What’s new? After weeks of fighting in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, federal troops removed the regional government and declared victory. Yet thousands have died, hundreds of thousands are at risk of starvation and the conflict continues. Addis Ababa has established an interim administration, but ousted Tigrayan politicians say they will fight back.
Why did it happen? Relations between Addis Ababa and Mekelle tanked after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office in 2018 and Tigray’s leaders lost federal power. Tensions spiked when Tigray defied central authority by holding regional elections in September, culminating when Tigrayan forces captured the national military command in the region, triggering federal intervention.
Why does it matter? The conflict has poisoned relations between Tigrayan and other Ethiopian elites and inflamed public opinion in Tigray against the federal authorities, who may well struggle to administer a restive region. If Addis Ababa’s energies are drained by enforcing its rule on Tigray, other Ethiopian ethno-nationalist forces may be emboldened.
What should be done? To get Tigray’s public on side, Ababa Ababa should ensure that Eritrean and Amhara regional forces that participated in the intervention withdraw. It also should urgently allow aid to reach all Tigrayans who need it. Ultimately, inclusive dialogue is needed to address federal-Tigray disagreements and wider disputes over regional autonomy.
Following weeks of conflict, Ethiopian federal forces declared victory over the northern Tigray region’s leadership after taking the capital Mekelle on 28 November 2020. The army says it is mopping up, although ousted Tigrayan leaders and the UN say fighting is still widespread. The war has killed thousands and displaced maybe a third of Tigray’s population amid reports of atrocities by all sides. More than 4.5 million people in Tigray reportedly require emergency food aid and hundreds of thousands could starve. Federal troops are backed by Amhara factions claiming areas they say Tigray annexed in the early 1990s. It is now apparent that Eritrean troops intervened to support Ethiopia’s army, though both Asmara and Addis Ababa deny it. Whether or not the federal government achieves all its military goals, it will need to work with chunks of Tigray’s former regional administration and win popular acceptance to avoid being seen as an occupying force. It should curtail the Amhara and Eritrean troop presences and let aid flow. Inclusive national dialogue to heal this and other political divides is essential.
The war between Addis Ababa and Mekelle was driven by bitter divisions over power sharing. Tigray’s leaders lost much of the disproportionate federal influence they long held, and which incurred the resentment of other political elites and many Ethiopians, after anti-government protests paved the way for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to take office in 2018. Acrimony grew and, when Abiy consolidated his rule by fusing other regional ruling parties in late 2019, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), Tigray’s governing party, refused to join. In June, federal authorities extended all governments’ terms after COVID-19 delayed elections. Tigray baulked and, in defiance of federal rulings, ran a regional poll in September. Addis Ababa then classified Tigray’s new executive as unconstitutional, with Mekelle saying the federal government had no legal authority after its original term expired in early October. The mutual delegitimisation put the two sides on a collision course.
Fighting started in the late hours of 3 November, sparking Ethiopia’s worst security crisis in decades. Tigray’s forces fired the first shots after they partnered with Tigrayan federal military officers to take over the Ethiopian armed forces command located in the region, killed or detained soldiers who refused to defect, and commandeered armaments that comprised the bulk of the national military’s hardware. Tigrayan leaders said they acted in anticipation of a federal intervention they thought was imminent. The same day, Abiy sent tens of thousands of Ethiopian National Defence Force soldiers, backed by Amhara region paramilitaries and militiamen, to battle Tigray’s defence forces. Eritrea’s army soon joined the offensive from the north.
The federal military intervention removed the TPLF administration from the seat of power in the space of a month, with Addis Ababa establishing a provisional replacement in Mekelle from whence the TPLF leadership fled. It has come at great cost, however, and most wanted Tigrayan leaders are still at large despite some of them being killed (including a former foreign minister) and arrested in recent weeks. Still, a large majority of Ethiopians outside Tigray, including non-Tigrayan opposition leaders and some from the region itself, appear to support federal actions in the region. Many endorse Addis Ababa’s view that the TPLF was responsible for abuses when in power and has since sponsored ethnic conflicts in order to undermine reforms. The federal government says it will rebuild infrastructure damaged during the intervention and restore public services that were interrupted. A federal state of emergency is in place until early May in Tigray and, so far, no elections are scheduled for the region though they are set for 5 June everywhere else in the country.
Battlefield dynamics are hard to verify, due to a communications blackout, but whichever way the conflict goes – toward the Tigray forces’ revival, their defeat or their endurance as an insurgency – it will be an uphill struggle to persuade most Tigrayans to support an administration they deem to be occupiers, especially given atrocities by Eritrean and Amhara forces. As the conflict began, Crisis Group argued that dialogue between Tigray’s leadership and Addis Ababa was still necessary and appropriate. Abiy and others rejected such talks, arguing that mutinous TPLF leaders had destabilised the country and must face justice. But widespread local opposition to a federally imposed administration means that, at a minimum, Addis Ababa must take decisive steps lest it face stiffened resistance. To increase the chances of local cooperation, the federal government should roll back Eritrean deployments and reverse Amhara territorial occupations, which are provocative for many Tigrayans.
Ethiopia’s external partners need to weigh in. The Biden administration should intensify its call for Abiy’s government to end Eritrea’s involvement and implore allies in the Gulf to deliver the same message to Asmara. All actors should press for the Amhara territorial claims to be assessed by a federal boundary commission and then addressed through political negotiations. The U.S., European Union and African Union (AU) should continue to press federal authorities to allow untrammelled access for rights investigators and media outlets to all of Tigray. To date, movement restrictions and a telecommunications blackout have prevented vulnerable populations from receiving assistance and rendered claims of atrocities by both sides hard to verify. External partners should push for independent probes of all sides’ allegations.
A humanitarian catastrophe resulting from mass starvation will make matters immeasurably worse. In past conflicts, Tigrayan resistance has been fuelled by Addis Ababa’s refusal to allow relief supplies. Abiy’s administration should allow aid agencies untrammelled access to Tigray to prevent the large-scale deaths that interim administration officials, themselves appointed by the federal government, have warned could be imminent. Addis Ababa says it is delivering aid to those in need, but humanitarian actors say the assistance is insufficient. Federal authorities may also calculate that permitting aid will offer Tigrayan forces a chance to resupply and thus prolong the fighting. But the alternative – hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths – would be unacceptable: it might constitute a crime under international law, would shred any hope of winning over Tigrayans and would tarnish Abiy’s reputation abroad. With European and U.S. backing, AU peace envoys should urge the government to prioritise aid deliveries.
In the end, Ethiopia’s feuding elites will need to resolve the core dispute over Tigray’s autonomy and, more broadly, over the balance of power between central authorities and Ethiopia’s regions as well as the role of ethnicity in the federal system if the transition under Abiy is to proceed without worsening turmoil. Unrest elsewhere in Ethiopia and the growing hostilities with Sudan mean that authorities can scarcely afford a lengthy – and costly – campaign in Tigray. It is ever clearer that only an inclusive national dialogue stands a hope of addressing Ethiopia’s festering, fundamental political divisions.