While the world continues to be gripped by the COVID-19 pandemic, earlier this month conflict broke out in Ethiopia – Africa’s second most populous country and a top economic performer. With the central government alleging that on 4 November forces controlled by political party the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) attacked a federal army base in the country’s north, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed stated that a “red line” had been crossed, declaring, “The TPLF has chosen to wage war.” Abiy immediately ordered military retaliation, with intense fighting since ensuing in Ethiopia’s northern region of Tigray.
The gravity of the conflict cannot be overstated, with many observers terming it “civil war”. Thus far, hundreds of federal army and TPLF soldiers have died, and over 40,000 civilians have been displaced. The conflict has quickly taken on a regional dimension; Eritrea has launched attacks against targets in Tigray, to which the TPLF has retaliated, while many thousands of refugees have fled from northern Ethiopia into neighbouring Sudan. More broadly, the conflict has stymied hopes for continued political and economic reform under Abiy, who has been praised for opening up Ethiopia’s democratic space and pledging to liberalise its economy.
To assess the conflict’s most likely future trajectory, it is vital to understand its past context. At its core, it is a competition between two visions of Ethiopia, influenced by the country’s recent history of ethnic federalism. For the TPLF, Ethiopia’s constitutionally mandated ethnic federalism system, in which it has occupied a highly privileged position, must be preserved. Abiy, meanwhile, advocates a pan-Ethiopian future of increased ethnic cooperation and integration, necessary to address past political, economic, and social injustices.
The seemingly irreconcilable nature of these two positions, and both sides’ deep-rooted commitment to them, illustrates that this is a fundamental battle for the country’s future trajectory. It is clear that a protracted conflict will have a wide reaching and damaging impact on Ethiopia, dissipating the international optimism that has surrounded Abiy’s stewardship of the country since 2018.
In this article, we will analyse the historical context that informs the current conflict and provide three scenarios detailing the potential outcome of political and military battle. A negotiated peace may eventually be found, but lasting stability will be contingent on one of the competing ideologies reigning supreme.
27 years of control: A history of TPLF domination
The TPLF, hailing from Tigray in the country’s north, has been the dominant political party within Ethiopian politics for almost all of the past three decades, with this influence and control extending to much of the country’s economy and military. In 1991, the TPLF, along with its then ally the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), overthrew the Marxist Derg government, which had ruled Ethiopia since toppling Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974.
For the EPLF, its reward was independence and governance over the newly created state of Eritrea in 1993. The TPLF, meanwhile, forming part of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition, established Ethiopia’s new government. As chairperson of both the TPLF and EPRDF, Meles Zenawi became Ethiopian president in 1991, and then prime minister from 1995 to 2012, as the country transitioned to a parliamentary system. Zenawi strengthened the TPLF’s political dominance, appointing Tigrayan compatriots to key state positions, while also cementing Ethiopia’s ethnically federated system of government, in which the country was divided into nine ethnically-aligned self-governed regions. Although Zenawi’s successor, Hailemariam Desalegn (2012-2018), came from the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement – another constituent party of the EPRDF – he was hand-picked by the TPLF, meaning that its political dominance continued unchallenged.
Alongside the TPLF’s political pre-eminence, from 1991, the party controlled much of Ethiopia’s defence and intelligence apparatus. In the early 1990s, the Ethiopian military was disbanded and replaced by a new force, ostensibly national in character, but in reality a reiteration of the TPLF army that had defeated the Derg. Almost all government-appointed military and intelligence chiefs were Tigrayan, and the TPLF spearheaded the fight against Eritrea during the Eritrean-Ethiopian War (1998-2000), Ethiopia’s defining external conflict of the past two decades.
