No End In Sight For War In Tigray

For seven months, unrest and violence have rocked Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region. Widespread atrocities have been reported, including dozens of civilian massacres, pervasive sexual violence, and alleged starvation crimes. Thousands have been killed, more than two million have been displaced, and the region has been plunged into a dire humanitarian crisis. According to the United Nations, an estimated 5.2 million people – 91% of Tigray’s population – are now needing immediate humanitarian assistance. Still, the fighting continues to impede aid workers’ access to many parts of the region.

On the one hand, neither the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) nor the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF), aided by Eritrean and Amhara militias, are close to a definitive victory. The prospect of direct talks between the federal government and the Tigrayan leaders remains distant. Hence, a resolution to the conflict soon is unlikely. In the short term, Eritrean and Amhara forces withdraw from Tigray. Moreover, urgent efforts must be made to increase humanitarian access in the region to avert famine.

The TPLF led the coalition that overthrew the military dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991. It governed Ethiopia for 27 years under an ethnic federal system that created nine semi-autonomous federal states. The coalition’s rule ended when Abiy Ahmed, riding a wave of anti-government protests, came to power in 2018.

Prime Minister Abiy, envisioning a return to centralized governance and a transition to multi-party democracy, merged the ruling parties of eight of the nine states to form his Prosperity Party. The leaders of the TPLF refused to join, fearing that doing so would erode Tigray’s regional autonomy. Tensions between the TPLF and Abiy’s government spiked last year when elections were delayed due to concerns about COVID-19, despite the low prevalence of the virus in Ethiopia at the time.

The Tigrayan leaders saw the delay as an unconstitutional attempt to monopolize power even further. They defied Abiy, moving forward on September 9 with regional elections, which the TPLF swept with ease. The federal government declared the election’s results illegitimate and responded by cutting Tigray’s funding to weaken its government and elicit compliance. On November 3, Tigrayan militants seized critical federal military assets, controlling most of the army’s Northern Command and reportedly detaining and killing officers who resisted them. Abiy launched an invasion of Tigray hours later, though some believe that military intervention had been planned long before. Four days later, the Ethiopian parliament voted in an interim administration to replace the government formed by the TPLF.

In the first three weeks of the war, federal forces had the upper hand. The ousted Tigrayan leaders retreated to rural areas in central Tigray. On November 28, the ENDF captured Mekelle, the capital of Tigray. The federal government declared victory, but December brought newly fortified Tigrayan resistance. Popular support from Tigray people for regional self-determination and widespread outrage over the reported atrocities committed by soldiers are believed to have bolstered the TPLF.

The TPLF has its strongholds in rural regions, while the ENDF controls urban areas and main roads. Though Prime Minister Abiy’s administration claims that it is on the brink of completely suppressing resistance, the conflict has reached something of a stalemate. Neither side seems poised for a decisive victory shortly, and neither side is about to compromise. The anti-federalist sentiment is deeply entrenched in Tigray. Abiy refuses to negotiate with the Tigrayan leaders, whom he casts as traitors and terrorists, guilty of abusing power, igniting ethnic tensions, and destabilizing the country. Abiy remains determined to capture and prosecute all remaining Tigrayan political and military leaders. Around a third have reportedly been detained and many killed, but more than 200 have evaded arrest. The upcoming general elections in Ethiopia surely strengthen Abiy’s resolution.

The forthcoming elections heightened tensions with the TPLF when they were delayed last year and were postponed for a second time from June 5 to June 21 of this year – supposedly for logistical reasons. No voting will occur in Tigray. Several opposition parties, including the Oromo Federalist Congress and the Oromo Liberation Front, have announced that they will boycott the vote. Oromo leaders were jailed last year in the violent fallout over the killing of an influential Oromo singer. The Oromo are Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group (and the group to which Abiy himself belongs), and ethnic and political tensions have been simmering dangerously in the region of Oromia.

Abiy began to loosen restrictions on media and humanitarian access to Tigray in February in response to international pressure. Still, the promise of “unfettered” humanitarian access has undoubtedly not yet been fulfilled. The United States has recently joined the United Kingdom and several European nations in calling for a ceasefire to allow aid workers to reach inaccessible areas. However, Abiy has firmly rejected such calls, maintaining that victory is near and accusing the U.S. of “meddl[ing] in its internal affairs.”

