Understanding the War in Ethiopia: Causes, Processes, Parties, Dynamics, Consequences and Desired Solutions

Prof. Jan Abbink Leiden University
Prof. Jan Abbink, Leiden University

I am honored by the invitation to speak at your organization. I didn’t know about the International Center for Ethno-Religious Mediation (ICERM). However, after studying the website and finding out your mission and your activities, I am impressed. The role of ‘ethnic-religious mediation’ can be essential in achieving solutions and giving hope for recovery and healing, and it is needed in addition to purely ‘political’ efforts at conflict resolution or peace-making in the formal sense. There is always a wider societal and cultural base or dynamic to conflicts and how they are fought out, stopped, and eventually solved, and mediation from a societal base can help in conflict transformation, i.e., developing forms of discussing and managing rather than literally fighting out disputes.

In the Ethiopian case study that we discuss today, the solution is not yet in sight, but the socio-cultural, ethnic and religious aspects would be very useful to take into account when working towards one. Mediation by religious authorities or community leaders has not yet been given a real chance.

I will give a brief introduction on what the nature of this conflict is and give some suggestions on how it might be brought to an end. I am sure that you all know a lot about it already and forgive me if I repeat certain things.

So, what exactly happened in Ethiopia, the oldest independent country in Africa and never colonized? A country of great diversity, many ethnic traditions, and cultural richness, including of religions. It has the second-oldest form of Christianity in Africa (after Egypt), an indigenous Judaism, and a very early association with Islam, even before the Hijra (622).

At the basis of the current armed conflict(s) in Ethiopia are misguided, undemocratic politics, ethnicist ideology, elite interests disrespecting accountability to the population, and also foreign interference.

The two main contenders are the insurgent movement, Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF), and the Ethiopian federal government, but others have become involved as well: Eritrea, local self-defense militias and a few TPLF-allied radical violent movements, like the OLA, the ‘Oromo Liberation Army’. And then there is cyber-warfare.

The armed struggle or war is a result of political system failure and the difficult transition from a repressive autocracy to a democratic political system. This transition was initiated in April 2018, when there was a change of Prime Minister. The TPLF was the key party in the wider EPRDF ‘coalition’ that emerged from armed struggle against the previous military Derg regime, and it ruled from 1991 to 2018. So, Ethiopia never really had an open, democratic political system and the TPLF-EPRDF did not change that. The TPLF elite emerged from the ethno-region of Tigray and the Tigray population is dispersed in the rest of Ethiopia (ca. 7% of the total population). When in power (at the time, with associated elites of other ‘ethnic’ parties in that coalition), it furthered economic growth and development but also amassed great political and economic power. It maintained a strongly repressive surveillance state, which was reshaped in the light of ethnic politics: people’s civic identity was officially designated in ethnic terms, and not so much in the wider sense of Ethiopian citizenship. Many analysts in the early 1990s warned against this and of course in vain, because it was a political model that the TPLF wanted to install for various purposes, (including ‘ethnic group empowerment’, ‘ethno-linguistic’ equality, etc.). The bitter fruits of the model we reap today – ethnic animosity, disputes, fierce group competition (and now, due to the war, even hatred). The political system produced structural instability and engrained mimetic rivalry, to speak in René Girard’s terms. The often-quoted Ethiopian saying, ‘Stay away from electric current and politics’ (i.e., you may be killed), very much kept its validity in post-1991 Ethiopia… And how to handle political ethnicity is still a great challenge in reforming Ethiopian politics.

Ethnic-linguistic diversity is of course a fact in Ethiopia, like in most African countries, but the last 30 years have shown that ethnicity does not mix well with politics, i.e., it does not work optimally as a formula for political organization. Transforming the politics of ethnicity and ‘ethnic nationalism’ into genuine issue-driven democratic politics would be advisable. Full recognition of ethnic traditions/identities is good, but not via their one-on-one translation into politics.

The war started as you know in the night of 3-4 November 2020 with a sudden TPLF attack on the federal Ethiopian army stationed in Tigray region, bordering Eritrea. The largest concentration of the federal army, the well-stocked Northern Command, was in fact in that region, due to the earlier war with Eritrea. The attack was well-prepared. The TPLF had already constructed caches of arms and fuel in Tigray, much of it buried in secret locations. And for the 3-4 November 2020 insurrection they had approached the Tigrayan officers and soldiers within the federal army to collaborate, which they largely did. It showed the readiness of the TPLF to unrestrictedly use violence as a political means to create new realities. This was also evident in the subsequent phases of the conflict. It has to be noted that the callous manner that the attack on the federal army camps was carried out (with ca. 4,000 federal soldiers killed in their sleep and others in fighting) and, in addition, the Mai Kadra ‘ethnic’ massacre (on 9-10 November 2020) are not forgotten or forgiven by most Ethiopians: it was widely seen as highly treasonous and cruel.

