Ethiopia’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning prime minister has taken to the battle front, his government announced on Wednesday, after the leader said martyrdom may be necessary in the year-long war with rival fighters approaching the capital.
State media showed no pictures of Abiy Ahmed, a 45-year-old ex-soldier, and his spokeswoman Billene Seyoum rejected a request for details of his location as “incredible.” He arrived at the front on Tuesday, according to a government spokesman.
Tens of thousands of people have died in the war between Ethiopian federal and allied troops and warriors from the country’s Tigray region. The prospect of the ancient nation collapsing has worried both Ethiopians and observers who fear what would happen to the often turbulent Horn of Africa in general. Countries including France, Germany and Turkey have told their citizens to leave immediately.
Abiy was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize just two years ago for radical political reforms and for making peace with his neighbors. Eritrea. His path from winning the Nobel to now potentially going into battle has shocked many.
But a move to the front would follow the tradition of Ethiopian leaders including Emperor Haile Selassie and Emperor John IV, who was killed in battle in 1889, said Christopher Clapham, a retired professor affiliated with the University of Cambridge.
“It strikes me as a very traditional Ethiopian leadership,” Clapham said. “It may be necessary to save what looks like a very shaky Ethiopian military response.”
The Tigray forces, which had long dominated the national government before Abiy came to power, seem to be gaining momentum. They have been approaching the capital Addis Ababa in recent weeks with the aim of strengthening their negotiating position or simply forcing the Prime Minister to resign.
Although unusual, a leader’s move to the front has taken place elsewhere in Africa, but sometimes with fatal results: Chad’s president, Idriss Deby Itno, was killed when he fought rebels in April, according to the military.
“The situation is extremely dangerous,” said Adem Abebe, a researcher at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. “If (Abiy) is injured or killed, not only will the federal government collapse, the army will do the same.”
The Prime Minister announced earlier this week that he would go to the battle front and said that “this is a time when it is necessary to lead a country with martyrdom”. The Deputy Prime Minister is in charge of the day – to – day operations of the government, spokesman Legesse Tulu said on Wednesday.
Abiy also invited Ethiopians to join him – the latest call for all capable citizens of the country with more than 110 million people to fight. There have been reports of premature military training and accusations of conscription in recent months, while analysts have warned that with the military apparently weakened, ethnic-based militias are increasing.
“He could seriously consider becoming a martyr,” said the man who nominated Abiy for the Nobel Prize, Awol Allo, a senior lecturer in law at Keele University in the United Kingdom.
Allo said that the move fits in with the Prime Minister’s view of himself and his sense that he was destined to lead. But he also did not rule out the possibility that Abiy may have simply left the capital for a safer place – not the front – and steered the war from there.
US Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman said on Tuesday that he feared that “incipient” progress in mediation efforts with the warring parties could be surpassed by the “alarming” military development.
The war began in November 2020, when a growing political divide between the Tigray leaders and Abiy’s government erupted into open conflict. Abiy quietly allowed Eritrean soldiers to enter the Tigray and attack ethnic Tigrayans, resulting in some of the worst atrocities of the war. He denied the Eritrean presence for months.
The Tigray forces have, among other things, said that they want Abiy gone. Abiy’s government wants the Tigray forces, which it has designated as a terrorist group, to withdraw to its region as part of their conditions.
“If there is no form of divine intervention, I see no chance of a peaceful solution through dialogue because the positions are very polarized,” said Kassahun Berhanu, a professor of political science at Addis Ababa University, adding that he believed Abiy’s announcement to leave to the front is “intended to increase public morale.”
Millions of civilians are trapped and hungry in the midst of fighting. The Ethiopian government has blocked the Tigray region for several months, saying it fears humanitarian aid will fall into the hands of fighters, while hundreds of thousands of people in the nearby Amhara and Afar regions are out of reach for significant assistance as Tigray forces advance through these areas.
One target for the Tigray forces appears to be the supply line from neighboring Djibouti to the capital of Ethiopia, and the US envoy warned the fighters not to cut off that road or enter Addis Ababa.
It could be “catastrophic” for the country, Feltman told reporters on Tuesday.
African Union envoy Olesegun Obasanjo has also mediated but has not spoken publicly about his work in recent days.