A truce has been declared in Ethiopia. Given the complexity of the conflict, it is difficult to say if it will have staying power.
After many failed attempts by international actors to end the war between the so-called Tigray Defense Forces (TDF) and the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF), the Ethiopian federal government unilaterally declared a “humanitarian truce” on 24 March which was quickly reciprocated by the Tigray regional government. While the fighting has subsided for the time being, it would be premature to conclude that the war is over. It is also important to recognise that the war in Tigray is only one part of a highly complex conflict picture.
The conflict was triggered by attacks on the federal army’s Northern Command bases by Tigray regional forces on 4 November 2020. The federal government – aided by the Eritrean Defense Forces (EDF), Amhara special forces, and Amhara militias – subsequently launched what it called a “law enforcement campaign.” The ENDF captured Tigray’s capital Mekelle on 28 November, while EDF took control of territories to the north and Amhara forces occupied western parts of Tigray. The TDF was forced to retreat to the rural areas but gradually strengthened its military capacity and reclaimed territories during the spring of 2021. In late June, TDF recaptured Mekelle and drove the ENDF out of the region.
The TDF subsequently moved into the Afar and Amhara regions, forcing the ENDF and its allies to retreat. As TDF approached the capital Addis Ababa, it joined arms with the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA). However, after intensive mobilisation of new troops and with the aid of newly acquired drones, the ENDF and Amhara forces broke the TDF’s offensive, which subsequently withdrew back to Tigray.
The human suffering has been horrific. Estimates claim that up to 200,000 combatants have been killed, the most of any conflict in 2021. Moreover, the war has displaced hundreds of thousands of people, and international aid and human rights organisations have documented massacres of civilians, systematic looting, ethnic cleansing, sexual violence, and intentional starvation. The Tigray region has effectively been under siege since the war broke out in November 2020, and it is estimated that over five million people require food assistance. The neighbouring regions of Afar and Amhara have also been affected, as more than nine million people are in need of food in the north.
The truce declared in April was aimed at securing aid to the Tigray region, but so far, only two convoys of 26 trucks with food aid were allowed to enter, one on 1 April and another on 14 April. This was the first delivery of aid since December 2021. It is estimated that 100 trucks a day are needed.
While the war was triggered by TDF’s surprise attack in early November, the parties had been preparing for war for some time. Tensions intensified when the Tigray regional government conducted separate regional elections in September 2020 in response to the federal authorities’ decision to postpone the national elections due to COVID-19. Tensions further escalated when the federal government suspended federal funds to the region in early October. Statements of mutual de-recognition were accompanied with military mobilisation on both sides.
These tensions can be traced even further back to the arrival of Abiy Ahmed as the new prime minister in April 2018 and the emergence of disagreements within the governing Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Front coalition (EPRDF). Promising a wide range of political reforms, the new prime minister sought to limit the power of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) — the dominant party within the EPRDF — and to reorganise the coalition. This culminated with the abolition of EPRDF and the formation of the Prosperity Party (PP) in December 2019, a new and more centralised party. The TPFL declined to join the new PP and worked actively to thwart Abiy Ahmed’s reforms. When the TPLF leadership withdrew to the Tigray region, signs pointed to a coming armed conflict.
The conflict also has other underlying causes, most importantly different visions of Ethiopia as a nation-state. The TPFL, which took power in 1991, introduced a multi-national federal system which divided the country into nine regional states based on assumed ethno-linguistic boundaries. This experiment led to the politicisation of ethnic identities and the sharpening of ethnic boundaries. It was contested both by those who opposed the multi-national federal system, as well as those who felt that the system did not go far enough in decentralising power to the regional states.
Many saw Abiy Ahmed’s arrival and the formation of PP as part of a larger plan to replace the multi-national federal system with a more centralised system. The TPLF believed that this was undermining its ideological cornerstone, while Oromo actors feared that it would bring back Amhara hegemony which had dominated during the imperial period. The TPLF, Oromo, and political actors from other ethnic groups consequently found common ground and formed what was labeled the “federalist forces” in opposition to Abiy Ahmed.
Abiy Ahmed’s flirting with the idea of a more centralised structure earned him the support of the Amhara. Important in this regard were simmering conflicts over what the Amhara perceived to be lost territories. Intrinsic to the introduction of the multi-national federal system was the reconfiguration of regional boundaries, and in the case of Amhara-Tigray, territories in the west were incorporated into Tigray, and settlements of Tigrayan forced many Amhara out of these areas. Similarly, the Raya territory on the southern border of Tigray was split between the Tigray and Amhara regions. Disputes over these areas had intensified since 2016, and Abiy Ahmed’s marginalisation of the TPLF was seen as conducive to the attempts of reclaiming lost land and further fueled Amhara nationalism. When the war broke out in 2020, Amhara forces quickly went in and took control over these areas. They are still in control over the western parts of Tigray.
The future of the conflict remains uncertain. There have been unconfirmed reports about peace negotiations between the two parties, and there are similar unconfirmed reports about continued military mobilisation. Political developments in Ethiopia have proven to be very unpredictable in recent years, making both continued war as well as negotiated settlement possible scenarios.
The conflict in Tigray is only one part of multiple existing conflict dynamics in the country. Since 2018, OLA has gained ground in western Oromia and in the southern parts of the region, with large rural areas under guerilla control. The ENDF launched a new offensive against the OLA in the beginning of April this year, and clashes between Amhara and Oromo have intensified in the last weeks. Ongoing violence is also occurring in the western region of Beni-Shangul, and reports of unrest are also emerging from the south. All this points to a state that is unable to maintain peace and security, due not just to the war in Tigray but also the weakening of state institutions at central, regional, and local levels. A National Dialogue Commission was established in January 2022, but as TPLF and OLA was excluded from participation and because its mandate remains unclear, the commission has been met with skepticism.
Adding to all this is a prolonged drought in the eastern and southern parts of the country, affecting over six million people. The economy was already hit by COVID-19, and the war in Tigray exacerbated the situation. It has scared off foreign investors, led to foreign exchange shortages, and caused increased unemployment. Furthermore, spiraling inflation has significantly affected people’s daily lives. Rising fuel and food prices due to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine indicate things will get worse before they get better. The Ethiopian government is, in other words, faced with many and complex challenges, and the last thing the country need is the continuation of the war in Tigray.
Terje Østebø (PhD) is currently the Chair of the Department of Religion and a Professor at the Center for African Studies and the Department of Religion, University of Florida. He is also the founding director of the UF Center for Global Islamic Studies. His research interests are Islam in contemporary Ethiopia, Islam, politics, and Islamic reformism in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa, ethnicity and religion, as well as Salafism in Africa. Major publications include Islam, Ethnicity, and Conflict in Ethiopia: The Bale Insurgency (1963-1970) (Cambridge University Press, 2020); Muslim Ethiopia: The Christian Legacy, Identity Politics, and Islamic Reformism (co-edited with Patrick Desplat), (Palgrave-Macmillan 2013); Localising Salafism: Religious Change among Oromo Muslims in Bale, Ethiopia (Brill 2012).
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