Tigrayan forces retook Mekelle, the region’s capital, on 28 June, seven months after Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s prime minister, occupied the city with federal troops.
Initially, the government claimed it had complete control over Tigray province, and that it was just mopping up sporadic resistance. Evidently not, but contradictory accounts make it difficult to ascertain what exactly is happening.
This reversal of Tigray’s fortunes came after initial losses following a brutal invasion by both Ethiopian federal forces and the Eritrean army.
The invaders committed severe and numerous human right violations. Eritrean troops murdered hundreds of civilians in the city of Axum. There have been dozens of such massacres, and some attributed to militias linked to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.
Mass rape by Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Amhara soldiers as a weapon of war has also been widely documented. When Abiy Ahmed was questioned about the sexual violence in Tigray, he replied: “The women in Tigray? These women have only been penetrated by men, whereas our soldiers were penetrated by a knife”.
The UN Security Council has convened a meeting on a famine that is now affecting over 400,000 people. A further 1.8 million people are also in danger of starving, and more than two million people have been displaced.
In order to make sense of the current conflict, we must look at the region’s history. Eritrea, on the coast, became an Italian colony in the 1880s, while Ethiopia (which had previously ruled much of Eritrea) defeated Italian troops in 1895 and remained independent other than in a brief period of Italian rule in 1936-41.
After World War 2, the United Nations decided Ethiopia and Eritrea should be federated under the Ethiopian crown. Emperor Haile Selassie soon made Amharic the official language in place of Arabic and Tigrinya, imposed censorship, and subsumed Eritrea into the empire. In 1974, after popular protests, a military coup ousted the emperor. Mengistu Mariam came into power, aligned himself with the USSR, and pushed a Stalinist-type state-led economic development policy (with only modest economic results).
Mengistu cracked down on the revolutionary student organisations, who were sympathetic to Eritrea’s struggle for independence.
The Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front
Mengistu would launch fifteen offensives against the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front. Finally, he was ousted in 1991 by the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), allied with the Eritreans, and Eritrea achieved independence.
But, as Alex de Waal writes: “There are many different ethnic groups in [Ethiopia], especially in the frontier zones of the nineteenth century imperial expansion. The empire placed them in a hierarchy with the Amhara at its zenith; next their historic partners and rivals in state-building, the Tigrayans; below them the largest group, the Oromo; and lastly, a host of others considered slaves or potential slaves. Some had previously had their own principalities; others were stateless peoples or pastoral nomads”.
As Eritrea declared independence, the TPLF formed a coalition of ethnically based parties called the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, which won power in Ethiopia.
The country adopted a constitution that guaranteed the rights of Ethiopia’s ethnic groups to self-determination and self-administration in their respective regions.
A short lived peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea followed, until war broke out in 1998 over disputed territory. Ethiopia won, but Eritrea remained independent.
In September 2001, Isaias Afwerki, the president of Eritrea (and now Abiy Ahmed’s partner in the ethnic cleansing in Tigray), suffocated what remained of civil society there, and established a totalitarian government with no constitution, rights, or free press.
The TPLF Split
Alex de Waal writes further: “The TPLF didn’t recover from the war, either. Despite winning, Ethiopia’s ruling party was riven by infighting, eventually resolved in favor of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi [former leader of the TPLF], who expelled most of the veteran leadership and allowed the grassroots mobilisation to wither away.
“Today, leaders in Ethiopia claim that there was a TPLF clique dominating the country for almost thirty years, enriching Tigray at the expense of everyone else. The reality is more complicated. After the TPLF split, Tigrayans stayed on at the helm of the army and security, but Meles shifted his political base to the Amhara and Oromo parties within the EPRDF. Tigray, previously among the poorest regions, merely caught up with other regions on the indicators for development. Meles’s strategy was less revolutionary, more conventionally authoritarian”. It did, however, bring faster economic growth after a slump through the 1990s.
Abiy Ahmed, of Oromo background, was elevated into power in April 2018, after the government lifted the state of emergency following protests in 2016-2017, led by Oromo democracy activists. He made peace with Eritrea in 2019, signing a peace agreement with Isaias in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, without disclosing its contents, and he received a Nobel Peace Prize shortly after.
He dissolved the EPRDF and created his civic-nationalist Prosperity Party in December 2019. The TPLF refused to dissolve, and become the Tigrayan wing of the newly formed party. The TPLF then went ahead with the regional elections, despite Abiy postponing them, allegedly due to the pandemic.
Abiy would soon arrest the leaders of the Oromo democracy movement, and dissolve their parties.
Shortly after, allegedly in response to TPLF attacks on Ethiopian Northern Command headquarters, Abiy attacked Tigray with his Eritrean ally.
The future of the conflict is unclear. After the TPLF retook Mekelle, it issued a statement demanding the full withdrawal of Eritrean troops, as well as the fighters from the neighboring Amhara region. The statement expressed willingness to accept a ceasefire declared by the Ethiopian government, if there were ironclad guarantees of no further invasions, but also demanded further conditions.
The TPLF also seeks to hold Isaias Afwerki and Abiy Ahmed to account for the destruction caused during the invasion.
On 11 July Ethiopia held elections, delayed twice already. Abiy Ahmed declared a landslide victory, but the elections did not include Tigray, which represents 38 seats in the national parliament out of 547. Many in Oromia, Benishangul-Gumuz, and Amhara were also unable to participate, and 64 constituencies will have to wait until 6 September for a promised second round of elections.
“Far from supplying legitimacy to the government and stability to the country, the election — boycotted by opposition parties and undertaken amid a war — is likely to pull Ethiopia further apart, to calamitous effect”, writes Tsedale Lemma in a New York Times op-ed.