The Tigrayan conflict in Ethiopia has slipped in and out of the main news cycle for the past year. Past weeks have seen a sharp increase in aggressive and demonizing rhetoric from both sides, risking the escalation of the conflict and raising worries of a full-blown ethnic conflict.
Before exploring the risk of why the conflict may escalate, it’s important to understand the context. The Washington Post explains that “the Ethiopian state is structured according to the principle of ethnic federalism, with nine regional ethnic states and two federally administered city-states.” This quasi-autonomy of the Tigray region is in part what led to the conflict between ethnic Tigrayans and the Ethiopian central government. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) was the main party in power until 2018 when they were ousted. Since then, an attack on a military base in Tigray was blamed on the TPLF and sparked an open conflict between the liberation front and the central govt.
What makes this next phase complicated is the involvement of Eritrean troops and the new-found aggressive rhetoric from both parties. The TPLF is demanding that Eritrean troops leave Tigray while the federal government is seeking to mobilize other ethnic groups against Tigrayan forces. The way that this mobilization is occurring is important too. The Council on Foreign Relations highlighted that Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has characterized the Tigray campaign as one focused on “removing the weeds,” a dangerous characterization that draws eerie comparisons to previous genocides and ethnic cleansing. This dehumanization of ethnic Tigrayans could lead to the growth of major discrimination and what is often referred to as ‘Balkanisation.’ Balkanisation refers to the empowerment of ethnic nationalism that spills into open ethnic conflict, as was the case in the Balkan conflict in the 1990s.
The BBC highlighted this dangerous rhetoric a few days ago and quoted Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed as describing the TPLF as a “cancer” to a rally of thousands of supporters, many holding up signs with similar slogans. Hate speech like this can easily evolve into acts of violence, and helps to build a group mentality of hatred and division.
This comes as the TPLF has recaptured the regional capital of Mekelle and is facing skirmishes with federal forces both within Tigray and the surrounding regions of Amhara and Afar, the former of which has strong ethnic tensions with the TPLF. The conflict is beginning to spread wider than just the Tigray region and threatens to spread into a full-blown Civil War if not contained. Both parties need to remember that the pen is more powerful than the sword and come to the negotiating table.