Ethiopia’s civil war: competing visions on the nature of the state

Tensions between the Ethiopian government and regional government of Tigray came to a head on 3–4 November, after the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) attacked a federal government position in Mekelle, Tigray’s capital. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed responded immediately with air strikes and ground attacks. While the underlying causes of the conflict relate to competing visions over the nature of the Ethiopian state, the immediate cause of the fighting was the National Election Board of Ethiopia’s (NEBE) decision in March to indefinitely postpone the elections that were scheduled for August 2020, due to COVID-19.

Owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, the NEBE claimed it would be impossible to complete several tasks in preparation for the vote. The TPLF argued that this was an unconstitutional extension of Abiy’s term and defiantly organised its own election in September, in which the TPLF won all contested seats with 98% of the vote. In October, the federal parliament voided the election and halted budgetary support to the Tigrayan administration, while Abiy began sending troops up north.

The civil war is being fought between federal forces, consisting of the Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF), the Amhara Region’s Special Force Police and Amhara militiamen (known as “Fano”) on one side, and the Tigray Special Force Police, elements of the ENDF’s Northern Command that defected and Tigray militias on the other. The TPLF alleges that Eritrean troops have been sent into Ethiopia and that the United Arab Emirates has been launching drone strikes from its military base in Assab, Eritrea. The TPLF’s counteroffensive has involved launching missiles into Bahir Dar and Gondar in the Amhara region, and towards Asmara, in Eritrea.

Beyond Tigray’s regional election, the government has been angered on numerous occasions by the TPLF’s recalcitrance. Having labelled the TPLF a terrorist group, Abiy’s “law enforcement operation” is designed to bring 76 army officers with links to the TPLF to justice. Leading up to the conflict, the TPLF armed around 250 000 soldiers and held a series of provocative military parades in Mekelle. At times, the TPLF prevented the movement of the army’s Northern Command, including the notable interception at Mekelle of the newly appointed vice commander, and denied him passage to join his army.

Abiy has accused the TPLF of masterminding practically every instance of violence in Ethiopia since he took power in 2018, including a massacre of 54 Amhara villagers perpetrated by the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) days before the conflict erupted. On 10 November, a massacre took place in the Tigrayan town of Mai-Kadra. Amnesty International reported that most of the around 500 victims were Amhara day-labourers. There is evidence, however, that Abiy uses the TPLF as a scapegoat for the instability that has plagued his tenure. In one clear instance, Abiy blamed the TPLF for separate incidents on the same day in 2019, which left the president of the Amhara Region and the army’s chief of staff dead. Asaminew Tsige, who the government held responsible and killed 36 hours later, had been imprisoned by the TPLF-led ruling coalition from 2009 to 2018.

Although triggered by a delayed election due to COVID-19, the underlying causes of the Ethiopian war are competing visions over the nature of the state.

Abiy’s supporters argue that this conflict is not about who gets to govern Tigray, but is rather a “battle for control of Ethiopia’s economy, its natural resources and the billions of dollars the country receives annually from international donors and lenders”. From this perspective, Abiy is fighting the country’s old regime, which intends to recapture the influence it once held. The TPLF was the dominant force in the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) ruling coalition from 1991 to 2018. In December 2019, Abiy combined three out of four constituents of the EPRDF to form his own Prosperity Party. TPLF officials opposed this move and Abiy’s reform measures, which aim to reduce their dominance by retiring military and government officials, initiating corruption charges and privatising state enterprises. 

For Tigrayans, the fighting is over competing visions of the state. Abiy is accused of planning to engineer a unitary state that is governed from the centre to the exclusion of the periphery. The TPLF, along with the Oromo opposition camp and other groups in the south (for example, the Sidama and Wolayta), are pushing for increased regional autonomy. From this perspective, the crisis is caused by Abiy’s moves to amass power at the centre and to end the country’s system of ethnic federalism. Abiy wants to unify Ethiopia under his philosophy of “Medemer”, which means “strength through diversity” in Amharic. His opponents say that creating this national identity will necessitate assimilating them and flattening Ethiopia’s ethnic diversity into one.

The sentiments for regional autonomy are particularly strong in Oromia and Tigray. Many in Oromia resent the TPLF’s past dominance, but want to keep the self-determination articles in the constitution. The problem, they say, is that power and resources were never truly devolved. Tigrayans have a long history of resisting central rule. The 1943 peasant “Woyane” (meaning rebellion in Tigrinya) against Haile Selassie ended when the British Royal Air Force bombed the region. The rebels were demanding independence from Shoan rule through self-administration based on Tigray customary laws, representative leadership and decreased taxation. The second Woyane, known as “Hewehat”, refers to the TPLF’s 1975–1989 struggle to overthrow Mengistu Hailemariam.   

Since 2018, with roads and borders closed off around it, Tigray has progressively become a de facto state. Tigray is a battle-hardened autonomous region over which the TPLF maintained a monopoly of force until recently and continues to enjoy widespread popular support among the Tigrayan citizenry. TPLF officials insist that Tigray’s regional election and the extension of Abiy’s term allows them to ignore the federal government. Article 39 of Ethiopia’s constitution grants the country’s regional states the right to secession. While the TPLF old guard is apparently mostly against secession, Tigrayan youth are more receptive and attitudes are shifting amid the war. 

This war is about solidifying Abiy’s dwindling power base, critics say, rather than any genuine mission to reform Ethiopia and root out corruption. Abiy never enjoyed support in Tigray and has progressively lost allies in Oromia. His support base is now primarily in the Amhara region and among the Amhara elite in Addis Ababa. Amhara ethno-nationalists see this war as an opportunity to recapture lands in Raya and Welkait, which they claim were taken unlawfully by Tigray in the 1990s. As evidence that Abiy’s power base is the driving factor, Lemma Megersa brought Abiy to power but was side-lined after he opposed forming the Prosperity Party. 

From this perspective, Abiy’s anti-TPLF campaign is not about changing the EPRDF’s system of rule, but is rather about changing which group gets to dominate the state and thus partake in the corruption. After beginning his time in power by opening up political space, Abiy has more recently begun mirroring the EPRDF’s style of rule. At least 10 000 people were arbitrarily detained last year as part of the government’s crackdown on armed attacks, and another 5 000 were arrested in July following a wave of protests. A number of journalists and prominent political figures, such as Lidetu Ayelew, Bekele Gerba, Jawar Mohammed and Eskinder Nega, have also been detained in recent months.  

Given that Abiy’s objective is to violently separate the TPLF from the people of Tigray, the line between the two is often blurred. In Tigray, communications and power have been shut off for weeks, roads are closed, humanitarian assistance is blocked and there are food, water, money and fuel shortages. Ethnic profiling has been widespread, such as disarming Tigrayans in the armed forces and dismissing Tigrayans in the civil service. Security officials at Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa have reportedly been asking Ethiopian passengers for their identity cards, which show ethnicity, instead of their passports, which do not.

Although the immediate trigger of Ethiopia’s civil war was a delayed election due to COVID-19, the underlying causes emerge from competing visions and narratives over the nature of the Ethiopian state. Unitarists defend Abiy’s incursion against the TPLF and argue that any central government would act similarly if faced with such provocations from a regional power. Conversely, those who view Ethiopia as a confederation of autonomous regions are opposed to Abiy’s war, regardless of the TPLF’s past crimes, and interpret it as the central government’s attempt to subdue the periphery.  

Patrick Wight holds a PhD in political science and international development at the University of Guelph, Canada.

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