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Conflict in Ethiopia

Updated December 19, 2023
A man carries a mattress into the Tsehaye primary school, which was turned into a temporary shelter for people displaced by conflict, in the town of Shire, Tigray region, Ethiopia on March 15, 2021.
A man carries a mattress into the Tsehaye primary school, which was turned into a temporary shelter for people displaced by conflict, in the town of Shire, Tigray region, Ethiopia on March 15, 2021.
Baz Ratner/Reuters
Youngsters walk next to an abandoned tank belonging to Tigrayan forces south of the town of Mehoni, Ethiopia, on December 11, 2020.
Eduardo Soteras/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images
Amhara region militiamen ride on their truck as they head to face the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in Sanja, Amhara region, near the border with Tigray, Ethiopia, on November 9, 2020.
Tiksa Negeri/Reuters
Ethiopian Muslims stand inside a damage mausoleum at the al-Nejashi Mosque, one of the oldest in Africa and allegedly damaged by Eritrean forces shelling, in Negash, Ethiopia, on March 1, 2021.
Eduardo Soteras/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images
People organize piles of items during an items distribution by an international nongovernmental organization for internally displace people fleeing violence, in Chagni, Ethiopia, on January 28, 2021.
Eduardo Soteras/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images
A general view of the Sudanese village of Um Rakuba, home to over 20,000 people, in Sudan, on January 7, 2021. Some 56,000 people have been displaced from Ethiopia to Sudan during the ongoing conflict between federal government troops and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
Abdulmonam Eassa/Getty Images
Shattered glass window looks out onto a tall building
A building is seen through a bullet hole in a window of the Africa Hotel in the town of Shire, Tigray region, on March 17, 2021.
Baz Ratner/Reuters

In the aftermath of the war between the Ethiopian central government and the northernmost region of Tigray, Ethiopia is once again engaged in violent internal conflict, this time involving militia groups from the regions of Amhara and Oromia. Conflict began to emerge in the two regions in the spring of 2021, coinciding with the escalation of the Tigray War. During the Tigray War, Amhara groups largely allied with the central government and the Oromo sided with the Tigrayans. In the aftermath of the war, the central government announced a crackdown on the operations of regional security forces. In an effort to consolidate central military control and respond to ethnic violence in the two regions, the Ethiopian government is fighting former allies and enemies alike, including the Amhara regional forces and non-state militias from Amhara and Oromia. In late 2023, the central government escalated its military operations in Amhara, while its peace talks with the largest Oromo militia collapsed for the third time.


Between 2020 and 2022, Ethiopia fought a war with militants from its northernmost region of Tigray, then under the control of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The conflict was one of the deadliest in recent world history and drew international attention for a preponderance of alleged war crimes, human rights abuses, and ethnic cleansing in Tigray. The war formally ended in November 2022; Tigray was left in ruins, and its capital was turned over to the federal government.

For decades before the war, the TPLF was a dominant political force in Ethiopia. Between 1991 and his death in 2012, Tigrayan soldier-politician Meles Zenawi governed Ethiopia as an autocracy with the backing of a TPLF-dominated coalition. The Zenawi regime oversaw rapid development and increased the international prominence of Ethiopia, but his government marginalized ethnic groups, including the Oromo and Amhara, to solidify government power. Additionally, Ethiopia was at war with Eritrea [PDF] from 1998 to 2000. The war was followed by a nearly twenty-year-long frozen conflict, effectively paralyzing both countries politically and economically.

The TPLF continued to govern Ethiopia after Zenawi’s passing until 2018, when protests, especially among the Oromo population, prompted the government to appoint Abiy Ahmed Ali as the next Prime Minister. Abiy, born in Oromia, 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 the country’s ethnic groups and began to roll back restrictions on certain political freedoms. In 2019, he received the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating an end to Ethiopia’s two-decade standoff with Eritrea.

By 2020, ethnic relations within 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 the TPLF. The Tigray State Council’s choice to hold local elections in defiance of federal orders further inflamed tensions. The elections ultimately solidified the TPLF’s control of the region. On November 4, 2020, Abiy accused Tigrayan troops of attacking a federal military camp in the Tigrayan capital of Mekelle and ordered Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) troops north. This began a military operation known as the Mekelle Offensive, which escalated quickly as the ENDF pushed further into Tigray, and the Tigray Defense Force, or TDF, ramped up their response.

Abiy first framed the offensive as a targeted operation against 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. Ethiopia’s neighbor and former adversary, Eritrea, intervened in the conflict militarily on the side of the Ethiopian government. After months of denying their presence, in spring 2021, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed admitted that Eritrean troops were fighting in Tigray. 

