Ethiopia is a country in the Horn of Africa. It is land-locked and it borders with Sudan, South Sudan, Kenya, Somalia, Djibouti and Eritrea. It has approximately 110 million inhabitants and, before the coronavirus pandemic, it had one of the fastest growing economies of Africa. In 2018, when the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed signed the peace treaty that ended a decades-long conflict with Eritrea, Ethiopia’s future seemed bright. However, Addis Ababa is now facing different and complex challenges, both internally and externally. The focus of this analysis is the tension between the Ethiopian Federal Government and the regional authorities of Tigray.
On the 4th of November 2020, the security forces under the control of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front attacked a military base belonging to the Ethiopian National Defense Force, the federal army who obeys to the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. This attack sparked a military confrontation between the two sides. The Ethiopian army, according to its new commander in chief, general Birhanu Jula, took control of several towns at the border with Eritrea and the Ethiopian Air Force is now executing continuous air strikes on the airport of Mekelle, the capital of Tigray. The accuracy of the declarations of the Ethiopian army could not be confirmed by independent sources, because the federal government has imposed a total shutdown on the internet and the telephone lines in Tigray. However, what we know for sure is that the situation in Tigray, a region in the North of Ethiopia that borders with Sudan and Eritrea, is quickly escalating. More than 98 Ethiopian soldiers are being treated for gunshot wounds in Bahir Dar, the regional capital of Amhara, and the Ethiopian Prime Minister sacked its head of the intelligence, its foreign minister and the top levels of the Ethiopian National Defense Force for their mishandling of this crisis.
These events follow a heated political conflict between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the political party that once dominated Ethiopia’s politics, and the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who has founded the Prosperity Party that now controls the country. The political confrontation between the two sides reached its peak in September, when the Tigray authorities held regional elections despite the opposition of the federal government, which tried to stop the electoral process using the coronavirus pandemic as a justification. The roots of this political disagreement run deep into Ethiopia’s history.
The military junta that had ruled Ethiopia for decades collapsed in 1991. On the same year, Ethiopia held its first free elections, that were won by the EPRDF, acronym that stands for “Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front”. It consisted in a coalition of four different ethnic parties: the Amhara Democratic Party, the Oromo Democratic Party, the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement and the already mentioned above Tigray People’s Liberation Front. In 1995, the EPRDF gave to the country a constitution that made Ethiopia a federal republic, divided in ten regional states and two autonomous cities. As we can understand, the new constitution reflected the multi-ethnic reality of the EPRDF. However, the now ruling Prosperity Party of Abiy Ahmed has a Pan-Ethiopian ideology that tries to overcome the ethnic divisions that lacerate the country, in a bid to create a common national identity. Naturally, this project is met with the opposition of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which has built its power over the ethnic identity of the Tigray people, who make up only 6.1% of the Ethiopian population. If this Pan-Ethiopian identity spread into the population, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front would lose its reason to exist.
The legacy of the war between Eritrea and Ethiopia is another divisive factor that makes peace between the leadership of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and the federal government difficult to achieve. In 1998, Eritrea invaded Ethiopia launching a military offensive in Tigray. Ethiopia answered to this invasion mobilizing its armed forces. The war ended two years later when the two countries signed a ceasefire in Algiers. The conflict devastated Tigray. All its infrastructures were bombed and the difficult economic situation made any reconstruction plan impossible. Since that war, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front has looked at Eritrea with hate and mistrust. Therefore, the 2018 peace agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea was not favorably accepted in Tigray, because its leadership felt that the Ethiopian federal government and Eritrea were forming a coalition against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. It is not clear yet if Eritrea will get involved in the conflict between the Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the regional authorities of Tigray. However, the military mobilization that is now taking place in Eritrea, reported by many observers, only confirms the suspects of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.
The weeks to come may be marked by bloody military escalation that will destabilize the region, or by the beginning of negotiations between the federal government of Addis Ababa and the regional authorities of Tigray. Eventual peace negotiations will have to deal with many complex issues, from the amount of autonomy that the regional governments in Ethiopia enjoy to the identity that this nation wants to have. There definitely is a lot at stake.