Food insecurity already threatened Tigray before the conflict erupted last year. The outbreak of war, coupled with the most destructive desert locust invasion Ethiopia has seen in a quarter-century, disrupted the previous fall’s harvest. In some cases, aid operations have been hindered by the conflict due to deliberate efforts by ENDF and allied forces to cut off aid routes. There is extensive evidence of soldiers looting humanitarian supplies and grain stores and deliberately destroying crops and agricultural equipment. The conflict has impeded the usual ploughing and planting that should have taken place before the rainy season in June. Tigray is now on the brink of mass starvation; millions require direct food aid. Without a cessation of hostilities to enable increased support flows through the region, countless lives may be lost.

Complicating matters is the role that Eritrean and Amhara troops have played in the conflict. The federal government insists that it is waging war on the fugitive TPLF leaders and their accomplices. Nevertheless, the common sentiment within Tigray is that the government is waging war on the Tigrayan people. The involvement of Eritrean and Amhara troops has contributed significantly to this sentiment. Eritrean soldiers, who operate primarily in northern Tigray, have been blamed for many egregious cases of abuse. Such violations include rapes and extrajudicial killings.

In May, the Ethiopian government charged Eritrean soldiers with the massacre of 110 civilians in the city of Axum last November – notably, the first such accusation made by the government against Eritrean troops. In response to international outrage over alleged atrocities, Prime Minister Abiy promised the withdrawal of Eritrean soldiers in March after having denied their presence in Tigray for months. The pledge came directly after a trip to Asmara to meet with the autocratic Eritrean leader Isaias Afwerki, who agreed to the withdrawal. Still, the troops show little sign of exiting Tigray. Isaias has his own interest in keeping his soldiers in the region. The TPLF led the Ethiopian army against Eritrea in a deadly 1998 border war that culminated in Eritrea’s defeat. Isaias is keen to help Abiy, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for negotiating peace with Eritrea the year before, to destroy the TPLF. The reported abuses perpetrated by Eritrean troops have contributed to the outrage of the citizens of Tigray. Civilians have been alienated further from the federal government, increasing popular support for the TPLF and Tigrayan secession from Ethiopia.

The war in Tigray has also inflamed tensions between the Amhara and the Tigrayans—Ethiopia’s second (28%) and third-largest (7%) ethnic groups, respectively. Tigray and Amhara, which share a border, have a long-running territorial dispute. Amhara leaders maintain that they were forced to give up a portion of their territory, equal to roughly a quarter of the size of Tigray when the TPLF-led coalition came to power in 1991. The Amhara leadership sees the current conflict as an opportunity to settle this historical dispute. According to Amhara officials, parts of the disputed territory have been reclaimed and are now under Amhara control.

Prime Minister Abiy has approved the reincorporation of the disputed lands into the Amhara region. Amhara militias have come to the aid of the ENDF, operating primarily in the western and southern parts of Tigray. Though fighting has subsided, thousands of Tigrayans have been forcibly displaced from their homes in the west by the Amhara troops who continue to occupy it. International observers have maintained that the campaign amounts to ethnic cleansing – an accusation that Abiy’s government vehemently denies.

The continued involvement of Amhara and Eritrean forces in the conflict has not only caused extensive suffering and loss of life but has also seriously undermined the hope of dialogue between the Tigrayans and the federal government. Without a withdrawal of Amhara and Eritrean troops and without urgent efforts to increase humanitarian access to the region to avert famine, the situation in Tigray threatens to become a protracted conflict. The dispute could fundamentally destabilize Ethiopia and potentially the entire Horn of Africa.

Ultimately, resolving the conflict will require a reckoning with deep-seated ethnic and regional tensions and reconciliation of two opposing visions of Ethiopian governance: Prime Minister Abiy’s centralized, de-ethnicized model of government and the TPLF’s bid for regional autonomy. However, since neither a decisive military victory nor direct talks seem likely to occur soon, the withdrawal of Amhara and Eritrean forces and increased humanitarian access to Tigray must be prioritized.