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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

The War in Ethiopia: The Federal Army Won the War in Tigray, but the Region Remains Ungovernable

Filed under: Africa

The War in Ethiopia: The Federal Army Won the War in Tigray, but the Region Remains Ungovernable
Tigray Region (Rod Waddington | Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0)

War broke out in early November 2020 between the Federal Government of Ethiopia and the Tigray Regional Government in northern Ethiopia. After three weeks of fighting, the Federal forces ousted the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) from Mekele, the capital of Tigray, arresting some, including Sebhat Nega, the 83-years-old founder and ideologue of TPLF, and killed others. The Federal army failed to capture all TPLF fighters, and today, they are threatening to resort to guerrilla warfare.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and his allies won and crushed the only organization that challenged his authority in Addis Ababa and the existence of the Federal Republic of Ethiopia. The victory came at the expense of having another ungovernable region, Tigray, join Oromia, Amhara, Benishangul-Gumuz, and other southern regions, destabilizing Ethiopia further.

The regions of Ethiopia
The regions of Ethiopia (Jfblanc | CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Background of the People of Tigray

The Tigryans, about 12 million people, are a Semitic, Ge’ez indigenous people of Eritrea and the Tigray regional state of Northern Ethiopia. In all of Ethiopia, they are a minority, less than 6 percent of 116 million people. In Eritrea, they are a majority, about 70 percent of seven million people.

They have an ancient civilization, Orthodox Christian religion, a written language and alphabet, and more than 400 years of written laws. Socially, they are homogeneous with no tribal or clan structure. They dominate the region politically, militarily, economically, and religiously.

Toward the end of the 19th century, the Italians created the artificial state of Eritrea, dividing the Tigryans into Eritreans and Ethiopians. In 1941, the British replaced the Italians; in 1952, Eritrea federated with Ethiopia, and in 1962, King Haile Selassie dissolved the Federation, unifying Ethiopia.

Eritrean geography, near the Bab el-Mandeb strait, made Ethiopia an important regional and global player. It became part of Israel’s Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s “Alliance of the periphery” with Iran and Turkey to contain pan-Arab nationalism.

In recent years, the Horn of Africa has become one of the areas of competition between China and America due to the “Belt and Road” project, which is about creating a new Chinese-controlled economic and political order to replace the American order. Moreover, Turkey and Iran’s ambitions to revisit areas of their ancient empires and the Gulf States’ own interests in the Horn of Africa make the region even more critical to Israel’s regional role.

To end Amhara’s (a region south of Tigray) domination and to liberate Eritrea, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) was founded in 1971 under Isaias Afwerki’s leadership. In 1975, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) was also founded to free Tigray. They are both Marxist Tigryans armed groups.

The TPLF was a blessing to the EPLF in its fight against the Ethiopian army, but Tigray liberation did not meet Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki’s ideological ambition. The EPLF-TPLF army defeated the Ethiopia army in 1991, and the EPLF pressured TPLF to change its Tigray liberation objective to regime change in a united Ethiopia.

The Tigryans, against all odds, established governments in Asmara under Isaias Afwerki and in Addis Ababa under the late Meles Zenawi, ending a century-old Amhara nation-building process in Ethiopia.

TPLF’s Ethnic Based Federalism Guarantee to Tigray

After independence, Afwerki’s ambition in Eritrea was to create a new Eritrean national cultural identity among the Tigryans and many tribes and clans in Eritrea by destroying the Tigrinya national cultural identity, civilization, and nationalism through brutal social engineering, wealth transfer, and slavery in the pretext of national service.

In 1994, the TPLF forged a ruling four-party coalition in Ethiopia, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), and established an ethnic-based federalism with the right to secession, guaranteeing Tigray’s right to maintain its Tigrinya national cultural identity, civilization, and nationalism.

However, for Eritrean President Afwerki, the autonomous Tigray Region and the language-based federal system in Ethiopia was considered an existential threat to the new Eritrean nationalism. While nation-building in Ethiopia and the region is crucial, the ethnic-based federalism was the cause of the 1998-2000 war between Eritrea and Ethiopia under the pretext of a border dispute. 

