Unpicking the war that has broken out in Ethiopia between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and the central authority represented by Prime Minister Abiy, Martin Plaut explains the background and devastating consequences of the war for all Ethiopians.
By Martin Plaut
The war that erupted in the northern Ethiopian region of Tigray on 4 November had been a long time coming. Prime Minister Abiy, who came to power in 2018, attempted to reduce the power of the Tigrayans, who had previously ruled the country. Control of the powerful Northern Command of the army, based in the Tigrayan regional capital, Mekelle, became a critical issue.
The Northern Command is the best armed unit in the Ethiopian army. It was entrenched along the country’s border with Eritrea after the disastrous border war of 1998 – 2000 that cost 100,000 lives. It was provided with Ethiopia’s most formidable weapons systems – including heavy artillery and missile systems. Prime Minister Abiy attempted to end Tigrayan dominance of the Command and ordered that some of its the heavy weapons should be redeployed to the centre of the country. The Tigrayans mobilised their people to block the roads, preventing this from happening. Then the Tigrayan authorities insisted that it would hold their own elections (even though the Federal authorities said this could not be done, given the Covid pandemic). Despite this the elections were successfully held in September this year, with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front [TPLF] winning over 90% support.
The immediate cause for the conflict was the refusal of the Tigrayans to accept Brigadier General Jamal Mohammed as the new commander of the Northern Command on 29 October, forcing him to return to Addis Ababa. It put the Tigrayans on a collision course with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, and the war erupted on 4 November, with fighting at the Command headquarters in Mekelle. Although Prime Minister Abiy said he was only launching a limited, policing operation against the TPLF leadership, it is now apparent that a long-planned offensive began involving Ethiopian Federal forces, Amhara militia and the Eritrean military.
At the heart of the dispute is the question of the nature of the Ethiopian state. Is it one unitary state, in which some 80 nationalities have their place, or should it be a federation of ethnicities, loosely united at the centre? To this there is no obvious answer.
After the TPLF seized power by overthrowing Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991 they controlled the country, despite being only around 6% of the population through the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front [EPRDF]. The Front was the brainchild of the TPLF’s leader, Meles Zenawi.
He was the architect of a system known as “ethnic federalism”. This suggested to each of Ethiopia’s ethic groups that they had the right to autonomy and self-government. In reality it was not possible to have so many regional states, and they were grouped into 10 states. Each was apparently given autonomy in legislative, executive and judicial functions, and the unconditional right to secession. The reality was very different. The Tigrayans established parties that were in controlled by the TPLF, even though they were run by people from the ethnicity they were meant to represent. They came together in Addis and the EPRDF, which the TPLF dominated.
As time passed the regional parties grew in strength and independence. They also developed police forces and para-military forces that became almost as powerful as the security forces of the Ethiopian state. Regional interests gradually predominated and in 2018 Abiy Ahmed was elected Prime Minister. It was the first time that someone from an Oromo background (representing approximately a third of the 114 million people) had ruled the country in its long history. Most Oromo had only been included in the Ethiopian empire when the Emperor Menelik II swept down from the highlands, including vast new territories at the end of the nineteenth century. He did so just at the time of the Western Scramble for Africa, and brought a predominantly Muslim and animist population into a Christian empire. Oromo had been called “galla” a derogatory term, implying that they were slaves. Slavery continued in Ethiopia until the 1930’s.
The alliance with President Isaias
At first Prime Minister Abiy was enormously popular. He instituted a series of reforms: releasing thousands of political prisoners, allowing rebel movements to return to the country and relaxing censorship (from 2014 an unprecedented protest movement shook Ethiopia to its core forcing the pace of reforms, see ROAPE’s coverage here). He announced that anti-terrorism laws were draconian and would be reformed. For these developments he won international support. But his crowning achievement came on 8 July 2018, when he flew into Asmara, the capital of neighbouring Eritrea. His arrival marked the end of nearly two decades of hostility between the two countries – the result of the inconclusive end to the border war. Prime Minister Abiy received a rapturous welcome from the people of Asmara and President Isaias Afwerki. When President Isaias visited Addis Ababa within weeks he was equally warmly received. For ending the ‘no-war, no-peace’ stalemate with Eritrea and for his domestic reforms, Prime Minister Abiy was awarded the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize.
But beneath the surface troubles were bubbling up.
The alliance between Prime Minister Abiy and President Isaias was based on a shared perception: power had to be removed from the Tigrayans. For Abiy this was part of an attempt to wrest power from the states, end ethnic federalism and restore power at the centre. It was a re-assertion of the traditional view of the Ethiopian state – that its people were Ethiopians first and that their ethnicities came second. It was popular with sections of the Amhara community, who had frequently been the traditional rulers of Ethiopia.
