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Country Report: Ethiopia at War with Itself

Written by Morgan Phillips


Background on Ethiopia

Ethiopia is home to over 100 languages and more than 80 ethnic groups. Tigrayans account for about five percent of the population, while the Oromos make up 35 percent. The Amharas are the second largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, with 20 million people. Another 40 ethnic groups are in the SNNPR, The Southern Nations, the Nationalities, and the People’s Region, and another six million people are Somalis, who occupy one-third of Ethiopia. This multitude of ethnic groups has brought regional, territorial, and religious discord to Ethiopia for centuries.


Amhara Emperors ruled Ethiopia from 1270 to 1974, which caused conflict with other ethnic groups throughout Ethiopia. From 1930 to 1974, Haile Selassie was emperor of Ethiopia. He established Ethiopia as a modern state by creating a bureaucracy, a judicial system, and a constitution. Yet, revolts, rebellions, droughts, and famine plagued his reign. Famine was a constant issue in Ethiopia throughout the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. By 1974, civilians carried out strikes, protests, and demonstrations against the government, which led to the accession of the Dergue (provisional military administrative committee).


Under the Dergue, around 120 military officers led Ethiopia. They abolished the parliament, suspended the constitution, and arrested Selassie for crimes against the Ethiopian people. Yet, power struggles plagued these rulers, leading to the rise of Mengistu Haile Mariam. Mengistu ordered the execution or imprisonment of many government officials to take control of the Dergue. Under Mengistu, fear and terror gripped Ethiopia. Arrest, torture, and execution were unleashed on the Ethiopian population by Mengistu to exterminate his opponents. Throughout the 1970s, the Mengistu regime fought Eritrean independence forces, Somalis in the Ogaden region, and Tigrayan forces.


In response to Mengistu’s regime, opposition groups originated throughout Ethiopia. One of these groups was the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), formed in 1975. In 1989, several groups decided to join forces, uniting under the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition. Two years later, the EPRDF and Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) launched offenses against the Dergue and Mengistu. As a result, they defeated the army and took control of Ethiopia on May 21, 1991.


After overthrowing Mengistu’s government, Eritrea declared independence from Ethiopia and became its own state. Eritrea had been an Italian colony since 1890 but became part of Ethiopia after World War II when both regions were liberated from Italian occupation. Ethiopia wanted to keep Eritrea to maintain access to the Red Sea, but that did not have a say once Eritrean forces defeated the Ethiopian army in 1991. Finally, in 1993, the Eritrean people voted for independence, officially separating from Ethiopia. Isaias Afwerki has led Eritrea since then.


Meanwhile, back in Ethiopia, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) became Ethiopia’s ruling party, with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) dominating the coalition, especially after their fight to overthrow the Mengistu government. After Mengistu fell, TPLF leader, Meles Zenawi, became Ethiopia’s new leader, and the TPLF consolidated power quickly. In addition, the TPLF was instrumental in founding a federal system where different ethnic groups controlled the affairs of Ethiopia’s ten regions based on ethnic lines.


For many years, Ethiopians were dissatisfied with this government. They launched anti-government protests focused on human rights and blaming the political elite for obstructing a transition to democracy. Civilians accused the EPRDF coalition of maintaining a tight grip on Ethiopia’s regions despite granting them autonomy and repressing political opposition. The TPLF dominated the government for three decades until 2018. The protests led to a government reshuffle that appointed Abiy Ahmed, a member of one of Ethiopia’s historically oppressed groups, as prime minister.


Background on The Conflict

The conflict between Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Tigray has lasted for nine months. However, tensions began festering in 2018 with an uprising that brought Abiy Ahmed to power in Ethiopia.


Abiy pursued reforms, including normalizing relations with Eritrea, ensuring government transparency, and forming a unified Ethiopia with peace amongst all ethnic groups. However, repairing ties with Eritrea aggravated tensions as Tigray perceived Eritrea as its enemy. Tigrayans, who had ruled for decades in the government, found their power and influential roles stripped away. Abiy removed corrupt TPLF officials from power and dissolved the EPRDF coalition to create the new ‘Prosperity Party.’ Despite Abiy inviting the TPLF to join the Prosperity Party, the TPLF decided to join the opposition instead. This severing of relations created an increasingly hostile relationship between Abiy and the TPLF.


Tensions continued to worsen in September of 2020 when Tigray decided to hold regional elections in defiance of Abiy’s decision to postpone the election due to COVID-19. As a result, Tigrayan officials stopped recognizing Abiy’s government. By October of 2020, Abiy’s government suspended funding for Tigray and cut ties with the region. In retaliation, the TPLF took over a federal military base and captured tanks, missiles, and rocket launchers. Soon after, on November 10, Abiy declared war on Tigray.


The Actors Involved

Four different armed groups are involved in the conflict in Tigray: the Ethiopian forces, the Tigrayan forces, the Eritrean forces aligned with Ethiopian forces, and militia forces from the Amhara region of Ethiopia.


Ethiopia comprises ten regions, one of which is the Tigray region. Since the TPLF’s ousting from power, Prime Minister Ahmed has accused the TPLF of trying to destabilize the country and spark ethnic violence in the country. Abiy said the TPLF had crossed a “red line” when it attacked an Ethiopian military base in November 2020. He views the Tigrayan leaders as traitors and the Tigrayan administration as “illegitimate.” Abiy even designated the TPLF as a terrorist organization.


Debretsion Gebremichael leads Tigray and states that his forces are fighting to ensure self-determination for his people and to ensure that the “invaders are out.” The TPLF considers itself at war with the Ethiopian leaders and demands that Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Amhara forces withdraw from Tigray. Many Tigrayans want independence from Ethiopia, and there is a strong support base for Tigrayan forces because of the civilian atrocities committed by Eritrean, Ethiopian, and Amhara forces.


