Ethiopia’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning prime minister has said he will lead his country’s army “from the battlefront” beginning on Tuesday, a dramatic new step as the year-long conflict moves closer to the capital Addis Ababa.
“Starting tomorrow, I will mobilise to the front to lead the defence forces,” Abiy Ahmed 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.”
Tens of thousands of people are estimated to have been killed in the war between Ethiopian and allied forces, and fighters from the country’s northern Tigray region, who 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 destabilise the rest of the region.
The statement by the 45-year-old prime minister, a former soldier, did not say where exactly he will go Tuesday. His spokeswoman, Billene Seyoum, did not respond to a request for comment from the Associated Press news agency.
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.”
Abiy’s comments came as the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) rebel group continued to press towards Addis Ababa, claiming control of the town of Shewa Robit, just 220 kilometres (136 miles) northeast of the capital by road.
It also followed a meeting of the ruling 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.
“We can’t continue like this, that means 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.”
Diplomacy ‘only way out’
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 six million people, but they also want Abiy out of power.
The prime minister’s statement also claimed that western countries were 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 United States have continued diplomatic efforts in pursuit of a ceasefire to the fighting and talks without preconditions on a political solution.
Abbas Haji Gnamo, an expert in Ethiopian politics at the University of Toronto in Canada, said many were still opening 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 State Department official told reporters that the US still believes “a small window of opportunity exists” in mediation efforts.
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 Ethiopia’s military reportedly weakened in recent months, and with its retreat from Tigray in June, ethnic-based regional forces have been intensifying their campaign, and Abiy’s government has called on all able citizens to join the fight. Earlier this month, the government declared a six-month state of emergency.
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.”
Abiy was awarded the Nobel 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.