This military ascendancy translated into economic dominance, with the Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF), and thus the TPLF, controlling many state-owned enterprises. The most notable of these was the Metals and Engineering Corporation (METEC), a state military-industrial conglomerate formed in 2010. Awarded numerous lucrative public sector contracts, including to construct flagship infrastructure project, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, METEC executives allegedly diverted funds into their own, or TPLF, coffers. Asides from the commercial opportunities that arose through its military power, the TPLF controlled Ethiopia’s economic wealth. This included both natural resources – namely publicly owned land – and access to multi-USD billion aid and credit lines flowing into the country.
Resetting the dial: Abiy counters TPLF supremacy
The TPLF’s control of Ethiopia’s political, military, and economic spheres came to a head in the mid-2010s, as the country’s non-Tigrayan ethnic communities railed against its dominance. Spearheaded by the Oromo and Amhara – Ethiopia’s two largest ethnic groups – protests erupted in late 2015, sparked by the federal government’s decision to expand Addis Ababa, a move that involved the subsuming of Oromo farmland. While the EPRDF attempted to control the discord by imposing successive states of emergency, after two and a half years of disruption, the need for change was accepted and Prime Minister Desalegn resigned in February 2018.
At this critical juncture, the TPLF experienced a major political setback – one that set in motion Ethiopia’s descent into civil conflict. While the party had wanted to install another prime minister emanating from the south, the EPRDF chose Deputy President of the Oromia Region Abiy Ahmed. The decision was highly contested by the TPLF. As one EPRDF official told AML, “Abiy’s appointment was a shock to the system; the Tigrayan elites were vehemently opposed to the next prime minister being Oromo or Amhara – their political and economic interests needed protecting.”
Following Abiy’s appointment, the TPLF immediately began to feel the political and economic ramifications. Tigrayan influence in government waned as Abiy removed TPLF members from key state positions in an attempt to rebalance Ethiopia’s ethnically skewed political apparatus. Leading TPLF officials were arrested and prosecuted for corruption and past human rights abuses, in a crackdown that party chairperson Debretsion Gebremichael alleged was politically motivated. In April 2018, Abiy dismissed former TPLF intelligence chief Getachew Assefa, who later fled to Sudan, while Kinfe Dagnew, the CEO of the aforementioned conglomerate METEC, was arrested and charged with corruption in November of that year.
With TPLF resentment towards Abiy growing since early 2018, his disbandment of the EPRDF was “the straw that broke the camel’s back”, as one veteran analyst of Ethiopian politics told AML. The EPRDF – long an important manifestation of Ethiopia’s multi-ethnic approach to governance – was replaced by the Prosperity Party, a new unitary political force. Significantly, of the four constituent members of the EPRDF, the TPLF was the only party not to merge into the Prosperity Party – a reflection of its deep-rooted resistance to Abiy’s vision of pan-Ethiopian nationalism. With the TPLF due to contest the Prosperity Party in Ethiopia’s August 2020 election, its cancellation, ostensibly due to the COVID-19 pandemic, led the TPLF to hold its own regional polls. Described as “illegal” by the federal government, the election led both administrations to condemn each other as “illegitimate and unconstitutional”.
Looking ahead: Past dynamics influence future scenarios’ probability
With Ethiopia’s post-1991 history having shaped the dynamics that led to the current conflict and setting the TPLF on a collision path with Abiy’s federal government, our attention now turns to its likely future trajectory. Below, we set out three different scenarios, beginning with the most probable, and ending with the least. In the first two, especially, the influence of Ethiopia’s recent past continues to permeate, limiting the chance of a negotiated peace, and increasing the likelihood of a prolonged, destabilising conflict.
Scenario one: A protracted conflict, with significant implications for domestic and regional stability
Under AML’s first scenario, neither a decisive military victory nor a negotiated peace is achieved, and the conflict continues into 2021. Fighting persists in Tigray, most likely with the TPLF deploying guerrilla warfare tactics. Within the region, severe disruption would be experienced. Industry — for example, manufacturing at Mekelle Industrial Park — would be impacted, as workers struggle to access sites of production and supply routes are cut. Continued displacement of Tigrayan residents would occur, with the region’s encirclement by federal forces resulting in acute food shortages, prompting a humanitarian crisis. According to the UN, there are already 600,000 people dependent on food aid in northern Ethiopia, and the organisation has warned that this number could rise dramatically.
