Trouble in the Horn of Africa—The Tigray Conflict

As the world looks to the US vis-a-vis its presidential elections, a conflict in Ethiopia remains largely obscure. The conflict began in November this year, but the underlying cause for it isn’t fresh. The country is on the brink of a full-blown civil war and here’s why:

What is happening and Where?

The Tigray region is one of 10 semi-autonomous federal states organised along ethnic lines in Ethiopia, and home mostly to the Tigrayan people who make up about 6 per cent of Ethiopia’s population of more than 110 million. Tigrayans have long been a centre of power and influence, controlling the country’s government for three decades. Tigray has a powerful military, with an estimated 250,000 troops, and a prospect of a civil war would pit the two powerful armies against each other.

A Timeline of The Conflict

On November 4 2020, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched a military offensive against the governing authority of the northern Ethiopian region of Tigray—the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

The latest military action was in response to an alleged night-time assault by the TPLF on a major Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) base in Tigray. This resulted in the killing of non-Tigrayan soldiers and the attempted looting of heavy artillery and weapons. 

In what the International Crisis Group termed a ‘sudden and predictable’ descent into conflict, Abiy said on November 4 that the TPLF had crossed a ‘red line’ and attacked a federal military base in Tigray, forcing a ‘military confrontation’.While on the other hand, the TPLF accuses Abiy of concocting the story to justify deploying the military against it.

More than a week on, the military operation is still reportedly targeting Tigray’s militia establishments and the TPLF leadership, there are worrying reports of civilian casualties which are difficult to confirm due to declaration of a state of emergency in the region following the attack. Electricity, telephone and internet services in Tigray have been shut down by the Federal authorities. Although claims have been made that the TPLF itself shut it down.

On November 6, 2020, Ahmed disclosed that his administration had launched an airstrike against the forces of the fortified Tigray region in several locations.

On November 12, Amnesty International reported the killing of hundreds of civilians. Witnesses blamed the TPLF for the massacre taking place as airstrikes continued to hit the Tigray region. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed blamed the political group of committing war crimes. Amnesty’s report could not identify the perpetrators of the massacres.

Why is All of This Happening Now?

A History of Tension

The Tigray region of Ethiopia is home to people of varying cultural backgrounds and ethnic groups. While more than 95% of the population comprises the Tigrinya-speaking Tigrayans, people from other Afro-Asiatic communities also inhabit Tigray. While the Tigrayans only make up 6% of Ethiopia’s population of 110 million, their influence over the politics that govern their region and Ethiopia as a whole cannot be downplayed. 

In the years between 1974 and 1987, Ethiopia was under the thumb of Derg (officially the Provisional Military Government of Socialist Ethiopia)—a military faction. The Ethiopian Civil war was a result of the people’s resistance against military rule. At the epicentre of this was the Tigrayan Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF). When Derg’s rule finally fell over in 1991, the TPLF dominated the coalition that took charge of Ethiopia. 

The coalition ruled from 1991 to 2018. However, the coalition only represented and constituted 4 of the ethnic groups of the country. Throughout its reign, the TPLF actively suppressed the opposition. The political status quo was challenged by the protests from the Amhara and Oromia regions. In 2018, the current Prime Minister of Ethiopia—Abiy Ahmed was sworn in.

Winds of Change—Abiy Ahmed at the Helm

Abiy Ahmed soon went on to introduce political and economic reforms to a then shaken Ethiopia and broker peace deals with South Sudan, Eritrea etc. For these conspicuous victories, Abiy Ahmed was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019.

But things weren’t as rosy as they appeared. With Abiy Ahmed coming into power, the TPLF funds began to dwindle. In addition to this, the TPLF has openly accused the Abiy Ahmed government of abusing their power to rid Tigrayan representation in top positions, excluding Tigray from upholding authority. In solidarity against the Abiy Ahmed rule, TLPF excluded themselves from merging into the Prosperity Party—a merger of ethnic groups into the ruling coalition.

Tensions between the government and the TPLF escalated in the months before the Tigray military intervention. In March, the National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE), temporarily postponed the national and regional elections scheduled for August 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But in September 2020, the TPLF held elections in Tigray and reported a 98 per cent victory in the popular vote. Prime Minister Ahmed’s government deemed this election as illegal. The newly-installed regional legislators in Tigray immediately declared that the federal government lacked the legitimacy to govern the country and refused to recognize it.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed accused the Tigray regional authorities of undermining his authority. By contrast, the Tigray authorities saw the refusal to recognise the September 2020 election for the Tigray parliament as the reason for the conflict.

As a result, Ethiopia’s federal government has declared war on its northern region of Tigray, leading to fears of a protracted conflict in Africa’s second-most populous country.

What are the implications of this conflict?

With both sides of the battle armed, the war doesn’t seem to be only with the TLPF but with the Tigray region as a whole. The implications of this conflict aren’t confined to Ethiopia alone but will spill over to the neighbouring countries, which are a part of the Horn of Africa. The current scenario could instigate unrest in Eritrea, given its proximity to Ethiopia. With Abiy Ahmed currently under the fire from his own community for his failure at keeping up with his promises, opposition groups could strengthen in the situation that the Ethiopian government cripples under the TLPF.  

A consequence of the conflict has been the spread of misinformation. Pictures and videos from Ethiopian Airlines’ crash of 2019, fighting in the Nagorno-Karabakh region etc. have been used to showcase the situation falsely. Over 10,000 refugees have fled to neighbouring Sudan, where the UNHCR has got in touch with the Sudanese government to accommodate the refugees. With the authorities open-firing on streets, bombing areas with the use of jets, the conflict in its 10-day duration has already killed hundreds. 


Written by Lekhya Reddy and Abha Deo for MTTN

Edited by Avaneesh Jai Damaraju for MTTN 

Featured Image courtesy: The New Humanitarian

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