The Case of Ethiopia: United We Stand, Divided We Fall

Cover by TNGO illustrator Andrea Ruffoni Semidey

On November 4 2020, Ethiopia started a conflict that has caused a humanitarian crisis as well as major disruptions to the population and international community. Moreover, the world is shocked that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for signing the peace deal with Eritrea, started the conflict against the Tigray region in Northern Ethiopia.

THE CONFLICT

On the first day, Prime Minister Abiy started a military offensive against the Tigray region after some soldiers from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) launched an attack against a Government military post, taking military weaponry. Since then, the Government and the Tigray region, specifically the TPLF forces, have been fighting each other.

A map of Ethiopia and its Tigray region – the source of the crisis Source: BBC

Despite the fact that the conflict started due to a criminal act, the real conflict circles around the concept of ethnic division. In fact, before the conflict itself, Ethiopia was already divided by ethnicity and the underlying senses of superiority between the different ethnicities. This was seen in 2018, when Prime Minister Abiy, who is originally from the region of Oromia, took power and immediately targeted Tigray, launching a wave of arrests and discharging all the military officials from Tigray, which he regarded as corrupted. As a consequence of this, there have been reports that innocent civilians, who have not been taking part in this conflict, have been suffering atrocities from the two warring sides due to their ethnic background. Although, it is impossible to know the exact events as communication in Tigray has been shut down.

According to a CNN report on November 12, it appears that 150 people “from ‘ethnically diverse‘ backgrounds have also been detained in the capital Addis Ababa and various parts of the country, on suspicion of colluding with TPLF to incite ‘conflicts and carrying terror attacks’”. Furthermore, on November 10, it was reported that hundreds of Tigrayans were killed with machetes and knives in Mai Kadra, a little town in the region of Tigray. Although, again, the exact numbers remain unconfirmed due to lack of unofficial international investigation on the ground. While the culprit remains unconfirmed, due to the lack of investigation, witness reports claim the force of the Amhara region launched the attack.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Source: BBC

This is also regarded as a crime driven by ethnic division and ethnic nationalism. In fact, the Amhara region, which has had a history with Tigray over territorial disputes, might use this conflict to “recaptur[e] territories they claim were unlawfully taken by Tigray, such as Wolkait, and mov[e] closer to their dream of reinstalling national unity by eliminating the TPLF” (Allo, 2020). With this ethnic nationalism in mind, the TPLF has also been resisting and fighting back, as it launched rockets to the Amhara region on November 20.

As a consequence of this conflict, and of these ethnic divisions, more than 30,000 Tigrayans, as of November 19, have fled to Sudan to seek security from ethnic persecutions. Not able to cope with the overflow, the UN refugee camps in Sudan are concerned as they cannot assure they can provide their services to the refugees. As such, the UN has been trying to broaden the camps in order to welcome 200,000 more refugees over the following six months, as it seems the conflict will not end soon.

Ethiopian refugees in Sudan Source: UN

This situation and the subsequent humanitarian crisis is closely linked to the evolution of the conflict, which now seems will likely be prolonged. Back in Tigray, Prime Minister Abiy has declared the central government has secured multiple cities in the warring region, but has been pushed back by the resistance of the TPLF. After having given an ultimatum of 72 hours to surrender, Abiy has declared on November 27 that “he is launching the ‘final phase’ of the army’s operation” in Tigray’s capital Mekelle. Already following the announcement of the ultimatum, the TPLF has declared that they will “keep fighting”.

Although the situation is still developing, given precedents and the worrying chasm between the ethnicities, the UN warns the Prime Minister that if Mekelle were to be attacked, there will be a “potential for serious violations of international humanitarian human rights law”, as the civilians will be trapped in the city during the attack. Nevertheless, Abiy has assured they will work with the UN to protect the civilians amid the attack.

A refugee from Tigray waits in line with her baby to receive food in the Um Rakuba refugee settlement in Sudan
Source: WFP/Arete/Joost Bastmeijer

WHAT NOW?

The conflict is still ongoing and evolving every minute. Nevertheless, it seems that the conflict, driven by ethnic nationalism, will likely be prolonged and the humanitarian crisis will deepen. Given their antagonism, the region of Tigray and the central government, backed up by the region of Amhara, will most likely keep fighting. From one side, this will be to gain more territory or ethnic superiority. From the other side: to keep the Tigray under the Government’s control. Even if Mekelle were to be taken by the Government’s troops, experts are warning that the TPLF “could be preparing to return to the mountains to launch a guerrilla war against the federal government”.

  • What effect will this conflict have on the political and economic situation of Ethiopia in comparison to the rest of the continent?
  • Eritrea has in the past had a long feud with Tigray over territorial control on the border. What effect will this conflict have on Eritrea? How will they react?
  • In what ways can this conflict be resolved diplomatically between the government and the region of Tigray?

Further Reading

Al Jazeera (2020). “At least 600 killed in Mai Kadra massacre: Ethiopian rights body”. Al Jazeera, 24 November, 2020.

Feleke, Bethlehem (2020). “Ethiopia enters ‘final phase’ of operation in Tigray region, says Prime Minister”. CNN, 26 November, 2020.

Marks, Simon (2020). “Ethiopia’s internal conflict explained”. POLITICO, 18 November, 2020.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *