and pleaded for an immediate de-escalation. The American Embassy in Ethiopia made a similar plea.
Mr. Abiy announced the operation on Facebook just before 2 a.m. on Wednesday, an hour after internet and phone links to the region went down, according to NetBlocks, an organization that tracks internet services.
Mr. Abiy accused the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front, which governs the region, of orchestrating a militia assault a few hours earlier on a major Ethiopian Army base, with the goal of seizing artillery and other weapons.
Hours later, Mr. Abiy’s spokeswoman confirmed that the army had started military operations in Tigray, where the government quickly declared a six-month state of emergency that gave it sweeping powers to suspend political and civil rights.
For the rest of the day, it was hard to know what was going on in Tigray, which borders Eritrea and accounts for about six percent of Ethiopia’s estimated 110 million people.
Tigray’s regional authorities closed the region’s airspace and restricted road movements, local television reported. They also called on Ethiopian Army generals and troops “to repudiate against dictatorship” — an apparent call for a mutiny against Mr. Abiy.
Reports emerged of heavy fighting. A Western official reported exchanges of heavy gunfire at three locations in Tigray, leading to dozens of casualties on both sides.
The official, whose account was confirmed Wednesday night by Mr. Abiy in televised remarks, spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose militarily sensitive information.
In the capital, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s deputy foreign minister, Redwan Hussein, told reporters that the military operation was intended to target Tigray’s political leaders, not its citizens.
“The conflict is with a very small group with narrow vested interests which is hell bent on destabilizing the national order,” Mr. Redwan said.
Despite Mr. Abiy’s claims that he responded to a surprise attack on the army base, analysts said there had been signs for days of an operation against Tigray, including unusual troop movements and disputes over budget transfers and military appointments inside the region.
The tensions escalated from September when Tigray openly defied Mr. Abiy by holding elections that had been canceled in the rest of Ethiopia because of the coronavirus pandemic.
On Monday the region’s president, Debretsion Gebremichael, warned that Mr. Abiy was planning an attack to punish Tigray for its defiance.
The confrontation is also tied to wider regional rivalries and historical currents.
A senior Western official, who spoke anonymously in deference to diplomatic sensitivities, said Mr. Abiy was believed to have coordinated his assault on Tigray with Isaias Afwerki, the autocratic leader of Eritrea and an implacable enemy of Ethiopia for several decades until he signed the 2018 peace deal with Mr. Abiy.
Now Mr. Abiy and Mr. Afwerki have a shared hostility toward Tigray, albeit for different reasons, analysts said.
Mr. Afwerki’s Eritrean soldiers fought a bitter war against soldiers from Tigray in the late 1990s, as part of Eritrea’s border conflict with Ethiopia. And for Mr. Abiy, Tigray represents a security threat and an obstinate political foe.
The Tigray People’s Liberation Front dominated Ethiopia for almost three decades after it ousted the country’s longtime dictator, Mengistu Haile Mariam, in 1991. The group was the main force behind Meles Zenawi, who came from Tigray and ruled Ethiopia from 1991 until his death in 2012.
Although Tigray accounts for just about 6 percent of Ethiopia’s estimated 110 million people, it acquired outsized political clout and prosperity. Even now, Tigray boasts some of Ethiopia’s best roads and telecommunications, not to mention well-equipped security forces.
But the party’s influence waned sharply after Mr. Abiy came to power in 2018, and its leaders’ complaints about being sidelined snowballed into a powerful grievance.
Last year, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front split from Mr. Abiy’s governing coalition. In June, the speaker of the upper house of Parliament, who is from Tigray, resigned in protest when the federal government postponed elections, citing the pandemic.
Since coming to power Mr. Abiy, 44, has won widespread praise for trying to modernize Ethiopia by allowing new freedoms and championing an ambitious program of economic growth.
Under his rule, Ethiopia has deployed 4,000 peacekeeping troops to Somalia, the largest force in that country, and is building a $4.6 billion hydroelectric dam on the Nile that will be Africa’s largest when completed. The dam has faced vociferous objections from Egypt, and recently President Trump, who tried to mediate the dispute in the spring, speculated that Egypt might attack the dam.
The European Union is one of Ethiopia’s main foreign allies, providing hundreds of millions of euros every year for programs that create jobs for Ethiopia’s fast-growing and often frustrated young population. In return, Ethiopia has cooperated with E.U. programs that try to deter economic migrants and potential asylum seekers from traveling to Libya toward the Mediterranean and a sea crossing to Europe.
But in power, Mr. Abiy has struggled greatly with long-suppressed demands from Ethiopia’s patchwork of ethnic groups, many of whom have demanded greater autonomy from the central government. Those tensions are becoming increasingly violent.
In the latest incident, on Sunday, attackers killed at least 54 ethnic Amharas in the western Oromia region, rights groups said.
Mr. Abiy’s move against Tigray threatens to exacerbate those problems, the Western official said, by drawing Mr. Abiy into a fight that could quickly extend into neighboring countries like Eritrea or Djibouti.
Tobias Hagmann, an Ethiopia expert at Roskilde University in Denmark, said that Mr. Abiy’s move was understandable in security terms. But politically speaking, it was “devastatingly stupid and counterproductive,” he said in a text message.
“Some critics say he is acting under pressure from Ethiopian nationalists,” Mr. Hagmann said. “I suspect it is more simple — a power play between competing elites.”
Declan Walsh reported from Nairobi, and Simon Marks from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Reporting was contributed by Matina Stevis-Gridneff in Brussels and Tiksa Negere in Addis Ababa.