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Ethiopian PM 'at war' with Tigray

Maria Gerth-Niculescu
November 10, 2020

As political and ethnic violence surge across Ethiopia and PM Abiy Ahmed faces criticism, one expert has warned that the conflict could be "the biggest war on African soil since the 1998-2000 Eritrean-Ethiopian war."

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed
Image: Minasse Wondimu Hailu/picture alliance/AA

Last weekend saw a dramatic turn in the war between Ethiopia's federal government and the forces of the Northern Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF). 

On Saturday, the Ethiopian Parliament approved the establishment of a transitional Tigrayan government, in an attempt to free the way for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's administration to take political control of the North. Abiy also replaced three key players: his army chief, his intelligence chief and his minister of foreign affairs.

Map of Ethiopia showing Tigray

As Ethiopia is home to more than 80 nationalities and ethnic groups, the political landscape is dominated by tribal allegiances. Since Abiy came to power and ushered in reforms, the loosening of state controls — which included ending a state of emergency and releasing thousands of political prisoners  — have reignited long-simmering ethnic conflicts.

The launch of the military operation against the TPLF last week came three days after groups of the Oromo Liberation Army were accused of killing at least 54 people in the southern Oromia region. The victims were reported to be from the Amhara ethnic group.

Read more: Ethiopia: PM Abiy Ahmed reshuffles cabinet amid Tigray fighting

These deadly events are only some striking examples of the violent incidents reported countrywide for the past months. Many clashes evolved around ethnicity. Some are extremely political. But most of them were spurred by the combination of these two elements. 

Deadly clashes between regional and federal government forces are fueling fears Ethiopia is sliding into civil war
Deadly clashes between regional and federal government forces are fueling fears Ethiopia is sliding into civil warImage: Samuel Habtab/picture alliance/AP Photo

A 'war' against TPLF

The conflict ongoing in Tigray is no exception. The region now enters its seventh day of fighting between federal troops and regional Tigrayan forces, after months of friction between Abiy Ahmed, who comes from the largest Oromo ethnic group, and the TPLF regional government. Both sides contest the legitimacy of the other and there is deep animosity between the Tigrayans and Abiy.

On Friday evening, the prime minister addressed Tigrayans on television in their mother tongue. He urged them to stay inside to protect themselves from airstrikes on military assets. He also stated on Twitter that the operation had "clear” and "limited” objectives. But many are accusing him of waging war against his own people. 

In a media briefing last week, the newly-appointed chief of staff referred to a "war" situation, replacing the previously used phrase "military operations".

Whether the Northern Command — which the TPLF claims to be controlling — has actually defected to the Tigray side remains unclear. The 5th Division in Dansha was under the control of federal forces, and there are reports of Northern Command forces moving up to the border with Eritrea.

Read more: Ethiopia's Tigray conflict: A powder keg waiting to explode

In September 2019, several thousand Ethiopians took to the streets to protest ethnic-based attacks
In September 2019, several thousand Ethiopians took to the streets to protest ethnic-based attacksImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/M. Ayene

Amhara–Tigray conflict

The federal government and TPLF are not the only ones involved.

On the western Tigray border, several clashes were reported between Tigrayan forces and Amhara special forces, who are supporting the federal government. With Amhara militias possibly operating alongside the regional forces, this highlights long-lasting strife between Amhara and Tigray about disputed border territories.

There are indications Amhara militias could be trying to regain the territories through this war, including the city of Dansha, where signs reading "Fano” and "Amhara” can now be seen on the main road leading to the military camps. 

"We now see the much-feared clash between forces of Tigray and Amhara," William Davison, senior Ethiopia analyst at the International Crisis Group (ICG), told DW. "These are disputed border areas in the eyes of Amhara; they claim these parts of Tigray."

This border dispute has been an ongoing cause of ethnic conflicts and proxy violence.

In 2018, hundreds of Qimant, an ethnic minority pursuing greater autonomy, were killed in by local Amharas on the claim that TPLF was funding the self-rule campaign of the Qimant.

Read more: Ethiopia has 'entered into war' with Tigray region

PM Abiy Ahmed addresses the nation in Addis Ababa
PM Abiy Ahmed addresses the nation in Addis AbabaImage: Ethiopia Broadcasting Corporation//REUTERS

Territorial disputes

Similar territorial disputes can be observed throughout the country. Just recently, Afar and Somali communities clashed near their common border. Fights between Somalis and Oromos are also regularly reported.

In December 2018, a federal boundary commission was set up to resolve territorial quarrels. But many are rejecting the constitutional legitimacy of the commission, which has therefore failed to fulfil its role.

According to analysts, these conflicts were looming for decades, but the liberalization of the political and social space contributed to a more open and violent expression of grievances.

"We see an explosion in political actors who are able to come out and talk about these issues. And there's also been a surge in hate speech," explained Jordan Anderson, a political analyst specialized on the Horn and Great Lakes of Africa.

"So we've seen a lot of people who are active in the political space now who were very willing to claim grievances against another ethnic group."

Demands for statehood have also resulted in violence. A few months ago, clashes erupted around Sodo in southern Ethiopia between locals and police forces after protesters demanded follow up to their request for Wolayta statehood and the release of arrested Wolayta administrators.