The Ethiopian federal government responded to the attack the next day and eventually gained the upper hand after three weeks of battle. It installed an interim government in the Tigray capital, Meqele, staffed by Tigrayan people. But insurgency continued, and rural area resistance and TPLF sabotage and terror in its own region emerged; re-destroying telecom repairs, hindering farmers from cultivating the land, targeting Tigray officials in the interim regional administration (with close to a hundred assassinated. See the tragic case of engineer Enbza Tadesse and the interview with his widow). The battles went on for months, with major damage inflicted and abuses perpetrated.

On 28 June 2021 the federal army retreated outside of Tigray. The government offered a unilateral ceasefire – to create breathing space, allow the TPLF to reconsider, and also give Tigrayan farmers the opportunity to start their agricultural work. This opening was not taken by the TPLF leadership; they transitioned to harsh warfare. The withdrawal of the Ethiopia army had created space for renewed TPLF attacks and indeed their forces advanced down south, heavily targeting civilians and the societal infrastructure outside of Tigray, exercising unprecedented violence: ethnic ‘targeting’, scorched-earth tactics, intimidating civilians with brute force and executions, and destroying and looting (no military targets).

The question is, why this vehement warfare, this aggression? Were the Tigrayans in danger, was their region and people existentially threatened? Well, this is the political narrative that the TPLF constructed and presented to the outside world, and it went even so far as to claim a systematic humanitarian blockade on Tigray and a so-called genocide on the Tigrayan people. Neither claim was true.

There had been a build-up of tension on the elite level since early 2018 between the ruling TPLF leadership in Tigray Regional State and the federal government, that is true. But this was mostly political-administrative issues and points regarding the abuse of power and economic resources as well as resistance of TPLF’s leadership to the federal government in its COVID-19 emergency measures and its delaying of the national elections. They could have been solved. But apparently the TPLF leadership could not accept being demoted from the federal leadership in March 2018 and feared possible exposure of their unfair economic advantages, and their record of repression in the previous years. They also refused any talks/negotiations with delegations from the federal government, from women’s groups or from religious authorities that went to Tigray in the year before the war and implore them to compromise. The TPLF thought they could retake power via an armed insurgency and march to Addis Ababa, or else create such havoc on the country that the government of the current PM Abiy Ahmed would fall.

The plan failed and ugly warfare resulted, still not finished today (30 January 2022) as we speak.

As a researcher on Ethiopia having done fieldwork in various parts of the country, including the North, I was shocked by the unprecedented scale and intensity of the violence, notably by the TPLF. Neither were federal government troops free from blame, especially in the first months of the war, although transgressors were arrested. See below.

In the first phase of the war in November 2020 to ca. June 2021, there was abuse and misery inflicted by all parties, also by Eritrean troops that got involved. The anger-driven abuses by soldiers and militias in Tigray were unacceptable and were in the process of being prosecuted by the Ethiopian Attorney-General. Unlikely, however, that they were part of a preordained battle policy of the Ethiopian army. There was a report (published on 3 November 2021) on these human rights abuses in the first phase of this war, i.e., up to 28 June 2021, drawn up by a UNHCR team and the independent EHRC, and this showed the nature and extent of abuses. As said, many of the perpetrators from the Eritrean and Ethiopian army were brought to court and serve their sentences. Abusers on the TPLF side were never indicted by the TPLF leadership, on the contrary.

After more than a year into the conflict, there is now less fighting on the ground, but it is by far not over yet. Since December 22, 2021, there is no military battle in the Tigray region itself – as the federal troops that pushed back the TPLF were ordered to stop at the regional state border of Tigray. Although, occasional air strikes are carried out on supply lines and command centers in Tigray. But fighting continued in parts of the Amhara Region (e.g., in Avergele, Addi Arkay, Waja, T’imuga, and Kobo) and in the Afar area (e.g., in Ab’ala, Zobil, and Barhale) bordering Tigray Region, ironically also closing off humanitarian supply lines to Tigray itself. Shelling of civilian areas continues, killings and property destruction also, especially again the medical, educational, and economic infrastructure. Local Afar and Amhara militias fight back, but the federal army is not yet seriously engaged.

Some cautious statements on talks/negotiations are now heard (recently by the UN Secretary-General António Guterres, and via the AU special representative for the Horn of Africa, Former President Olusegun Obasanjo). But there are many stumbling blocks. And the international parties like the UN, EU or US do not appeal to the TPLF to stop and be accountable. Can there be a ‘deal’ with the TPLF? There is grave doubt. Many in Ethiopia see the TPLF as unreliable and as probably always wanting to seek other opportunities to sabotage the government.

