Ethiopia’s federal army is facing a tough fight against Tigrayan rebels seeking to advance on the capital Addis Ababa, despite its advantages in numbers following a huge recruitment drive and access to greater firepower.
Last week Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed deployed to the conflict zone himself in a bid to boost morale, and the government has since claimed control of several towns the rebels once held, including the UNESCO World Heritage site Lalibela.
Here are a few details about Ethiopia’s national military and its shifting fortunes in the year-long war that has left hundreds of thousands on the brink of famine, according to UN estimates:
In November 2020, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed deployed troops in Tigray, accusing its regional rulers, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), of attacking federal army camps.
One of the biggest standing armed forces in Africa with an estimated 140,000 personnel, the Ethiopian military captured Tigray’s capital Mekele in a few weeks, and Abiy declared victory.
But the rebels mounted a shock comeback, retaking most of Tigray including Mekele by late June and opening up new fronts in the war by pushing into the neighbouring regions of Afar and Amhara.
Despite access to advanced weaponry, the Ethiopian National Defence Forces (ENDF) have struggled to rout the rebels.
While the TPLF boasted decades of experience in fighting large armies like the one they are now confronting, the Ethiopian military was not adapted to counter an insurgency, said an analyst who spoke to journalists on condition of anonymity.
“The Ethiopian military was designed to fight the Eritrean army, not an insurgency, so they did terribly,” he said.
The TPLF fighters were battle-hardened after overthrowing Ethiopia’s autocratic Derg regime and then fighting a war against Eritrea in the late 1990s.
They also commanded a large paramilitary force and well-trained local militia possibly numbering 250,000 men in total, according to the International Crisis Group (ICG).
Moreover, as a result of the Ethiopian army’s pre-war reforms, many senior military personnel were nudged into retirement shortly before the conflict broke out, depriving the army of experienced staff.
A purge of Tigrayan officers soon after the war erupted also weakened the ENDF’s ranks.
Rene Lefort, a historian specialising in Ethiopia, told AFP that “on the eve of the war, 18 percent of the army was made up of Tigrayans, who often occupied the most technical and sophisticated positions, and about half of the officers were Tigrayans.”
“With their departure, the ENDF lost its backbone.”
Even factors that should have favoured the Ethiopian army ended up militating against its chances of victory.
The ENDF relied heavily on local militias, especially from the Amhara region, where many have backed the government’s fight against the TPLF.
And much like the TPLF, Abiy’s forces enjoyed and continue to see strong turnout in response to recruitment drives.
But these perceived advantages presented their own challenges, observers say.
“They have sent barely-trained recruits into battle alongside local militias. That led to command and control challenges and a rather haphazard approach,” William Davison, a senior analyst on Ethiopia with the ICG said.
The military’s advantages when it comes to airpower, with access to fighter jets and armed drones that have bombarded Tigray in recent months, have so far not helped to turn the tide in its favour.
“All this new hardware, and these new recruits, so far seem to have been no match for the motivation and strategic thinking of the Tigray forces,” Davison said.
Despite recent setbacks, Ethiopia’s military are well-equipped and can still spring a surprise in a war marked by twists and turns.
Federal forces have so far successfully defended Mille, a town on the road to Djibouti whose capture would ease humanitarian access to Tigray and allow the rebels to effectively block a crucial supply route to Addis Ababa.
They also this week claimed to have recaptured some territory that had fallen to the TPLF, including the town of Shewa Robit, around 220 kilometres (135 miles) northeast of Addis Ababa by road, days after Abiy announced he would head to the battlefront.