The Extemper’s Briefing: Ethiopia’s Conflict in Tigray Explained

The following is a new series by the Extemper’s Bible where we’ll take a deep dive into relevant domestic and global subjects. For our very first article, we’ll examine the ongoing conflict in the Tigray region of Ethiopia. As the second largest country in Africa, if this conflict goes unresolved, the violence in Ethiopia risks destabilizing large swaths of Eastern Africa as a whole. This article was made in conjunction with Answering the Question. Their website can be found here.


Tigray People: Found in the northernmost part of the country, the Tigran people make up approximately 6% of Ethiopia’s population. Despite their minority presence, this ethnic group has held disproportionate power in Ethiopia for nearly three decades. Namely, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, or TPLF, led the coalition known as the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front that held governmental power from 1991 to 2012. The coalition maintained a firm grip on all branches of government and actively repressed all forms of opposition. After the death of the coalition’s leader Meles Zenawi, a Tigran, and anti-government protests leading to the installation of Abiy Ahmed as prime minister, the Tigran people were actively pushed out of office in an attempt to purge the government from previously corrupt leadership. 

Abiy Ahmed: After rising to power in 2018, Abiy Ahmed has been a strong proponent for cooperation and political/economic reform in Ethiopia. Notably, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 after brokering peace negotiations between Ethiopia and Eritrea, a conflict that lasted for decades. However, not even a year since his international recognition, Ethiopia has been engrossed in internal political violence. The Ahmed government attempted to increase civil liberties and allow opposing voices to be heard, however this only provoked further fragmentation and inter-ethnic conflict. The rise in civilian violence has been attributed to the government, drawing much criticism towards them. Moreover, many believe that Ethiopia’s transition to democracy has not happened at the rate Ahmed promised, sparking controversy and calls for action. 

Prosperity Party: Formed by Abiy Ahmed in 2019, this coalition is set to replace the current ruling coalition, or the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front. While ethnicity is a primary defining factor for Ethiopians (and also a catalyst for conflict), Ahmed sought to use that as a unifying factor rather than a divisive one. His rallying cry, known as “Medener”, or synergy, aimed to create a multi-ethnic platform with representation from all ethnicities, rather than just four, based on population size and merit. Additionally, the Prosperity Party hopes to promote more liberal economic policies controlled by a free market. This group has faced opposition from both the Tigran People’s Liberation Front and Abiy’s own Oromo group, who is currently led by Jawa Mohammed, a major opposition voice to the Ahmed government. 

EPDRF: This coalition is primarily composed of four main ethnic groups: TPLF, the Amhara Democratic Party, the Oromo Democratic Party, and the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement. They control every seat in the Ethiopian Parliament. The TPLF held disproportionate power within the coalition. Representation within the coalition was equal between the four ethnic groups, regardless of population size. Additionally, they believed in increased state involvement when it came to economic development policies. 

Causes of the Conflict

Tensions between the two parties have only skyrocketed with the institution of Abiy Ahmed in power and the purge of the TPLF from governmental power. The Ahmed government has cracked down on many important political figures from the TPLF on the basis of corruption and security-related crackdowns, increasing dissent amongst the ethnic group. They are among the sole groups to refuse to join the newly formed Prosperity Party, which is set to replace the EPRDF. 

In September of this year, Tigray openly defied the federal government’s ruling to postpone elections due to the coronavirus and held their own set of parliamentary elections. This led to the federal government cutting funding to the region,increasing tensions between the two. Finally, after the TPLF bombed an Ethiopian military base in Tigray, Abiy Ahmed launched a military offense against the Tigray people, declaring a state of emergency in the region. This intensified the conflict between the two other parties to a much higher and dangerous level.

Implications for Ethiopia

The TPLF’s anger toward the Abiy regime is the latest indication of souring relations between the Tigray region and the national government. Indeed, in the wake of Ethiopia postponing elections earlier this year (under the justification of fighting COVID-19), residents of Tigray resisted, moving ahead with the election. In response, the national government called the move illegal, further isolating the region and prompting a tense standoff.

In the wake of the crisis, the federal government has subverted the regional government’s authority, directly sending money to local officials and cutting welfare to poorer farmers, both of which have irked Tigray’s citizens. While Abiy has emphatically ruled out war, the national parliament recently authorized armed intervention. Already, hundreds have died in this crisis and, accordingly, further armed intervention could serve as the final nail in the proverbial coffin. 

Furthermore, this has the potential to spill over into other conflict hotspots within Ethiopia. In the country’s largest region, Oromia, for example, armed separatists have been responsible for several massacres, killing 54 Amhara (people of another ethnic group) earlier this month. With Ethiopia forced to divert its resources and attention between multiple crises, conflict could further ignite in Oromia. This could be exacerbated by the fact that the ethnic-motivated conflicts in Oromia and Tigray could feed off of each other, fueling already-growing secessionist movements in both regions (and potentially other parts of Ethiopia). 

These problems are compounded by the fraught political situation outside of Ethiopia. The neighboring nation of Eritrea has historically had eniminity with the TPLF while neighboring Sudan is facing its own messy political transition. If violence and refugees spillover into these nations or, worse, these nations actively intervene in Ethiopia, both nations risk the exacerbation of their internal problems. 

Challenges and Opportunities

Moving forward, there are several challenges and opportunities for Ethiopia:

Challenge #1: Limiting the immediate violence in Tigray

With hundreds dead thus far, Ethiopia should place its primary focus on limiting the violence in Tigray. The difficulty for the government will rest in its ability to find measures that are strong enough to quell the violence, yet don’t risk escalation or spillover. Considering Abiy Ahmed has disrupted the decades-long political monopoly of the TPLF, a move surely to draw further anger from Tigray, that may be easier said than done. 

Challenge #2: Figuring out a power-sharing agreement with the TPLF

Admittedly, the political dominance the TPLF had wasn’t a sustainable nor healthy model for Ethiopia’s democracy. That said, many international observers and Ethiopian residents believe Ahmed has swung the pendulum too far in the other direction. Once Ahmed can successfully quell the violence in Tigray, he’ll need to figure out how to best incorporate the viewpoints of the region while still not ceding too much power to a group of people that only constitute 6% of the nation’s population. 

Opportunity #1: Ending senseless violence

Tigray is currently in the midst of a crisis: hundreds dead, thousands displaced, and a massive communications blackout have contributed to a sense of despair in the region. However, this presents an opportunity for a political and humanitarian victory for Ethiopia. If the country can quickly turn around violence in the region, it will send a strong message to Ethiopian residents in other regions and the international community, boosting their faith in the competency of the government. 

Opportunity #2: Stabilizing Ethiopia’s political system 

Considering the endemic nature of this problem to Ethiopia, if Abiy Ahmed is able to find a suitable power-sharing agreement and quell the violence in Tigray, he can help stabilize Ethiopia’s political system, ensuring proper representation of all citizens. This will lend the nation an underutilized source of soft power—democratic legitimacy—that will, in turn, enable Ethiopia to assume a greater role at the negotiating table in the African Union, as Ethiopia’s democratic legitimacy will boost its international credibility and support.

By Ananth Veluvali

Founder, the Extemper's Bible.

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