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CWA # 516, 21 July 2021

NIAS Africa Monitor
Ethiopia's Tigray problem is Tigray's Ethiopia problem

  Apoorva Sudhakar

The breakout of the conflict was sudden, but not surprising; the federal government, under Abiy Ahmed, has pursued an anti-TPLF agenda, while the TPLF had been on a spree to reject all measures by the former.

In June, the Tigray Defense Forces under the guidance of the Tigray People's Liberation Front troops, recaptured Tigray's capital, Mekelle, which had been under the control of federal forces since November 2020. The recapture forced Tigray's interim authority appointed by the federal government to flee; however, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed termed it a strategic pullout made on humanitarian grounds. Following this, the federal government declared a unilateral ceasefire which is expected to hold till the end of the farming season in September. 

What led to the eight-month long bloodshed and what is likely to be the future of Tigray, as well as Ethiopia? 

Ethiopia's Tigray problem
The problem between the federal government and Tigray's regional government did not crop up in 2020. A brief timeline of the Abiy Ahmed administration's approach towards Tigray will help understand it better.  

Since 1991, a coalition - Ethio­pian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) dominated by the TPLF, had ruled Ethiopia. This government was overthrown in 2018 through popular protests, which started in 2015-16 led by Ethiopia's largest ethnic groups, the Oromo and Amhara, who contended that they were sidelined by the TPLF and Tigrayans who constituted only six per cent of the population. Through the uprising, Abiy Ahmed, a person of Oromo-Amhara origin and former military and intelligence official under the TPLF-led government, came to power; what followed thereafter was a systematic targeting of the TPLF with an objective to weaken the party. 

First, with Abiy Ahmed's appointment to the prime ministerial position in 2018, he began the removal of TPLF members from key portfolios and later, several TPLF leaders were arrested on charges of corruption. He also initiated changes within the armed forces that previously had major Tigrayan influence. 

Second, the formation of the Prosperity Party. In 2019, much to the resentment of the TPLF, Abiy formed the Prosperity Party, which included three of the four parties of the EPRDF; the TPLF refused to join the new party as they felt it reduces regional autonomy and blurs ethnic individualities, whereas Abiy justified the move as one to unite the ethnic groups. 

Third, resolving the border conflict with Eritrea. In July 2018, Ethiopia and Eritrea declared the end of a 20-year conflict over a border town which led to the death of nearly one lakh people. Technically, the war ended in 2000 after it started in 1998, but clashes continued for nearly 20 years while the TPLF-led coalition was in power. Therefore, when Abiy Ahmed resolved the crisis, it was another blow for the TPLF and Tigray. This was also reflected during the conflict when Eritrea supported the federal government against the Tigrayans. Though Ethiopia denied several times and resisted international pressure to ask Eritrean troops to leave, earlier this year, the secret was out. Eritrea admitted that its troops were present but justified their presence by claiming that they were guarding the border as the Ethiopian troops were engaged in the conflict. On the other hand, Abiy Ahmed admitted that Eritrean troops were involved in the conflict and also condemned rights abuses by them. However, no strategy for their exit was laid out.

Therefore, since 2018, the major changes introduced by the government have aimed at reducing the TPLF influence; Abiy Ahmed took advantage of the anti-TPLF sentiment to consolidate support. This reaped the desired results for him, and isolation of Tigrayans took shape over the past few years, and the conflict was more of an outlet of the same. 

Tigray's Ethiopia problem
The TPLF, formerly a guerrilla organization, took shape in the 1970s and came to power in 1991 and stayed so until 2018. Once the TPLF lost power, it has been rejecting measures taken by the centre. The first few signs were evident in the rejection of the Prosperity Party. Further, in 2020, when the government postponed the elections scheduled for August, the TPLF rejected the move terming it Abiy Ahmed's attempt to grab power. In September, citing that the federal government's term ended, the TPLF conducted regional elections despite the federal government's directive to not do so. Further, prior to the break out of the conflict on 4 November, Tigrayan forces attacked a federal military base in Tigray alleging that the latter was preparing to attack the former. This served as the tipping point in the simmering tensions and the federal government launched a military offensive under the garb of "law enforcement operations" which evolved into a full-fledged conflict and resulted in Tigray's Ethiopia problem. Therefore, the TPLF's decision to not engage at the national level resulted in the gradual isolation of the TPLF and the region. 

At the heart of the problem is the difference in opinion on the structure of governance and the centre-periphery relations. The TPLF believes that power from the centre should be transferred to regions and there should be considerable regional autonomy as they are divided on ethnic basis. Ethiopia is also divided into ten regions depending on the population size of the ethnic groups; however, the TPLF had a stronghold on the regions other than Tigray when it was in power. 

On the other hand, Abiy Ahmed's administration believes that regional/ethnic differences should be minimized through centralized governance. Therefore, contrary to the TPLF view, Abiy Ahmed has a more nationalist approach and attempted to homogenize the society which led to the contentions between the centre and Tigray. 

Note: Parts of this commentary were published in the NIAS-IPRI-KAS Conflict Weekly here. 


Apoorva Sudhakar is a Research Associate at the School of Conflict and Security Studies at the National Institute of Advanced Studies. Her areas of interest include peace and conflict in Africa and South Asia. As part of the Pakistan Reader Initiative, she also regularly studies Pakistan's domestic politics, radicalization and group identities.

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