Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Guest Map: Border Changes in Ethiopia's Tigray Conflict (February 2021)

Update: PolGeoNow now has an in-house map showing territorial control in northern Ethiopia. To find the latest version, view all Ethiopia reports.

For the second time, we're honored to feature a map of the Tigray conflict created by our colleague Daniel from Passport Party. Though detailed territorial control is difficult to map right now, Daniel illustrates how the shakeup has resulted in new de facto courses for both state and national borders in the area.

Tigray border changes map: Illustration of changes to the de facto courses of state and national borers amid Ethiopia's Tigray war, as known January 30, 2021, showing areas taken over by Amhara state and Eritrea. By Daniel of Passport Party.
Map of de facto border changes amid the 2020-2021 Tigray conflict, by Daniel of Passport Party (used with permission).

Ethiopia Conflict: Passport Party's Map of Tigray Border Changes 

Since our previous Tigray conflict article in November, featuring our colleague Daniel's map of territorial control at that time, the war in Ethiopia's Tigray state has cooled down somewhat. Because of the situation on the ground, it's probably not possible to reliably map out the details of territorial control in Tigray right now. So instead, Daniel's new map - originally published on his Passport Party blog and Twitter account - focuses on another interesting aspect of the political geography: the way that overall administrative boundaries have changed during the war, even if not officially.

The Tigray War and its Aftermath

By this point, the Ethiopian federal government has largely won in its battle with the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), the party that served until now as government of the country's Tigray state, and that once dominated politics nationwide. The federal government and allies have now long-since captured the state capital and major towns, though TPLF forces continue to hold out in other areas.

Among the Ethiopian federal government's allies are both the neighboring Ethiopian state of Amhara and the neighboring country of Eritrea. Eritrea was a bitter enemy of Ethiopia right up until 2018, when it reconciled with the new Ethiopian federal government (but not with the TPLF). In fact, several once-disputed areas along the border - which even Ethiopia's government has agreed since 2018 should belong to Eritrea - were still controlled by Ethiopian forces up until the current conflict.

Daniel, who's been following the conflict closely through his network of sources, summarizes the situation as illustrated on his new map:

By now, it has become almost impossible to track the territorial control. There is still no reliable updated information, as internet and some phone lines are still cut. In many areas, armed groups of various allegiances are present. My general conclusion is that most main roads are under military control of the Ethiopian army and its allies (Eritrean army, diverse militias), with Amhara militias mainly (but not exclusively) present in the disputed areas, where Amhara have apparently also set up their own administrations and signs that declare these places part of Amhara state. In many parts of the rest of Tigray, administration has largely imploded. Meanwhile, Eritrea is setting up administrations for the territories that had been awarded to Eritrea already in 2002, but which are only now under Eritrean control as a consequence of the Tigray conflict.

For more details and information on how he came these conclusions, check out Daniel's latest blog entry, "Where the Tigray Conflict Changed Borders". For actual territorial control in Tigray, Daniel says the online Ethiopia map project has the best approximation he's aware of.

Map of Ethiopia's Tigray state, showing disputed borders with Eritrea and areas contested with other states and parties within Ethiopia.
Map of Tigray state borders, border disputes, and contested areas before the current war began. From Passport Party's Tigray borders explainer (used with permission). Click to see full-size map.

Tigray Conflict: Timeline of Events Since Mid-November

The following is a timeline of major events reported by the mainstream media and humanitarian organizations since our Tigray control map feature of November 18, 2020. The timeline is compiled by PolGeoNow's in-house conflict tracker, Djordje Djukic, with links to sources.

November 19, 2020
One day after reports that the Ethiopian military had seized the towns of Shire and Aksum, the TPLF’s leader, Debretsion Gebremichael, confirmed that federal forces had captured Shire, but stated that the TPLF still held Aksum. Other reports said Aksum had been temporarily captured by the federal military before being retaken by the TPLF the same day. 

Meanwhile, a federal government airstrike hit a university in Tigray’s state capital city of Mekelle, and Ethiopian TV accused the TPLF of executing 300 civilians at a refugee camp for Eritreans elsewhere in Ethiopia. However, an anonymous source stated it was actually Eritrean forces who had killed the refugees, as punishment for leaving Eritrea. The New York Times also reported that Eritrean forces had attacked the camp, initially fighting the local TPLF forces, before looting the camp and conducting executions.

November 20, 2020 
Ethiopian federal forces captured Aksum and Adwa and were advancing towards Adigrat, around 116 kilometers north of Mekelle. Axum’s airport was destroyed by the TPLF, with trenches dug and bricks and rubble scattered across the runway. Meanwhile, the TPLF fired rockets at the capital of the neighboring Amhara state, while United Nations agencies warned that the conflict could drive some 200,000 refugees into neighboring Sudan.
November 21, 2020
The Ethiopian government claimed to have seized Adigrat, where nine civilians were reportedly killed in federal artillery strikes on the town. Meanwhile, the TPLF claimed to have inflicted heavy casualties among federal troops during fighting in the southern Raya region, specifically those coming from Mohoni town in Raya, as well as from the northern town of Zalambessa.

