Photo: Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF) soldiers on an African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia Credit: AMISOM Public Information/Tobin Jones

by Josh Lalonde 

On the morning of November 4, while the rest of the world was busy watching the American presidential election, Prime Minister of Ethiopia Abiy Ahmed announced that the Ethiopian military was beginning an operation in the northern Tigray Region of the country. According to Abiy, the operation came in response to an attack by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which governs Tigray, on two military bases in the region. 

Fighting has continued up to the time of writing, with no end in sight. Internet and phone communications from Tigray are being blocked, making it difficult to verify information. There have been hundreds killed and allegations of atrocities after fewer than two weeks of fighting, and there are fears that the conflict could turn into a full-scale civil war that destabilizes the whole Horn of Africa region.

This fighting comes after months of escalating tensions between the TPLF and the federal government of Ethiopia, as well as a series of outbursts of inter-ethnic violence across the country. So far, there has been limited international response, including from Canada.

“There have been hundreds killed and allegations of atrocities after less than two weeks of fighting, and there are fears that the conflict could turn into a full-scale civil war that  destabilizes the whole Horn of Africa region.”

Background to the Fighting

Map of Ethiopia, Tigray, and Eritrea.

Ethiopia has long been home to many different ethnic groups, with the largest being the Oromo, Amhara, Somali, and Tigrayan peoples. The TPLF, representing Tigrayans, was the leader of a coalition of organizations that in 1991 overthrew the military dictatorship known as the Derg that had governed Ethiopia since 1974. After taking power, the coalition was formalized as the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). 

The EPRDF established a new constitution dividing Ethiopia into nine (now ten) regions based on the ethnicity of their constituents, in a system known as ethnic federalism. The coalition, led by the TPLF, governed the country for decades with the help of a heavy-handed security apparatus, resulting in the imprisonment of many opposition politicians.

A series of mass protests beginning in 2015 led to a complex power struggle within the EPRDF, ultimately resulting in Abiy becoming leader of the party in 2018. Abiy presented himself as a reformer and quickly undertook several significant policy changes. Thousands of political prisoners were released and granted amnesty, other opposition politicians were allowed to return from exile, and the bans on their parties were rescinded. Ethiopia signed a peace deal with neighbouring Eritrea, with which it had officially been at war since 1998, though active fighting ended in 2000. Abiy was granted the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for ending the state of war with Eritrea.

Finally, in November 2019, the EPRDF was dissolved and replaced by a new pan-Ethiopian party called the Prosperity Party, under Abiy’s leadership. Of the four parties that had made up the EPRDF, only the TPLF refused to join the new Prosperity Party. TPLF officials complained that they were being blamed for all of the country’s problems and were being unfairly targeted by corruption investigations.

However, Abiy’s reforms also had a cost, as the relaxation of the security state allowed outbreaks of inter-ethnic violence, fuelled by hate speech spread on Facebook. Notable incidents include the killing of at least 20 members of ethnic and religious minorities in Jigjiga (capital of the Somali Region of Ethiopia) in August 2018, leading to the intervention of the federal military and the arrest of the president of the region. 

Then in June 2020, famous Oromo singer Hachalu Hundessa was murdered, sparking mass violence in the national capital Addis Ababa and the surrounding Oromia Region, targeting non-Oromos. This was followed by massacres, primarily of Oromos, by security forces. At least 200 people were killed and approximately 10,000 people were displaced by the riots and subsequent crackdown. Most recently, on November 2, at least 54 Amharas were killed in the village of Gawa Qanqa in Oromia after federal troops suddenly left the area. 

The federal government has accused the TPLF of being involved in each of these instances of ethnic violence, without presenting evidence.

There have also been continually increasing tensions between the TPLF-led government of Tigray and the federal government over the last year. In March, the federal electoral board indefinitely suspended elections scheduled to take place in August due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The federal parliament then voted to extend the mandate of the current government under Abiy, which otherwise would have expired in October. 

The Tigray regional government rejected both the suspension of the elections and the extension of the federal government’s mandate. The region proceeded with its own elections in September, denounced as illegal by the federal government. The TPLF won 98.2% of the vote, according to the region’s electoral commission.

Following the election, the federal parliament voted to cut off funds to Tigray. A spokesperson for the TPLF called the decision “tantamount to a declaration of war,” according to Agence France Press.

In late October, when the federal government sent a general to lead the Northern Command of the army, stationed in Tigray, the Tigray regional government rejected the move and sent the general back, on the grounds that the federal government was no longer legitimate. The alleged attack by the TPLF on two military bases in the region, and the federal military’s intervention in Tigray, came days later.

The Military Situation

One of the factors that makes the current fighting so dangerous is the size of the forces involved. Tigray is the most heavily-militarized region of the country, a legacy of the 1998-2000 war with Eritrea, which shares a border with Tigray. As much as half of Ethiopia’s military personnel and equipment may be stationed there.

An Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF) soldier.

The Tigray regional security forces together with TPLF-aligned paramilitaries make up approximately 250,000 troops, according to the International Crisis Group. The Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF) number 162,000, though regional security forces from Amhara, whose size is unknown, have also been fighting on the side of the federal government. 

TPLF sources have claimed that at least part of the Northern Command of the ENDF have defected to their side, which the federal government has denied. On November 8, Abiy replaced — without explanation — the army chief of staff, intelligence chief, and foreign minister. On November 12, seven generals were charged with treason for having allegedly assisted the TPLF attack on November 4.

The Ethiopian Air Force has carried out airstrikes in and around Mekelle, the capital of Tigray. Abiy has claimed that the strikes destroyed heavy artillery belonging to the TPLF. However, on November 14, the TPLF was still able to carry out rocket attacks on two airports in the Amhara Region used by the Ethiopian Air Force.

Much of the fighting so far has been concentrated in the western portion of Tigray, near the border with Sudan. The strategic objective seems to be to cut off Tigray from any possible outside resupply. On November 10, the ENDF captured an airport south of the town of Humera, near the borders with Sudan and Eritrea. The federal government claimed on November 12 to have gained control over the western portion of Tigray, including the towns of Humera, Aksum, and Sheraro. 

More recently, the ENDF has also opened a second front in the southeast of the region, proceeding along the A2 highway leading to Mekelle. On November 15, the ENDF captured the town of Alamata on this axis.

The ENDF said on November 9 that they had killed at least 500 TPLF fighters in just a week of combat, though the numbers cannot be verified due to the communications blackout.

The Beginnings of a Humanitarian Crisis

There have been widespread allegations of war crimes amidst the fighting so far. The ENDF  says that when they captured Sheraro, they found bodies of soldiers who had been executed while their hands and feet were tied. 

On November 12, the ENDF claimed that TPLF  forces had carried out a massacre of Amhara civilians in the town Mai Kadra, which had just been captured by the ENDF.  A video apparently showing a mass funeral in the town has circulated on social media. Amnesty International has confirmed using video evidence that “scores, and likely hundreds, of people were stabbed or hacked to death” using knives or machetes — and stated that survivors blamed the TPLF. As many as 500 people may have been killed, according to the Amhara regional government. 

However, the TPLF has denied any involvement in the massacre. Refugees in Sudan told Reuters that the perpetrators were from Amhara and that it was Tigrayans who were targeted. There have also been allegations that ethnic Tigrayan members of the ENDF had been executed. The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission has sent a team to Mai Kadra to investigate and has said that it is “monitoring reports of discrimination on account of ethnicity.”

Increasing amount of refugees continue to flee to Sudan.

There were already more than 1.5 million internally displaced persons in Ethiopia before fighting started, mostly due to ethnic violence. Since the fighting began, at least 33,000 people have fled to Sudan, with the number expected to rise as high as 200,000. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees has stated that it is “deeply concerned for the more than 96,000 Eritreans living in the four refugee camps [in Tigray] and the host community living alongside them, as well as the 100,000 people in Tigray who were already internally displaced at the start of the conflict.”  

The fighting has blocked access to the region and led to a fuel shortage, while banking services were temporarily shut down, thus making it difficult for residents to buy food and other necessities.

Danger of Regional Destabilization

There is also a danger that the fighting may spill over into and destabilize surrounding countries. Sudan is in the midst of a delicate transition process after the deposition of longstanding ruler Omar al-Bashir in 2019 and recently signed a peace agreement with a number of rebel groups. These processes could be disrupted by an influx of refugees from Ethiopia, or by fighting that draws in armed groups from Sudan.

Ethiopia has also been involved in a years-long dispute with Egypt and (to a lesser extent) Sudan over the construction and filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile river. The two countries are downstream from Ethiopia, leading to concerns that the dam will have an effect on their supply of water. Negotiations about the GERD organized by the African Union have repeatedly broken down, and Ethiopia has begun filling the dam without an agreed framework with the other two countries. On November 14, Egypt and Sudan began a series of joint air force exercises, in a move whose timing may be linked to the fighting in Ethiopia. 

Meanwhile, Somalia has been struggling with an insurgency by al-Qaeda ally al-Shabaab for over a decade, and Ethiopian troops form part of the African Union forces fighting the group. Bloomberg News reported on November 13 that Ethiopia was withdrawing 3000 soldiers from a separate mission in Somalia, which could allow a resurgence of al-Shabaab.

Finally, Eritrea fought a bloody war with Ethiopia in 1998-2000, in which tens of thousands were killed, and it still maintains a permanent military mobilization even after signing a peace agreement with Ethiopia in 2018. While the Eritrean government has grown closer to the federal government of Ethiopia under Abiy, it remains hostile to the TPLF, as they led the coalition governing Ethiopia during the war. 

