Simmering tensions between federal and regional authorities in the northern Ethiopian region of Tigray erupted into open conflict on 4 November in the wake of an attack, allegedly carried out by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), on the headquarters of the Northern Command of the Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF), located in the Tigrayan capital, Mekelle.
Responding to the attack, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced a military campaign to reassert federal government authority in Tigray that has since seen claims of victories and massacres by both sides. Abiy called on Tigrayan forces ‘to surrender peacefully within 72 hours, recognising that you are at the point of no return.’ As reports emerged of federal government forces taking control of much of Tigray, military spokesman Colonel Dejene Tsegaye urged the residents of Mekelle to ‘save yourselves from any artillery attacks and free yourselves from the junta … After that, there will be no mercy.’
Even before the current conflict in Tigray, outbreaks of ethnic violence elsewhere meant that there were already more than two million internally displaced people across the country. Since the Tigray violence flared, more than 40,000 people have fled the region into neighbouring Sudan, a country ill-equipped to handle such flows as it grapples with its own challenges.
Ethiopia is nothing if not diverse. It is home to over 80 different ethnic groups and 100 languages, the three largest groups being the Oromo (34.9%), Amhara (27.9%) and Tigrayan (7.3%). With a population of 115 million, it is the second-most populous country in Africa. It is one of the fastest growing economies in the world and has averaged double-digit growth over the last decade, recording GDP growth of 8.3 per cent in 2019 and an expected growth of six per cent this year. Any descent into a protracted asymmetric guerrilla conflict in Tigray or elsewhere risks the remarkable gains that have been made over the last two decades in economic, health, educational and life expectancy outcomes.
At the heart of much of Ethiopia’s problems is the ethnically-based constitution and federal structure, implemented during the period of TPLF dominance (1991-2018). Administratively, the country is divided into nine ethnically-based regional governments and two self-governing city administrations (Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa). Although relegated to governing just the Tigray region since the accession of Abiy, it is a structure that grants regional governments, including the TPLF, significant powers (even including the right to secede) and patronage, hence the unwillingness of the regional authorities to see it replaced or lessened.
During the time that the TPLF governed nationally as the dominant force in the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition, it brooked little dissent and, consequently, maintained a firm grip over the regional governments. Upon coming to power in 2018 in the wake of mass protests against the government of then-Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, Abiy launched a tentative programme of liberalisation that saw rapprochement with former foe Eritrea (for which he was awarded the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize), the lifting of the 2014 state of emergency, the release of prisoners (including a number of journalists and opposition activists), and steps towards greater media and political freedoms. Following the November 2019 splintering of the EPRDF, large numbers of the formerly powerful Tigrayan political and military élites were sidelined or replaced by Abiy, who is from the Oromo ethnic group, ostensibly to boost the creation of a more cohesive and less ethnically-defined national identity, but heightening a sense of grievance among many Tigrayans.
In Tigray, the sense of mutual distrust between the TPLF and the Abiy Government will only have been escalated by the military campaign of the last few days, further reducing the already very limited scope for negotiation and making it even more difficult for third parties, such as the African Union or the United Nations, to mediate or bring the two sides to the negotiating table. In the meantime the questions will be whether the TPLF, with a long history of fighting against the Marxist Derg dictatorship and Eritrea, might opt to pursue a guerrilla campaign and, with the gloss well and truly off, just how much damage will be inflicted upon the country.