The political challenges that existed before the war still exist and were not brought any step closer to a solution by the fighting.

In the entire war, the TPLF always presented an ‘underdog narrative’ about themselves and their region. But this is dubious – they were not really a poor and suffering party. They had plenty of funding, had huge economic assets, in 2020 still were armed to the teeth, and had prepared for war. They developed a narrative of marginalization and so-called ethnic victimization for world opinion and to their own population, whom they had in a strong grip (Tigray was one of the least democratic regions in Ethiopia over the past 30 years). But that narrative, playing the ethnic card, was unconvincing, also because numerous Tigrayans work in the federal government and in other institutions on the national level: the Minister of Defense, the Minister of Health, the head of the GERD mobilization office, the Minister of Democratization Policy, and various top journalists. It is also highly questionable if the wider Tigrayan population all wholeheartedly support(ed) this TPLF movement; we cannot really know, because there has been no real independent civil society, no free press, no public debate, or opposition there; in any case, the population had little choice, and many also profited economically from the TPLF regime (Most of the diaspora Tigrayans outside Ethiopia certainly do).

There was also an active, what has been called by some, cyber-mafia affiliated to the TPLF, engaged in organized disinformation campaigns and intimidation that had impact on the global media and even on international policy makers. They were recycling the narratives about a so-called ‘Tigray genocide’ in the making: the first hashtag on this appeared already a few hours after the TPLF attack on federal forces on 4 November 2020. So, it was not true, and abuse of this term was premeditated, as a propaganda effort. Another one was on a ‘humanitarian blockade’ of Tigray. There is serious food insecurity in Tigray, and now also in the adjacent war areas, but not a famine in Tigray as a result of a ‘blockade’. The federal government gave food aid from the start – although not enough, it could not: roads were blocked, airfield runways destroyed (e.g., in Aksum), supplies often stolen by the TPLF army, and food aid trucks to Tigray were confiscated.

More than a 1000 food aid trucks that went to Tigray since the last few months (most with sufficient fuel for the return trip) were still unaccounted for by January 2022: they were likely used for troop transports by TPLF. In the second and third week of January 2022, other aid trucks had to return because TPLF attacked the Afar area around Ab’ala and thereby closed the access road.

And recently we saw video clips from the Afar area, showing that despite the cruel onslaught of TPLF on the Afar people, the local Afar still allowed humanitarian convoys to pass their area to Tigray. What they got in return was the shelling of villages and killing of civilians.

A big complicating factor has been the global diplomatic response, mainly of Western donor countries (especially from the USA and EU): seemingly insufficient and superficial, not knowledge-based: undue, biased pressure on the federal government, not looking at the interests of the Ethiopian people (especially, those victimized), at regional stability, or at the Ethiopian economy as a whole.

For example, the US showed some strange policy reflexes. Next to constant pressure on PM Abiy to stop the war – but not on the TPLF – they considered working towards ‘regime change’ in Ethiopia. They invited shady opposition groups to Washington, and the US Embassy in Addis Ababa until last month kept calling on their own citizens and foreigners in general to leave Ethiopia, especially Addis Ababa, ‘while there was still time’.

The US policy might be influenced by a combination of elements: the US Afghanistan debacle; the presence of an influential pro-TPLF group at the State Department and at USAID; the US pro-Egypt policy and its anti-Eritrea stance; the deficient intelligence/information processing about the conflict, and the aid dependency of Ethiopia.

Neither have the EU’s foreign affairs coordinator, Josep Borrell, and many EU parliamentarians shown their best side, with their calls for sanctions.

The global media also played a remarkable role, with often ill-researched articles and broadcasts (notably CNN’s were often quite unacceptable). They often took the TPLF side and focused especially on the Ethiopian federal government and its Prime Minister, with the predictable sentence: ‘Why would a Nobel Peace Prize winner go to war?’ (Although, obviously, a leader of a country cannot be held ‘hostage’ to that prize if the country is attacked in an insurgent war).

Global media also regularly belittled or ignored the rapidly emerging ‘#NoMore’ hashtag movement among Ethiopian diaspora and local Ethiopians, who resisted the constant interference and tendentiousness of Western media reporting and of USA-EU-UN circles. The Ethiopian diaspora seems in large majority behind the Ethiopian government’s approach, although they follow it with a critical eye.

