Ethiopian Tigray Crisis Threatens Stability in Horn of Africa


Escalating violence between the national army and those loyal to the northern Tigray region has brought the threat of civil war to Ethiopia and instability to the whole Horn of Africa.

The recent violence is the culmination of a history marked by rising tensions. The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) was a coalition made up of different ethnically based political parties, namely Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), Amhara Democratic Party (ADP), Oromo Democratic Party (ODP) and Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM).1

Under this ruling coalition, TPLF became the dominant party in 1991 and controlled the Ethiopian government for almost three decades, ushering in “stultifying, iron-fisted rule.”2 However, this control came to an end when Abiy Ahmed was elected as a “young reformer” in 2018.3 Ahmed, the first Oromo Prime Minister, removed many TPLF members from their positions in the central government.4 Seeing its influence wane, the TPLF turned their attention and influence to the Tigray region, where they have since been operating.

Then, in September 2020, Tigray held regional elections in defiance of the federal government, which had canceled elections due to the pandemic.5 The national government called the Tigray election “illegal.”

The TPLF, which lacks the power it once had in Ethiopian politics, has made veiled threats of succession.7 Relations further soured when, in early October, the upper house of parliament voted to suspend budget aid to Tigray.

The situation between the regional state and the federal government erupted on Nov. 4, when Ahmed sent troops into Tigray, claiming the TPLF had attacked a federal military installation in the Tigray region.8 Both sides readied for conflict. 

It came quickly and violently: since the fighting began on Nov. 4, hundreds of people have reportedly been killed on both sides and thousands have fled into neighboring Sudan.9 On Nov. 13, Tigray launched rockets at airports in Amhara Province.10 Then, in a major escalation, Tigray fired a rocket at neighboring Eritrea on Nov. 14. No casualties or damage have been reported.11 

Debretsion Gebremichael, Tigray’s president, said he ordered this attack because Asmara, Eritrea’s capital, had sided with Ahmed’s government.12

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for ending the 20-year border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, denied that Eritrea has aided his government during the conflict with Tigray.13 Gebremichael, on the other hand, said Eritrean forces have crossed into Ethiopia at three border towns in the northern region.14

“As long as troops are here fighting, we will take any legitimate military target and we will fire,” Gebremichael told the Associated Press.15

This move brings Eritrea into the conflict, threatening the stability in the Horn of Africa. The Tigray region in particular is essential to peace at the Ethipian-Eritrean border, since the government in Tigray administers the area.16 The United States condemned the TPLF’s “unjustifiable attacks against Eritrea…  and its efforts to internationalize the conflict in Tigray.”17

Not only has the conflict threatened international peace, it has also exacerbated ethnic divisions in Ethiopia to such an extent that there is threat of civil war. Ethiopia contains 10 regions, and these ethnic strongholds have historically vied for power.18 

When Ahmed came to power, he promised to heal a deeply divided country. His approach was to build a unitary style government, and in 2019, he merged together the multi-ethnic parties of the EPRDF and created the Prosperity Party (PP).19 The TPLF did not participate in this merger, claiming it would divide the country.20 

However, Ahmed’s unitary approach did not always go far enough to satisfy the demands of ethno-nationalist movements such as the “Oromo struggle for greater autonomy and recognition.”21 Indeed, since Ahmend took power, Ethiopia has seen a rise in ethnic divisions, including massive displacements along ethnic lines and an increased call for self-governance from ethnic communities.22 In the past year, there have been a string of violent altercations between rival ethnic groups like the Oromo, Amhara, Tigray and Somali.23 

Among this political climate of regional disputes, Tigray is emblematic of a larger movement that seeks greater autonomy for Ethiopia’s regions.24 Thus, this conflict will be essential in answering the question of whether Ethiopia can continue to coexist as a multi-ethnic nation.

“Everyone saw this coming,” said Kjetil Tronvoll, a scholar of Ethiopian politics.25 “Both sides felt insecure and started to mobilize troops. It was a clear signal of a civil war in the making.”

Despite the repercussions of the Tigray conflict, which some are worried may include ethnic cleansing and even genocide, Ahmed has ignored international calls for de-escalation.26 Instead, the violence has only increased, leading the United Nations to warn of a looming humanitarian disaster.27 

With phone and internet lines cut off, communication with the Tigray region is limited.28 However, the harshest fighting has been in western Tigray. Already, some 25,000 Ethiopian refugees have fled into Sudan. This number is expected to balloon, with Sudan preparing for up to 200,000 refugees. 

Both sides have been accused of war crimes. Amnesty International said it confirmed the massacre of dozens of villagers, many of them in Amhara, possibly by pro-Tigray militiamen.29

Ahmed predicts the war will be over soon, but few experts agree.30 The TPLF has elusive leaders and a large military force — 250,000 armed men, by some estimates. As such, this conflict could drag on, spilling into neighboring countries and displacing thousands of people during a global pandemic.31 

Works Cited

  1. Gebremedhin, Desta. “Tigray Crisis: Why There Are Fears of Civil War in Ethiopia.” BBC News. BBC, November 13, 2020. 
  2. Walsh, Declan, and Simon Marks. “They Once Ruled Ethiopia. Now They Are Fighting Its Government.” The New York Times. The New York Times, November 15, 2020. 
  3. Tesfaye, Beza. “The Violence in Ethiopia.” Africa Is a Country, September 14, 2020. 
  4. Gebremedhin, “Tigray Crisis.”
  5. Walsh, “They Once Ruled Ethiopia”
  6. Gebremedhin, “Tigray Crisis.”
  7. Ibid.
  8. Walsh, “They Once Ruled Ethiopia”
  9. Wroughton, Lesley. “Rebel Tigrayans Fire Rockets at Neighboring Eritrea in Escalation of Ethiopia Conflict.” The Washington Post. WP Company, November 15, 2020.
  10. Walsh, “They Once Ruled Ethiopia”
  11. Wroughton, “Rebel Tigrayans”
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Reuters, and Eoin McSweeney. “Forces from Ethiopia’s Tigray Region Bombed Eritrean Capital, Tigray Leader Says.” CNN. Cable News Network, November 15, 2020.
  15. Wroughton, “Rebel Tigrayans”
  16. Gebremedhin, “Tigray Crisis.”
  17. Wroughton, “Rebel Tigrayans”
  18. Walsh, “They Once Ruled Ethiopia”
  19. Gebremedhin, “Tigray Crisis.”
  20. Sileshi, Ephream. “Exclusive: Third Day EPRDF EC Discussing ‘Prosperity Party’ Regulation. Find the Draft Copy Obtained by AS.” Addis Standard, November 18, 2019. 
  21. Tesfaye, “The Violence in Ethiopia”
  22. Gebremedhin, “Tigray Crisis.”
  23. Walsh, “They Once Ruled Ethiopia”
  24. Ibid.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Ibid.
  27.  Anna, Cara. “Ethiopia’s Tigray Leader Confirms Firing Missiles at Eritrea.” AP NEWS. Associated Press, November 15, 2020. 
  28. Walsh, “They Once Ruled Ethiopia”
  29. Ibid.
  30. Ibid.
  31. Gebremedhin, “Tigray Crisis.”