What’s going on in Ethiopia and why it’s a big deal by Francesca Baldwin

Hours ago, Ethiopia’s government carried out a military attack on Tigray, Ethiopia’s most northern state. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed alleges this is in response to an earlier strike by the region’s ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), although this has yet to be substantiated. A state of emergency has been declared in the region for six months. The government has shut down electricity, phone lines and internet in Tigray, and flights to the region by national carrier Ethiopian Airlines have been stopped. Reports suggest forces have been deployed on both sides to the Tigray-Amhara border. Wondimu Asamnew, a senior TPLF official, said on Tuesday night: ‘[Military mobilisation is] not child’s play. It can trigger all-out war… I can assure you we are capable of defending ourselves’.

Is all out civil war approaching?

Quite possibly. Tigray has a remarkable history of popular mobilisation (see below) and has its own well-trained and supported militia. Ethnic division has been escalating in Ethiopia over the past months and there is real potential that any direct conflict in Tigray could spill out into the rest of the country.

What is the tension all about?

To answer this, we need to look back nearly thirty years. Following decades of armed struggle and populist revolution, in 1991 the Tigray People’s Liberation Front united regional liberation groups in Ethiopia and led the way to victory over the oppressive Derg regime. The newly established and progressive federation centralised the governance of Ethiopia in an extraordinary transethnic coalition, promising regional groups the right to self-determination and secession.

The future looked bright, but the reality disappointed. Today, Ethiopia is still plagued by ethnic political division, with the appointment of Abiy Ahmed failing to deliver hopes of a more balanced and representative government. Tigrayans have protested against their marginalisation and alienation by Ahmed’s ruling party, claiming the Prime Minister has reversed the political reforms he initially introduced. Ahmed, facing criticism from a number of sides including his own Oromo ethnic group, indefinitely postponed the August 2020 elections on account of the pandemic. In response, Tigray recalled their federal representatives from Addis Ababa and held their own elections in September, with the TPLF securing 189 of 190 seats.

Rhetoric has been intensifying ever since, with both sides mobilising in anticipation. The military offensive against Tigray earlier today, however, is the first indication that direct conflict is imminent.

Why this matters:

As the world turns its gaze to the U.S. to await the election results, an overly Western-centric lens can only obscure the crisis emerging in the Horn of Africa. Ethiopia has been fighting to combat the legacy left by the Western media of its 1983 famine, proving itself to be a remarkable country of progressivism and ingenuity. Its multi-ethnic Federation had the potential to be a ground-breaking example of unity and popular representation of ethnically diverse peoples, sadly clouded by those who misused their position for individual political gain. Further descent into conflict risks unravelling this political legacy of an extraordinary liberation war led by the people, who took a deeply divided country and built a nation.

As both sides continue their preparations for what is to come over the next few days and weeks, we can but watch and wait.

Francesca Baldwin is PhD research student at the University of Reading. Her doctoral project researches the complex narratives of female combatants in the TPLF during the Civil War, and their post-conflict experiences.



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