Ethiopia’s northernmost region of Tigray is at the center of an ongoing 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, has a history of dominating leadership coalitions and politics at the national level despite Tigrayans representing 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 with Eritrea, marginalized ethnic groups including the Somali, Oromo, and Amhara--each of which are larger than the Tigrayan population--and solidified a centralized autocracy.
The TPLF continued to govern Ethiopia after his passing in much the same manner. Tigrayan control of the national government came to an end in 2018, with the ascension 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. This was also how Abiy saw himself; he 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 acting to roll back domestic restrictions on freedom. According to the chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee at the time, “[n]o doubt some people will think this year’s prize is being awarded too early… [we believe] it is now that Abiy Ahmed’s efforts deserve recognition and need encouragement.”
Within a year, ethnic relations in Ethiopia had once again begun to deteriorate on the political stage. 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 ire 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 from 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 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 enemy, Eritrea, which fought a war with Ethiopia during the Zenawi regime, joined the side of the Ethiopian government troops early in the conflict. After months of denying their presence, in spring 2021, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed admitted that Eritrean troops were fighting inside 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.
The outbreak of the conflict in Tigray triggered a refugee and displacement crisis that is still ongoing. 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 ethnically Oromo residents. Oromia’s own regional army has allied itself with the Tigrayans in the civil war, whereas militants from Amhara and Afar (regions bordering Tigray) have been 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 against its own people. 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 transition, negotiating resource sharing efforts, and guaranteeing refugee flow management.
The Tigray War is a major detriment to Ethiopia’s capacity to help broker Sudan’s fragile transition to democracy, a task the Abiy government gladly took on in 2019 following bloody protests in Khartoum and the AU’s encouragement of mediated talks between Sudan’s military and civilian opposition. Given Ethiopia’s recent status as a prolific generator of refugees entering Sudanese camps and the Tigray War’s role in instigating a border dispute, Abiy is no longer an ideal peacemaker for Sudan. Eritrea’s involvement in the conflict, led by President Isaias Afwerki, signals his increasing influence and represents a concerning level of involvement of a dictatorial leader in regional affairs and the affairs of his neighbors. 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.
Since 2021, the United States has characterized the conflict as ethnic cleansing against Tigrayans, and harrowing 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 was called into question following its presentation at the United Nations. Despite the events of the Axum Massacre coming 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 initiated by Ireland in early 2021 was quickly scrapped due to push back from India, Russia, and China. China objected to any statement directing Ethiopian and Tigrayan leadership to end the violence in accordance with its policy of noninterference, deferring to Ethiopia’s sovereign leadership over its own internal affairs.
Foreign news sources have accused the ENDF, Eritrean troops, and Tigrayan and other regional militias of causing further massacres and mass death events (often bombings) since then. Tigrayan forces retook their own capital of Mekelle from ENDF control 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 the election, which was supposed to be the country’s first to be fair and free, and opposition leadership in parliament accused the Abiy government of banning poll observers in some states. The U.S. State Department expressed concern about active conflict, detention of the Prime Minister’s political opponents, and media harassment standing in the way of an equitable electoral process. 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 85 miles of the capital, but were forced north again by ENDF forces backed by Emerati, Turkish, and Iranian drones purchased by the government. The Human Rights Watch later reported that Tigrayan troops had illegally killed dozens of civilians while occupying towns in the Amhara region as they made their way south that fall. Since the end of 2021, rights groups have ramped up calls for a full-scale UN investigation of abuses committed by all factions involved in the conflict.
The conflict has exacted a devastating toll on civilians. Widespread famine is rapidly unfolding across the region; accusations persist that the Abiy government is intentionally imposing mass starvation as a tactic of war through aid blockades. Communications blackouts make it difficult to discern the true cost of the war on the ground. Tigrayan diaspora activist voices abroad are growing louder, calling for humanitarian intervention and an end to Ethiopian and Eritrean military presence in Tigray as well as accountability for Abiy Ahmed and Isaias Afwerki. Largely rallying under the social media hashtag #TigrayGenocide, members of the Tigrayan diaspora view the conflict as a coordinated ethnic cleansing campaign, at odds with other members of Ethiopia’s diaspora, many of whom support the Abiy government.
The United Nations and the United States have repeatedly stressed the need for unfettered humanitarian access to Tigray and surrounding regions. In July 2021, U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Samantha Power visited Addis Ababa, where she emphasized U.S. concern over the lack of humanitarian access to Tigray, as well as the Ethiopian government’s use of dehumanizing rhetoric to describe members of the Tigrayan ethnic group and the TPLF in the lead-up to the outbreak of conflict. 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 begin a territorial dispute over a piece of fertile land adjacent to Tigray. That dispute turned deadly in 2021 and led to dual militarization of part of the border. In late August 2021, the United States ramped up sanctions on Eritrea over its involvement in Tigray, and the White House later used executive power to extend sanctions to any individual considered responsible for or complicit in the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia. After the latest in a long series of failed ceasefires in August 2022, Tigrayan leadership committed in September to holding its fire in order to participate in negotiations led by the AU and buttressed by the UN. This commitment, too, fell apart almost immediately, and hope for an imminent end to the conflict—in Ethiopia and abroad—is running short.