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Tigray conflict threatens to break Ethiopia apart

December 8, 2021

After more than a year of war in Tigray, Ethiopia's ethnic divides now run deeper than ever. This will make it hard for the country to heal if peace ever comes.

Ethiopian military parade with national flags attached to their rifles
Ethiopian military parade with national flags attached to their rifles in Addis AbabaImage: AP/picture alliance

Shortly after nightfall in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, volunteers wearing orange reflective vests and carrying sticks gather for a patrol as a neighborhood militia.

"We are watching and securing the peace of the neighborhood," member Leul Hassen told news agency AP.

Vigilante groups like this are accused of stopping people and turning Tigrayans, one of Ethiopia's more than 80 ethnic groups, over to the police.

It's difficult to know exactly how many Tigrayans have rounded up and interned in crowded, unsanitary camps since the conflict began in late 2020, but the United Nations reported that at least 1,000 Tigrayans were detained alone in one seven-day period in November.

Arbitrary detentions have intensified since November, says Anmesty International, when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed introduced a state of emergency and called for citizens to take up arms against Tigray fighters and their allies, the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA).

A vigilantes volunteer stands guard during a night patrol
A vigilante member stands guard during a night patrol in Addis AbabaImage: TIKSA NEGERI/REUTERS

Rights groups and the United Nations have recorded wide-ranging ethnically motivated atrocities — from plundering and torture to massacres and gang-rapes — carried out by all parties involved in the Tigray conflict, including Ethiopian federal forces, Eritrea's Defense Force, Amhara special forces and Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) fighters.

Tigrayan youths and police, for example, are said to be responsible for the slaughter of more than 200 civilians, mainly from the Amhara ethnic group, who were hacked to death with axes and machetes in the town of Mai-Kadra in the northern Tigray province in November 2020.

A fractured country

Ethiopia is a fragile federation of 11 ethnically based territories and the spiraling ethnic conflicts are stoking fears the country could violently disintegrate.

Should the fighting reach Addis Ababa and unleash communal violence across Ethiopia, United Nations aid chief Martin Griffiths last week said that "we're facing something I don't think we have faced before for many, many years: We're facing a fracture ... of the fabric of Ethiopia."

A map of Ethiopia showing its regions

For US-based Horn of Africa analyst Yohannes Woldemariam, who grew up in Ethiopia, that isn't a far fetched scenario.

"The level of hatred and the level of polarization is so intense, the situation is so violent and so divided along ethnic sectarian lines that the idea of a unitary Ethiopia surviving seems very difficult to imagine," Woldemariam told DW.

Oromo feel betrayed

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power in 2018 on the back of widespread protests, especially by ethnic Oromos.

They initially had high hopes of Abiy because of his mixed Oromo-Amharic parentage.

But the Oromos, the nation's largest ethnic group who make up some 35% of Ethiopia's population, now feel neglected by Abiy, who is seen as aligning himself with Amhara elites.

"They [the Oromo] do not trust Abiy," Woldemariam said. "They feel Abiy has betrayed those that helped propel him to power."

Ethiopian musician Haacaaluu Hundeessaa poses while dressed in a traditional costume
This killing of Oromo singer and activist Haacaaluu Hundeessaa in 2020 further inflamed Oromo grievances against Abiy's governmentImage: Reuters/T. Negeri

Even before the Tigray conflict, Abiy deployed troops to Oromia to silence those opposed to his idea of a unified Ethiopia, with soldiers accused of committing an array of abuses against Oromo civilians.

It's against this background that the militarized wing of the Oromo, the OLA, has taken up arms in alliance with Tigrayan fighters against Abiy.

Tigrayans rally around TPLF

As for the TPLF, they used to be generally despised before the conflict broke out because of the corruption and repression of the TPLF-led coalition that had dominated Ethiopia's politics for the 27 years before Abiy's appointment.

They were even "unpopular" in Tigray because "the TPLF elite were really just pursuing their own wealth and their own lives," Woldemariam told DW.

"This changed when [the federal government] began to persecute Tigrayans just for being Tigrayans," Woldemariam said. "Now just about every Tigrayan from every walk of life is [backing the TPLF] because there is a sense that they are being hunted by Abiy Ahmed and his Prosperity Party."

Atlantic Council researcher Cameron Hudson, a former diplomat in the Horn of Africa region, agrees with this analysis.

"Abiy's use of hate speech, calling Tigrayans 'terrorists' and 'weeds that need to be pulled' has only served to drive the Tigrayan people, who had real doubts about their leadership, to the TPLF as essentially the last line of defense for this entire population," Hudson told DW.

Role of religion

The ethnic hostility raises the question of how Ethiopia can move towards peace and reconciliation.

In a recent article, social harmony scholar Mohammed Girma argues that Christians and Muslim religious groups in Ethiopia have "big roles to play" to prevent the tragedy unfolding in the country.

"Ethiopia is a deeply religious nation," Girma writes, adding that in the past, its two dominant religions have "provided a vision for peaceful cohabitation."

"There is a is a great need for an inter-religious peace effort," he argues and for religious leaders to "find courage to speak truth to power" and "focus their teachings on healing and reconciliation."

New dialogue needed

Former diplomat Hudson believes Abiy has "too much blood on his hands" to continue to govern Ethiopia even if he manages to end the conflict.

"The country will need a fresh political start," Hudson said.

A number of conflict experts, including Hudson, believe Ethiopia will need to initially establish a transitional multi-ethnic and ethnically-balanced government.

In the longer term, it is thought the country needs to set up a national dialogue to examine the different visions of Ethiopia and agree on the state's fundamental orientation.

"The last year has created such new tension and such new rifts," said Hudson.

Now there needs to be "some kind of broad-based grassroots conversation about how the country can be not just governed, but how it can be constructed in a way that allows for ethnicity to be identified without it being the defining feature of Ethiopian political life."

This article was corrected on 9.12.21. It mistakenly said that Tigrayans had been 'interred' (buried in the ground) in detention camps when the author meant 'interned' (confined) in detention camps. The original version of this article also claimed that tens of thousands of Tigrayans had been interned since the start of the Tigrayan conflict. As the actual numbers are unknown, we have corrected this. We apologize for these errors.

Edited by: Benita van Eyssen


Kate Hairsine Senior Editor & Reporter