NAIROBI, Kenya – Ethiopia’s government declared a national emergency on Tuesday as rival Tigray troops threaten to advance into the capital and the country’s longstanding war escalates quickly. The United States said security “has deteriorated significantly” and has strongly warned its citizens to consider leaving.
The declaration of emergency by the Ethiopian Council of Ministers was the clearest warning signal so far from the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who this week allowed soldiers from a neighboring country to march into the Tigray region and pursue the Tigray troops alongside Ethiopian troops. Thousands of people have been killed since then.
The Tigray troops and their allies pose “a grave and imminent threat” to the country’s very existence, the council said in a statement. “Everyone is being tested,” the prime minister tweeted, saying the statement was made to “shorten the tribulation time and provide a time for resolution.”
The US has warned the Tigray troops, who dominated the national government for a long time before Abiys took office, against any attempt to “besiege” the capital Addis Ababa after they had taken control of the strategically important cities of Dessie and Kombolcha in the past few days had. This enables them to take a main road towards the capital.
The state of emergency comes into effect immediately and lasts for six months. The government can impose a curfew, order citizens for military training, suspend transportation and travel, suspend media licenses and indefinitely detain anyone suspected of having links with a terrorist group.
In some areas, local administrations could be dissolved and military leadership established. Unauthorized public gatherings and any expression of resistance to the state of emergency are prohibited.
Such measures would be implemented by law. The Ethiopian legislature is expected to meet within 48 hours.
Meanwhile, the Addis Ababa Security Bureau told residents that anyone with a gun should register it now and warned that homes and shops would be searched to ensure peace in the city.
The United Nations expressed extreme concern over recent events, warning that “the stability of Ethiopia and the entire region is at stake” and again called for an immediate ceasefire.
Ethiopia’s Prime Minister this week called on all citizens to fight the approaching Tigray forces, adding that “we should follow closely those who work for the enemy and live among us”. A new raid by ethnic Tigrayans was seen in the capital on Monday.
Tigray troops say they are pressuring the Ethiopian government to lift a deadly month-long blockade against their region of around 6 million people, in which basic services are cut off and humanitarian food and medical assistance are being denied.
This is “perhaps the most egregious humanitarian disability in the world,” a senior official with the US Agency for International Development told The Associated Press on Tuesday. “We are seeing a campaign of systematic, bureaucratic obstacles blocking aid in areas occupied by (the Tigray forces),” which affects not only Tigray but also areas in the neighboring regions of Amhara and Afar now held by the Tigray fighters said the official.
The fighters moved into these regions after retaking much of Tigray in June, displacing hundreds of thousands of residents and exacerbating the crisis.
“We have certainly struggled to get the prime minister’s attention to the issue and any requests,” the senior USAID official said after a recent visit to Ethiopia. The officer spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not otherwise authorized.
The Tigray forces say they are now allying with another armed group, the Oromo Liberation Army, which they formed an alliance with earlier this year.
The fighting could soon reach the Oromo region, which is neighboring Addis Ababa. Ethnic Oromo once hailed Abiy as the country’s first Oromo prime minister, but dissatisfaction has since grown with the imprisonment of outspoken Oromo leaders.
US special envoy to the Horn of Africa Jeffrey Feltman said at a public event Tuesday that association of Tigray forces with other armed groups was dangerous.
The envoy also said he understands why Ethiopia’s prime minister does not want to sit at a negotiating table with the leaders of the Tigray forces, but “there are many, many ways to start discreet talks”.
In the end, Feltman said, “There will be talks because neither side will win.”