News | War / Peace - North Africa - East Africa Ethiopia’s Civil War

The escalation in Tigray threatens to derail social progress in the region for decades


Pro-government demonstration in Addis Abeba, November 2021. Photo: picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS | Uncredited

“For me, nurturing peace is like planting and growing trees. Just like trees need water and good soil to grow, peace requires unwavering commitment, infinite patience, and goodwill to cultivate and harvest its dividends”, declared Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in his lecture at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony on 10 December 2019. The prize had been awarded to him on the occasion of the peace treaty with Eritrea, which Abiy signed together with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki in September 2018, thereby bringing an end to a cold war that had spanned some 20 years. Less than a year later, however, the armies of both countries once again found themselves at war — this time not against each other, but side by side against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the authoritarian ruling party that had held power in Ethiopia for 27 years and had retreated to its home base in northern Ethiopia after Abiy Ahmed was elected to the presidency.

Katrin Voß works for Die Linke in the field of international politics.

Ivesa Lübben formerly directed the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s North Africa Office in Tunis.

Translated by Louise Pain & Hunter Bolin for Gegensatz Translation Collective.

The war was triggered by a raid conducted in early December 2020 by TPLF units on Ethiopian army outposts along the northern border with Eritrea, which was justified as a “pre-emptive strike”; the weapons caches of the military bases were looted, and thousands of soldiers — save those who were able to prove their Tigrinya identity — were abducted. Those who resisted the raid were executed.

The central government in Addis Ababa was quick to react. It declared the TPLF a terrorist organization, deposed the TPLF-led regional government, and sent troops into the region. Since then, a war has raged, which neighbouring Eritrea in the north, the states of Amhara and Afar bordering Tigray, and parts of Oromia, have also been dragged into. The war, which has been waged with the utmost brutality on all sides, is widely regarded as the most serious humanitarian disaster facing Africa today. There are currently five million people who have been displaced by the war, and 400,000 people who are threatened by acute starvation.

The regions of Ethiopia as of 2020. CC BY-SA 4.0, jfblanc/Wikimedia

A Spiral of Violence

The independent magazine Addis Standard considers Ethiopia to be at a crossroads. According to a special issue of the magazine from 1 October 2021, the country has been caught in a perilous vicious circle of centralization and marginalization for several decades, which has resulted in the political system’s collapse into a state of chronic fragility: those who come to power marginalize the old rulers and their political rivals, who ultimately claw their way back to the centre of power using armed violence, only to then marginalize the other side in turn. In this way, the spiral of violence continues ad infinitum.

Ethiopia’s Ethnic Mosaic

Ethiopia is a multi-ethnic state with over 80 recognized ethnic groups, whose current magnitude can be traced back to the wars of conquest waged by Emperor Menelik II (1844–1913). The country’s history dates back to the Kingdom of Aksum and the founding of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church in the fourth century. The Amhara people, who today constitute 27 percent of the national population, and Tigrinya people (6 percent) dispute this historical legacy. The elites of both ethnic groups, who trace their family tree back to the biblical prophet Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, have vied for the throne for centuries.

In the early 1990s, Ethiopia’s regional structure was replaced by ethnically defined federal states. The largest ethnic group is the Oromo people, who make up 35 percent of the population and migrated to the central Abyssinian mountains from the south in the 16th century. Some other ethnic groups also have their own federal states: the Ethiopian Somalis (6.2 percent of the population), the Afar people, who live on both sides of the Eritrean-Ethiopian border as well as in Djibouti (1.7 percent), and the Harari people, who are the titular nation of the smallest federal state of Harar, even though they constitute only 0.4 people per thousand of the population. The cities of Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa are designated as special zones.

The western states of Benishangul-Gumuz, Gambela, and Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Region (SNNPR) each have multiple titular nations. In the Benishangul-Gumuz region these are the Berta, Gumuz, and Shinasha, and in the Gambela region the Nuer and Anuak, who also inhabit regions across the border in South Sudan. The SNNPR is a mosaic comprised of several dozens of small ethnic groups. In 2019, the Sidama people, Ethiopia’s fifth-largest ethnic group, who were formerly part of the SNNPR, voted in a referendum to establish their own autonomous region, which was subsequently formed in June 2020. In a second referendum held in June 2021, the residents of the south-western parts of the SNNPR voted in favour of further dividing the remainder of the region.

This spiral of violence is by no means new. In 1974, Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown by a young, revolutionary military junta known as the Derg (Amharic for “committee”). The Derg was then overthrown in 1991 by guerrilla units from the TPLF and the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF). After Eritrea had gained independence, the two liberation movements eventually fell out with one another and waged war against each other from 1998 to 2000. In Ethiopia, the democracy movement, which had made electoral gains in 2005, was brutally suppressed by the TPLF regime. Parts of the movement armed themselves, went underground, and founded the Ginbot 7 movement, which was devoted to overthrowing the TPLF.