The TPLF has alleged that Eritrean forces have already been involved in the current fighting, which Eritrea has denied. Refugees in Sudan have also claimed to have witnessed artillery shelling from across the Eritrean border. On 14 November, TPLF forces hit an airport in the Eritrean capital of Asmara with at least two rockets, in retaliation for the alleged Eritrean involvement in the conflict. This is a significant escalation that risks internationalizing the conflict. 

International Response

With the onset of fighting coinciding with the U.S. elections, there has been relatively little international attention devoted to the conflict. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo released a statement on November 4 saying that the U.S. was “deeply concerned by reports that the Tigray People’s Liberation Front carried out attacks on Ethiopian National Defense Force bases in Ethiopia’s Tigray region” and called for a de-escalation. 

Stéphane Dujarric, Spokesman for the Secretary-General of the United Nations, also released a statement on November 4, calling “for immediate measures to de-escalate tensions and ensure a peaceful resolution to the dispute.” Chairperson of the African Union Commission Moussa Faki Mahamat released a similar statement on November 9 urging “the parties to engage in dialogue to seek a peaceful solution in the interests of the country.”

The official Canadian foreign policy Twitter account posted on November 6 that “Canada is deeply concerned by the situation in the Tigray region of #Ethiopia” and called “on all parties to show restraint, to work towards de-escalation of tensions and a peaceful resolution to the disputes.” Minister of Foreign Affairs François-Philippe Champagne discussed the situation in Ethiopia, among other topics, with United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on November 9, according to the same Twitter account

When contacted by The Leveller, Global Affairs Canada reiterated the statement in the November 6 tweet, adding that “[there] are currently 26 Canadians in Tigray who have registered with the voluntary Registration of Canadians Abroad service.” Since this registration is voluntary, there may be other Canadians in the region. Global Affairs Canada offered consular services to any Canadians in Ethiopia, including Tigray, but did not indicate that there was any plan to evacuate them.

Outlook for the Future

Abiy has described the military intervention as a “rule of law operation” and has stated that there can be no negotiations with the TPLF. The TPLF in turn has described Abiy as a dictator and the federal government as fascist. 

Given the intensity of the fighting and the harshness of the rhetoric, it is difficult to foresee any quick resolution to the conflict. Furthermore, the TPLF has the experience of running a decades-long insurgency campaign against the Derg military dictatorship. The mountainous terrain of Tigray also favours guerilla warfare tactics, so even if the ENDF is able to capture territory relatively quickly, the violence may continue. 

A protracted war would risk damaging the already-fragile unity of the Ethiopian state, as forces may be drawn away from other parts of the country, leaving a security vacuum. This vacuum would make continued inter-ethnic violence and even outright civil war more likely. There has already been an attack on a bus in the Benishangul-Gumuz Region, hundreds of kilometres away from the fighting in Tigray, that killed at least 34 people. The regional government has accused the TPLF of being involved, without presenting evidence.

A prolonged conflict may also cause a deterioration of the human rights situation in the country. A number of journalists have been arrested on charges such as “attempts to dismantle the constitution through violence.” The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission has expressed its concern at the arrests and called for due process to be followed. The Ethiopian Broadcasting Authority has also suspended the press licence of a Reuters correspondent and issued warnings to other foreign media outlets due to their “false [and] biased reporting.” 

Around 150 people in Addis Ababa and other parts of the country alleged to be connected to the TPLF have been arrested. The federal parliament voted on November 12 to revoke the parliamentary immunity of TPLF representatives, — including president of the Tigray Region Debretsion Gebremichael — though the representatives had already resigned their seats. 

There have also been allegations of ethnic profiling of Tigrayans in other parts of the country. According to Reuters, Ethiopian police visited an office of the United Nations World Food Programme in Amhara and asked for a list of ethnic Tigrayan employees, which the agency refused to provide. The Ethiopian federal government’s “State of Emergency Fact Check” Facebook page claimed that the police had in fact been investigating specific individuals alleged to have ties to the TPLF, and that there was no “general ethnic profiling of citizens, as alleged.” Documents circulating on social media also appear to show companies firing or suspending Tigrayans on orders from the federal government.

On November 13, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet “expressed increasing alarm at the rapidly deteriorating situation in the Ethiopian region of Tigray” and warned that “there is a risk this situation will spiral totally out of control, leading to heavy casualties and destruction, as well as mass displacement within Ethiopia itself and across borders.”

Acronyms in this article:

TPLF – the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, who govern the Tigray Region of Ethiopia

EPRDF – the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, a coalition that included TPLF, who overthrew Ethiopia’s previous military dictatorship

ENDF – the Ethiopian National Defence Force, the military forces of the Ethiopian federal government

GERD – the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, under construction on the Blue Nile river in Ethiopia

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