The Ethiopia-Tigray conflict: What we know so far

Tigray capital of Mekele in Ethiopia

A file photo of Tigray police officers at a checkpoint in the outskirts of Mekele, the capital city of Tigray Region in Ethiopia.

Photo credit: Eduardo Soteras | AFP

What you need to know:

  • To some, the conflict had been boiling since Dr Abiy took power in April 2018, replacing Hailemariam Desalegn. To others, the declaration of war was somewhat surprising, considering this was mostly an internal issue.
  • Tsedale Lemma, an Ethiopian political analyst said the Tigray situation is the by-product of Premier Abiy’s failed political project, but argued the war may take longer than planned.

The Ethiopian government under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has declared ‘war’ on the Tigray region, an autonomous federal area north of the country, after Addis Ababa said militias had “crossed the last red line.”

To some, the conflict had been boiling since Dr Abiy took power in April 2018, replacing Hailemariam Desalegn. To others, the declaration of war was somewhat surprising, considering this was mostly an internal issue.

Why does Tigray oppose Abiy’s government?

When he came to power, Abiy, of Oromo-Amhara ethnic descent, was mostly a consensus Prime Minister.

He was initially fronted by the Amhara but gained support especially among other influential regions of the country, to lead the the then Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the coalition that had been running the country.

However, his reforms rubbed the Tigray’s the wrong way. First, his purge of senior government and military officers facing integrity questions was seen as targeting the old guard and elites, mainly Tigray.

Dr Abdiwahab Sheikh Abdisamad, a Kenyan academic and author of ‘Ethnicity and Politics in the Horn of Africa’ told the Nation that the Tigrays have been wary of Abiy because they feel he wanted to take power from them.

“They are the elites and remnants of (former Prime Minister) Meles Zenawi. They oppose his policies and are powerful because they took advantage of Meles' years in power to enrich themselves," he said on Thursday, referring to the former Ethiopian leader who died in August 2012. He was of Tigrayan ethnicity.

Though he created a federal system based on ethnic blocs to prevent previous civil wars, his critics charge that it allowed him an unfair distribution of wealth. In addition, Tigrayans, only six per cent of the population, dominate the politics and economy of the country.

Redie Bereketeab, a researcher of state building in the Horn of Africa at the Nordic Africa Institute, told the Nation the Tigray regional government triggered the current conflict following their loss of power.  

“Following the Ethiopian-Eritrean rapprochement, the TPLF accused the federal government led by Aby of violation of the Constitution and national institutions and thereby declared the federal government illegitimate, which is a serious accusation,” he said on Thursday.

“For a regional government to call the national government illegitimate is a very serious constitutional matter.”

When Abiy dissolved the EPRDF last December to form the Prosperity Party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) which runs the region, refused to dissolve. It sowed the seeds of more bad blood. In June, the Ethiopian Parliament postponed elections planned for August and extended the term of all incumbents to next year.

TPLF chose to go ahead with own local elections. And when Addis Ababa cut the budget due to the region, TPLF responded by declaring Abiy an illegitimate Prime Minister, rejected a military commander sent to Tigray and launched local attacks on neighbouring Amhara.

This week, Abiy claimed the TPLF had attacked a local command of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF), and “attempted to rob” artillery. No number of casualties has been confirmed since, although the TPLF spoke of “martyrs” from the incident.

How strong are the TPLF against Addis Ababa?

Though numbering just about six per cent of the country’s 110 million people, the Tigrayans dominated Ethiopia's politics and economic scene for much of Zenawi’s tenure.

The TPLF also fought the war against Eritrea between 1998 and 2000.  An estimate by the International Crisis Group shows that the local security forces are as strong today, indicating a protracted war. ICG said, in a bulletin on Thursday, that Tigray “has a large paramilitary force and a well-drilled local militia, thought to number perhaps 250,000 troops combined.”

“The region’s leadership also appears to enjoy significant support from Tigray’s approximately six million people, again suggesting that war could be lengthy and bloody.”

The region is Ethiopia’s main exporter of sesame, cotton, barley, wheat, incense and various types of minerals. It also has pre-historic Christian monuments including the obelisks said to have been erected in the 2nd century.

When Addis Ababa cut the budgetary allocation for Tigray, TPLF responded by refusing to submit their local revenues to the federal government.

