Civil Unrest Rocks Ethiopia: The Potential Impacts of the Tigray Conflict

By: Jacob Leichter  |  December 20, 2020

By Jacob Leichter, Staff Writer

Since the beginning of November, the Ethiopian central government has been engaged in a bitter conflict with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). While this is the first time that violence has erupted between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and TPLF leadership, the tensions between Addis Ababa and Mekelle have been building for years. What drove Ethiopia’s central authority and this regional power to war? And, more importantly, what does this mean for Ethiopia and its neighbors on the Horn of Africa?

Understanding the current conflict requires a look back to the Ethiopian Civil War, a bloody conflict that raged from 1974 until 1991. In 1974, the communist Derg group toppled Emperor Haile Selassie and seized power. As they worked to establish a government, opposition groups across Ethiopia rose up in challenge. Despite this, for the next 17 years, the Derg ruled Ethiopia with an iron fist, with the general population suffering from violence, famine, and economic troubles. Finally, in 1989, the TPLF, representing the small ethnic population situated in the northern Ethiopian Tigray region, drove the Derg from its borders and joined forces with three other ethnic groups from across the country. This coalition, known as the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), then set its sights on Addis Ababa. The opposition reached the capital and ousted the communist regime in 1991. The EPRDF then assumed power, with the TLPF taking the central role in this new federalist government. In the years following, the EPRDF fell victim to corruption and, when faced with challenges, became increasingly authoritarian.

Protests erupted across Ethiopia first in 2015 and again in 2017 as the people expressed their distaste for a regime so similar to its predecessor. However, the EPRDF would remain in power for another 3 years, until Abiy Ahmed’s appointment as chairman. In 2019, Ahmed disbanded the EPRDF and created the Prosperity Party. Preaching ethnic unity, better quality of life for all Ethiopians, and even going so far as to make peace with Eritrea, which declared independence from Ethiopia in 1993 after thirty years of wars between the two nations, Ahmed adopted the title of prime minister and removed the Tigrayan leaders from his newly restructured government.

Fast forward to November 4, 2020, Prime Minister Ahmed announced that TPLF attacked a federal military base in the region, injuring and killing service members stationed there. In retaliation, Addis Ababa deployed troops and aerial support to the region. On November 23, Ahmed surrounded Mekelle, the capital of Tigray, and gave leadership three days to leave the city. If they refused, Mekelle would face a military assault. As of the evening of November 26, there have been no signs of compliance, with rumors escaping the region that civilians have been recruited as the TPLF prepare to face off against the Ethiopian military.

What effects will the Tigray conflict have on the country and the region? Domestically, the potential civil war, on top of the coronavirus pandemic, will serve as a major blow to Ethiopian economy, which has, until now, been one of the fastest growing in Africa. Furthermore, as critical resources, like food, are diverted to the war effort, the general population will suffer. This is especially true in Tigray, which is home to hundreds of thousands of people, among them one hundred thousand refugees from the Eritrean war, dependent on aid from the government and international organizations. Perhaps most concerning, at least within Ethiopia’s borders, is the threat of ethnic tensions, with some individuals already describing being mistreated because of their ties to Tigray. In a worst-case scenario, this may lead to the fracturing of Ethiopia into smaller states based on ethnic group, but such a future is likely far off and would only follow a more widespread war across the entire nation.

The Tigray conflict is also a cause of concern for the international arena. On November 15, the TPLF fired rockets into Eritrea, alleging that Ethiopia’s northern neighbor was allowing Prime Minister Ahmed to use one of their airports for military operations against Tigray. The Eritrean government already resents the TPLF for the many years of fighting during their bitter struggle for independence. President Afwerki is also friendly with Ahmed, following the latter’s declaration of peace between the two nations. Tigrayan aggression against Eritrea may force Asmara to launch a military offensive as well, pinning the tiny region between two fronts and furthering the carnage and destruction. Additionally, Ethiopians have been flooding into Sudan to the west. Sudan, currently embroiled in its own internal conflicts, is not properly equipped to handle an influx of refugees, which will only lead to their suffering. As such, the Tigray conflict will cause problems for Ethiopia and could lead to regional instability, setting the Horn of Africa away from the progress it has made in recent years.

However, at the time of writing, no new reports have come in from Tigray. What will transpire in the showdown between Addis Ababa and Mekelle remains to be seen. Hopefully, Prime Minister Ahmed holds true to his calls of national unity and finds a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

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