Ethiopia was, until last year, seen as one of Africa’s great recent success stories. From the mid-1990s, it started moving towards democracy, and from a state of dire poverty – in 2000, it was the world’s second poorest nation – became a model for rapid, effective development. In 2019, its prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, won the Nobel Peace Prize for ending Ethiopia’s 20-year war with neighbouring Eritrea.
But the nation’s underlying ethnic tensions and its violent history have proved hard to escape. Tigray, Ethiopia’s northernmost region, has often been a focal point for disputes. It is home to seven million people out of Ethiopia’s 112 million: Tigrayans are the nation’s third largest ethnic group (the two largest, the Oromo and the Amhara, make up more than 60%). They have a strong local Orthodox Christian identity, and a strong sense of grievance against central government.
How have these tensions influenced events?
In 1974, Ethiopia’s last emperor, Haile Selassie, was deposed by a socialist junta. During the long period of military rule and civil war that followed, Tigray suffered terribly: it was the epicentre of the great famine of 1984. However, the separatist Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) became the most powerful rebel group in the country; it formed an alliance that in 1991 eventually toppled the communist dictatorship.
In the years after, Ethiopian politics were dominated by TPLF politicians such as Meles Zenawi, its prime minister from 1995 to 2012. Meles’s rule saw Ethiopia advance towards prosperity and stability, but it was also repressive and felt to benefit Tigrayans unfairly. This caused great resentment from Ethiopia’s 80 other ethnic groups.
The TPLF’s coalition was eventually forced out in 2018 by a wave of mass protests led by the current PM, Abiy, whose power base is in his own Oromo ethnic group. He formed the “pan-Ethiopian” Prosperity Party, and removed Tigrayans from key positions.
Why did this lead to the current conflict?
The TPLF, which remained in power in Tigray, saw Abiy’s centralising “pan-Ethiopian” politics as undermining the country’s federal system and its delicate ethnic balance. Abiy, in turn, accused the Tigrayans of brazenly defying the authority of central government – notably by holding elections in September despite a national postponement initiated on account of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Things came to a head in early November 2020, when the TPLF’s militia launched an assault on an Ethiopian army base in Tigray, with the goal of seizing weapons. The TPLF claimed it was a pre-emptive strike; at any rate, hours later Abiy launched a major military offensive into Tigray, and declared a six-month state of emergency in the region.
How has the conflict played out?
It’s hard to be sure, because the government has imposed a media blackout on Tigray. But it seems that both sides overestimated their own strength; and that has resulted in a gruesome and protracted conflict. The Ethiopian army swept into Mekelle, the capital of the Tigray region, and declared the war “over”.
But the TPLF is well armed after decades of regional conflict, and it dispersed, as Abiy lamented, “like flour in the winds” into Tigray’s rugged highlands – leaving the federal army fighting a guerilla war. To bolster its forces, the Ethiopian army has joined up with militias from Amhara, south of Tigray, and with Eritrean troops, whose dictatorship blames the TPLF for the long war that the two nations fought.
How bad is the situation?
Truly awful. In seven months of fighting, around two million people have been displaced from their homes in Tigray and more than 60,000 have fled to neighbouring Sudan. Information about fatalities is scarce, but it’s clear that thousands, if not tens of thousands, of people have been killed. There are many well-attested cases of civilians being massacred. Thousands more have been imprisoned without trial. Some 80% of the region’s hospitals have been looted and destroyed in a campaign aimed at crippling medical services, largely by Eritrean forces.
There is clear evidence of atrocities by both sides; Ethiopian and Eritrean troops have been accused of using rape as a weapon of war. “Rape is starting at the age of eight and to the age of 72,” an Ethiopian nun told The Guardian. “It is so widespread, I go on seeing it everywhere… This rape is in public, in front of family, husbands, in front of everyone.” Finally, fields, food stores and irrigation systems have also been destroyed.
Has this caused a famine?
Over 350,000 people in the region are suffering catastrophic famine conditions, according to UN agencies. A further two million people are classed as on the brink of “severe crisis”. More than 5.5 million people in Tigray need food aid. For famine to be declared, at least 20% of the population must be suffering extreme food shortages, so the region is not technically enduring a famine; but a humanitarian disaster is already under way.
How has the world reacted?
Slowly. The African Union, in which Ethiopia is a major player, has failed to act. Calls by the US for the withdrawal of Eritrean and Amhara forces from Tigray fell on deaf ears. In May, Washington belatedly imposed sanctions on Ethiopia – an important US ally in the unstable Horn of Africa – and on Eritrea. The EU, meanwhile, has postponed nearly €90m of budget support payments to Ethiopia, which it said would not resume without unfettered humanitarian access and an independent investigation into rights abuses committed during the conflict.
But Ethiopian officials have rejected calls for a ceasefire. And, amid outrage at atrocities committed by government-aligned forces, tens of thousands of young men have volunteered to fight with Tigrayan forces – rendering an imminent resolution to the conflict unlikely.
Abiy: from peacemaker to warlord
Not long ago, Ethiopia was in the grip of “Abiymania”. Having been elected in 2018, Ethiopia’s prime minister initiated a raft of ambitious reforms aimed at unifying a historically fractured nation. Thousands of political prisoners were freed; street sellers in Addis Ababa hawked stickers, posters and T-shirts featuring his face; radio stations aired gushing songs about him.
In 2019, Abiy was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for ending his country’s 20-year war with Eritrea. “War is the epitome of hell,” he said in his speech, in which he thanked the Eritrean dictator Isaias Afwerki.
Two years on, forces under his control are waging a brutal war on his own people. The US has accused Abiy’s government of ethnic cleansing in Tigray; the patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church has said the government is carrying out a genocide.
Ethiopia has again delayed elections, which were due to be held on 5 June, citing logistical problems; they are now due to be held on 21 June (the EU has cancelled plans to observe the elections, saying it hasn’t received the necessary assurances from the government). And, with no sign of him easing his military campaign in Tigray, Abiy is looking more like the strongmen of Ethiopia’s past by the day.