Making sense of Ethiopia's Tigray conflict
On the importance of understanding the historical origins of the conflict and potential paths to lasting peace
I: Searching for heroes and villains
When the history of the Tigray conflict in Ethiopia is written, it will not portray the majority of journalists and analysts who covered it in a good light. Many took sides, cast their favored elite protagonists as heroes, and went about moralizing about the war as if it was a contest between evil incarnate and righteous vanguards of progress. The tendency to ignore the conflict’s historical origins as well as enabling institutions, politics, and elite incentives smothered open discussion of the causes of the conflict and potential solutions.
The real victims of the war were the Ethiopian people. More than 600,000 people may have been killed. Imagine if Lilongwe disappeared. Millions of people in Tigray and other regions were displaced, their lives upended forever. The destruction of infrastructure, farms, homes, and jobs undid hard-won progress that may take the better part of a decade to rebuild. Even as (hopefully) the war winds down following the signing of a peace agreement last year, survivors will live with the horrors of sexual assault as a weapon of war and all manner of brutality that characterized the conflict for the rest of their lives. It will take time to restore trust that the Ethiopian state exists to serve all Ethiopians regardless their identity.
The scale of human tragedy caused by this conflict is particularly painful because it was an avoidable war.
It is for that reason that we should avoid lapsing into all manner of silences regarding what caused the war and potential paths to lasting peace in Ethiopia. In particular, we should pay attention to how Ethiopia’s political history in the latter half of the 20th century created contemporary opportunities for conflict (and peace). As Mamdani eloquently put it in When Victims Become Killers:
If it is true that the choices were made from a historically limited menu, it is also the case that the identity of agents who made these choices was also forged within historically specific institutions. To benefit from a historically informed insight is not the same as to lapse into a politically irresponsible historicism. [ ] To those who think that I am thereby trying to have my cake while eating it too, I can only point out that it is not possible to define the scope—and not just the limits—of action without taking into account historical legacies.
Briefly, the (more recent) historical origins of the conflict can be traced back to post-WWII subnational rejections of “internal colonialism” under Emperor Haile Selassie. The various grievances advanced by these movements found clear articulation in the 1960s student movements that were informed by Leninist conceptions of the rights of subnational nations, nationalities, and peoples to self-determination. After the emperor was deposed in 1974, the Derg regime’s failure to meet popular expectations regarding subnational self-determination partially fueled the civil war (1974-1991). Understood this way, the proliferation of ethnic “liberation fronts” during the civil war was not mere primordialist ethnic sectionalism, but a rejection of internal colonialism. Indeed, the winning armed coalition in the civil war was cobbled together with the understanding that federalism (including the option of secession for Eritrea) would be the only game in town. The bargain (which admittedly has not always been enforced) was codified in the 1995 constitution.
Understanding the historical origins of elite and popular desires for real subnational self-determination (and centralizing counter movements) is a useful antidote against reducing contestations over Ethiopian federalism to crass ethnic politics or the doings of deranged personalist ogres. While it is true that political entrepreneurs have exploited the ethnic character of Ethiopian federalism for their own ends, the idea itself originated from the need to reimagine an Ethiopia that was not unfairly dominated by a centralizing imperial core and which afforded all Ethiopians the opportunity to live decent lives.
II: The proximate political origins of the war
At its core, the Tigray conflict is/was a battle for the very character of the Ethiopian state. The federal government, led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, championed the misguided idea that it could dismantle Ethiopia’s brand of ethnic federalism and the associated political/constitutional settlement. To promote the presumed virtues of “reform”, the anti-federalism voices bastardized Ethiopia’s federal structure as founded on crass veneration of divisive ethnicity. This characterization could not be further from the truth. Regardless of what one thinks of its implementation and outcomes, Ethiopia’s ethnic federalism was the result of decades-old ideological contests over the question of subnational self-determination for its many distinct nations, nationalities, and peoples.
In short, Abiy’s pitch (summarized below) was disingenuous and deliberately ignored the political and historical experiences that underpinned both elite and popular understanding of Ethiopian federalism.
Abiy believes that after Ethiopia teetered on the edge of the abyss two or three years ago, when outbreaks of violent unrest threatened the country with disintegration, the only path to salvation is a kind of moral revolution. Medemer, the concept forged by Abiy, translates roughly as “combining and uniting”.
The country will transcend its divisions, mainly ethnic in nature, by gradually coming together around a common set of moral or ethical values: love, forgiveness, reconciliation, etc. Ethiopia first and foremost needs a spiritual revolution, a change of mindset. This, he argues to his entourage, will bring not just peace and harmony, but prosperity.
Abiy’s move to do away with the federal structure of the ruling coalition — the Ethiopia People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) — and replace it with a unitary Prosperity Party vividly illustrated his centralizing tendencies. To be fair, previous administrations that were dominated by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) faction of EPRDF also failed to live up to the spirit of federalism as envisioned in the 1995 constitution. However, in his case Abiy (and his allies) grossly underestimated the resolve of a section of TPLF elites to push back against the very forms of centralization that they had practiced while in power between 1991 and 2018.
On their part, a section of Tigray elites refused to accept the new political reality occasioned by the rise of Abiy as Prime Minister in 2018. Having lost the political contest within EPRDF, they chose to pursue non-political bargaining strategies with a view of protecting their interests vis-a-vis the new dispensation in Addis Ababa. The ensuing brinkmanship included the threat of occasioning a constitutional crisis by holding an election declared illegal by the federal government; forceful capture of the seat of power in Addis Ababa, or secession.
