By Yanis Iqbal
Central and eastern Tigray, as well as parts of the north-west, are facing “crisis” or “emergency” hunger levels, according to the United Nations (UN)’s Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), meaning that households are suffering from acute malnutrition. Between 50 and 100 people are dying every day from causes directly related to hunger. The next and final phase on the IPC scale is “famine” marked by an extreme lack of food, resulting in starvation or death.
Before the conflict broke out, Tigray was largely free from hunger; now the UN estimates that 4.5 million need food aid. Food shortages are not simply an indirect effect of the ongoing war. Ethiopian and Eritrean forces have been looting shops and farms, burning food that they cannot take with them. Water tanks and reservoirs have been targeted. Ethiopia’s government has also been accused of blocking food deliveries to civilians. How did this conflict of horrific proportions come to develop?
The immediate cause for the conflict was the refusal of Tigrayans to accept Brigadier General Jamal Mohammed as the new commander of the Northern Command on October 29, 2020, forcing him to return to Addis Ababa. It put Tigrayans on a collision course with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, and the war erupted on November 4, 2020, with Abiy appearing on state television at 3 am to declare a six-month state of emergency in the country’s northern Tigray region.
According to Abiy, the Tigray regional security forces had committed “treason” by attacking federal military bases in the regional capital Mekelle as well as Dansha, killing and injuring an unspecified number of soldiers in the process. Although Abiy said he was only launching a limited, policing operation in Tigray, it is now evident that a long-planned offensive began involving Ethiopian Federal forces, Amhara militia and the Eritrean military.
Abiy, who came to power in 2018, attempted to assert greater control over the powerful Northern Command of the army. The Northern Command is the best armed unit in the Ethiopian army. It has been provided with Ethiopia’s most formidable weapons systems – including heavy artillery and missile systems. Abiy tried to end Tigrayan dominance of the Command and ordered that some of the heavy weapons should be redeployed to the centre of the country.
Tigrayans mobilised their people to block the roads, preventing this from happening. Then the Tigrayan authorities insisted that it would hold their own elections (even though the Federal authorities said this could not be done, given the COVID-19 pandemic). Despite this, the elections were successfully held in September 2020, with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) winning over 90% support.
Of Ethiopia’s ten regional states, Tigray is the fifth largest, positioned in the far north of country, just beneath Eritrea. Its 7 million-strong population consists of several ethnic groups – the biggest of which are the Tigrayans, with their own language, Tigrinya. Nationally, Tigrayans make up 7% of the total population, while the predominant ethnicities, Oromo and Amhara, represent 35% and 28% respectively. Tensions between Abiy (an Oromo) and the Tigrayan regional government have been growing for several years now.
The TPLF, a nationalist movement founded in 1974, played a key role in defeating the Derg – the Soviet-aligned government of Mengistu Haile Mariam – in 1991. It became the dominant party in the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a coalition of several militia groups and 4 ethnic parties, under the leadership of Meles Zenawi, a Tigrayan that imposed an authoritarian regime on Africa’s second most populous country of 112 million people.
Zenawi was prime minister from 1995 until 2012. His administration was committed to a developmentalist statist ideology and formed close economic relations with China. The choice of the developmental state paradigm ushered in an era of unprecedented economic development with annual growth rates averaging around 10% for a straight decade. However, this growth mostly benefited a small clique of the TPLF elite while ordinary Ethiopians – who nevertheless gained better access to education, healthcare and potable water than ever before – still languished in poverty at the margins of society.
In 2015, large protests about land seizures and evictions, unemployment, torture and human rights abuses, widespread corruption, and economic and political marginalization quickly spread across Ethiopia and threatened to bring down the TPLF-led government. Thousands were killed or arrested, there was large-scale displacement, and the country was put under an extended nationwide state of emergency. It was against this backdrop of turmoil, mounting discontent, and widespread unrest, with the TPLF-led regime beginning to crumble, that Hailemariam Desalegn, who succeeded Zenawi, resigned as prime minister in February 2018. Abiy, then a relative unknown, was soon appointed as the new prime minister.
Abiy represents a section of the Oromo elite. His vision is to centralize power and unify the country by increasing the federal government’s power and minimizing the autonomy of the regional governments. He sees ethnic federalism as a fetter holding the country back and is prepared to ride roughshod over any nationalist sentiment to achieve his goals. His ultimate goal is to establish Ethiopia as the undisputed powerhouse of East Africa. Since coming to power, he has made sweeping reforms, but in order to achieve his goals, he first wants to centralize and unify the country.
He introduced a raft of measures aimed at reducing the TPLF’s dominance, including retiring their military and government officials and instigating corruption charges against some members. In place of EPRDF, he instituted the new Prosperity Party (PP) – a single unitary entity with no formal and institutionalized representation for ethnic groups. This represented a radical blow to inter-ethnic peace, which was central to the previous political settlement. The move to dissolve the EPRDF and create the PP greatly angered the TPLF.
For nearly two decades, Ethiopia and Eritrea fought a brutal war over disputed borders that spilled over into Somalia, cost the lives of up to 100,000 people and led to massive internal displacement on both sides. It ended in 2018, with Ethiopia agreeing to cede Badme, the disputed territory at the heart of the conflict, to Eritrea, as per a UN ruling, for which Abiy but not his counterpart Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019. This was met with fury by the TPLF, which claims Badme as its own. The TPLF viewed the peace treaty as “selling out” Tigray and set up regular border posts around Badme, preventing the full implementation of the 2018 peace deal.
The alliance between Abiy and Afwerki was based on a shared perception: power had to be removed from the Tigrayans. For Abiy this was part of an attempt to wrest power from the states, end ethnic federalism and restore power at the centre. It was a re-assertion of the traditional view of the Ethiopian state – that its people were Ethiopians first and that their ethnicities came second. It was popular with sections of the Amhara community, who had frequently been the traditional rulers of Ethiopia.
