While the majority of western media continues its focus on the current Russian invasion of Ukraine, a plethora of armed conflicts continue to rage in the global south. One of the more violent of these conflicts, the ongoing Tigray War in Ethiopia, is currently being led by Nobel Peace Prize Winner Abiy Ahmed, the standing Prime Minister. This post will present a brief overview of the political situation in Ethiopia leading up to the conflict, who and what the various actors and parties involved are, and where the conflict stands today.
Ethiopia has an incredibly rich and complex history dating back to the first millennium BC. Its diverse ecology and mountainous terrain paired with a relatively tropical climate resulted in the development of several different regionally-concentrated ethnicities. While today over 90 different ethnic groups claim Ethiopia as home, the majority of Ethiopians are members of just four ethnic groups: the Oromo, the Amhara, the Somalis, and the Tigrayans.
While the Tigrayans have historically been the smallest of these groups in terms of population, they have held a disproportionate level of domestic political power over other more populous ethnic groups. This power imbalance can be said to trace its roots back to the Derg period from 1974 to 1991.
The Derg was a soviet-backed military junta that overthrew the existing monarchy and proceeded to rule the country with an iron fist. Over the course of this rule however the Derg saw its military capabilities spread thin trying to maintain its highly contentious rule while also defending itself from a Somali Invasion in the Ogden War. The straw that finally broke the camels back was the result of a famine from 1983-1985 that resulted in the deaths of over a million Ethiopians.
Facing mounting pressure both internally and externally for the military junta to step down, then leader of the Derg Chairman Mengistu Haile Mariam dissolved the Derg, ceding power to the newly-formed People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (PDRE). This was mainly for show; Mengistu would continue to hold his position as the head executive until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
It was the sudden cutoff of Soviet aid paired with continued effects of the aforementioned famine and drought that resulted in the PDRE’s collapse. As the PDRE floundered, rebelling regional militias, most notably the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (or TPLF) united under the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). The EPRDF, mainly led by TPLF fighters, then successfully led an offensive to capture Addis Ababa, the nation’s capital.
The TPLF, hailing from Ethiopia’s northernmost Tigray region, were and continue to be one of the strongest militias in the country due to its guerilla warfare experience obtained during its 15-year struggle against Derg rule paired with its popularity it cultivated within the Tigray region itself. Throughout the Derg’s rule the TPLF mounted several various guerilla campaigns, during which time any TPLF fighter seen abusing the locals would be severely punished by TPLF leadership if not executed. The result of this fostering of goodwill was twofold: one, the TPLF was able to amass the largest number of fighters of any of the militias, and two, civilians would offer support in the form of intelligence, food and supplies.
The result of the TPLF’s military strength was an acquisition of a disproportionate level of power within the new state structure that emerged from the Derg’s collapse. Led by TPLF member Meles Zenawi, the new government under the banner of the aforementioned EPRDF wished to retain centralized state power while granting a degree of autonomy and self-determination to the major ethnic groups within Ethiopia. The end result of this ethnic federalism however saw the TPLF wield a large influence within both Ethiopia’s political and military leadership that was disproportionate to the actual Tigrayan population.
Some analysts have pointed to this system as further entrenching both real and perceived ethnic differences while reinforcing internal imbalances of power between the different Ethiopian ethnic groups. While in power, the EPRDF continued many of the autocratic practices of its predecessor such as taking and occasionally executing political prisoners and censoring dissident media. These practices culminated in several years of political unrest until the eventual resignation of then leader Hailemariam Desalegn. The election that followed was highly contentious, and the TPLF, who’s political clout had already begun to dwindle, could do little but protest as Abiy Ahmed, an Oromo, was elected to the position of Ethiopia’s Prime Minister.
To international observers it first seemed that Abiy Ahmed was the harbinger of much-needed political reform to Ethiopia. As some of his first acts in office he pardoned and released thousands of political prisoners while inviting previously exiled journalists and media agencies to return to the country. His successful efforts to normalize relations with Eritrea to bring an end to the then multi-decade border dispute resulted in him being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019.
Meanwhile, the TPLF whose leadership was responsible for much of the political suppression Abiy worked to eliminate, was steadily growing in their discontent. The long-standing border dispute between Ethiopia and Eritrea was the result of disputing land claims between the Tigray region and Eritrea- in normalizing relations between the two federal governments, the TPLF felt abandoned by a federal government who had up until then been favorable to their political interests.
The final straw came with Abiy’s announcement that the EPRDF coalition would dissolve and form a new, further unified Prosperity Party. This essentially had the effect of further centralizing the federal government’s power at the expense of the regional states’ political autonomy. The TPLF, who had greatly benefitted from ethnic federalism, saw this as an existential threat, and rejected Abiy’s invitation to join the newly formed coalition party.
When Abiy Ahmed pushed back federal elections an entire year under auspices of the COVID-19 pandemic, Tigray held their own federal elections which the federal government deemed illegal. Shortly after this election, the TPLF attacked the Ethiopian National Defense Force’s Tigrayan headquarters, and the situation quickly unfolded into the humanitarian crisis we see today.
The outbreak of the war has seen a resurgence of the repressive authoritarian tactics Abiy was purported to be a rejection of. Internet blackouts in the Tigray region has made it extremely hard for those most impacted by the violence to share their experiences. Those that are able to tell stories of mass killings and rapes and a famine made worse by federal forces blocking shipments of international aid. Abiy Ahmed, winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Peace Prize, has since made comments alluding to his support of using rape as a tool of war. As violence rages on, internal divisions are further cemented, making it increasingly difficult to bring the involved parties together to find the so-called “off ramp” to peace. Moving forward, International observers must do more to support the struggling Tigrayan civilian population, especially by ensuring peaceful transfer of aid to famine-stricken regions and by offering help in the negotiation process.