Ethiopia’s government declared a national state of emergency on Tuesday as rival Tigray forces threaten to move on the capital and the country’s yearlong war escalates quickly.
The United States said security has “deteriorated significantly,” and it strongly warned its citizens to consider leaving.
The emergency declaration by Ethiopia’s Council of Ministers was the clearest sign of alarm yet from the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who a year ago this week allowed soldiers from a neighbouring country to invade the Tigray region and pursue the Tigray forces alongside Ethiopian troops. Thousands of people have been killed since then.
The Tigray forces and their allies pose a “grave and imminent danger” to the country’s existence, the council’s declaration said. “Everyone will be tested,” the prime minister tweeted, saying the declaration was made to “shorten the period of tribulation and provide a time of solution.”
The U.S. has warned the Tigray forces, who long dominated the national government before Abiy took office, against any attempt to “besiege” the capital, Addis Ababa, after seizing control in recent days of the strategic cities of Dessie and Kombolcha. That positions them to move down a major highway toward the capital.
The state of emergency takes effect immediately and will last for six months. The government can impose a curfew, order citizens into military training, disrupt transport services and travel, suspend licenses of media outlets and detain indefinitely anyone suspected of having links with a terrorist group.
Local administrations in some areas could be disbanded and a military leadership could be installed. Unauthorised public gatherings and any expression of opposition to the state of emergency are banned.
Such actions would be implemented by law. Ethiopian lawmakers are expected to convene within 48 hours.
Meanwhile, the Addis Ababa security bureau told residents that anyone with a firearm should register it now, and it warned that searches of homes and businesses would be carried out to ensure the city’s peace.
The United Nations expressed extreme concern at the latest events, warning that “the stability of Ethiopia and the wider region is at stake” and again calling for an immediate cease-fire.
Ethiopia’s prime minister this week called upon all citizens to combat the approaching Tigray forces, adding that “we should closely follow those who work for the enemy and live amongst us.” A new roundup of ethnic Tigrayans was seen in the capital Monday.
The Tigray forces say they are pressuring Ethiopia’s government to lift a deadly months-long blockade on their region of around 6 million people, where basic services have been cut off and humanitarian food and medical aid are denied.
This is “perhaps the most egregious humanitarian obstruction in the world,” a senior official with the U.S. Agency for International Development told The Associated Press on Tuesday. “We’re seeing a campaign of systematic, bureaucratic obstruction blocking assistance into areas occupied by (the Tigray forces)” affecting not just Tigray but areas in the neighbouring Amhara and Afar regions now held by the Tigray fighters, the official said.
The fighters moved into those regions after retaking much of Tigray in June, displacing hundreds of thousands of residents and widening the crisis.
“We certainly had difficulty getting the prime minister’s attention” to the problem and any calls to address it, the senior USAID official said after a recent visit to Ethiopia. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised otherwise.
The Tigray forces say they are now linking up with another armed group, the Oromo Liberation Army, with which an alliance was struck earlier this year.
The fighting soon could reach the Oromo region that neighbours Addis Ababa. Ethnic Oromo once hailed Abiy as the country’s first Oromo prime minister, but discontent has since emerged with the jailing of outspoken Oromo leaders.
The U.S. special envoy for the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, told a public event Tuesday that the linkup of Tigray forces with other armed groups is dangerous.
The envoy also said he understands why Ethiopia’s prime minister doesn’t want to sit at a negotiating table across from leaders of the Tigray forces, but “there are many, many ways to initiate discreet talks.”
In the end, Feltman said, “there will be talks because neither side is going to win.”