It is important to note that Ahmed has almost lost the support of the Oromos, who for generations have opposed the kind of unitary government he espouses. Instead, Ahmed’s followers are now largely Amharas, whose elites favour the centralized administration practiced by the Haile Selassie feudal regime and the Derg, in which they assumed the leading role.
For Amhara nationalists, the Tigray war is an opportunity to regain the disproportionate power they lost when EPRDF’s ethnic federalism made them a minority everywhere outside of the Amhara region and Addis Ababa. As such, they are also looking to incorporate territory that is now part of Tigray – Raya, Welkaitand West Tigray – into the Amhara National Regional State. In some cases, a new Amhara administration has already been established in these areas, with ethnic Tigrayans forcibly removed.
Unlike his predecessors, Abiy was unconditionally loyal to neoliberal dogmas. Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2019, he elaborated on Ethiopia’s ambitious plans for “Unleashing to potential of the private sector”, “Reforming State-Owned-Enterprises” and “Opening the economy.” The Tigray elite maintained a strong dislike for free-market reforms. Debretsion Gebremichael, the deposed Tigrayan leader, warned against the shift to neoliberalism, stating that it would derail Ethiopia’s state-led economy. To pave the way for these changes, Abiy moved fast to purge key Tigrayan government and military officials at the helm of state-owned enterprises, replacing them with his appointees.
Abiy’s initiatives immediately encountered domestic resistance. The military, enraged by the changes, mounted an abortive coup in 2019. Despite Abiy’s promise to end ethnic discrimination, ethnic violence increased, with 1.7 million internally displaced people living in camps. Viewed as collectively responsible for the crimes of the previous regime, some 100,000 Tigrayans were driven from their homes and were living in camps even before the conflict erupted. These simmering contradictions inevitably burst apart, giving rise to the war in Tigray.
The current conflict in Ethiopia is closely tied with wider geopolitical dynamics. In spite of being at odds with the Washington Consensus, Zenawi became a favorite of the West by positioning Ethiopia as the preferred partner in the “War on Terror”. He was part of former Labour leader Tony Blair’s Commission for Africa and supported the march of imperialism across the continent.
Ethiopia was one of only two African countries named as part of the US’s “coalition of the willing” supporting the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It also hosted some of the “black sites” where people were taken for torture by the US and its allies. The Ethiopian military played a key role in hosting US bases and invading Somalia to topple the moderate Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) that had pacified much of south-central Somalia after defeating the notorious Mogadishu-based warlords.
The TPLF served US interests in the Horn of Africa for 27 years, but due the emergence of grassroots movements, the US saw that the TPLF faced too much domestic opposition to serve their purpose any longer. Then they switched their support to Abiy. Abiy consolidated the geo-political alignment of Ethiopia with the West by introducing neoliberal measures intended to benefit corporations of the Global North.
Abiy’s government opened up the country’s state monopolies and protected sectors for foreign investment; broke with EPRDF’s developmentalist ideology and embraced international financial institutions. In addition, Abiy weaned Ethiopia from China, as part of an overt ideological association with the American empire. Speaking at a conference in Addis Ababa in December, Abiy said that the terms of Chinese loans had damaged the Ethiopian economy.
“There are some that say we are adding more debt to the country’s already high debt. But borrowing from the IMF and the World Bank is like borrowing from one’s mother. What hurts Ethiopia is borrowing from other companies or some countries. For instance, Ethiopia borrowed to build a railway but was asked to repay the debt before the completion of the construction,” he added, referring to the Chinese-backed railway line to Djibouti.
Having feted Abiy as a democratic reformer, the Western states that doled out money and weaponry to the Ethiopian government in the lead-up to the assault on Tigray have been hesitant to end their cozy partnership with him. However, as the level of violence increased over the months, and the brazenly criminal conduct of Ethiopian forces was brought to light, the West could not keep playing its hypocritical game. Envoys of European Union (EU) began speaking out against Addis Ababa’s humanitarian blockade in increasingly harsh terms, and the Biden administration made loud condemnations of its military campaign.
The future course of the conflict in Tigray is uncertain. A quick victory for Abiy is unlikely: the TPLF has a large force of trained, dedicated and experienced fighters and generals, substantial hardware captured from the national army, and the support of a people that spent 16 years to defeat the Derg. Moreover, Abiy is in the midst of an increasingly fraught border dispute with neighboring Sudan, which moved its forces into the long-contested border region of al-Fashaqa, the fertile agricultural triangle farmed by Ethiopians since the mid-1990s, that Khartoum claims as its own, prompting Addis Abba to redeploy troops to the border. The hostilities forced Ethiopia’s Amhara farmers to flee the region.
Abiy is also facing Egyptian and Sudanese opposition to Ethiopia’s Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) and its plans to fill what is Africa’s largest dam on its own schedule that its neighbors fear could jeopardize their water supply in the event of a drought. The Blue Nile, whose source lies in Ethiopia, provides more than 80% of the Nile’s waters. With Ethiopia refusing to negotiate, there are fears that Egypt and/or Sudan may support the armed insurgencies in Benishangul-Gumuz and Oromia regions.
Under such conditions, the TPLF and other insurgent groups have gained an enhanced ability to resist the federal government in Addis Ababa, precipitating a wider civil war that threatens not just the survival of Abiy’s government but the stability of the entire region. As the war continues, the TPLF may demand independence. It is also possible that the TPLF will make common cause with rebel groups fighting Afwerki and call for the unity of Tigrinya speakers in both countries. The Horn of Africa produced two secessionist states – Eritrea and South Sudan – and more protracted struggles for self-determination seem to be on the horizon.