Ethiopia-Tigray Conflict

  • Ethiopia is on the brink of a civil war after Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced that he had ordered troops to counter an allegedly violent attack by armed forces in the country’s northern Tigray region.
  • The domestic conflict in Ethiopia comes after several smaller conflicts that have been festering for months that could now spiral and impact the Horn of Africa region at large.
  • Why is Tigray strategically important?
  • Tigray, the northernmost region of Ethiopia, is home to the Tigrayan people who make up an estimated 6 percent of the country’s population of more than 110 million. Despite its small numbers, the Tigrayan ethnic group has for almost three decades enjoyed disproportionate power and influence in government affairs.
  • After fighting the military dictatorship that ruled Ethiopia in the 1970s and 1980s, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, or T.P.L.F., emerged as the leader of the coalition that took power in the country in 1991. The coalition, known as the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, consisted of four main political parties, largely split along ethnic and geographic lines, and it backed a federalist approach that gave significant power to Ethiopia’s regions.
  • Meles Zenawi, a Tigrayan, led Ethiopia from 1991 until his death in 2012, during which time Ethiopia became a stable nation in a turbulent region and experienced significant economic growth. But the coalition controlled all levers of power and repressed almost all political opposition.
  • Anti-government protests propelled Mr. Abiy into the prime minister’s office in 2018. Soon after, members of the Tigray ethnic group were purged from positions of power and arrested in corruption and security-related crackdowns — opening a deep chasm between the Tigray region, governed by the T.P.L.F., and the federal government.
  • Mr. Abiy has said that he wants to unify the country by increasing the federal government’s power and minimizing the autonomy of the regional governments. But Tigray has openly resisted, and other regions and ethnic groups are uneasy with Mr. Abiy’s centralization push.
  • What domestic issues has Ethiopia been facing?
  • Before the coronavirus outbreak impacted the country’s public health system, Abiy had been leading a country with growing economic problems. In June, Ethiopia had witnessed widespread ethnic clashes following the killing of prominent Oromo singer Hachalu Hundessa.
  • Following Hundessa’s death, the federal government came down heavily, including on civilians who were protesting. Opposition leaders were also arrested and imprisoned. This crackdown on civilians, many of whom were Oromo youth, by the federal police, resulted in criticism from many in Ethiopia, including people in the diaspora.
  • Domestically, if the situation further deteriorates, this conflict may prompt other regions in Ethiopia, particularly Oromia and Amhara, to make louder calls for autonomy, that may cause further internal disruption in the country.

What’s this all about?

  • Tension has been mounting for some time as relations between the TPLF and the federal government have deteriorated.
  • Although Tigray represents just 6% of Ethiopia’s population of more than 100 million, the TPLF used to be the dominant force in Ethiopia’s ruling coalition but its power has waned since Mr Abiy became prime minister.
  • Last year, he dissolved the ruling coalition, made up of several ethnically-based regional parties, and merged them into a single, national party, the Prosperity Party, which the TPLF refused to join.

What’s the latest on the fighting?

  • There are reports that the fighting is spreading along Tigray’s border with the Amhara region, which is backing the federal government. There have also been reports of clashes near the border with Eritrea and Sudan, which has partially closed its frontier with Ethiopia.
  • Mr Abiy, who won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for helping to end a long-standing conflict with Eritrea, insisted that the military operation in Tigray had “clear, limited and achievable objectives”.
  • He previously declared a six-month state of emergency in the region and gave a new military taskforce the powers to “restore law and order”.

Is Eritrea involved in the Tigray conflict?

  • There is a long-standing rift between the TPLF and the government in Eritrea, which shares a long border with the Tigray region.
  • The 1998-2000 Ethiopia-Eritrea war began over a dispute about territory along that border, particularly the area around the town of Badme.
  • The status of Badme remains unresolved but Eritrea wants Ethiopia to abide by a UN-backed border commission ruling to hand over the town.
  • But this cannot be achieved without the cooperation of the government in Tigray, as it administers the area.

What impact will this have on the Horn of Africa?

  • If the conflict between the Ethiopian federal government and Tigray authorities exacerbates, it will spill over to neighbouring countries in the Horn of Africa. Eritrea may be hardest hit, due to its proximity to Tigray. Many veterans from the TPLF who participated in the Ethiopian-Eritrean war between 1998 and 2000 are now part of the Tigray region’s paramilitary forces and there is lingering resentment between these veterans and Eritrea.
  • Ethiopia has also been engaged in a long-standing conflict with Egypt over the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam over the Blue Nile, with Sudan having been inadvertently drawn into this conflict over the course of the dam’s development.
  • If the violence and conflict spills outside Ethiopia’s borders, it may potentially destabilize the Horn of Africa region. The US and China have several strategic military bases in that region, the closest being Djibouti. 
  • If these military bases were to be impacted by the disturbances in any way, it may cause foreign powers to get militarily involved in the region and the conflict.