December 4, 2020
On November 28, Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed congratulated the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) for seizing control of Mekelle, the capital of Ethiopia’s restive Tigray region, after nearly a month of mounting violence between the government and rebel Tigrayan forces. Abiy declared that he would focus on “rebuilding the region and providing humanitarian assistance while Federal Police apprehend the [Tigray People’s Liberation Front] TPLF clique.” The prime minister’s triumphant message, however, underplays the human toll of the conflict; dismisses the risk of an insurgency and regional spill over; and discounts damage to the country’s democratic transition.
Q1: How did the conflict begin?
A1: Prime Minister Abiy and the TPLF share responsibility for the tragedy in Tigray. Both sides have been confrontational and uncompromising, heedlessly escalating tensions until fighting inevitably broke out in early November. Prime Minister Abiy, whose daring commitment to reconciliation and reform awed many Ethiopians and international observers, including the Norwegian Nobel Committee, was decidedly less magnanimous toward Ethiopia’s previous regime dominated by the TPLF. He swiftly moved against ethnic Tigrayan officials—who represent 6 percent of the population—arresting more than 60 officials, some from the intelligence services and some from a military-run industrial conglomerate. The TPLF responded in kind, rejecting Abiy’s leadership and refusing to join the prime minister’s new Prosperity Party. When Abiy delayed the election due to the pandemic, the TPLF ignored his order and defiantly proceeded with its own election on September 9, which it won by a landslide.
The election was a turning point. In response, the federal government declared the TPLF’s rule unlawful and the Tigray government indicated it would no longer recognize Abiy’s leadership. The TPLF claimed that federal troops had started to mass on Tigray’s southern flanks, presumably precipitating the raid on a federal military base. Abiy in turn accused the TPLF of “crossing a red line” on November 4, deploying his military to capture the region’s major towns and infrastructure and arrest the TPLF. The ENDF subsequently swept through Tigray, conducting air strikes and warning civilians there would be “no mercy” during the final assault on Mekelle. The TPLF, meanwhile, fired rockets at least three times into Eritrea to internationalize the conflict. A communications blackout has made it difficult to independently verify whether Mekelle is completely under federal government control.
Q2: What have been the conflict’s humanitarian and human rights consequences?
A2: Since the conflict started early last month, there have been significant outflows of people and accusations of human rights abuses perpetrated by both sides. More than 40,000 people so far have fled to Sudan, and the United Nations estimates that it could rise to 200,000 within the next six months. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) is developing a Humanitarian Preparedness Plan to target 1.98 million people with multi-sector assistance in Tigray, Afar, and Amhara regions. This includes the existing humanitarian caseload, as well as an additional 1.1 million people expected to need assistance as a result of the conflict.
There have been hundreds of casualties from the fighting, but the media blackout has prevented a more accurate accounting. Following the siege of Mekelle, the ICRC indicated it “found approximately 80 percent of patients to be suffering from trauma injuries” at a local hospital. Ethnic Tigrayan and Amhara militias, as well as government forces, have allegedly committed human rights abuses; Amnesty and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) have accused—with varying levels of certainty—Tigrayan forces for massacres of non-Tigrayans. In Sudan’s Um Raquba refugee camp, individuals blamed the ENDF and Amhara militias for attacking Tigrayan villagers.
Equally alarming has been the level of disinformation and hate speech on social media, fueling discrimination and hostility toward certain ethnic groups. According to the BBC, social media users have posted manipulated photos of an S-400 Russian missile defense system in Tigray region and claimed the Tigrayan downed an Ethiopian fighter jet. In the Washington Post, Claire Wilmot analyzed Twitter data in early November, revealing how pro-Tigray and pro-Ethiopia activists promote their opposing narratives about who is responsible for the conflict. The Ethiopian government’s recall of Tigrayan soldiers deployed in Somalia and South Sudan, as well as at least one civilian at the African Union, has reinforced an ethnic dimension to the conflict. The UN’s special advisers on the prevention of genocide and the Responsibility to Protect warned that the current situation heightens the risk of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity.