Ongoing fighting in Tigray could also lead to instability in other regions of the country. Significantly, the current conflict does not pit a united Ethiopia against the TPLF – Abiy also faces discontent from other ethnic groups, notably his own, the Oromo. In the last month, violence in the Oromia region has already escalated, with the rebel group Oromo Liberation Army killing over 30 civilians in an attack that Abiy acknowledged may have been ethnically motivated. Although the Oromo’s grievances centre on alleged political and economic marginalisation, much like the TPLF, their elites are staunch proponents of Ethiopia’s ethnic federalism system of government. As AML was told by an Addis Ababa-based veteran political analyst, “the TPLF’s opposition may embolden resistance among other ethnic groups – there is a strong possibility that we will see an uptick in fighting against federal forces in regions asides from Tigray”.
A protracted conflict would also have damaging repercussions for regional stability. Eritrea has already attacked its long-time enemy the TPLF, who retaliated by firing rockets at the Eritrean capital Asmara. Since the start of the conflict, Ethiopia’s federal government has withdrawn soldiers from peacekeeping duties in Somalia and South Sudan. If not reversed, this could have concerning implications for their domestic stability, particularly in Somalia, given that 2021 is an election year. Sudan has received around 40,000 Ethiopian refugees to date, with this number set to rise if fighting continues. Operating in a self-declared state of economic emergency since September, Khartoum’s capacity to accommodate refugees is highly constrained.
AML judges scenario one to be the most likely to occur. As early as August this year, Gebremichael declared, “we will never back down from anyone who is intending to supress our hard-won right to self-determination and self-rule”. This sentiment has only solidified since the onset of the conflict, with Gebremichael recently asserting that the TPLF are “ready to die in defence of our right to administer our region”. Abiy, meanwhile, issued the TPLF with a 72-hour ultimatum to surrender on 22 November, warning that this constituted “a point of no return”.
The entrenched nature of the federal government and the TPLF’s positions is clear, heightening the prospect of a protracted conflict. Fundamentally, for the two sides, this is a war about what Ethiopia is, and where it is going – dually a battle over the country’s past and future. The TPLF is fighting to preserve an ethnic federalism system of government and its right to self-rule. Implicit within this, is a desire to regain the political, economic, and military dominance that it held for 27 years. Abiy, however, sees Ethiopia’s ethnically-based political system as having led to the disenfranchisement of non-Tigrayan ethnic groups. For him, a new unitary approach to government is the future – epitomised through his formation of the Prosperity Party. The fundamental irreconcilability of these two positions forms the heart of Ethiopia’s conflict, and will likely result in it becoming a protracted, bitter, struggle.
Scenario two: International pressure resulting in a negotiated peace
Since the conflict’s onset, multiple international actors have called for a negotiated peace. Countries from Africa, Europe, and the Middle East have appealed for hostilities to cease, with presidents of the former including Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni offering to mediate between Abiy’s government and the TPLF. As Chairperson of the African Union, South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa has sent three special envoys to Ethiopia in an attempt to bring about a peaceful resolution.
In AML’s second scenario, both Abiy and TPLF leader Gebremichael bow to international pressure and enter into negotiations, most likely mediated by the African Union. While foreseeing the exact outcome of such talks is challenging, AML anticipates an agreement would be reached whereby the TPLF accepts the sovereignty of Abiy’s government. In return, the TPLF would receive assurances over its right to self-government in Tigray, with a timeframe for national elections also being guaranteed. The ENDF would withdraw from Tigray, although the TPLF would hand back control of the Northern Command military base.
