On November 4, 2020, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed claimed that the Tigrayan people attacked a military base and that his government would respond militarily. Thus began the Tigray War, a civil war in Ethiopia. Alex De Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, called this war “undoubtedly the major humanitarian crisis in the world today.” Because Ethiopia restricted the outside world’s access to information during the beginning stages of the conflict, little was known about the war. However, a large migration of Tigrayans to Sudan allowed those migrants media access, and the truth about the war came to light.
Tigrayan Defense Force Soldiers arriving in Mekelle, capital of the Tigray Region. Source: CNN
Ethiopia’s recent political history contextualizes the Tigray War, as it provides insight into the Tigrayans’ gain and loss of power in Ethiopia, which factored significantly in the conflict. From 1270-1974, Ethiopia was an empire made up of several different countries and ethnic groups, including the Tigray region and the now independent country Eritrea, which borders Ethiopia to the north. In 1974, this empire ceded power to the communist government of Ethiopia, ruled by dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam. Mengistu tightly controlled Ethiopia and killed several political opponents in a siege called the Red Terror. This oppression led to the formation of militias, the most notable being the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The TPLF became the strongest political force in Ethiopia in 1991 after Mengistu was overthrown and Eritrea declared its independence.
A map of Ethiopia, with the Tigray Region, highlighted in red and Eritrea highlighted in yellow. Source: Ethiopian Monitor
The TPLF formed a coalition with three other political parties in the 1990s – the Amhara Democratic Party, the Oromo Democratic Party, and the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement. This coalition became the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which ruled Ethiopia for almost 30 years.
During EPRDF rule, Ethiopia became a one party state, and citizens were angered by the lack of democracy in the country. Other injustices fueled their fury, including restriction of journalism, the jailing of political opponents, and evidence of election inaccuracies. Another issue with the TPLF was its dominance despite being a minority of the population; Tigrayans only made up about six percent of the Ethiopian population. And despite their political dominance, Tigrayans were still one of the poorest ethnic groups in Ethiopia. Further, there were struggles associated with the war that Ethiopia had fought with Eritrea since 1998.
The cumulative effect of war with Eritrea and poor living conditions due to the restrictive government was protests throughout the country from 2015 to 2017, when the previous Ethiopian prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn was ousted from power by his own party. The EPRDF then chose current prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, to replace Hailemariam. Abiy, even though he was not a member of the TPLF, appeared to be a good prime minister because of his popularity, his place within the coalition, and the belief he would keep everything essentially the same in Ethiopia. This belief ended up being incorrect.
Abiy opened up Ethiopia with his decisions to give more freedom to journalists and release political prisoners, while ousting corrupt TPLF officials from power. In 2019, all the parties in the EPRDF merged into one party, the Prosperity Party, under Abiy. Although the Prosperity Party invited TPLF to join, TPLF instead joined the opposition.
The biggest accomplishment Abiy realized in his early years as prime minister, however, was making peace with the Eritreans, effectively ending the two nations’ long conflict. This success resulted in Abiy winning the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize. Soon after, however, the situation in Ethiopia changed.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed poses with his Nobel Prize in Oslo, Norway. Source: NPR
Abiy resumed more restrictive policies that were in place before his election, including arresting journalists, to control the conflicts between ethnic groups across Ethiopia. People protested these changes, and the police responded severely.
When COVID-19 emerged in March 2020, Ethiopia controversially postponed its upcoming election. Several political opponents accused Abiy of delaying, not because of the pandemic but because he did not want to face a re-election battle. Opposition to the postponement was particularly strong in the Tigray region, and ultimately, the Tigrayans held their own regional parliamentary elections. The Ethiopian federal government’s response was to mobilize their military in preparation for war with the Tigray region, and war ensued.
After Abiy’s statement on November 4, 2020, he assured that the conflict would resolve within weeks and be completely bloodless, calling it not a war but a “law and order operation.” Abiy tweeted on November 28, 2020, “we have completed and ceased the military operations in the Tigray region,” and “the federal government is now fully in control of the city of Mekelle,” the capital of the Tigray region.
Despite Abiy’s statement, war rages in Ethiopia today. Those fighting are the Ethiopian federal government (composed of the Ethiopian National Defense Force and its allies) and its opponents, the TPLF and its allies, which include the Oromo Liberation Army and seven other groups. According to The Guardian, the increasing support for the TPLF is due to opposition to the Ethiopian federal government. Another group involved in the conflict is the Eritrean Defense Forces, who are allied with Abiy and the Ethiopian federal government because Abiy has a close relationship with Eritrean president Isaias Afwerki who opposes the TPLF. Although Abiy denied this alliance at first, its existence has since been established.
As of June 25, 2021, reports indicated that about 350,000 Ethiopians in the Tigray region were experiencing famine that “is almost entirely man made.” Tigrayan farmers stated that they were not allowed to plant crops on their land due to the war. There have also been numerous accounts of sexual violence and civilian massacres, including men, women, and children. In a video clip about the war, an Ethiopian man stated “In every house, two, three, four have died. There are many who are missing, and we cannot find them.” The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees spokesperson, Boris Cheshirkov, said that after the United Nations gained access to some refugee camps, they found that “refugees continue to face dire conditions,” such as limited clean drinking water and lack of access to appropriate healthcare. The United Nations also stated that while both sides have committed acts of violence, the majority have been carried out by the Ethiopian military and the Ethiopian federal government’s allies.
On March 25, 2022, the Ethiopian federal government declared a ceasefire to allow humanitarian aid to enter the Tigray region. This ceasefire is not the first to take place during the Tigray War. Another took place in the summer of 2021, but the Tigrayans rejected the ceasefire and fought until all Ethiopian troops left the region. Tigrayan forces agree with the most recent ceasefire and stated that they are committed to ensuring the humanitarian effort succeeds.
Shortly after Abiy Ahmed was elected prime minister of Ethiopia, he stated, “we are creating an Ethiopia that is second to none in its guarantee of freedoms of expression.” If this quotation is any indication of the future for Ethiopia, Abiy will work with the Tigrayans to find a peaceful solution to this conflict and end the humanitarian crisis that has caused the suffering of many Ethiopians over the past two years.