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Understanding the Conflict in Ethopia

By: Ryan Lafferty

One year ago, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in forging peace with Ethiopia’s regional enemy, Eritrea. At the time, the award was seen as a recognition of Ethiopia’s commitment to peace, tranquility, and collaboration. But in the past several weeks, Ahmed’s actions could be described as anything but peaceful: days of fierce bombing and targeted airstrikes have brought the nation to the brink of civil war. Now, many international leaders fear that one of the most populous nations on the African continent may soon be submerged in a bloody, sectarian conflict.


But how did we get here? To answer that, we need to travel back several decades.


Throughout most of the 1970s and 1980s, Ethiopia was governed by a brutally repressive, authoritarian dictatorship. After years of fighting, in 1991, a coalition of leftist rebel groups known as the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (“EPRDF”) overthrew the military junta that had previously ruled over the country.


For centuries, the northernmost portion of Ethiopia has been home to the Tigrayan people, a minority ethnic group that represents approximately six percent of Ethiopia’s population. After the overthrow of the Ethiopian dictatorship, a group of Tigrayans, known as the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (“TPLF”), became the leaders of the EPRDF, and as the EPRDF constructed a new government for the Ethiopian people, the TPLF pushed strongly for a federal system of government, under which regional territories – such as Tigray – would be granted significant autonomy and sovereignty. 


From 1991 until recently, this diverse coalition led by the TPLF governed over Ethiopia. In 2018, however, a series of anti-government protests broke out across the nation, ushering in a new administration – one that was explicitly oppositional towards the Tigray minority population. When Abiy Ahmed became the Prime Minister of the nation, he systematically removed Tigrays from positions of power within the government, arrested dozens of journalists, substantially limited the freedoms of the Tigrayan people,  and implemented harsh security crackdowns on the region of Tigray. Subsequently, tensions between the Tigrayan people and the federal government grew enormously, and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which possessed regional control over the Tigray region, became increasingly antagonistic towards Ahmed’s federal government.


Tensions worsened even further just a few months ago, when a mandate from the federal government required all territories within Ethiopia to delay annual elections due to the coronavirus pandemic; Tigray held its elections as per the normal, and in doing so, further inflamed the relationship between the Ethiopian federal government and the TPLF.


Last week, these tensions escalated to violence when hundreds of people in a southwest zone in the region of Tigray were killed by the Ethiopian military. Amnesty International – as well as dozens of other international organizations and nations– have verified that Prime Minister Ahmed ordered such military activity, and have condemned the violence as needless and barbaric slaughtering of innocents.


The Ahmend administration has claimed that its use of violence was a response to a Tigrayan attack on the Ethiopian military, yet as of yet, the evidence for that claim is nonexistent. Indeed, numerous international coalitions and states, such as the United Nations and the U.S., have publicly denounced Ahmed’s actions, and have called for peace rather than war.


But as of yet, the situation is only intensifying. More recently, the Ethiopian military has used airstrikes and bombing attacks to target parts of the Tigray region, prompting further retaliatory violence. The Ethiopian government has shut down all forms of digital communication within the country and has barred international observers from entering its borders for monitoring purposes. As the violence further spirals out of control, many worry that a full-blown civil war between the Ahmed-backed federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front may be unavoidable.


But this conflict has disastrous implications not only for the Ethiopian people, but for the region as a whole. Experts predict that, should the conflict further escalate, bordering countries like Eritrea – which has a longstanding opposition to the Tigrayan people – may be drawn into the conflict, further expanding the scope of violence. Elsewhere, some fear that regional powers such as Saudi Arabia might join the fray should they view it as in their interest to do so.


Ultimately, the situation in Ethiopia is immensely troubling – not only because of the present violence and destruction, but also because of the uncertain, ominous prospects for the future.

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