ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Hagos Gerezgjher sat outside his small electronic shop on a cold recent morning in this sprawling capital and lamented government attacks on his fellow Tigrayans, an ethnic group based in the north of Ethiopia.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, he said, had targeted Tigrayans in the country’s ongoing civil war for political gain, he said.
“Mr. Abiy wants to finish us completely so that he can rule without any opposition. He thinks we’re a threat to his government,” said Mr. Gerezgjher, 45. “His soldiers are killing even women and children. We will never forgive him for killing our people.”
The anger underscores the deeply ambivalent image of Mr. Abiy today. He won global acclaim with a whirlwind of political and economic reforms after taking office in April 2018, culminating with the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for his diplomacy ending a 20-year violent border dispute with Eritrea.
But the past year has been anything but peaceful. The 44-year-old prime minister clashed sharply this summer with Egypt and the United States over massive Ethiopian hydroelectric dam project Cairo warns could endanger its access to the irrigating waters of the Nile. The war with the Tigray region has brought warnings from the United Nations and rights groups that Addis Ababa’s aggressive military campaign risks creating a humanitarian and refugee crisis.
In both clashes, the Nobel Prize laureate has struck a decidedly belligerent tone.
“It should be underlined that no force could stop Ethiopia from building a dam,” Mr. Abiy told the national legislature on Oct. 22, 11 days after he formally collected his Nobel medal. “If there is a need to go to war, we could get millions readied. If some could fire a missile, others could use bombs.”
He quickly added, “But that’s not in the best interest of all of us.”
The sharp escalation in the fighting with the insurgent Tigray People’s Liberation Front has only added to the prime minister’s mixed legacy.
Fighting between government forces and Tigrayan troops officially ended Nov. 28. But even though the government declared victory after capturing Tigray’s capital, Mekele, leaders of the region — part of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front — remain at large and defiant, and fighting continues outside the capital. Most believe the civil war won’t be over anytime soon.
Would-be international mediators are growing increasingly frustrated with what they say is Mr. Abiy’s refusal to moderate his offensive or consider a negotiated end to the fighting.
“This has been going on for too long,” Janez Lenarcic, the European Union commissioner for crisis management, told The Associated Press on Friday while visiting Ethiopian refugees who have fled to Sudan.
“There will be no military solution to this issue, which is primarily a political one,” Mr. Lenarcic said. “So I call upon the Ethiopian authorities and all others involved, all others, to stop violence, leave the communication blockade [and] let humanitarians do their work wherever they need to do it.”
Macharia Munene, a professor of history and international relations at the United States International University-Africa in Nairobi, said the Abiy government may soon have a major guerrilla conflict on its hands. Tigray’s regional forces and local militias are thought to number about 250,000.
“Both sides are heavily armed, experienced and determined to win this war,” he said, noting that TPLF’s military capabilities toppled a Marxist dictator in 1991 and fought neighboring Eritrea from 1998 to 2000. “Tigrayans have an advantage because they can exploit their mountainous terrain and long borders with Sudan and Eritrea. They can always attack and retreat to the forest.”
TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael, told Agence France-Presse: “We are people of principle and ready to die in defense of our right to administer our region.”
The conflict broke out after Mr. Abiy accused Tigrayans of attacking a military base in the region on Nov. 4. Even so, tensions had been simmering since Mr. Abiy took office in 2018. Relations worsened when Tigrayan regional officials went ahead with parliamentary elections in September even after the federal government ordered the vote postponed nationwide because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tigrayans, who make up 5% of Ethiopia’s 110 million people, have accused Mr. Abiy of targeting them because of their wealth and political power. The TPLF dominated the governing alliance composed of four ethno-regional parties for three decades until Mr. Abiy, a member of the Oromo ethnic group, came to power in 2018.
While in power, the TPLF introduced a new constitution that divided the country into nine ethnically based regions, each with its own security forces, parliaments and the right to secede.
Mr. Abiy, however, despite backing some political reforms, argues that Ethiopia needs a stronger central government if it is to move forward. He has also fired, prosecuted and reassigned many senior Tigrayan officials accused of corruption and repression. Those moves fueled a sense of ethnic discrimination among the Tigray.
He dissolved the TPLF and set up in its place a new party — the Prosperity Party — further sidelining key Tigrayan leaders. After September’s disputed election went forward, Mr. Abiy’s administration suspended funding for and imposed other penalties on Tigray, moves that Tigrayan leaders said amounted to a “declaration of war.”
Melat Sheshay, a scholar from Tigray, said Mr. Abiy wants to centralize power at the expense of the country’s 10 regions, which exercise wide-ranging powers over matters such as taxation and security. The East African nation’s population is highly diverse, with more than 80 ethnic groups.
“He is worse because he targets ethnic communities that do not support him,” said Mr. Sheshay. “He is going to finish the Tigrayans because he thinks they are wealthier than any other ethnic group.”
Critics of the TPLF say it also marginalized other communities and brutally cracked down on dissenters.
“They should not complain because when they were in power, they also detained and murdered other tribes who had divergent opinions,” Saladin Ahmed, a member of the Oromo ethnic group, said in Addis Ababa.
Mr. Abiy has suggested that Tigrayan leaders were working to undermine his government virtually from the time he took office.
“The day I was sworn in as prime minister, the security sector, then controlled by the TPLF clique, refused the entry of my own chosen security detail to the office and my residence,” he said, noting that the move was followed by a grenade attack directed at the podium where he was addressing residents in Addis Ababa. “The security sector was not even an institution. They were just family members gathered in one place.”
Meanwhile, the United Nations has warned that a full-scale humanitarian crisis is unfolding in the Tigray region. The conflict has displaced more than 1 million people and forced more than 40,000 to flee to neighboring Sudan. No one is sure how many have died or been injured in the fighting.
Mr. Abiy told lawmakers that government forces didn’t kill any civilians in Tigray and blamed the TPLF for the casualties.
“Why would we strike Mekele? Mekele is ours. It was built with our resources. We are not going to destroy it,” he said. “Not even a single person was affected by the operation.”
U.N. officials earlier this month struck a deal with the Ethiopian government to allow unimpeded access for humanitarian aid to the part of the region the government controls. For weeks, Tigray has been cut off from supplies. All communications were shut down.
Now, Mr. Munene said Mr. Abiy needs to drop reforms meant to dismantle federalism if he wants to reassert control in Africa’s second-most populous country. Otherwise, he said, civil war will ignite in other regions and spin beyond his control. The TPLF and even the Oromo are framing the conflict as a battle for the rights of the country’s regions against a leader bent on centralizing power.
“His idea of imperial government is unpopular and is infuriating leaders of Ethiopia’s 10 regions,” he said. “He needs to drop the idea and make Ethiopia a peaceful and prosperous nation. The regional leaders see Abiy’s reforms as an attempt to centralize power and destroy the country’s federal system.”
Mr. Gerezgjher and others say they believe Mr. Abiy’s attempt to centralize power will cost him his position.
“We are going to reject his idea of consolidating power and killing federalism in Ethiopia,” he said. “He has mobilized the army to help him achieve that idea, but he cannot kill of us.”
• This article is based in based in part on wire service reports.