Home / Articles / Violence in Tigray Threatens Ethiopia’s Already Fragile Stability
The ongoing violence between the Ethiopian central government and the Tigray Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF), which began in 2020, has Ethiopia at a crossroads. An ancient kingdom that stood as a powerful state between the Roman Empire and Persia and home of the earliest hominids on Earth, Ethiopia’s written history dates from the time of King Solomon. The country was ruled by emperors from the Zagwe dynasty in the 9th century until 1974 when Haile Selassie, the last emperor of the Solomonic dynasty, was overthrown and the communist Provisional Military Government of Socialist Ethiopia took control of the country. The military committee (known as the Derg) was initially popular, but its harsh rule, including executions and mishandling of the Eritrean situation, caused massive resentment and resistance. Many Ethiopians joined resistance movements such as the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Party (EPRP), Eritrean Peoples’ Liberation Front (EPLF), the Ethiopian Democratic Union (EDU), the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), and the TPLF. The current crisis threatens to escalate into broader ethnic tensions within Ethiopia and could very well involve other countries in the region.
As emperor, Haile Selassie undertook efforts to reform Ethiopian politics, but not as fast or as far enough for independence-minded Africans, and, in 1960, while he was abroad, there was an attempted military coup. This attempt pushed him into a more authoritarian stance. In addition to internal conflict, Ethiopia’s annexation of Eritrea, ostensibly as an autonomous federal province with its own constitution and elected government, led to a decades-long war that ended in 1974 with the military overthrow of the emperor and the installation of the brutal Marxist regime of Major Mengistu Haile Mariam. The Eritrean resistance, the EPLF, continued a guerilla campaign and in conjunction with the TPLF, who were also fighting for independence from Addis Ababa, overthrew Mengistu in 1991. In 1993, Eritrea’s independence was recognized.
From 1993 to 1998, the country was relatively peaceful, until a border war erupted between Ethiopia and Eritrea over relatively minor incidents, which lasted until 2000 when peace talks began in Algeria after Ethiopia won large areas of territory in a sudden offensive. While the ceasefire ended war casualties, the long conflict caused food shortages in both countries.
Overthrowing a Dictator Did not Solve Ethiopia’s Problems
When Mengistu Hallemarian became leader of the Derg, he implemented a Stalinist policy and unleashed the “Red Terror,” imprisonment, torture, and mass executions in 1977. Mengistu’s reign led to chaos and a state of civil war, with all of the opposition groups engaged in an armed struggle to overthrow him, with Eritrean and Tigrayan opposition at the forefront.
In 1991, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which was a coalition of the anti-government resistance groups, overthrew Mengistu Hallemarian and took control of the country. While the Tigray ethnic group is only six percent of the country’s population, the TPLF played a key role in the revolution and became a dominant element in the consensus-driven EPRDF, ruling the country until 2018 when Abiy Ahmed, an Oromo, was elected prime minister. The son of a Muslim Oromo father and a Christian Oromo mother, Abiy was a lieutenant colonel in the Ethiopian army, and, after leaving the army in 2010, he was elected to the House of Peoples’ Representatives, representing the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO). In 2016, he served for a short period as minister of science and technology before leaving that post to serve as vice president of the Oromia regional government.
In 2018, Abiy became the first Oromo to serve as the country’s prime minister. It was hoped that his election would help ease the tensions between the government and the Oromo ethnic group, which had long believed that it should be dominant in the central government given its huge population compared to other ethnic groups.
During the first year of his tenure, Abiy made many changes to strengthen the democratic process and improve the economy, resolve the border conflict with Eritrea, release thousands of political prisoners, and remove the terrorist designation from several government opposition groups. He also began efforts to make peace with the country’s many ethnic groups, beginning with the signing of a peace agreement designed to end more than 30 years of conflict in the Ogaden region. His most significant achievement was the progress in ending the border war with Eritrea that had begun in 1998.
His Prosperity Party (PP) secured 410 of the 436 seats in the Ethiopian parliament that were up for re-election in June 2018. Elections have not yet been held for the remainder of the total 547 seats in the parliament, the majority of which are in Tigray, Harari, and Somali, where security concerns and logistics prevented elections. When the TPLF refused to merge into the PP, it was reduced to a regional force, and it became apparent that it had power only in Tigray, according to David Shinn who served as U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia from 1996 to 1999. The TPLF moved its power base to the Tigray region, which shares a border with Eritrea. When Abiy’s government canceled the scheduled parliamentary elections in 2020, the Tigray region went ahead with them, angering Abiy and worsening relations between the region and Addis Ababa.
A Resurgence of Old Enmities and Rivalries
Fearing an attack by the central government, the TPLF launched a preemptive strike against the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) Northern Command in Mekele and seized much of its military equipment. ENDF units from the neighboring Amhara region launched immediate counterattacks.
Even though the TPLF struck the first blow, Aurelia Brazeal, who was U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia from 2002 to 2005, said that there is enough blame to go around. Historically, Brazeal said, Amhara and allied ethnic groups preferred a strong central government, whereas smaller ethnic groups, left out of the powerful ruling cliques, felt marginalized. The Ethiopian Constitution adopted under the EPRDF devolved power down to the ethnically based regional governments. Many of the country’s ethnic groups, she said, resent Abiy’s apparent desire to strengthen the central government’s control, which would weaken local government autonomy.
