Ethiopian PM Abiy Ahmed boasts of military might despite rebel gains

Ethiopian PM Abiy Ahmed boasts of military might despite rebel gains
The Ethiopian PM declared that his government could easily recruit a million new fighters, a week after the Tigray capital of Mekele fell to Tigray Defence Forces rebels.
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Ethiopian PM Abiy Ahmed also suggested Ethiopia take economic measures including shutting some 30 embassies [Jemal Countess/Getty]

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared on Monday that his government could easily recruit one million new fighters but wants to foster a period of "silence" in the country's war-hit Tigray region.

The 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner's remarks came one week after Tigray's capital Mekele fell to the Tigray Defence Forces (TDF) rebel group and Abiy's government declared a unilateral ceasefire in the eight-month-old conflict.

The TDF has described its seizure of Mekele and most of the rest of the northern region of Tigray as a major victory, while Abiy and other officials have countered that federal forces executed a strategic pullback to focus on other threats.

"In one, two or three weeks, 100,000 trained, armed and organised special forces can be mobilised," Abiy told lawmakers.

"If said special force isn't enough, if a militia is needed, in one or two months half a million militiamen can be organised. One million youths can be mobilised and trained."

But Abiy also said officials had "decided there should be a period of silence for everyone to think".

Tigrayan leaders on Sunday issued their first formal response to Abiy's ceasefire call, saying they would only accept it if forces from Eritrea and Ethiopia's Amhara region - who have been backing the Ethiopian army - also withdrew from the region.

Brink of famine

They also called for "proceedings" to hold Abiy and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki accountable for "damage" inflicted during the fighting, which has been marked by grisly massacres and widespread sexual violence.

Abiy did not address those conditions on Monday.

Thousands of people have been killed in the conflict and many hundreds of thousands face hunger in Tigray, an important economic and industrial region in the Horn of Africa nation.

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According to the United Nations, over 400,000 people have already "crossed the threshold into famine" in Tigray and 1.8 million people are on the brink.

Electricity and communications have been cut, flights suspended and two bridges crucial for aid deliveries have been destroyed.

Last week the TDF paraded what it said were thousands of captive Ethiopian soldiers through the streets of Mekele.

In his remarks Monday, however, Abiy said the TDF seized territory only because the army decided to leave, a process he said unfolded for more than a month.

He also offered lavish praise for the army.

"Our defence forces are not paid enough. They climb up and down mountains. In the rain, in the sun, they fight for the dignity of the country," Abiy said.

Proposed embassy closures

Officials have in recent days highlighted the cost of the war in Tigray as a reason for why federal forces withdrew.

Ethiopia's economy, which relies heavily on tourism and agriculture, has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic and the worst locust infestation in decades, with the war in Tigray adding an extra strain on state finances.

On Monday, Abiy repeated his claim that the government had spent more than $2 billion on infrastructure and other projects in the region to help it recover.

He also proposed several eyebrow-raising budgetary measures including closing some 30 embassies.

"Ethiopia shouldn't have 60 or so embassies and consulates in the present moment. Instead of throwing US dollars everywhere... at least 30 of the embassies should be closed and the ambassadors instead should be here," he said.

He said the Ethiopian ambassador to Kenya, for example, could be based in Addis Ababa and travel to Kenya to meet with officials while reading about Kenya in newspapers.

Instead of hiring drivers, Abiy said, government ministers will be required drive themselves.

"What we want is a person who gets wet in the mud and runs while reforming the country," he said.

Abiy is hoping to secure a new five-year term in national elections that took place on 21 June.

His Prosperity Party is expected to secure a comfortable majority, but not enough results have been released to confirm the victory.

On Monday, the electoral board released provisional results showing Abiy had won his seat representing his home area in the region of Oromia, Ethiopia's largest.