On 2 April 2018, the Ethiopian parliament elected Abiy Ahmed as prime minister, following the resignation of his predecessor, Hailemariam Desalegn, under pressure from protest movements; for the first time, a peaceful regime change seemed possible in Addis Ababa. Although Abiy Ahmed was part of the regime, he had expressed support for the protest movement in his role as Deputy President of Oromia Region, where the protests had begun.

Following his election, he introduced a series of reforms: thousands of political prisoners were released, party bans were repealed, and peace offers were presented to the armed resistance movements in Oromia and Benishangul. A cabinet reshuffle in September 2018 saw half of all ministries go to women, and Sahle-Work Zewde was elected as the country’s first ever female president. Exiled opposition politicians returned home, where some assumed key roles and functions. Alongside the reforms, Abiy embarked on a mission to dismantle the TPLF’s old networks of power by bringing corruption charges against TPLF cadres and purging them from the security apparatuses.

Ethnonationalist Federalism

The TPLF was founded in the mid-1970s by a group of radical Tigrinya students who — with the support of Tigray’s rural population — were waging a guerrilla war against the Derg. They demanded self-determination for the marginalized region, which had been ravaged by a severe famine in the 1980s. When TPLF units seized the Ethiopian capital in 1991, their military power far surpassed that of all other parties involved, but their foothold among the general population was relatively weak, as the Tigrinya people constitute a mere six percent of the country’s multi-ethnic population. With its implementation of a new ethnonationalist order, the TPLF ostensibly promised a considerable degree of autonomy to the different peoples and ethnic groups of Ethiopia, including the right to secession. At the same time, so-called ethnic federalism led to the creation of an instrument of power that could be used to control the multi-ethnic state and ensure a redistribution of resources that would benefit Tigray.

The new constitution of 1994 redrew the old district borders according to ethno-nationalist criteria and established nine ethnically defined federal states and two autonomous zones, or rather cities (Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa). However, the ethnic federalist system generated as many problems as it claimed to have solved. In a direct contradiction of its own self-designation as a Marxist entity, the TPLF replaced class categories with ethnic categories, and the civil rights of the individual with group rights that were determined according to a person’s belonging to an ethnic group. But the TPLF blamed the causes of social inequality on other ethnic groups, primarily the Amharas, who — in an allusion to the imperial conquests of Amharic rulers in the 19th century — were pejoratively referred to as neftenya, as feudal settler-colonialists.

Because the right to run for election in the federal regions was contingent upon mastering the language of the titular nation, members of other ethnic groups became second-class citizens. This repeatedly resulted in armed guerrilla warfare and ethnic cleansing in which hundreds — if not thousands — of people lost their lives.

A number of border areas situated between the regions are still disputed to this day. Armed conflicts take place here time and again, not only between the security forces of the regional states, but also between the ethnic militias themselves. By the time Abiy Ahmed came to power, more than three million Ethiopians were already deemed internally displaced.

In the early 1990s, at the same time as the new administrative system, the TPLF established the Ethiopians People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) as a dominant political coalition representing the interests of the state. In addition to the TPLF, the EPRDF also consisted of three other ethnic parties: the Oromo Democratic Party (ODP), the Amhara Democratic Party (ADP), and the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM); all three of which had initially been established by the TPLF. Other older and more influential parties, such as the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the Amhara National Movement (ANaM), were marginalized. Pan-Ethiopian parties, whose roots could be traced back to the student movement of the 1960s, and which enjoyed considerable influence in the urban middle classes of the capital, were assumed to be exponents of “Amhara chauvinism” and thus advocates of the old regime. Their members were persecuted and a number of them were forced into exile.

The TPLF’s Monopoly of Power and the Economy

Although the various ethnic groups had ostensibly been granted an increased level of autonomy, in reality the TPLF was doing everything in its power to impede this process. Not only were the formally autonomous administrative bodies of the individual states under the strict control of the “bloc parties” and thus also effectively under the control of the TPLF/EPRDF, but the leadership positions within the security services were also occupied by TPLF members and loyal Tigrayans. According to estimates from the International Crisis Group, the TPLF, or rather the Tigrayan regional government under its control, has 260,000 armed soldiers at its disposal, which is more than the 160,000-strong Ethiopian army.

The TPLF used its monopoly on power to divert state resources to Tigray. For example, thanks to subsidies provided by the central government, the per-capita expenditure of the regional administration in Tigray was twice as high as that of the country’s most populous state, Oromia. The TPLF and its networks also benefited from the privatization policy, which was one of the conditions imposed by international financial organizations for the provision of aid money. A great many companies were sold below value and in shady deals to an endowment fund controlled by the TPLF, the Endowment Fund for the Rehabilitation of Tigray (EFFORT). Originally established as a non-profit organization, EFFORT has since grown into the country’s largest corporate holding company, consisting of 66 companies with combined assets estimated to total between three and six billion US dollars.

The biggest problem faced by the federal regions, however, was the fact that the central government, and thus also the TPLF, maintained a monopoly over the land. The farmers and local communities hold only usufructuary rights. In the 2000s in particular, under the pretext of boosting agricultural production, several million hectares of farmland located in the fertile lowlands in the southwest of Ethiopia were allocated to investors from India, the Gulf countries, and Malaysia, who use these areas to cultivate export products such as flowers, rice, and sugar. Thousands of indigenous communities have been evicted from these regions by force and robbed of their livelihoods.