What has happened since the war was declared?

Both sides have engaged in propaganda well without backing up their assertions. TPLF has refuted claims it ambushed a military camp and looted weapons. They also rejected claims they were forging Eritrean army uniforms.

TPLF sees the ENDF as “invaders.” On Thursday, TPLF published a statement on its Facebook page insisting it desires sovereignty and argued Addis Ababa had “understated” Tigray's importance to Ethiopia.

On Thursday night, Ethiopia reportedly shelled one of the TPLF military camps. Again, no casualties were confirmed. Addis Ababa has gone on to cut internet and telephone services to Tigray, making it difficult to determine authenticity of claims. TPLF said on Thursday it was banning any type of flights over Tigray although the airspace is routinely under the control of the Federal government.

By Thursday, people of Tigrayan ethnicity were unusually being subjected to tougher checks at the Bole International Airport. One of them told the Nation she had missed a flight after security agents briefly detained her. Those suspected to have links to TPLF were barred from leaving.

The Ethiopian government did not make public this policy but Addis Ababa imposed a six-month state of emergence on Tigray, allowing authorities a free hand to restrict movements and detain those suspected of aiding TPLF.

Any external links to the conflict?

It is difficult to verify at the moment but a senior Ethiopian government official told the Nation on Thursday they suspected TPLF may have been receiving undetermined support from a foreign entity.

Though the conflict is mostly an internal political issue, the official argued Ethiopia’s current tiff over the use of the Nile could easily attract foreign entities to the country.

“Any enemy of Ethiopia can take advantage of the chaos to profit. As to who that enemy is, I can’t tell you,” the official said, choosing to remain on the background due to the sensitivity of the issue. Abiy’s “decisive response,” the official said, was to discourage any foreign support and nib the TPLF in the bud.

The ICG said a prolonged conflict could eventually rope in neighbours, especially Eritrea, whose President Isaias Afwerki has a score to settle against TPLF, from the war days.

“It could very well draw neighbouring Eritrea – whose President is close to Abiy – into a confrontation with the TPLF, a sworn enemy of Asmara,” ICG said.

Ahead of this ‘war’, Afwerki was in Addis Ababa for an official visit, suggesting close collaboration against a common enemy.

Redie told the Nation, however, that Eritrea may just be a subject of propaganda for now.

“Beyond such propaganda, I don’t see any reason for Eritrea to be involved in the current conflict. The federal government is capable in dealing with the Tigray problem, involvement of Eritrea would simply complicate matters and give propaganda victory to TPLF.

“It is no secret that Eritrea has a problem with TPLF. The reason the Ethiopia-Eritrea rapprochement was not implemented completely is because TPLF have rejected the agreement,” he argued.

What are the options for each side?

Ethiopia is motivated by crushing Tigray and preventing the snowball of rebellion among its 10 federal regions. When it responded to TPLF, neighbouring Amhara joined the fight for the ENDF.

A number of experts, however, told the Nation Tigray's problem is mostly a historical and that the TPLF may want to gain power by any means even if it includes secession.

After Premier Abiy directed a military response on Wednesday, the TPLF issued a statement saying the soldiers had refused to honour the directive and decided "to stand with Tigray in a struggle to remove PM Abiy-led unconstitutional government.”

Dr Abdisamad said Addis Ababa could crush TPLF, negotiate or divide and rule the region.

Farah Maalim, a former Kenyan Deputy Speaker of Parliament, now a law lecturer at the University of Nairobi, suggested Abiy may seek to scatter the Tigray resistance by appealing to the local public.

“Mainstream Tigray people will stand with PM Abiy and isolate TPLF thieves. Most Tigray militia will surrender to Eritrea or the ENDF," he said.

Tsedale Lemma, an Ethiopian political analyst said the Tigray situation is the by-product of Premier Abiy’s failed political project, but argued the war may take longer than planned.

“The price tag for this transactional political order keeps skyrocketing; what started by jailing formidable opponents of Abiy's failed nation building project has now morphed into a civil war to get rid of TPLF, a powerful opponent, once-for-all using the military,” she argued.

“But make no mistake; this isn't a surgical operation which will quickly end TPLF but an epistemic rupture of the federation as we know it. When it's over, and regardless of its outcome, Abiy's failed ambition of a nation building project will be irreparably dented.”