This came only a few months after the Sidama group gained their long-awaited autonomy, becoming the 10th Ethiopian regional state. After this victory, many other groups voiced their intention of organizing a referendum for regional autonomy, a right enshrined in the Constitution.

Read more: Ethiopia: PM Abiy Ahmed mobilizes military in Tigray region 

Targeted killings in Oromia

Troubling developments are also seen in the Oromia region, where the prime minister is now facing strong opposition from the same groups that propelled him to power.

Oromo opposition groups became part of the political scene in 2018 after years in exile. They believe Abiy, who portrayed himself as the country's unifier, is not giving sufficient priority to the interests of their group.  

Thus, within Oromia, different political factions are now fighting against each other. Some are also targeting non-Oromo residents. The Oromo Liberation Army, which broke off from the Oromo Liberation Front (OLA), has caused widespread damage in the region.

The faction is being held responsible for the murder in June 2020 of a prominent Oromo singer, Hachalu Hundessa. Protests following the assassination killed at least 150 people. The group is also accused of the recent killing of over 50 ethnic Amharas in the western part of Oromia.

Ethiopian security have also been accused of grave human rights violations against Amhara and Oromia, including extrajudicial executions and arbitrary detentions carried out during operations aimed at responding to attacks by armed groups and inter-communal clashes.

Read more: Ethiopia's influential diaspora split on Abiy

Proxy violence?

Abiy Ahmed has been quick to accuse the TPLF of financing some of these unrests and, among others, the killing of Hachalu Hundessa. Some analysts say this might well be plausible.

"There is currently a shared enemy between the TPLF and the OLA”, analyzed Jordan Anderson. "We think it is likely the TPLF is encouraging attacks by the OLA […] and other armed groups throughout Ethiopia as a way of distracting the federal government, draw away the attention of federal forces [during] confrontation going on in Tigray."

But he believes OLA doesn't need encouragement from the TPLF to engage in attacks on federal forces. In several regions, Amharas could be particularly at risk.

Attacks against Amharas in Benishangul-Gumuz have killed hundreds since September.

Anderson said holding elections as soon as possible could be a first step to calming such conflicts. Postponing the August 2020 elections has "given fuel to the fire of groups who want to argue they need to be engaging essentially in politics through violence," he argued.

Elections could also resolve some of the disputes between the federal government and the Tigray region, which organized its own regional elections in September, deemed "illegal” by the federal government. The TPLF opposed Abiy's move to postpone parliamentary elections and considers that the current government's mandate expired as of October.

Elections are now supposed to be held in May or June 2021, but no date has been set.

Read more: Ethiopia: Political tensions rise ahead of planned regional elections

Thousands turned out in Addis Ababa in September 2019 to greet the return of the once-banned Oromo Liberation Front
Thousands turned out in Addis Ababa in September 2019 to greet the return of the once-banned Oromo Liberation FrontImage: DW/Y. Gebreegziabher

Solution perspectives

While the international community has widely called for de-escalation talks in the Tigray conflict, Abiy Ahmed doesn't seem to envision a retreat until he takes control of the region.

The prime minister tweeted that he would "continue to take necessary law enforcement measures to safeguard and advance our nascent process of democratization from rogue political actors."

The prospect of dialogue, some analysts say, could however emerge through international pressure. "We saw initial efforts in particular by the Sudanese prime minister to speak to both sides, and that sort of attempt has broad regional and international backing," ICG analyst William Davison said.

"Although these efforts have not yielded results so far, perhaps Ethiopia's partners will be able to convince both sides they must cease fire and talk if the conflict looks like it is going to be drawn out and hugely damaging."

If none of the sides change positions, however, the consequences could be dramatic.

"We have two very well equipped and very well staffed armies entering a conventional warfare," said Ethiopian analyst Kjetil Tronvoll, professor of peace and conflict studies at Bjorknes University College. "This has the potential to be the biggest war on African soil since the 1998–2000 Eritrean–Ethiopian war."

If a containment strategy is pursued by Abiy Ahmed, Tronvoll warned of a "scenario where the federal government aims to starve out the Tigrayan population because they cut off all supply routes to Tigray."

"This conflict needs to be solved at the negotiation table because it is not solvable on the battlefield," he concluded.

Ethiopian President Sahle Work Zewde could also be a potential catalyst for dialogue. "Both the government in Tigray and the government in Addis recognize her as a legitimate figure because she's elected on a different cycle than the rest of the government," Jordan Anderson suggested. 

Read more: Ethiopia: Death toll rises in violent protests against Hachalu Hundessa's killing

Ethiopian musician Hachalu Hundessa wearing a traditional costume during the 123rd anniversary celebration of the Battle of Adwa, where Ethiopian forces defeated invading Italian troops, in Addis Ababa
Ethiopian musician Hachalu Hundessa wearing a traditional costume during the 123rd anniversary celebration of the Battle of Adwa, where Ethiopian forces defeated invading Italian troops, in Addis AbabaImage: Reuters/T. Negeri


The situation in Tigray, analysts point out, echoes of the breakup of Yugoslavia after the death of Josip Tito and the subsequent Balkan war, as ethnicities, land issues and militias become potential stimuli for civil war.

Ethiopia is not at the point of disintegration. But experts urge for a quick implementation of dialogue, ceasefire as well as free and fair elections in order to prevent the country from falling deeper into chaos.