Ethiopia’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has said he will lead his country’s army “from the battlefront” starting on Tuesday, a dramatic new step as the year-long conflict moves closer to the capital, Addis Ababa.
Tens of thousands of people are estimated to have been killed and hundreds of thousands pushed into famine conditions since November last year when the prime minister ordered a military offensive against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which dominated the central government for decades before Abiy took office in 2018.
Abiy said the move was in response to attacks on federal army bases, but the TPLF said it was unfairly targeted.
In the space of a year, Abiy’s government has gone from describing the Tigray conflict as a “law enforcement operation” to an “existential war”. With the Ethiopian military’s retreat from Tigray in June and reports of it being weakened in recent months, Abiy’s government has declared a six-month state of emergency and called on all able citizens to join the fight.
“Starting tomorrow, I will mobilise to the front to lead the defence forces,” Abiy said in a statement posted on Twitter late on Monday.
“Those who want to be among the Ethiopian children who will be hailed by history, rise up for your country today. Let’s meet at the battlefront.”
The statement by the 45-year-old prime minister, a former soldier, did not say where exactly he will go on Tuesday.
It came as the Tigrayan forces continued to press towards Addis Ababa, claiming control of the town of Shewa Robit, just 220km (136 miles) northeast of the capital by road. Much of northern Ethiopia is under a communications blackout and access for journalists is restricted, making battlefield claims difficult to corroborate.
Abiy’s remarks also followed a meeting of the governing Prosperity Party’s executive committee to discuss the war.
Defence Minister Abraham Belay told state-affiliated media after the meeting that security forces would embark on a “different action”, without providing details.
“There will be change,” Belay said. “What happened and is happening to our people, the abuses being meted out by this destructive, terrorist, robber group, can’t continue.”
The United States and others have warned that the war in Africa’s second-most populous country could fracture and destabilise the rest of the region.
Getachew Reda, spokesman for the TPLF, tweeted, “Abiy’s mimicry of Ethiopia’s war-time Emperors has taken on an all too palpable schizophrenic overtone. He has vowed to join “his forces” in the battlefield in the honorable tradition of his ‘glorious predecessors’. I would’ve dismissed this is yet another sick joke any day.”
Former US diplomat William Lawrence noted Abiy had used a lot of war imagery when accepting his Nobel prize but that had been to highlight the horror of war.
“And here we are, almost full circle with a Nobel Peace Prize winner using the most bellicose language to try and ramp up the stakes ahead of the defence of not only Ethiopia, but life and death,” Lawrence said. “He says he’s basically willing to die for the cause.”
Professor Kjetil Tronvoll, of Oslo University, said Abiy’s call was aimed at mobilising other Ethiopians to join the fight against the Tigrayan forces, but it was also “a sign of desperation”.
“It is a gamble in the sense will people follow him? Because I think that’s the intention, that he was trying to rally the Ethiopian base, the nationalist base to join him at the battlefront to fight back the advancing Tigrayan forces,” he told Al Jazeera. “The question is, will people in thousands or hundreds of thousands join him there? We don’t know yet.”
The Tigrayan forces say they are pressuring Ethiopia’s government to lift a months-long blockade of the Tigray region’s six million people, but they also want Abiy out of power.
The prime minister, in his statement, said Western countries were trying to defeat Ethiopia, echoing his government’s references to “meddling” by the international community.
Envoys from the African Union and the US have continued diplomatic efforts in pursuit of a ceasefire and talks without conditions on a political solution.
Abbas Haji Gnamo, an expert in Ethiopian politics at the University of Toronto, said many were still hoping for a political solution.
“Diplomats have to find a political way,” he told Al Jazeera. “Abiy cannot win this war. The Ethiopian army is relatively weakened. They are losing cities and his going to the battlefront doesn’t change anything – negotiations are the only way out of this.”
Shortly after Abiy’s announcement, a senior US Department of State official told reporters the US still believes “a small window of opportunity exists” in mediation efforts.
Abiy’s announcement shocked the man who nominated him for the Nobel, Awol Allo, a senior lecturer in law at Keele University in the United Kingdom. “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.”
Abiy was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for making peace with neighbouring Eritrea, on whose border he fought while stationed in the Tigray region.
The terms of that peace deal have never been made public.