November 22, 2020
The TPLF reported that fighting was continuing near Adigrat, while its forces had been blocking the federal military’s push on Mekelle from the south for more than a week. Meanwhile, the Ethiopian government stated that its troops had seized the town of Edaga Hamus on the Adigrat-Mekelle road, 97 kilometers from the state capital. The military warned the civilian population of Mekelle to flee ahead of an all-out assault, starting with the encirclement of the city by tanks, and the government gave the TPLF a three-day deadline to surrender.

November 23, 2020
The Ethiopian government said its forces were in control of most of Tigray state and were positioned between 50 and 60 kilometers from Mekelle as they started to encircle the state capital.

November 24, 2020
The TPLF claimed it had destroyed the Ethiopian army’s 21st Mechanized Division in the Raya region, while the federal government denied the claim and said many TPLF soldiers were surrendering. In addition, pro-TPLF media published a live broadcast from Adigrat, denying the town’s capture by the federal military. 

Meanwhile, the Ethiopian army was reported to have taken control of the southern Mai Tsebri region. The same day, the state-appointed Ethiopian Human Rights Commission published findings that accused the TPLF of massacring some 600 civilians in the town of Mai Kadra (near the Sudanese border) on November 9. The killings had first been reported by Amnesty International.

November 25-26, 2020
The federal government’s three-day surrender deadline expired, while the TPLF claimed to have destroyed a large Eritrean military force advancing on a town 70 kilometers north of Mekelle. The next day, the Ethiopian military was ordered to move on Mekelle.

November 27, 2020
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed rejected dialogue with TPLF leaders during a meeting with African Union special envoys.

November 28, 2020
The federal military was reported to have captured several towns north of Mekelle, including Wukro, while the state capital came under heavy shelling. Hiwane, 40 kilometers south of Mekelle, was also reportedly captured by federal forces. Later in the day, the Prime Minister stated that Mekelle had been seized by government troops. Several hours later, rockets were fired from Tigray at Eritrea’s capital city of Asmara, with the US embassy reporting “six explosions” in the city.

November 29, 2020
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) reported that hospitals in Mekelle were flooded with wounded, with supplies running low. Meanwhile, the TPLF claimed to have shot down a military plane, to have recaptured Aksum, and to still be fighting near Mekelle. It also claimed to have retaken Mai Tsebri. However, the TPLF provided no evidence to confirm its claims of capturing Aksum and Mai Tsebri. Meanwhile, Eritrean forces reportedly took up positions in the Adigrat and Adwa areas.

December 3, 2020
Doctors in Mekelle reported 27 civilians killed and 100 injured during the battle for the city, despite the Ethiopian Prime Minister denying any civilian deaths at the hands of government troops since the start of the conflict. Meanwhile, according to an aid worker, fighting was still taking place north, south, and west of Mekelle.

December 5, 2020
According to the federal military, its forces were 10 kilometers from a forest where TPLF leaders were hiding.

December 10, 2020
The US Department of State said it considered reports of the Eritrean military’s involvement in the conflict to be “credible”, and called for Eritrea’s withdrawal from the region. Eleven Eritrean divisions and one brigade were reportedly assisting the Ethiopian federal government.

December 15, 2020
It was reported that 750 people hiding in a church in Aksum were taken out and shot dead in the adjacent square by the Ethiopian military and allied militias.

December 27, 2020
Reports said that Eritrean forces executed 58 civilians in two Ethiopian towns, while an Ethiopian elder reportedly killed 14 Eritrean soldiers who were attempting to loot his property before he was shot and killed.

December 31, 2020
The TPLF claimed to have killed 124 soldiers and captured 114 after ambushing a federal military brigade. The Ethiopian military also reportedly bombarded a town southwest of Mekelle, killing 21 civilians.

January 1, 2021
Due to renewed fighting in Tigray, the number of refugees in eastern Sudan rose to 61,000.

January 2, 2021
The TPLF was still said to retain control of Tigray’s mountainous areas, where the federal military was facing difficulty pushing the group's fighters out of well-entrenched positions. The TPLF also launched an offensive towards a town outside of Mekelle. Meanwhile, it was reported that 1,000 civilians had been killed in Aksum, 500 in Wukro, 300 in Edaga Hamus, and hundreds in three smaller towns.

January 7, 2021
Fighting was taking place in rural areas, as well as in the outskirts of Mekelle, Shiraro, and Shire.

January 17, 2021
Government forces reportedly executed 80 civilians in revenge for the TPLF’s destruction of an Ethiopian military battalion.

January 18-19, 2021
The former deputy chief of Somalia’s National Intelligence and Security Agency stated that 370 Somali soldiers had been killed while fighting alongside Ethiopian forces against the TPLF in Tigray. Somalia's current government denied the allegation the next day.

For more on the Tigray conflict and other interesting political geography topics, visit Daniel's Twitter feed and website:

This guest feature article is a non-commercial collaboration between PolGeoNow and Passport Party. PolGeoNow does not accept paid guest posts or any other kind of paid articles or concealed advertising.