In 2021, the United States characterized the war as an ethnic cleansing against Tigrayans, and some NGOs raised concerns about the potential of genocide. 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.

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 the 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.

After a series of failed efforts to negotiate a settlement, the TPLF and the Ethiopian central government signed a cessation of hostilities agreement on November 2, 2022, in Pretoria, South Africa. Followed by implementation negotiations in Nairobi, the agreement promised to disarm Tigrayan troops, hand control of Tigray to the Ethiopian government, end the Mekelle Offensive, and permit full humanitarian access to Tigray.

Notably, the Pretoria agreement does not explicitly mention Eritrea, nor were Eritrean representatives present at the negotiations. This omission raised international concern that Eritrean troops would continue operations within Ethiopia in spite of the agreement between the Ethiopian government and TPLF. As of January 2023, displaced Tigrayans reported that Amhara and Eritrean soldiers continued to occupy Western Tigray. The Amhara have contested ownership of the area; the displaced population was informed in late 2023 that they would be returned to their land, and the political fate of the territory would be decided in a referendum.

In 2021 alone, 5.1 million Ethiopians became internally displaced, a record for the most people internally displaced in any country in any single year at the time. Thousands also fled to Sudan and other countries in the region. By the time the Pretoria agreement took effect, the Tigray War and its associated humanitarian disaster had killed approximately 600,000 people. In late 2022, humanitarian groups were permitted to meaningfully operate in Tigray for the first time since November 2020.

Recent Developments

The conflict in Tigray contributed to and coincided with worsening conditions throughout Ethiopia. Early in the war, 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 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 were accused of neglecting to respond to the killing of hundreds of Amhara people in Oromia.

In April 2023, the central government announced that all regional security forces—permitted to operate under the national constitution—would be integrated into the national security services. The decision was largely seen as an attempt to degrade the autonomy of the regions, and it sparked violent protests and militia activity in Amhara and elsewhere. Also in April, Amhara militants were implicated in a series of killings of ethnically Oromo citizens within their territory.

In a reversal of alliances, the ENDF has spent much of 2023 fighting against Amhara’s regional special forces and the Fano, the most powerful non-state militia in the region; both groups refused the order to disband and join the national army. In August, a senior Ethiopian official accused the Fano of trying to overthrow the regional and federal governments. Ethiopia declared a six-month regional state of emergency beginning in August 2023, and residents reported hearing heavy gunfire and seeing military aircraft.

As for Oromia, local militants began a string of attacks on ethnically Amhara enclaves in the region in early March 2021, and waves of Amhara began to flee Oromia. The federal government sent troops to fight the OLA but has failed to put an end to the violence. Toward the end of the Tigray War, violence in Oromia once again flared up, with a particularly deadly attack on an Amhara enclave left approximately two hundred dead in June 2022. By that July, hundreds had been killed in massacres in Amhara-majority parts of Oromia. Abiy—who was born in Oromia—condemned the OLA for the killings, while other elements within the federal government pointed to evidence that regional leadership was involved. In April 2023, Ethiopia began peace talks with the OLA in Tanzania. One obstacle has been the disorganized nature of the OLA, which lacks a clear chain of command. A third attempt to negotiate ended abruptly in November, with the government citing the OLA’s obstruction and unrealistic demands and the OLA citing the government’s failure to address fundamental issues underlying national unrest. The Oromo have long faced political marginalization in Ethiopia despite their status as the largest ethnic group in the country.

In addition, the country’s destabilization has security implications for the entire Horn of Africa, a region that is also facing armed conflicts in Somalia, Sudan, and South Sudan. Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan have been locked in a political dispute since 2011 over Ethiopia’s construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), a massive hydroelectric dam on the Nile River that restricts the northern flow of freshwater. During the Tigray War, Sudan also reignited tensions with Ethiopia over the fertile border region of Al Fashaga, where governance rights have been contested since the early 1900s. The dispute was exacerbated by Sudan’s support for the TPLF.

Perhaps the most concerning regional development has been a return to political hostility between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Ethiopia lost access to a port on the Red Sea when Eritrea initially launched its war of secession in the 1990s, rendering Ethiopia landlocked. In October 2023, Abiy began signaling his country’s intention to secure a new Red Sea port, and, through it, access to international maritime trade. While he has said he does not intend to launch an invasion to achieve his objectives, many Ethiopians, Eritreans, other states in the region including Djibouti and Somalia, and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken have interpreted his more aggressive rhetoric to mean Ethiopia is considering the use of force to secure a port.

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