The Conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray Region: What to Know

In Brief

The Conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray Region: What to Know

The military campaign has resulted in a humanitarian crisis and fears of regional instability. A path forward will require international cooperation, careful diplomacy, and an inclusive political process that restores confidence among the country’s diverse population.

Where does the conflict between Tigray’s leadership and the federal government stand?

In November, long-rising tensions between the federal government and the leadership of the northern Tigray region exploded into military confrontation. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched what he called a “law-and-order operation” targeting domestic terrorists, but it involved large deployments of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces and aerial bombardments—a far cry from a domestic law enforcement operation. By November 28, federal forces had taken control of the region’s capital and declared victory, but the security situation is unstable in parts of Tigray, and many analysts are concerned about the prospect of a drawn-out insurgency.

Meanwhile, over sixty thousand refugees have fled the country, nearly half a million people have been displaced and are in desperate need of assistance, critical infrastructure has been destroyed, and credible reports of atrocities and war crimes continue to trickle out of the region. Eritrean troops intervened in Tigray on the side of the federal forces, and it appears that they remain in Ethiopian territory.

What are they fighting about?

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For decades, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) was the dominant party in Ethiopia’s ruling coalition, but Abiy’s ascent in 2018 heralded a recalibration of power. This change was an attempt to address domestic dissatisfaction with political repression, concerns about access to resources and opportunity, and the perception that an ethnic minority held outsized power and influence. (Tigrayans constitute roughly 6 percent of Ethiopia’s population.) 

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But the TPLF felt threatened by the new government’s personnel and policy choices, and it declined to join the successor party to the old ruling coalition. In September, it chose to proceed with its own regional elections in defiance of a federal decision to postpone elections due in part to the COVID-19 crisis. A reported TPLF attack on federal forces stationed in the region was the immediate trigger for the conflict, but it was clear that both sides were preparing for confrontation for some time.

A UN expert on genocide prevention warned last week that without urgent action, the risk of atrocities in Tigray is likely to increase. What is it like for Tigrayans now and how could it worsen?

First, it’s important to understand that the world does not have a complete picture of the situation in Tigray. A communications blackout persists in parts of the region, and journalists and humanitarian organizations cannot access many areas due to security and bureaucratic obstacles. Although, the World Food Program recently reached an agreement with the Ethiopian government that should improve access if it is honored.

What has been reported is extremely alarming. Refugees and others have said that forces on the ground—Ethiopia’s military, Eritrean troops, and ethnic militias—are responsible for sexual violence, ethnic-based targeted attacks, and large-scale looting. The United Nations estimates that nearly three million Tigrayans urgently need assistance. They may lack access to water, food, and health care. If these issues are not resolved, there exists a real prospect of famine, a horror that is particularly historically resonant and politically charged in Ethiopia.

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What are the implications for the Horn of Africa?

An Ethiopia at war with itself is distracted and unreliable, and spoilers in this volatile region will be quick to take advantage of a security vacuum.

Ethiopia has long been a provider of security in the region, helping to stabilize Somalia and South Sudan and offering important diplomatic support during Sudan’s transition. Already, a border dispute between Ethiopia and Sudan has flared up and threatens to escalate, while Sudan continues to teeter uncertainly between the military and civilian elements of its transitional government. Meanwhile, Somalia is in the midst of a constitutional crisis that could undo hard-won gains. The future of both these states will be affected by Ethiopia’s stability and by the example of Eritrea’s ability to flout international law with impunity.

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Refugees who fled the fighting in Tigray stand in line for supplies at the Um Rakuba camp near the Sudan border.
Refugees who fled the fighting in Tigray stand in line for supplies at the Um Rakuba camp near the Sudan border. Baz Ratner/Reuters

The worst may be yet to come. If Ethiopia fails to consolidate a new political arrangement that accommodates its diverse population of 110 million and ensures basic measures of security and justice, it could be riven by further conflict that prompts a massive and destabilizing refugee crisis. An important voice for African interests on the global stage would be lost, and external actors who view the strategically important region as a venue for proxy conflict would be empowered.

What should be done, both by the parties involved and internationally?

The Ethiopian government should immediately provide access to humanitarian agencies. Eritrean forces should leave Ethiopian territory; their destabilizing presence undermines international and regional norms. Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia should be accounted for and protected. The Ethiopian government should lift the communications blackout to help curb misinformation, and it should support a credible and independent investigation into allegations of atrocities.

Moreover, since the origins of this crisis are political, the Ethiopian government should seek a broadly inclusive dialogue about the way forward for the country’s many restive constituencies. With national elections slated for June, it is particularly important to seek broad consensus on protections for minorities, access to power and resources, and the rules governing political contestation. For such a dialogue to be credible and useful, it cannot be limited to allies of the current government in Addis Ababa.

At the same time, the international community should redouble its diplomatic efforts to help resolve the border conflict with Sudan through rule-governed negotiations. It should also encourage an agreement among Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan regarding the Nile waters and the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

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