By Chiara Longmore
On 28 June, the ongoing and devastating war in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia arrived at a unilateral ceasefire. Government forces evacuated from Tigray’s capital Mekelle due to increasing international pressure, giving hope of greater peace and stability after eight months of conflict between the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Ethiopian government. Despite this optimism, Ethiopia has arrived at a dangerous crossroads, with reports of the TPLF advancing into neighbouring Amhara region; an escalating humanitarian crisis; and evidence of ethnically targeted violence. The path Ethiopia will take at this juncture appears to be one of renewed conflict, turning its back on peaceful solutions.
The Tigray War
Tigray, a region in northern Ethiopia, is one of ten provinces that constitute the country. Despite being a minority group, Tigrayans have historically dominated Ethiopia’s political landscape for almost 30 years. The Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) represented the region of Tigray and was a dominant political and military force in Ethiopia, leading Ethiopia’s war against Eritrea 1998 – 2000. In 2018, Abiy Ahmed came into power and sought a more centralised political system for Ethiopia, reducing the power of regional groups such as the TPLF. As Abiy’s policies reduced their political power, the TPLF also felt that they were being disproportionately targeted by Abiy’s government for their past political and military dominance. As such, the TPLF broke away from the centralised government’s coalition of parties and in September 2020 held their own elections.
Violence recently erupted in early November 2020 when President Abiy’s government suspended the elections in Tigray, declaring them unlawful. Months of intense conflict between the TPLF and Ethiopian government and military followed, with devastating consequences. Reports of mass civilian killings, rape, and torture have emerged, implicating both sides but in particular Eritrean troops which intervened to support the Ethiopian military. Tigray is facing an extreme humanitarian crisis as a consequence of war, with the UN Secretary General announcing the region is on “the brink of famine”, an issue compounded by the 1.7 million people who are currently internally displaced.
Path to Potential Peace?
The months of fighting which have devastated the region of Tigray and its population came to a halt with the announcement of a unilateral ceasefire on 28 June. President Abiy described the ceasefire and withdrawal of government troops from Tigray as a “moment of reflection”. Motivations behind the decision to withdraw government troops from Tigray can be linked to the increasing international pressure placed on President Abiy’s government. For instance, at the end of May, the US introduced sanctions on economic and security aid to Ethiopia over the conflict in Tigray. The UN has called for the respect of the ceasefire in order for humanitarian aid to reach the millions at risk of famine.
With government troops withdrawing from the Tigray region and the instigation of a ceasefire, a tentative path to political peace has presented itself. Or at the very least, the country has reached a significant pause for breath and an opportunity for greater political dialogue between the Ethiopian government and the TPLF. Yet despite the initial appearances of a potential peaceful solution, the reality seems far from hopeful, and Ethiopia appears to be turning towards a renewed path of conflict.
The Road to a Renewed War
Despite the recent ceasefire, rhetoric from both sides of the conflict remains hostile and inflammatory. On the one side, Lieutenant-General Bacha Debele of the Ethiopian army stated in a news conference that the army could “march on Mekelle even today”, and the government currently refuses to engage in dialogue with the TPLF and Tigrayan leaders.
On the other side, The TPLF and the region’s leaders claim the government is blockading Tigray. Indeed, when government troops withdrew from Tigray communication lines were cut, with phone lines and internet access down. Furthermore, the bridge on the Tekeze River which operates as a key access point into Tigray was destroyed, with both the TPLF and the government attributed to this. Aid trucks entering Tigray have also been subjected to numerous checkpoints, with a World Food Programme (WFP) spokesperson outlining how disruptive this was to the international humanitarian effort. As a consequence, the UN has called for unobstructed access for aid trucks to deliver the assistance needed to the millions of people at risk of famine in Tigray.
Whilst the TPLF has accepted the ceasefire the group has set out certain conditions for peace. These include re-instating the Tigrayan government, as well as the withdrawal of Eritrean forces alongside fighters from neighbouring Amhara region. Soon after these conditions were released, the Guardian UK reported that the TPLF was in fact mobilising for a new conflict against Amhara militias. There were sightings of long convoys heading westwards from Tigray, reportedly to position themselves to advance on the Amhara province.
Consequently, despite the recent appearance of military de-escalation in Tigray, a new conflict may emerge along a different frontline in the Amhara province. If fighting escalates between the TPLF and Amhara militias, this may provide a new opportunity for the Ethiopian government to re-engage in conflict with the TPLF whilst evading international pressure over the current humanitarian situation in Tigray.
The Next Rwanda?
A concerning dimension of the Tigrayan conflict concerns ethnic group identity. Tigrayans are a minority ethnic group in Ethiopia, constituting around 6% of the population and recent reports have described discrimination and violence being perpetrated against Tigrayans across Ethiopia. Tigrayans have reported losing their jobs, being harassed, arrested, having their bank accounts frozen, and being prevented from leaving the country. A recent report by Reuters outlined how families of Tigrayan soldiers have been detained in detention camps, and around 300 Tigrayans were held in a warehouse on the outskirts of Addis Ababa in reportedly crowded conditions. There are currently no official figures of how many Tigrayans are being detained by the federal police or military. However, according to a Tigrayan living in Addis Ababa, “the hate is escalating”, and a recent report of three Tigrayans being murdered by a mob in the Amhara region is a worrying sign of the potential escalation of violence along ethnic lines.
Such evidence of ethnically targeted violence in Ethiopia draws similarities with the Rwandan genocide in 1994, where around one million Tutsis were systematically targeted and killed by the Hutu population in twelve weeks. It is important to be cautious when drawing comparisons between two distinct cases. Failing to regard context-specific issues can risk oversimplifying our conceptions of the incredibly complex dynamics at hand. Nevertheless, whilst current violence may not have escalated to the same extreme levels of Rwanda in 1994, what we are seeing in Ethiopia are the beginnings of politically driven discrimination against a specific group. This increasing division between ethnic groups in the country is shadowed by the country’s historical context, with grievances between groups apparent previously, however, the divisions appear to be becoming more entrenched.
Despite the brief hopes that the ceasefire brought, it is becoming increasingly clear that Ethiopia is facing a future of conflict - one which is taking on a worryingly ethnic dimension. In Rwanda 1994 the international community infamously turned a blind eye to the genocide which unfolded. It is vital that history does not repeat itself in Ethiopia as the country seemingly turns its back on peace and heads down a path of renewed violence.
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About the author: Chiara Longmore
Chiara is originally from Scotland; however, she has moved to the Netherlands to complete a master’s at Leiden University in International Relations and Diplomacy. With an interdisciplinary background, her bachelor’s was in Liberal Arts, she has analysed situations of violence and conflict with a multi-disciplinary framework, in particular with Political Science, Anthropology, and Sociology.