One addition on the international response: the US sanctions policy on Ethiopia and removing Ethiopia from the AGOA (less import tariffs on manufactured goods to the USA) as per 1 January 2022: an unproductive and insensitive measure. This will only sabotage the Ethiopian manufacturing economy and make tens of thousands of, mostly female, workers unemployed – workers who by and large support PM Abiy in his policies.

So where are we now?

The TPLF has been beaten back to the north by the federal army. But the war is not yet over. Although the government called upon the TPLF to stop fighting, and even halted its own campaign at the borders of Tigray regional state, the TPLF continues attacking, killing, raping civilians, and destroying villages and towns in Afar and northern Amhara.

They seemingly have no constructive program for the political future of either Ethiopia or Tigray. In any future agreement or normalization, the interests of the Tigrayan population have of course to be considered, including addressing food insecurity. Victimizing them is not appropriate and politically counter-productive. Tigray is a historic, religious, and cultural core area of Ethiopia, and to be respected and rehabilitated. It is only doubtful if this can be done under the regime of the TPLF, which according to many analysts has now simply passed its expiry date. But it seems that the TPLF, being an authoritarian elite movement, needs conflict to stay afloat, also towards its own population in Tigray – some observers have noted that they may want to postpone the moment of accountability for all their resource squandering, and for their forcing so many soldiers – and scores of child soldiers among them – into combat, away from productive activities and education.

Next to the displacement of hundreds of thousands, indeed thousands of children and youngsters have been deprived of education for almost two years – also in the war areas of Afar and Amhara, including in Tigray.

Pressure from the international (read: Western) community was so far exerted mostly on the Ethiopian government, to negotiate and give in – and not on the TPLF. The federal government and PM Abiy are walking a tightrope; he has to think of his domestic constituency and show willingness to ‘compromise’ to the international community. He did so: the government even released six imprisoned senior top leaders of the TPLF earlier in January 2022, together with some other controversial prisoners. A nice gesture, but it had no effect – no reciprocation from TPLF.

Concluding: how can one work toward a solution?

  1. The conflict in northern Ethiopia started as a serious political dispute, in which one party, the TPLF, was prepared to use devastating violence, regardless of the consequences. While a political solution is still possible and desirable, the facts of this war have been so impactful that a classic political deal or even dialogue is now very difficult… the Ethiopian people in large majority may not accept that the PM sits down at a negotiating table with a group of TPLF leaders (and their allies, the OLA) that orchestrated such killing and cruelty of which their relatives, sons and daughters have become the victim. Of course, there will be pressure from the so-called realist politicians in the international community to do so. But an intricate mediation and dialogue process has to be set up, with selected parties/actors in this conflict, perhaps starting at a lower level: civil society organizations, religious leaders, and business people.
  2. In general, the political-legal reform process in Ethiopia should continue, strengthening the democratic federation and the rule of law, and also neutralizing/marginalizing the TPLF, who refused that.

The democratic process is under pressure from ethno-nationalist radicals and vested interests, and PM Abiy’s government also sometimes takes questionable decisions on activists and journalists. In addition, the respecting of media freedoms and policies differs across the various regional states in Ethiopia.

  1. The ‘National Dialogue’ process in Ethiopia, announced in December 2021, is one way forward (perhaps, this could be expanded into a truth-and-reconciliation process). This Dialogue is to be an institutional forum for bringing together all relevant political stakeholders to discuss the current political challenges.

The ‘National Dialogue’ is not an alternative to the federal Parliament’s deliberations but will help to inform them and make visible the range and input of political views, grievances, actors, and interests.

So that might also mean the following: connecting to the people beyond the existing political-military framework, to civil society organizations, and including religious leaders and organizations. In fact, a religious and cultural discourse for community healing may be the first clear step forward; appealing to shared underlying values that most Ethiopians share in daily life.

  1. Full investigation of the war crimes since 3 November 2020 would be needed, following the formula and procedure of the EHRC-UNCHR joint mission report of 3 November 2021 (which can be extended).
  2. Negotiating for compensation, disarmament, healing, and rebuilding will have to be done. An amnesty for insurgent leaders is unlikely.
  3. The international community (especially, the West) also has a role in this: it is better to stop sanctions and boycotts on the Ethiopian federal government; and, for a change, to also pressure and call the TPLF to account. They should also continue to provide humanitarian aid, not use haphazard human rights policy as the all-important factor to judge this conflict, and start again to seriously engage the Ethiopian government, supporting and developing long-term economic and other partnerships.
  4. The big challenge now is how to achieve peace with justice … Only a carefully organized mediation process can initiate this. If justice is not done, instability and armed confrontation will resurface again.

A lecture given by Prof. Jan Abbink of Leiden University at the January 2022 Membership Meeting of the International Center for Ethno-Religious Mediation, New York, on January 30, 2022. 


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