A Brief History of the Ethiopian Conflict with Tigray

Ethiopian Prime Minister Pabiy Ahmed meets with European Coucil president Donald Tusk

Ongoing fighting between the national army and forces in the country’s Tigray region has Ethiopia on the brink of a civil war. Since the violence started on November 4, hundreds have been killed while thousands more have fled to neighboring Sudan. 

 Ethiopia’s rapid deterioration has widely been considered a result of the postponed September election, which would have elected new members to the House of Peoples’ Representatives. The federal government postponed the election due to the coronavirus pandemic and proposed that it be held instead in May or June of 2021.

Months after the original election date, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched a military offensive against Tigrayan forces after accusing them of seizing a military base in the regional capital of Mekelle. November 4 marked the beginning of the resurgence of armed conflict in the Tigray region in northern Ethiopia. However, to fully unearth the simmering tensions between the region and Ethiopia’s central government, it’s necessary to look back at 1975, when The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) was founded. ³

At its inception, the TPLF was established to combat “The Derg,” the military junta looking to fill the power vacuum removing Emperor Haile Selassie from office in 1974 created. A bloody civil war between The Derg and the TPLF followed the emperor’s unseating, killing tens of thousands of young people. The political turmoil became known as Ethiopia’s “Red Terror.” From the conflict arose the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which was founded by eleven men to destabilize “The Derg.”

Over almost two decades, the TPLF evolved into Ethiopia’s most powerful armed liberation group. In 1991, the TPLF, along with its counterparts in the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), overthrew the military government and established the EPRDF as Ethiopia’s ruling assembly. 

Throughout TPLF’s 27 years in power, child mortality rates plummeted, and widespread famine was eliminated. However, Ethiopia remained a one-party system, and the reality of Tigrayan control irked the new generation. ⁴

As a result, years of anti-government demonstrations emerged. The conflict was due to the flaring of tensions between Ethiopia’s different ethnic groups that each wanted control of the government. Eventually, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn stepped down, becoming the first ruler in modern Ethiopian history to do so. At that point in early 2018, Abiy Ahmed was elected leader by the House of Representatives. Mr. Abiy is the first member of an ethnic group called the Oromo people who believed the EPRDF had marginalized them for years to become Ethiopia’s Prime Minister. The politician was elected on a platform of reform and became a political enemy of the TPLF shortly after being elected.¹ Abiy endangered the incumbent party’s agenda by calling out its previous leaders for corruption and human rights abuses, and, eventually, by removing key government officials who were a part of the TPLF. ¹ 

As political tensions rose within the country, Abiy stuck to the promises he ran on and began releasing political prisoners, unrestricting hundreds of television channels, and privatizing state-owned businesses. Most notably, the new prime minister resolved the country’s seemingly entrenched conflict with neighboring Eritrea and won the Nobel Peace Prize for that accomplishment in 2019. Unfortunately, this period of rare prosperity and hope came to an abrupt end in 2019. 

Last December, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed decided to merge all ethnically-based parties to create the “Prosperity Party.” The people of Tigray were outraged by the decision, which took away a lot of the region’s political influence. The region refused to join the “Prosperity Party.” In addition, Abiy decided to postpone national elections that were to be held in September, citing Covid-19 concerns. The TPLF party accused the prime minister unconstitutionally extending his government’s time in power, formed their own electoral commission, and held elections for an interim leader to lead northern Ethiopia. The defiant act threatened Abiy’s government position, and he countered Tigrayan leadership by declaring their elections unlawful. Tensions between Tigray and the central government of Ethiopia had reached historical highs at that point and, a month later, the still ongoing violence began. 

On November 4, the TPLF unexpectedly attacked a military base in Tigray’s capital of Mekelle that belonged to the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF). The government maintains that the act, in which several people died, was out of “Self-Defence.” Abiy declared that a “red-line” had been crossed and proceeded to shut down the internet, telephone, and electricity services in Tigray. All other forms of transportation out of the region, including flights, were banned. An aerial retaliation attack by the ENDF followed suit, and the situation effectively became a civil war. TPLF forces have since been linked to the massacre of around 500 people on the Sudanese border, attacks on the Eritrean capital Asmara where the ENDF used airports to launch missile attacks, and the destruction of an ancient UNESCO World Heritage site. Abiy’s army was accused of excessive violence during their invasion of Mekelle as the TPLF alleged Tigrayan civilians had been unnecessarily killed.  

Ever since fighting began, the risk of Ethiopia’s conflict spreading looms. There are several potential ways in which the fighting between the Tigrayan people and the central government could destabilize neighboring countries. Sudan has felt immense economic strain due to the tens of thousands of refugees from Ethiopia, and Eritrea has endured rocket attacks from its longtime enemy, the TPLF. There is significant potential for Sudan and Eritrea to intervene and other countries to follow. Additionally, Ethiopia’s neighbors are quite poor, and the economic burden of refugees as well as the lack of safety caused by them pose extra incentives to step in. Overall, the current situation has many people concerned about what’s to come, but the future of Ethiopia’s civil war remains to be seen. A glimmer of hope appeared on December 2, when the United Nations and Ethiopia reached a deal to allow aid workers access to the country’s rapidly growing refugee populations. A few days later, Ethiopian forces in Tigray were confronted about and admitted to shooting at aid workers in the region. If that incident was representative of what’s to come, lingering fears of a regional conflict along the unstable horn of Africa may not be far from reality.

By Max Boesch-Powers