Certain factors make the occurrence of this scenario plausible. Commencing negotiations may turn into a pragmatic necessity. As outlined below, the likelihood of a decisive military victory being secured is low, meaning that, if both sides desired one, an end to the conflict may only be achievable through bilateral talks. Additionally, several well-placed AML sources suggested that a prolonged war could damage Abiy’s international reputation to the extent that he countenances negotiating with the TPLF. Awarded the Nobel International Peace Prize in 2019 for formally ending the Eritrean-Ethiopian War, Abiy has courted international opinion since coming to power. His interviews with such publications as the Financial Times portray a man intent on establishing a legacy, one that he would not want tarnished by a protracted and bloody conflict.
To date, however, both the federal government and the TPLF have resisted international calls for peace and negotiations, with Abiy stating on 25 November, “we reject any interference in our internal affairs”. In AML’s estimation, the likelihood of their positions changing, at least in the short to medium-term, is slim. As outlined in the second part of this article, Abiy and the TPLF’s relationship has soured significantly in recent years, making it hard to see the two parties engaging in negotiations. Abiy’s alleged persecution of Tigrayan officials has caused severe resentment, as has the TPLF’s reduced political and economic status under his premiership. This, coupled with the two sides’ vastly differing ideological positions, diminishes the prospect of a peaceful rapprochement.
Scenario three: A decisive military victory by the federal government
Under AML’s last scenario, fighting would end with the federal government achieving a decisive military victory. Mekelle, the Tigrayan capital would be captured, and the TPLF’s leadership prosecuted for high treason and terrorism. Given the strong levels of popular support enjoyed by the TPLF within Tigray, the federal government would be forced to maintain a significant military presence in the region to quell potential dissent. As one Ethiopian political analyst told AML, “Abiy would be compelled to rule Tigray with an iron fist”.
In the conflict thus far, both the federal government and TPLF have made repeated claims of military supremacy. Redwan Hussein, the spokesperson for Abiy’s Tigray Crisis Task Force, recently pronounced, the government’s attack on Tigray “will be a short-lived operation”, with the federal government declaring on 23 November that its army had encircled the Tigrayan capital of Mekelle. The TPLF, meanwhile, have repeatedly claimed military victories, denying that Mekelle is under threat.
The veracity of these claims is hard to verify. Since fighting began, Tigray has been subject to a virtual communications blackout: mobile networks, telephone landlines, and fixed-line internet have been cut. While on balance, AML’s conversations with analysts based in northern Ethiopia suggest that the federal government may have the ascendancy, largely because of its air supremacy, this is unlikely to translate into a comprehensive defeat of the TPLF. With up to 250,000 soldiers and militia under its command, the TPLF has a sizeable army, battle-hardened by its role in the Eritrean-Ethiopian War. Moreover, having captured the ENDF’s Northern Command headquarters at the onset of the conflict, the TPLF has access to a vast array of powerful weaponry, adding to the stockpile that one local security analyst told AML it has been accumulating since Abiy came to power.
Even if the TPLF forces were defeated in conventional military combat, the likelihood of the conflict ending remains low. AML’s enquires with sources close to the TPLF’s leadership indicate that if Mekelle was captured, they would instigate guerrilla warfare. Defeating pockets of military resistance would be highly challenging for the federal army, especially given Tigray’s mountainous geography – a landscape that TPLF forces are adept at utilising. Ultimately, the conflict would turn into a war of attrition, one in which the federal government would have little hope of securing a decisive victory.
Discord and division: The face of Abiy’s Ethiopia
Regardless of the longevity or outcome of Ethiopia’s civil conflict, international sentiment towards Abiy has changed. Africa’s youngest leader and a Nobel Peace Prize winner, his promise to democratise politics and liberalise Ethiopia’s economy won him plaudits worldwide. Now, however, that image is proving to be of little help in restoring a fragile sense of national stability. The conflict has thrown into sharp relief the intensely fractured nature of Ethiopian politics and society – divisions that will take more than a charismatic leader to overcome.
Piers Dawson is a Senior Consultant at Africa Matters Limited.