This was resisted by the other ethnicities and led to increased tensions between ethnic groups. It is worth noting that 1.2 million Ethiopians had been displaced by conflict even before the Tigray war erupted.
For Isaias dealing a mortal blow to the Tigrayans had been his ambition since the 1980’s. Although the TPLF and President Isaias’s liberation movement – the EPLF (now the PFDJ) had sometimes worked together, they had frequently clashed over ideology and tactics. In essence, Isaias saw the Eritreans as the ‘big brothers’ in the Horn of Africa – a view the Tigrayans resisted. When the 1984 – 85 Ethiopian famine struck, the EPLF closed the route for supplies of aid into Tigray from Sudan. The TPLF were forced to march 100,000 people into Sudan to survive. Many died along the way. For the Tigrayans this was nothing short of a crime. Despite this, the TPLF and EPLF settled their differences and found a means of co-operating. When the Tigrayans marched into Addis in 1991, they did so with the Eritreans at their side. For a few years this alliance lasted, but slowly grievances arose and differences accentuated. This led to the 1998 – 2000 border war, which ended with Eritrea in full retreat. President Isaias, furious that he was unable to trounce the Tigrayans on the battlefield, plotted their destruction.
With Abiy in power he and Isaias planned their strategy. It is worth noting that their last reciprocal meetings prior to the current Tigrayans war were held in each other’s military bases. Removing the TPLF leadership is now a key goal in both Addis Ababa and Asmara. Until it is achieved neither is likely to rest. This is why the present war is unlikely to be ended by mediation, by the African Union, or anyone else. A visceral hatred exists between the leaders of the Tigrayans, Eritreans and Ethiopia’s ruling party. This is not (at present) reflected in animosity between their peoples, but as the fighting continues, this may be on the cards.
What began as a “police operation” between the Ethiopian Federal authorities and the Tigray region has already had implications for the rest of the Horn of Africa. Some 3,000 Ethiopian troops have been withdrawn from Somalia to fight in Tigray. This is destabilising Somalia, just as President Trump has ordered the US military to leave the country.
Other Ethiopian ethnic groups are watching nervously as the Federal forces and Eritreans attack Tigray and wonder if they might face a similar fate in due course. Why would a Somali or Oromo family wish to see their children sent to die in the highlands of Ethiopia (that many have never visited) for a ‘greater Ethiopia’ that could extinguish their own autonomy? Fighting has already erupted in Oromia. It could spread to other regions. Prime Minister Abiy and President Isaias have lit the fuse – what will follow?
When the war began the US Foundation of Peace issued a warning – endorsed by senior American Africanists. It is as apposite today as it was on the 5 November.
While many of the facts remain unclear, the risks of escalation are certain: Intrastate or interstate conflict would be catastrophic for Ethiopia’s people and for the region and would pose a direct threat to international peace and security. The acceleration of polarization amid violent conflict would also mark the death knell for the country’s nascent reform effort that began two years ago and the promise of a democratic transition that it heralded.
As we cautioned in the study group’s Final Report and Recommendations released on October 29, the fragmentation of Ethiopia would be the largest state collapse in modern history. Ethiopia is five times the size of pre-war Syria by population, and its breakdown would lead to mass interethnic and interreligious conflict; a dangerous vulnerability to exploitation by extremists; an acceleration of illicit trafficking, including of arms; and a humanitarian and security crisis at the crossroads of Africa and the Middle East on a scale that would overshadow any existing conflict in the region, including Yemen. As Ethiopia is currently the leading Troop Contributing Country to the United Nations and the African Union peacekeeping missions in Sudan, South Sudan and Somalia, its collapse would also significantly impact the efforts by both to mitigate and resolve others conflicts in the Horn of Africa.
When the Tigrayans last challenged the Ethiopian state, the fighting lasted from 1976 until 1991. The cost in suffering and life was immense. One can only hope that this time scale will not be repeated and that the African Union offer of mediation will be allowed to proceed, but the prospect does not look optimistic.
Martin Plaut is currently Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London and a regular contributor to ROAPE. For years Martin worked as a journalist and researcher focusing primarily on southern Africa and the Horn of Africa. He was until recently Africa Editor, BBC World Service News, but since his retirement he has published a series of books, including Understanding Eritrea (2016, Hurst).
Featured Photograph: Fighters ride to the frontline to face troops from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (Tiksa Negeri).