Q3: What are the prospects for an insurgency and widening of the war?
A3: With the ENDF in control of most towns in Tigray, the TPLF is likely to regroup as an insurgency. Tigray regional president Debretsion Gebremichael told the Associated Press that his forces “will continue until the invaders are out.” William Davidson, the International Crisis Group’s senior analyst on Ethiopia, explains that the TPLF can count on a regional paramilitary force led by former national army generals and a large militia full of war veterans to support the rebellion. The TPLF’s apparent decision to minimally defend key towns, including Mekelle, parallels its tactics almost four decades ago; in 1984, a declassified CIA assessment judged that the TPLF “avoided setpiece battles in favor of small-unit, classic guerilla operations against isolated garrisons and lines of communication, a major factor in its success.” It added that the TPLF established an effective intelligence network among a largely sympathetic population. If the TPLF reprises its old playbook, it could continue fighting for several few months and contribute to further dislocation, deaths, and ethnic polarization.
In addition, the conflict risks spreading to other Ethiopian regional states. The Amhara government, which has a long-running dispute over its border with Tigray, is already involved; the TPLF fired rockets into the cities of Bahir Dar and Gondar while Amhara militia have supported federal forces in operations in Tigray. Davidson, in an interview with the Africa Report, expressed his fear that Abiy’s opponents in Oromia region may ramp up attacks if they “sense weakness.” Even before the fighting in Tigray, there had been incidents of violence in Afar, Amhara, Benishangul-Gumuz, Oromia, Somali, and Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region (SNNPR). Many of these conflicts involve territorial disputes, ethnic tensions, and power struggles between rival rebel and militia groups.
A wider conflict with Eritrea is also possible. The TPLF and Eritrean president Isaias Afwerki—once allies in their struggle against Ethiopia’s former ruling military junta, the Derg—fell out in the late 1990s and fought a devastating border war from 1998–2000. Abiy, on the other hand, is close to Isaias, and is credited for overseeing rapprochement between the neighboring states. There have been rumors that Abiy and Isaias coordinated the assault on their mutual enemy in Tigray, and the TPLF has alleged that Eritrean soldiers crossed the shared border to support government operations. The TPLF launched strikes into Eritrea presumably in retaliation, as well as to draw Eritrea further into the conflict. The TPLF has an interest in exploiting Tigrayan animosity toward Eritrea to ensure its fighters and the general Tigrayan public continue to side with the TPLF. Abiy, Isaias, and Debretsion are playing a dangerous game, and the risk of miscalculation and greater regional instability are high.
Q4: How does the fighting affect Ethiopia’s democratic transition?
A4: Prime Minister Abiy’s security operation to tame the rebellious TPLF may backfire, postponing or even ending Ethiopia’s transition to democratic rule. Abiy has justified his government’s actions as a response to an “unconstitutional” and “illegal” decision by the TPLF to prematurely hold elections. He appointed a provisional administrator to lead the region for the foreseeable future because, as his attorney general claimed, the people of Tigray have said “enough is enough.” While ostensibly these measures seek to remove the insubordinate TPLF and restore the electoral calendar, it raises questions about Abiy’s commitment to an inclusive, consultative process.
In the past two years, Abiy has moved to centralize power through his Prosperity Party and has cracked down on dissidents, including those from his own ethnic group. These steps already have fueled skepticism about his willingness to listen and incorporate the views of others in steering Ethiopia toward a stable, free, and democratic future. With the ENDF’s initial success in Tigray, Abiy is likely to adopt a more imperious manner in his dealings with opponents and subordinates. He probably will be less open to compromises, and other regions and ethnic groups may fear dire consequences if they cross the federal government.
Prior to the conflict, the Ethiopian government proposed to hold its postponed parliamentary election in May or June 2021. Abiy’s pledge to “rebuild what has been destroyed” in Tigray and the specter of more fighting may necessitate further election delays. If Abiy opts to run roughshod over other regions in the wake of his “victory,” it almost will certainly undercut his credibility as a democratic reformer.
Judd Devermont is the director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.