Eritrea aligned with Ethiopia for this conflict because of its grievances toward Tigray. Ethiopia and Tigray fought a border war with Eritrea from 1998 to 2000, in which Tigray took over the village of Badme and refused to withdraw from it for 18 years. As a result, Afwerki, Eritrea’s leader, made it his primary objective to “liquidate” the TPLF.


The Amhara region in Ethiopia also aligned with Ethiopian forces to fight Tigrayan forces. From 1270 to 1974, all of Ethiopia’s emperors were from the Amhara ethnolinguistic group, which caused competitive quarrels with Tigray. After 1991, when Tigrayans dominated political power, Amhara directed anger toward the Tigrayans because of their loss of influence. Another issue causing tension with Tigray is island disputes. Amhara’s regional leaders had accused the TPLF of snatching territory when they came to power in the 1990s and claimed that western Tigray rightfully belongs to them.


Famine, Refugees, Civilian Atrocities: Turmoil Suffocates a Nation

On July 23, 2021, 400,000 people in Tigray reached “catastrophic” levels of hunger, 1.8 million people neared the brink of famine, and 33,000 children suffered from severe malnourishment. By July 31, the numbers had risen to 5.2 million people out of 6 million people who needed humanitarian aid - 90% of the Tigrayan population. The Tigray region also lacks fuel, health teams, vaccinations, life-saving services, and water.


The conflict has forced over 2.1 million people to flee their homes. However, even in refugee camps, civilians are not safe. Eritrean refugees living in Tigray refugee camps detail being intimidated, harassed, living in constant fear, and failing to receive humanitarian aid. Local fighting between Tigrayan and Ethiopian forces has endangered two nearby camps for Eritrean refugees in Tigray. Further, Eritrean forces destroyed two other refugee camps in Tigray. Tigrayan militias have also been accused of killing and sexually assaulting refugees out of revenge for abuses committed by Eritrean forces.


Civilian atrocities run rampant in this conflict. There are reports of sexual violence being used as a weapon of war while soldiers deliberately destroyed health care centers and crops. With crops being burned, destroyed, and stolen, it has ushered in famine conditions in Tigray.


Further, civilians have accused Eritrean soldiers of looting public and private property, destroying food stores and farming equipment, and closing banks in Tigray. Because of the presence of Eritrean soldiers, aid workers cannot get into Tigray without negotiating. In addition, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have accused Eritrean forces of mass killings of civilians and indiscriminately bombing urban areas. In one instance, Eritrean troops responded to an ambush by massacring Tigrayan residents inside their homes, killing men, women, and children in the streets. Human Rights Watch reported other executions, pillaging, detention, and attacks on factories, schools, and hospitals.


Likewise, Amhara forces have been accused of forcibly removing Tigrayans en masse from western Tigray, a region they claim is their territory. In retaliation, Tigrayan troops have been accused of killing hundreds of Amhara civilians.


In some cases, Ethiopian and Eritrean forces teamed up to commit massacres in Tigray. For example, there were massacres in January at Debre Abay, one at Axum in November, and one near Wukro in April.


Governments are dehumanizing their opponents. Ethiopian law enforcement is targeting Tigrayans living in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital and reports indicate that their businesses are getting shut down. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has characterized the Tigray campaign as “removing the weeds” from the country, while critics of Ethiopia’s campaign are called terrorist sympathizers. Tigrayan leaders, for their part, call the Ethiopian government a “fascist clique.”


In June 2021, Ethiopian federal authorities denied basic services to Tigray, including electricity and telecommunications. The authorities denied aid agencies access to the region and destroyed Tigray’s transportation infrastructure. Ethiopian forces joined Eritrea in indiscriminately bombing civilians and carrying out extrajudicial killings in Tigray, forcing thousands to flee to Sudan or other Ethiopian areas.


Overall, abuses have been committed on all sides - by Tigrayan, Eritrean, Ethiopian, and Amhara forces. As a result, turmoil and instability flow throughout the region, exacerbated by famine and the lack of humanitarian aid.


The Result

Though neither side has officially reported the death toll caused by the conflict in Tigray, three Ethiopian opposition parties said in February of 2021 that at least 52,000 people had died in northern Tigray since the war began in November. However, more deaths and atrocities have occurred since then.


Death, famine, hunger, suffering, and displacement have impacted the civilians caught in the crossfire of fighting forces in Tigray. The civilians have endured the brunt of this conflict, and most scholars fear that the war could destabilize both Ethiopia and the whole African continent, especially if more regions join the fighting. Without negotiations and a ceasefire, Ethiopia could sink the country into a civil war.


Recent Developments

After the conflict erupted in November of 2020, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared victory in three weeks when his forces captured the Tigrayan capital, but the TPLF continued fighting. By June 2021, Tigrayan forces had recaptured their capital, but Ethiopia’s nine other regions announced they would send troops to support Ethiopia.


By July 22, Tigrayan forces took control of three districts in the Afar region, linking Addis Ababa to the seaport of Djibouti. Tigrayan forces said they planned to use their location in Afar to target forces from the Amhara region. Since taking control of these districts, the dispute killed at least 20 civilians and displaced 54,000. Afar is now in desperate need of food, water, and shelter.


At the end of July, leaders of several Ethiopian regions called on residents and youth to mobilize against Tigrayan forces while TPLF forces pressed further south in the Amhara region. Meanwhile, the United States provided more than $149 million in humanitarian assistance to the Tigray region. In addition, $105 million from USAID will address hunger - giving food to feed five million people for nearly two months.


The conflict has raged on for nearly a year. Yet, currently, a negotiation or a ceasefire does not seem to be an option. However, the future of Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Tigray remain uncertain amid the continued famine and need for humanitarian assistance.

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