Ethiopia’s northernmost region of Tigray is at the center of a civil conflict involving ethno-regional militias, the federal government, and the Eritrean military that has attracted the concern of humanitarian groups and external actors since November 2020.
The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the primary political party representing Tigray, historically dominated leadership coalitions and politics at the national level despite Tigrayans’ status as an ethnic minority. Between 1991 and his death in 2012, Tigrayan soldier-politician Meles Zenawi governed Ethiopia as an autocracy through a period of rapid development. With the backing of a TPLF-dominated coalition, he secured aid from the United States and the United Kingdom, hosted difficult negotiations between Sudan and South Sudan during their 2011 split, and supported peacekeeping missions in Sudan. However, his regime failed to curtail a brutal war [PDF] with Eritrea, marginalized ethnic groups including the Somali, Oromo, and Amhara—each of which is larger than the Tigrayan population—and solidified a centralized autocracy.
The TPLF continued to govern Ethiopia after his passing in a similar manner. However, Tigrayan control of the national government came to an end in 2018 with the accession of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali, who was heralded by international actors and Ethiopians alike as the country’s new hope for peace and ethnic harmony. Abiy promised early in his premiership to heal broken trust between Ethiopia’s ethnic enclaves and create a sense of community. In 2019, he received the Nobel Peace Prize for ending violence at the Eritrean border and quickly rolling back domestic restrictions on freedoms.
However, within a year, ethnic relations in Ethiopia once again began to deteriorate. Multiple delays of long-promised national elections and the declaration of an extension on Abiy Ahmed’s first term as prime minister in June 2020 drew indignation from Tigrayan leadership. The Tigray State Council’s choice to hold local elections in defiance of federal orders inflamed tensions even further: in advance of the regional elections, which ultimately solidified the popularity of the TPLF, Tigrayan leaders warned that they would consider intervention by the federal government a “declaration of war.” Following the TPLF’s regional victory, Abiy accused Tigrayan troops of attacking a federal military camp to loot weapons. It soon became clear that the combative political rhetoric in fall 2020 had signified the first warning shots of what would become a bloody civil war.
On November 4, 2020, Abiy Ahmed ordered Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) troops north to begin a military operation known as the Mekelle Offensive in Tigray, named for the region’s capital city. The offensive increased in severity over the next few months as Tigrayan troops (Tigray Defense Force, or TDF) ramped up their military response. The conflict gradually escalated into a civil war also known as the Tigray War.
Abiy first framed the offensive as a targeted operation against individuals in the TPLF leadership. A communications blackout implemented at the outset of the conflict shuttered coverage of ground conditions, but media and UN officials began sounding the alarm about improper treatment of civilians, especially ethnic Tigrayans, by December 2020. As accusations escalated, Abiy’s government rejected calls for mediation from the African Union (AU). Ethiopia’s neighbor and former adversary, Eritrea, which fought a war with Ethiopia during the Zenawi regime, joined the side of the Ethiopian government early in the conflict. After months of denying their presence, in spring 2021, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed admitted that Eritrean troops were fighting in Tigray. According to an Amnesty International report released in February 2021, Eritrean troops targeted and killed over one hundred civilians and unarmed people in the Tigrayan city of Axum in December 2020. Eritrean troops have not followed through on commitments to reduce their presence in the region, despite international pressure to do so.
In 2021, the United States characterized the conflict as ethnic cleansing against Tigrayans, and reports have documented the prevalence of mass atrocities. In March 2021, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights announced a joint probe with the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) to investigate alleged abuses and rights violations in Tigray, although the impartiality and accuracy of the report [PDF] were called into question following its presentation at the United Nations. After the events of the Axum Massacre came to light in February 2021, the UN admitted that its human rights investigators were not authorized to visit Axum while working with the EHRC. The joint report presents evidence that the ENDF, Tigrayan militant groups, and other militias involved in the conflict have all committed various human rights violations. Abuses listed in the report include the use of rape as a weapon of war, violence against children, and ethnically targeted killings. A UN Security Council proposal to condemn the parties to the conflict in early 2021 was quickly scrapped due to pushback from India, Russia, and China. Foreign news sources have accused the ENDF, Eritrean troops, and Tigrayan and other regional militias of perpetrating further massacres and mass death events (often bombings) since then.
Tigrayan forces retook the regional capital of Mekelle from the ENDF in June 2021. A month later, Addis Ababa announced the results of a national parliamentary election—which Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed won in a landslide. The TPLF boycotted what was supposed to be the country’s first free and fair election, and opposition leadership in parliament accused the Abiy government of banning poll observers in some states. Later, in the summer of 2021, Abiy called on all capable citizens to join the war against Tigrayan forces as the conflict began to spill over into the Afar and Amhara regions, growing closer to Addis Ababa. In November 2021, Tigrayan troops and allied Oromo militants marched within eighty-five miles of the capital but were forced back north by ENDF forces backed by Emirati, Turkish, and Iranian drones purchased by the government. Human Rights Watch later reported that Tigrayan troops killed dozens of civilians while occupying towns in the Amhara region as they made their way south that fall.
Compounding Ethiopia’s internal struggles, a border clash with Sudan has been at risk of escalation since 2020, when Sudan used the chaos of the Mekelle Offensive to reignite a territorial dispute over a piece of fertile land adjacent to Tigray. That dispute turned deadly in 2021 and led to the dual militarization of part of the border.