The current crisis, said Brazeal, is caused by a number of factors, the major one being a feeling that Abiy was abandoning the collective governance structure that had been used to govern the country since 1991, which most people felt better met the needs of the country’s various ethnic groups. Another important factor is the historical enmity against the Tigrayans who dominated the EPRDF for many years, which is further complicated by the ill feelings against Tigray in particular and Ethiopia generally by Isaias Afeweki, the authoritarian ruler of Eritrea.
When the central government ordered elections postponed in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Tigray regional government ignored the directive and proceeded with elections, which the TPLF won handily, said Shinn. This angered Abiy’s government and led to the deterioration of relations between Addis Ababa and Tigray. The TPLF attack on Mekele, Brazeal said, was likely out of a fear that the ENDF was planning to attack Tigray’s provincial government.
Despite his enmity against Ethiopia, Eritrea’s Afeweki has drawn close to Abiy and sent Eritrean forces into the Tigray region early in the conflict in an effort to destroy the TPLF, said Shinn. While all sides in the conflict have been accused of human rights violations, the massacre of scores of civilians, including young children in the town of Axum in Tigray, by Eritrean armed forces in November 2020 is probably one of the most egregious incidents. On November 19, according to Human Rights Watch, Ethiopian and Eritrean forces shelled the town, killing and wounding noncombatants. The forces then pillaged and destroyed property and shot civilians. After Tigray units attacked Eritrean forces on November 28, the Eritrean forces summarily executed several hundred civilians in apparent retaliation. After initial denials from the Ethiopian central government and the government of Eritrea that Eritrean forces were in Tigray, on April 16, 2021, the government of Eritrea, in a letter to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), announced that it would start pulling its troops out of the Tigray region.
While it appears that most of the Eritrean forces have, in fact, retreated across the border, according to Shinn, this does not mean that the crisis is resolved. “So far,” he said. “Neither the TPLF nor the central government has shown any interest in outside mediation.”
Is There a Solution to this Problem?
While it might be the case that neither side has thus far shown an interest in accepting outside mediation, this does not mean that outside action cannot be instrumental in either ending or prolonging hostilities.
“The Russians and the Chinese seemingly supported the Abiy government’s initial contention that the violence is an internal matter, not one for international consideration,” said Brazeal. “For many months, during which time people died, were raped, or were made destitute, the Russians and Chinese blocked formal UN Security Council consideration of the issue.” The UNSC has recently taken up the issue and called for an end to the violence and a negotiated settlement of the issue.
In the meantime, the United States—on the strength of its long relationship with Ethiopia—several European and Middle Eastern nations, and China can all continue to urge both sides to come to the table. China, which is expanding its economic presence and influence in Africa, should have a great interest in ending the violence and restoring stability. Absent both parties having a desire to end the violence, there does not appear to be many options. The Africa Union (AU), for example, although headquartered in Addis Ababa, has to date played no significant role in mediating this conflict, nor have the hostilities impacted its relationship with the Abiy government.
“I welcome the Ethiopian national government’s ceasefire announcement,” Brazeal said. “But for me there is a credibility deficit on all sides.”
Shinn does not disagree with this assessment. “Now that the TPLF has the upper hand in the Tigray region, I doubt that they will stop fighting until they have recovered most of the territory originally seized by the ENDF, Amhara militia, and Eritrean forces,” he said. “Some of the land in west Tigray is disputed by Amharans and Tigrayans, and resolution of these claims might have to be mediated.” Shinn added that TPLF forces recently entered the Afar region with the possible goal of severing the rail link between Addis Ababa and the port of Djibouti. If this is the case, he said, then it could widen the conflict and significantly prolong hostilities.
On August 10, 2021, Abiy appealed to civilians to join the Ethiopian military to help the country in its fight against the TPLF. His address does not bode well for the prospects of peace in the near term. The central government declared a unilateral ceasefire in June through September, but the TPLF did not reciprocate. In an additional depressing development, Abiy refused to meet with Samantha Power, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), who was visiting Ethiopia on August 4, 2021, to seek greater access for humanitarian aid workers in Tigray. This move undermines the prime minister’s alleged commitment to providing relief in the region. Abiy’s refusal was reportedly because he believes that the push for humanitarian access is a ruse to indirectly supply the TPLF with weapons, allegations that have long been discredited.
Based upon interviews with Brazeal and Shinn, as well as statements from the U.S. and other governments and the United Nations, there are a number of things that are essential if peace and order are to be restored in Ethiopia: In the first instance, Brazeal said, the central government needs to allow the delivery of humanitarian aid to Tigray and permit the resumption of commercial activity. If the government acts in good faith, then the TPLF should withdraw from the Afar region and cease military activity. The regional militias should stand down to allow peace negotiations, and all parties should cease belligerent public statements and approach negotiations in good faith. To prevent an expansion of the conflict beyond Ethiopia, Eritrea should withdraw all of its forces from Ethiopia and refrain from further involvement.
Once all parties to the conflict cease military operations and agree to engage in negotiations, the international community should provide its full support.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.