Nairobi, Kenya — Ethiopia’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning prime minister says he will lead his country’s army “from the battlefront” beginning Tuesday, a dramatic new step in a devastating yearlong war.
“This is a time when leading a country with martyrdom is needed,” Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said in a statement posted on social media Monday night. With rival Tigray forces moving closer to the capital of Addis Ababa, his government declared a state of emergency earlier this month.
An estimated tens of thousands of people have been killed in the war between Ethiopian and allied forces and fighters from the country’s northern Tigray region, who long dominated the national government before Abiy took office. The United States and others have warned that Africa’s second-most populous country could fracture and destabilize the Horn of Africa.
The U.S. military was closely monitoring the situation in Ethiopia, an official told CBS News on Monday, while “conducting prudent planning,” but there has been no indication that American forces are preparing for a mass-evacuation akin to what happened in Kabul following the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan.
The State Department has, however, made it very clear that any U.S. citizens still in Ethiopia — and it’s unclear how many people that is — should leave without delay.
“Our core message is: Do not wait until the situation gets worse to decide to leave,” a senior State Department official said during a briefing on Monday.
“Leave before things change,” the official warned, noting that the U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa was “unlikely to be able to assist” U.S. citizens to flee if commercial travel options “become unavailable.” The message appeared to be getting out, according to the officials in Washington who gave the briefing. They said people were showing up at the embassy seeking advice.
In his statement on Tuesday, Prime Minister Abiy, a former soldier, did not say where exactly he would go. His spokeswoman, Billene Seyoum, did not respond to a request for comment.
“Let’s meet at the battlefront,” the 45-year-old prime minister said.
In response, the spokesman for the Tigray forces Getachew Reda tweeted that “our forces won’t relent on their inexorable advance towards bringing (Abiy’s) chokehold on our people to an end.” The Tigray forces say they are pressuring Ethiopia’s government to lift a months-long blockade of the Tigray region of some 6 million people, but they also want Abiy out of power.
The prime minister’s statement also claimed that the West is trying to defeat Ethiopia, the latest pushback against what his government has described as meddling by the international community. Envoys from the African Union and the U.S. have continued diplomatic efforts in pursuit of a ceasefire to the fighting and talks without preconditions on a political solution.
Shortly after Abiy’s announcement, a senior State Department official told reporters the U.S. still believes “a small window of opportunity exists” in the mediation efforts.
In a year’s time, Abiy’s government has gone from describing the Tigray conflict as a “law enforcement operation” to an “existential war.” With Ethiopia’s military reportedly weakened in recent months, and with its retreat from Tigray in June, ethnic-based regional forces have been stepping up and Abiy’s government has .
The prime minister chaired an executive meeting Monday of the ruling Prosperity Party, and Defense Minister Abraham Belay told state media that “all security forces will start taking special measures and tactics as of tomorrow.” He declined to elaborate.
Abiy’s announcement brought shock from the man who nominated him for the Nobel, Awol Allo, a senior lecturer in law at Keele University in Britain. “The announcement is replete with languages of martyrdom and sacrifice,” he said in a tweet. “This is so extraordinary and unprecedented, shows how desperate the situation is.”
The prime minister in his 2019 Nobel acceptance speech spoke passionately about war: “I crawled my way to peace through the dusty trenches of war years ago… I witnessed first-hand the ugliness of war in frontline battles… War is the epitome of hell for all involved. I know because I have been there and back.”
Abiy was awarded the Nobel for making peace with neighboring Eritrea, on whose border he fought while stationed in the Tigray region.
The terms of that peace deal have never been made public. Critics of the current conflict allege that the deal was instead an agreement for the two countries to wage war on the Tigray leaders, who were unpopular among many Ethiopians for their repressive 27-year rule despite significant development gains.
Eritrean soldiers have been blamed for some of the worst atrocities in the war, even as Abiy denied for months that they were inside Tigray.