The TPLF was the only rival to deter Afwerki’s adventures in the last 30 years. However, in April 2018, they lost power and control of Addis Ababa, the political and economic center of Ethiopia, and retreated to Tigray.

Afwerki was eager to replace the ethnic-based federalism with a geography-based system and to bury the TPLF forever. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, also anxious to have the upper hand over TPLF, signed a “Joint Declaration of Peace and Friendship” with Afwerki in July 2018. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front resented the agreement, calling it an “axis of evil.”

An Inevitable War between Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and TPLF

Under TPLF’s iron fist rule, Ethiopia was highly centralized. Foreign aid and borrowed resources brought some progress, but democracy, freedom, and respect for human rights suffered. With the TPLF’s fall, it is hard to imagine a highly centralized government in Ethiopia anymore.

The declining economy, unemployment, environmental disaster, population growth, lack of any consensus in any political arrangement, and the competition for the limited resources exacerbated the ethnic tension, conflicts, and ethnic-based attacks against Amhara groups in Oromia and Benishangul-Gumuz.

War Was Inevitable

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed had no solution to the crisis but pointed an accusatory finger at the TPLF, which never abandoned its effort to take back power in Addis Ababa. War was inevitable. Abiy attempted to increase his power and minimize regional autonomy by forging the Prosperity Party and cracking down on opposition leaders.

When Abiy sought to delay general election due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the TPLF objected and held local elections in Tigray. Abiy opposed, but that only secured the TPLF its regional victory and raised tension.

The takeover of the northern federal army command by the TPLF on November 4, 2020, triggered Abiy Ahmed to declare war, declaring the need to impose law and order. In response, the TPLF bombed Asmara accusing Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki of interfering in the conflict, including the use of United Emirate-supplied drones. Afwerki rejected the charge and accused the TPLF of attempting to internationalize the conflict. The war caused more than 54,000 Ethiopians to flee from the Tigray region to Sudan. Mass murders were allegedly committed by the TPLF in the town of Mai Kadar, and a significant humanitarian crisis plagues the region.

Ethiopian’s Abiy Ahmed Won, Leaving the Destabilized Tigray Region to Afwerki

Abiy, with Isaias Afwerki’s support, ousted TPLF fighters from Mekele, the capital of Tigray, but failed to apprehend them. The TPLF, which used to threaten Abiy and Ethiopian’s integrity – citing an article in the federal system that guarantees the right of Tigray to secede – fled to the mountains of Tigray, declaring a guerrilla war.

Today, no organized power challenges Abiy’s authority, but Ethiopia’s integrity continues to disintegrate. Abiy saved Ethiopia at the price of having another destabilized region. Ethiopia will exist like Somalia, Lebanon, and Central Africa, with a central government that hardly governs the periphery. Abiy appointed an unpopular government in Tigray from his Prosperity Party, but law and order are far from being restored in Tigray.

The only stable periphery in Ethiopia has now joined the rest of the ungovernable regions. It is hard to imagine a strong organization like the TPLF that could impose law and order in Tigray anymore. Lawlessness, local tensions, ethnic disputes, and land conflict between Tigray and Amhara will be permanent.

Isaias Afwerki now must deal with a destabilized Tigray region and its people. Tigray is more than 800 kilometers from Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, but less than 100 kilometers from Asmara, the capital of Eritrea. The war and ethnic profiling of Tigryans in Addis Ababa only incited a tiny minority and confined Tigryans’ nationalism to Ethiopia’s periphery, where they may be doomed to poverty and isolation. However, their aspiration to sustain their identity and language in Tigray is irreconcilable with Afwerki’s utopian desire to create a new Eritrea national identity.

Meanwhile, the United Nation’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reports dire conditions in the region: “Lack of food, water, and health services are affecting hundreds of thousands of people, and our colleagues on the ground are reporting a rise in malnutrition and water-borne diseases …Humanitarian assistance continues to be constrained by the lack of full, safe and unhindered access to Tigray caused both by insecurity, but also bureaucratic obstacles imposed by federal and regional authorities.”1

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