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How the Ethiopian crisis turned into a violent conflict

In Ethiopia, the bloodshed continues out of sight. We take a look back at the reasons for this mass violence, which can worsen in the short term.

Ethiopia has been at war for a year now. The conflict erupted in November 2020, in the province of Tigray (north of the country). Although several actors were involved, he first opposed the forces of the Addis Ababa government to the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), the organization which dominated the EPRDF coalition which To ruled the country from 1991 to 2019.

From crisis to conflict

The current Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, and the leaders of the TPLF have not always been enemies, since it is the latter who have it. initially appointed to his post, in 2018. But about a year after his appointment, Abiy Ahmed chose to dissolve the coalition that had ruled the country since 1991, to replace it with a new political organization, the “Prosperity Party”, including the leaders of the TPLF, attached to the old structures of the EPRDF and removed from certain positions, refused to join the ranks.

They then found themselves in opposition for the first time since the end of the authoritarian regime of the Derg, the movement of dictator Mengistu whom they had ousted from power in 1991.

One of the main triggers of the crisis was the government's decision to postpone the legislative elections scheduled for 2020, claiming the risks associated with the pandemic. Following this postponement, the TPLF challenged the government injunction by organizing a regional ballot in Tigray September 2020.

When, shortly after, the Ethiopian authorities launched the first offensive against Tigray, following attacks on several military bases which allowed the TPLF to acquire military equipment. The Prime Minister presented this offensive as a internal security operation aimed at dismantling the TPLF and regaining control of the province, goals he promised to achieve within a few weeks.

The reversal of the balance of power

Events at first seemed to prove him right. In December 2020, federal forces have took control of Mekele, the capital of Tigray. Following this victory, Addis Ababa installed a transitional government in the province.

However, fighting continued in the rest of Tigray throughout the spring of 2021 between federal forces and the resistance movement organized by former TPLF cadres: the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF).

In June 2021, it became clear that the balance of power had shifted in favor of the TDF. The latter have regained control of Mekele and began to advance into the Amhara and Afar territories, the two regions bordering Tigray.

The TDF have also joined forces with another ethnic-regional rebel organization, the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), an armed faction resulting from the split in 2018 of the Oromo Liberation Front, but today perceived as its armed wing, and are now approaching Addis Ababa.

In response to this progression, the government has declared a state of emergency throughout the country, a measure that allows it to enlist "any citizen of fighting age and possessing a weapon". We can therefore expect renewed fighting, in an already particularly brutal conflict.

State of emergency in Ethiopia: the Tigrayan rebels 400 km from Addis Ababa (France 24, November 3, 2021).

The use of mass violence

This declaration of a state of emergency coincides with the publication of a joint report of the UN and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission which reports massacres, indiscriminate attacks, sexual violence and torture committed on both sides.

This report concludes with possible war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated by all the belligerents, suggesting, wrongly, an equivalence between the criminal acts of the Tigrayan forces at the beginning of the conflict and those, more numerous and lethal, committed by the federal forces in recent months.

More generally, it only presents a partial view of the horrors of the conflict, due to the obstacles which hampered the work of the investigators, but above all because it does not take account of the airstrikes that hit Tigray, nor of the famine resulting from the government's decision to prevent the delivery of humanitarian aid to the region.

However, this report shows that the protagonists of the conflict have resorted to extreme forms of mass violence. To understand both the reversal of the military dynamic that has taken place in recent months and the brutality of the war, it is useful to review the role that the TPLF has played in Tigrayan society for nearly forty years.

The origins of the social anchoring of the TPLF

Because of its history, the TPLF is an integral part of the social fabric in Tigray (home to approximately 7 million people, out of the approximately 115 million inhabitants of Ethiopia). Today, the organization is only reviving the rebellion: before taking power in 1991 - then being removed from it in 2019 - it led a fifteen-year guerrilla war against the military regime of the time.

During this period, she established a set of political practices and local governance institutions - including the village committees - which have transformed and still structure Tigray society today.

Monuments commemorating the "martyrs" of the TPLF can be found in all the villages of the region, and many families include veterans of the first rebellion among their members.

For all these reasons, “eliminating the TPLF as a political force”, since this was the prime minister's stated objective, has never been a viable strategy. Abiy Ahmed was able to give a front speech explaining that his enemy was not the Tigrayan people but the leaders of the former dominant political force in the country. Yet at the same time, the Tigrayans were described as a "Cancer" and "hyenas" by state media and, for the past few days, the government has been organizing roundups targeting individuals from Tigray living in Addis Ababa.

The use of famine as a weapon of war

Violence against the civilian population in Tigray was not the sole act of federal forces. These have received significant support from the Eritrean army and militias amhara who, sharing the same animosity towards Tigray communities and the same aspiration to break their capacity for resistance, have committed some of the worst atrocities.

Nevertheless, the most devastating weapon of war deployed in this conflict remains the blockade of humanitarian aid imposed by the government, which has triggered a famine in almost all of the territories currently controlled by the TDF.

By deliberately starving the populations of these territories, the government is reproducing a strategy already adopted by the Derg in the mid-1980s.

At the time, famine had made nearly a million victims in Tigray and neighboring provinces. A tragedy that some foreign media had been able to filming.

Today, journalists have almost no access conflict zones and we have very few images of the humanitarian catastrophe they are suffering.

Ethiopia: an increasingly degraded humanitarian situation, France 24, 22 October 2021.

By targeting an entire community in this way and using starvation as a means of combat, the government is committing what the International Criminal Court and also Ethiopian law consider to be a war crime.

This strategy is proving to be just as counterproductive as it has been in the past, not only in Ethiopia, but also in Ethiopia. number of asymmetric wars opposing a conventional army to an insurgent movement which merges with the civilian population.

It only reinforces the determination of the Tigrayans to defend themselves against the occupation of their territory and to overthrow the government in Addis Ababa.

What prospects for the new rebel alliance?

The coalition that TDF and OLA formed earlier this month with seven other opposition groups seems for the moment to be able to maintain the military advantage which it has acquired. But the outcome of the conflict is far from over.

It might be tempting to draw a parallel between the coalition that the rebel movements have just formed and the one led by the TPLF in 1991. By calling TPLF members terrorists and “shifta” (bandits), the current government uses a rhetoric similar to that deployed by the Derg at the time to stir up fears.

However, the similarities between the situations of these two coalitions remain superficial, and history will not necessarily repeat itself.

First, while the coalition formed at the end of the 1980s brought together organizations that the TPLF had created in other regions of the country, the new coalition is based, at least in part, on alliances between independent organizations, which have each their own base of support, and who, until a few years ago, considered themselves to be adversaries. It is therefore more fragile and more susceptible to defections.

Above all, this new coalition risks facing a much more virulent and determined opposition. It is probably not in a position to build up a base of support in the rest of the country as robust as that available to the TPLF in Tigray.

In 1991, most Ethiopians knew next to nothing about the TPLF, and the discipline of its fighters after the capture of Addis Ababa was able to overcome fears of government propaganda. But today, many Ethiopians fear the TPLF and its allies because they know what the organization is capable of when it is in power, and fear a return to the authoritarian strategies which it has deployed for nearly three decades.

This could cause them to respond en masse to the government's appeal that federal forces were insufficient to resist the rebels.

We can thus understand the whole issue of the negotiations that the international mediators, including the African Union and USA, try to get the belligerents to start. They are essential to avoid the carnage that could result from a battle for control of Addis Ababa, and to lift the blockade of humanitarian aid responsible for the famine in the north of the country.


Marine Gassier, Researcher, conflict specialist and the Horn of Africa, Sciences Po

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

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