Civil war: What is happening in Ethiopia?

By Nicolas Pérez Barley, EEB4 S6 DEA & Marina D’Ago, EEB4 S6 ITA

In one of the most populous countries in the world, and perhaps the African country with the most promising economic future, civil war has broken out. The conflict between the government and the TPLF-party could have an immense impact on the entire region and its origins lie deep within the country’s history.

In East Africa, the Ethiopian conflict between the central government in Addis Ababa and the regional government led by the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) has put the entire surrounding region on the brink of a humanitarian disaster. According to Al Jazeera-News, more than 500 Tigrayans have already died in battle and thousands have lost their homes[i]. In a region with over 5 million inhabitants[ii], this could lead to a new wave of immigration towards European, or neighbouring countries (many of which are fragile or in civil war themselves).

Map of Ethiopia, with the Tigray region in the north[i].

Because of a recent communication blackout, for which the federal government blamed a cyberattack[i], it is highly difficult to obtain trustworthy information about the current situation. Recently, the government claimed to have killed high ranking TPLF-members, including a former Ethiopian foreign minister. The claims could not be verified[ii]. Prime Minister Abiy has also claimed victory after his troops freed Mekele, the capital of Tigray and visited the city in December[iii]. However, the TPLF continues the struggle[iv]in other areas. 

The conflict has already turned into a humanitarian nightmare. According to the United Nations, around 2.3 million people in Tigray are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance[v], yet most hospitals have been destroyed, due to the fighting vi. Additionally, the Agence France-Presse claims to have been informed by Tigrayans about the brutal behaviour of the federal troops[vi]and aid workers are facing difficulties when trying to access refugee camps vi. Ethiopia has a long history of being the prime example for a better future in Africa. It is the only nation out of two African countries that managed to keep colonisers outside of their territory[vii], and has one of the fastest growing economies in the world [viii]. However, the tensions that have been building up over many decades, are currently testing the foundation and unity of the nation and could potentially lead to its downfall.

The TPLF played a crucial role in the fall of the dictatorship and the establishment of the Federal Republic of Ethiopia in 1995[i]. Ever since the fall of the communists in Ethiopia in 1991, the Tigray minority, only making up around 6% of Ethiopia’s population[ii], has been the dominant group in the country’s economy, military, and government[iii]. According to the Ethiopian Review, 57 out of the 61 critical military positions are currently held by Tigrayans[iv]and from 1995 to 2018, the TPLF was a part of every government that ruled the country[v]. In 2018 however, mass protests erupted, mainly in the Oromo region, land to the largest ethno-national group in Ethiopia[vi]. The protests finally led to the formation of a new government, that did not include the TPLF, under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who is an Oromo himself[vii].

“Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed receiving the Nobel Peace Prize.”[i]

Shortly after becoming Prime Minister, Abiy introduced numerous reforms, including liberalization of certain economic sectors[i]and thereby breaking the influence of the state on the economy, as well as ending the over two-decade old border conflict with the neighbouring country of Eritrea, for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019[ii]. One major factor of this new alliance between the former arch enemies is the fear of a common enemy of both Ethiopia and Eritrea: the TPLF. There have been several reports claiming that Eritrean troops were fighting alongside the Ethiopian military in Tigray[iii]. Abiy also created a new party, the Prosperity Party, which includes every party in the Ethiopian parliament, except for the TPLF[iv], creating a new basis for a government without the Tigrayans and increasing the TPLF’s fear of a more centralised government.

Then, in June 2020, the national parliament postponed the federal elections because of the Covid-19 crisis[i]. The TPLF felt that the government was undermining democracy. They then held clandestine regional elections in Tigray in September 2020, which the Prosperity Party boycotted[ii]. Since then, both governments do not accept the other as legitimate and military actions have begun.

Abiy’s government takes highly different economic measures than the TPLF. While the TPLF represents almost socialist policies, with many sectors controlled by state-owned enterprises (SOEs), largely controlled by Tigrayans[iii], Abiy has taken a more liberal and western-aligned approach[iv]. Yet, the differences between the two sides of this bloody civil war go beyond economic policies. Both parties have completely different visions for the future of Ethiopia and Tigray. The TPLF wants to preserve the federalist system and a certain autonomy for each ethnicity and region and believes that Abiy’s government wants to not only to centralise the state, but also to significantly limit the TPLF’s influence[v], and therefore, the Tigray influence too. However, their most important goal is the reestablishment of the Tigray influence in Ethiopia xxvii. The prime minister’s vision on the other hand, is an Ethiopian nationalism that appeals to all ethnicities, to keep the fragile state togetherxxiv.

The future of Ethiopia remains uncertain. Even though the federal troops currently seem to have the upper hand, the TPLF has good connections within Tigray and their uprising may inspire other ethnic groups to protest the government. Ironically, the Oromo region, home to Abiy Ahmed’s own ethnic group, was the stage for the latest clash between rebels and government forces, in which a 32-year-old schoolteacher died[vi]. Even if the government manages to defeat the rebels in Tigray, it is still a long way to national unity.