The outbreak of the conflict in Tigray triggered a refugee and displacement crisis that persists today. In 2021, Ethiopia reported 5.1 million internally displaced people in twelve months, the most people internally displaced in any country in any single year. Millions more have fled to Sudan as northern Ethiopia, especially Tigray, remains cut off from food, water, and medical aid.
Outside of Tigray, tensions continue to run high among other ethnic groups. In April 2021, the government declared a state of emergency in Amhara state after a series of violent attacks against ethnic Oromo residents. Oromia’s regional army allied itself with the Tigrayans in the civil war, whereas militants from Amhara and Afar (regions bordering Tigray) were accused of assisting federal troops, even attacking civilians they suspected to be Tigrayan or affiliated with the TPLF.
In the past, the United States viewed Ethiopia as a guarantor of security in Africa, an attitude now heavily tempered by mistrust over the Abiy government’s actions. The conflict in Tigray has security implications for the entire Horn of Africa, a region in which the United States has stakes in countering violent extremism, supporting democratic transitions, negotiating resource sharing efforts, and guaranteeing refugee flow management.
In 2019, Ethiopia took on the role of mediator in Sudan’s political transition, but given the Tigray War’s role in pushing refugees into Sudan and instigating a border dispute, Abiy is not an ideal peacemaker for Sudan’s current conflict. Eritrea’s involvement in Tigray, led by President Isaias Afwerki, signals its increasing influence and represents a concerning level of involvement in regional affairs. In Ethiopia’s capacity as the host of the AU headquarters, and due to its history as a demographic and military powerhouse that avoided long-term colonization, Ethiopia has historically been heavily involved in diplomacy across the continent. Over the past two years, the Ethiopian government has used that influence to reject attempts by other African leaders to monitor and condemn events in Tigray.
The potential for internal conflict in Ethiopia to derail discussions regarding the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is of concern to the United States and other external actors. A well-negotiated plan for the flooding of the GERD in coming years is vital to the survival of all drought-prone states in East Africa and for the goal of inter-state peace. The United States has repeatedly attempted to mediate talks between Egypt and Ethiopia on the issue of the GERD to prevent armed conflict between the two riparian states.
After a series of failed ceasefires, Tigrayan leadership committed in September 2022 to hold fire in order to participate in negotiations led by the AU. The TPLF and the Ethiopian central government then signed a cessation of hostilities agreement on November 2 in Pretoria, South Africa. Followed by implementation negotiations in Nairobi, the agreement promised to disarm Tigrayan troops, return control of the Tigray region to the Ethiopian government, end the Mekelle Offensive, and permit full humanitarian access to Tigray. Olusegun Obasanjo, the African Union’s appointed envoy and former President of Nigeria, and Uhuru Kenyatta, the former president of Kenya, facilitated the Pretoria and Nairobi agreements.
Notably, neither agreement explicitly mentions Eritrea, nor were Eritrean diplomats present at either summit. This omission raised significant concern that Eritrean troops would continue operations within Ethiopia in spite of the agreement between the Ethiopian government and TPLF. Rights groups, intergovernmental organizations, and foreign governments, including the United States, continue to monitor the presence of Eritrean troops and call for the withdrawal of all foreign troops.
Despite the drawdown of the war in Tigray, tensions between regions, armed groups, and the federal government exacerbated by the civil war have persisted and present a challenge to Abiy’s efforts to centralize power and unify the country. In May 2022, Ethiopia arrested over four thousand people in Amhara to weaken a nationalist militia that helped the government repel the TPLF, fearing its growing power could challenge the state. The next month, government forces did little to prevent the killing of hundreds of Amhara people by an armed group in Oromia. Meanwhile, security forces in Afar detained and relocated around 9,500 residents from a town on its border with Tigray.
The frequency of violent incidents has fallen in 2023, but peace deal implementation challenges remain, particularly with regard to transitional justice and the withdrawal of foreign troops. In April, Abiy announced that all regional forces would be integrated into the national police and army. The decision sparked protests in Amhara, and militias have resisted the effort, prompting Abiy to turn to both negotiations and force to achieve his goal. In April, Ethiopia began peace talks with the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), a rebel group that has long opposed the government and that allied with the TPLF during its advance toward Addis Ababa. However, in June, Abiy said that paramilitaries posed a “significant risk to national unity” and vowed to continue operations until only the national security forces remained.
Despite the peace agreement allowing access to Tigray, the humanitarian crisis has not abated. In 2023, the UN requested four billion dollars to provide aid to twenty million people affected by conflict, including more than four million internally displaced people. In June, USAID and the World Food Programme (WFP) suspended aid after discovering that Ethiopian soldiers and officials were stealing massive amounts of food. The pause led to hundreds of deaths due to hunger while aid workers worked to reorient aid distribution strategies.
Fighting broke out again when the federal government clashed with the Fano militia group in the Amhara region. The group, which previously allied with the government against Tigrayan forces, alleges Addis Ababa has neglected the region’s security amid efforts to assert federal authority and integrate regional forces into the military. A senior official accused Fano of trying to overthrow the government after Ethiopia’s intelligence chief acknowledged that the government had lost control of some areas. Ethiopia declared a six-month state of emergency in Amhara to combat the threat, and residents reported hearing heavy gunfire and seeing military aircraft.