The Reconfiguration of the Ruling Elite

The TPLF government’s intention to expand the borders of the capital region and seize 1.1 million hectares of land in the neighbouring Oromia region to this end ultimately sparked a popular uprising among the Oromo people in 2014. The Oromo people feared that tens of thousands of farmers would be expropriated, and that the region would be divided in two. In the summer of 2016, the uprising spread to the Amhara region and forced the prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, to step down in April 2018. Abiy Ahmed, who at the time was the head of the ODP Secretariat, the Oromo faction of the EPRDF, was elected as his successor.

It would appear that some people within the ruling apparatus believed that by appointing an Oromo person to the highest government office they would be able to quell the wave of protests sweeping the region while avoiding any major disruption to the regime’s continuity; however, they had failed to recognize that the balance of power had also begun to shift within the EPRDF. Under the leadership of its party head Lemma Mergasa, the ODP and the opposition movement in Oromia now closed ranks. It was primarily Lemma who — along with Demeke Mekonnen, then leader of Amhara’s ADP and now Minister of Foreign Affairs — managed to install Abiy Ahmed as prime minister within the EPRDF. This new alliance between the Oromo and Amhara people gradually stripped the TPLF of its power.

The second step taken to curb the influence of the TPLF was to dissolve the EPRDF party alliance and replace it with the Prosperity Party (PP), which would be accessible to all Ethiopians regardless of ethnicity. The primary intention here was to prioritize individual civil rights over ethnically determined group rights. The second intention was to create a common political frame of reference in light of the increasing risk of the country becoming embroiled in ethnic conflicts. In replacing the EPRDF with a new structure, a power base was established for the new government of Abiy Ahmed. This inevitably led to conflict with the TPLF, which refused to join the PP — especially given that the new government now simply attributed many of the problems and mistakes of the past to the TPLF instead of undertaking a more sober, balanced appraisal of the situation. After all, the TPLF had also generated unprecedented levels of economic growth for the country amounting to upwards of ten percent annually, which only ground to a halt due to the civil war. The demonization of the TPLF also coincided with a stigmatization of the Tigrinya, who increasingly found themselves being subjected to “ethnic profiling” beyond their home province.

The conflict ultimately escalated following the National Election Commission’s declaration that it would be unable to organize nationwide elections within the context of the coronavirus pandemic, whereupon the Ethiopian parliament opted to postpone the parliamentary and regional elections that were scheduled for the summer of 2020 by one year. The regional government in Tigray opposed the decision and held its own regional elections on 9 September 2020, which it claimed to have won with 98 percent of the vote. The central government subsequently declared the election illegitimate and suspended budgetary aid — a move that was interpreted by the TPLF as a declaration of war. Two months later, the TPLF launched an attack on the central government’s military barracks.

Between Democratic Transformation and a New Authoritarianism

A number of different lines of conflict intersect in the war in northern Ethiopia: the struggle for power between an old and a new elite; opposing discourses concerning identity and victimhood; different visions of a national project, which oscillate between a far-reaching degree of autonomy for the peripheral regions and the concept of a centralized state. It is precisely this intersection of different lines of conflict that has contributed to the relentless nature of the battles being fought in the region, and the fact that compromise is so far off. While the central government attempts to mobilize all sections of the population and the armed units of the regional states against the TPLF, the TPLF draws on its past experience in guerrilla warfare, a method it has used to successfully to topple a regime in the past. Meanwhile, in the south of the country, the TPLF is supported by the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), a guerrilla army that has been at war with the central government in the south and west of the region for half a century.

Now, the country faces the looming threat of balkanization, which would herald unprecedented repercussions for the entire Horn of Africa, which was in the throes of resolving old conflicts for the sake of fostering stronger regional cooperation. Ethiopian NGOs and opposition parties have made repeated calls in recent months for dialogue and for the establishment of a national unity government. The only thing that will liberate the country from the spiral of centralization, marginalization, and fragility in which it currently finds itself is an active endeavour involving all political players and ethnic groups to draft a set of common regulations for peaceful coexistence.

Ethiopia’s internal reform process has also come to a standstill in the wake of the conflict in Tigray. In this respect, the Addis Standard cited at the beginning of this article warns of a “faltering democratic transformation”; of Abiy increasingly adopting authoritarian tendencies and exceeding his constitutional powers. An example of this trend is Abiy’s decision to replace the presidents in almost every region — including Lemma Margasa, Abiy’s mentor –, which is actually a decision that can only be made by the regional parliaments. It is also not uncommon for arrest warrants to be issued against members of the opposition — especially those from Oromia, but also against those who are critical of Abiy’s war campaign in Tigray — under the pretext of terrorism allegations. The independent press is repeatedly subjected to acts of sabotage, such as the Addis Standard, which was forced to close for a few days in the summer of this year before it was once again allowed to resume publication. A window for reform might still be open. But the gap is narrowing.