Last week, Abiy Ahmed became the first Ethiopian leader since Mengistu Haile Mariam to launch a military offensive in Tigray, the northernmost of the country’s nine regions.
Accusing forces loyal to Tigray’s renegade regional government of attacking an army base, Abiy, the recipient of last year’s Nobel Peace Prize, argued that he had been left with little choice but to move against Tigray’s leadership, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Information on the escalating clashes and unrest in the region has been difficult to come by as a result of a communications shutdown implemented by the Addis Ababa government across the region.
There have been widespread reports, however, of air raids and significant casualties. On Sunday, TPLF politburo member Getachew Reda claimed that war planes had been despatched by the federal government “almost everyday” and that Tigrayan forces had “downed one” over the weekend. Indeed, the TPLF underlined at the start of the crisis that they are “ready to be martyrs” and are prepared to transform the heavily-armed region into a “burial place for the reactionaries”.
Sadly, Tigray is by no means unique as a site of conflict in contemporary Ethiopia, location of the highest number of conflict-related internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the world. The country’s most populous region, Oromia, has seen renewed waves of ethno-nationalist-inspired violence in recent months, including clashes in July which left over 200 people dead. Indeed, Ethiopia’s political system of “ethnic federalism” has solidified and institutionalised identity-based divisions between the country’s multiple nationalities since its introduction in the 1990s. Through linking identity to territory and political representation, it has also transformed the – sometimes contested – boundaries of different states into flashpoints and has placed ethnicity at the heart of political mobilisation.
The Tigrayan conflict is, however, somewhat distinctive in its provenance and dynamics, which have centred around the dramatic collapse in relations between the TPLF and Abiy Ahmed’s federal government since Abiy’s elevation to the premiership in 2018.
The TPLF formed the core of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the rebel coalition which overthrew Mengistu’s brutal Derg regime in 1991, and dominated Ethiopian politics for nearly two decades. Their period of rule has been characterised by many analysts and Ethiopians as authoritarian and militarised, particularly during the strongman leadership of TPLF chair and Ethiopian premier Meles Zenawi, who died in 2012. The Meles era has also been praised by some, however, for its emphasis on state-led development initiatives – the so-called “developmental state” model which Abiy sought to dismantle, at least rhetorically, shortly after securing the premiership.
Indeed, at the domestic level, Abiy’s time in office to date has been partly-defined by an ever-increasing antagonism with the TPLF. Within weeks of coming to office, Abiy obliquely accused the latter – at that point still a member of the four-part EPRDF coalition – of committing “terrorist acts…and using force to stay in power”. He also dismissed two of the most longstanding and senior TPLF security chiefs, army chief of staff Samora Yunis and intelligence director Getachew Assefa, issuing an arrest warrant for the latter in January 2019. Many of the Abiy government’s efforts to distance his administration from that of his predecessors, and to hold TPLF officials to account for the abuses that took place during their period of political dominance were welcomed, both domestically and internationally; the Nobel Peace Prize Committee applauded him in its 2019 award announcement for initiating “important reforms that give many citizens hope for a better life and a better future”.
Like many “new broom” leaders, Abiy has sought to draw a stark contrast between his own transformative agenda and the supposedly reactionary and failed approach of his predecessors, represented principally by the TPLF. And certainly, the TPLF and wider EPRDF coalition have much to answer for both domestically and regionally for their choices and actions during their time in federal office. They presided over a profoundly authoritarian system of rule.
Abiy’s targeting of the TPLF in this regard was initially somewhat disingenuous; he was a minister, intelligence chief and senior coalition official during the later years of the EPRDF. Abiy’s approach has also fed into the targeting of ethnic Tigrayans in parts of Ethiopia through speeches where he has conflated Tigrayans and the TPLF (though he has made just as many speeches where he has made an explicit distinction). A key breaking point came in late 2019, however, when Abiy announced the dissolution of the EPRDF coalition, suggesting that its constituent members – and EPRDF satellite parties – join a united “Prosperity Party” under his leadership. The TPLF refused, citing disagreement with both the rationale for the merger and its implications, and withdrew to Tigray.
The emerging crisis has nevertheless been a political boon for the TPLF. The party’s reputation in Tigray had slumped by the mid-2010s, with listening tours led by senior apparatchiks identifying significant local misgivings around the party’s perceived commitment to the region and vision for the future. The break with Abiy, and the federal government, has compelled the TPLF to re-engage with their political base and return its political centre of gravity to Mekele, the Tigrayan capital.
This re-energization of the TPLF and its political mobilization reached its apogee in late summer this year when Tigray held a regional election, won handily by the TPLF. This election was originally meant to be part of the wider nationwide general election planned for 2020, though the latter was postponed by the federal government because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Tigray regional state rejected the legitimacy of this postponement and proceeded with the poll at the regional level, a decision considered illegal and unconstitutional by the government in Addis Ababa. For their part, the TPLF have considered the Abiy Ahmed administration illegitimate since this election; they argue that the federal government’s mandate has now expired.
The current conflict is therefore the consequence of a continued raising of the stakes by both Addis Ababa and Mekele over a number of years. Though both sides claim they have sought dialogue throughout this period they have also both acted to heighten, rather than reduce, tensions. In part, this is because their respective political interests have become increasingly tied to securing total victory in the current stand-off.
This is not, and cannot, however, be a zero-sum game. Lives have already been lost and the risks of regional players with their own agendas – notably Eritrea and Sudan – being drawn in remain extremely high. On Sunday, Tigray regional president Debretsion Gebremichael claimed that the regional government was prepared to negotiate with Addis Ababa to end the fighting, though ending the conflict swiftly will require both sides to back down, and soon.