Abiy’s political constraints and uncertainty over each camp’s resolve jointly contributed to the onset of the conflict. Abiy and his allies were constrained by the need to signal a real shift of power within the EPRDF from TPLF to other coalition members — especially elites from the Amhara and Oromia regions. He also likely sincerely feared that acquiescing to the maximalist demands from TPLF would leave the Ethiopian state dangerously weakened and exposed to centrifugal forces from other regions as well. Ethiopia has experienced bouts of communal violence in different regions motivated by questions of belonging (see map above). From their perspective, the rebellious TPLF elites likely assumed that Abiy’s political vulnerabilities (he had barely consolidated power even within his own Oromia backyard, while Amhara regional support remained conditional) made him amenable to coercive bargaining. And when Abiy called their bluff in the hopes that they would fold, TPLF elites remained firm.
The ensuing uncertainly over resolve (and capacity to wage war) accelerated the convergence on war as a bargaining strategy by both sides. The possibility of internationalizing the conflict (more on this below) very likely exacerbated both sides’ uncertainty over resolve/capacity and increased the chances of conflict. Put differently, each side chose war not just based on their objective capacity, but also the potential to grow their capacity.
III: The international dimension
Like most civil wars in Africa, the Tigray conflict was internationalized from the outset. In this regard it was similar to other conflicts in Ethiopia that had external proxy involvement. The war threatened to expose Ethiopia to coercive bargaining by Sudan and Egypt over Nile waters and the Grand Renaissance Dam, and Eritrea over disputed territory.
In the end, Abiy’s rapprochement with Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki before the war started and the latter’s willingness to send troops into Tigray region defined much of the war — and likely proved decisive in reducing any uncertainty over the federal government’s resolve and capacity to inflict maximum pain and damage on both armed actors and civilians in Tigray. Numerous credible reports have documented atrocities that would amount to war crimes committed by Eritrean troops. The sequencing of the implementation of the November 2022 agreement suggests that the war revealed to TPLF elites their limited capacity for coercive bargaining with the federal government.
Details about the TPLF’s industrial organization during the war are not yet fully public, but their seeming inability to lean on Ethiopia’s would-be regional competitors for support is puzzling. Perhaps the encirclement by Eritrean and the Ethiopian National Defense Forces worked. Or perhaps their real objective was war-as-bargaining, and when it became clear that they had a weak hand they folded. History will tell. For now, we can conclude that the seeming inability to get robust external military support cleared the air regarding any lingering uncertainties about resolve and capacity to wage war.
Finally, the peace agreement is an important achievement for the African Union (AU). For more than two years it seemed like the region was unable to avoid total war and possible state collapse in Africa’s second most populous country (which also hosts the African Union). One hopes that the lessons learned from this process will be applied towards advancing the AU’s mission of silencing all guns in the region.
IV: The unresolved question of subnational self-determination
So far the implementation of the November 2022 peace agreement seems to be going reasonably well. The IMF projects a return to growth, with Ethiopia poised to eclipse Kenya as the largest economy in Eastern Africa. A return to double digit growth would be welcome news to the more than 120m Ethiopians eager to improve their material conditions.
That said, Ethiopia faces several vexing challenges ahead. The question of subnational self-determination and related communal conflicts across the country remain unresolved. Abiy’s triumphalism after the conclusion of the Tigray conflict may exacerbate his centralizing tendencies. The neutralization of TPLF (for now anyway) as a political force that focused minds on unity in other regions may create new political challenges for Abiy in Amhara and Oromia regions. And the fact that Abiy is beholden to Afwerki may limit his post-conflict menu of political options as he seeks to reintegrate rebellious TPLF elites into mainstream politics.
Survey data seems to suggest that Abiy will not have an easy way out. According to Afrobarometer (2019), 60.9% of respondents support federalism while only 36.3% consider it to be too divisive. Views on ethnic vs geographic federalism are more evenly divided. When given the options, 48.5% of respondents supported the idea of ethnic federalism, while 48.2% were in favor of geographic federalism. To add to the challenge of figuring out a path forward, there is suggestive evidence that Ethiopians who are socialized under ethnic federalism have stronger attachments to subnational identities than the national Ethiopian identity.
Given its size and diversity, federalism or some other form of substantive devolution are the only real paths to political stability and effective developmentalist government in Ethiopia. However, it is also important to ensure that the creation of subnational governments do not ossify particularistic attachments at the expense of the overall nation-building project. Only time will tell whether Abiy Ahmed has the capacity to rise to the occasion and deliver on both development policy and performative modeling of a political culture that respects historical desires for subnational self-determination and a united Ethiopia that works for all Ethiopians.
Well written Prof. A few observations:
1. On the proximate cause and Abiy's politics, it keeps coming out that he was not a unitarian, but playing political games of survival, due to the support he had from Amhara nationalists.
2. The TPLF did try to form alliances with other regional movements, e.g. OLA and Benishangul Gumuz. There was even a coalition that was launched in Washington D.C., late 2021.
3. The underlying cause of the conflict is truly an elite-power struggle, but also the failure of the TPLF to democratise Ethiopia.
4. I would not speak in a confidently optimistic way about the Pretoria Agreement and Narobi Declaration yet.
5. Abiy still faces real threats from Oromia, mostly due to land-grabbing and a feeling of betrayal. This could strongly affect the future of Ethiopia.
Great read, thanks.