Ethiopian Conflict Explained

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Context: The United Nations says food has now run out for the nearly 100,000 refugees from Eritrea who have been sheltering in camps in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, which has been cut off from the world for nearly a month amid fighting.

Mains: GS II

What's Happening in Ethiopia?

  • Ethiopia is facing a civil war between government forces and troops in its northern Tigray region which has caused tens of thousands to flee.
  • The conflict erupted in early November, just a year after Ethiopian Prime Minister Aiby Ahmed received the Nobel Peace Prize for resolving the 20-year border conflict with Eritrea.
  • On 4 November, the prime minister sent troops to a military base in the northern region of Tigray, which borders Eritrea and Sudan.

What triggered the Conflict?

  • Abiy accused the region's ruling party, the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF), of attacking the base and announced in a televised broadcast days later the Ethiopian military had bombed the base in retaliation.
  • A few days after that, Amnesty International reported hundreds of people may have been killed in an attack with knives and machetes in the Tigrayan town of Mai Kadra.
  • On 13 November, Tigray launched rockets at two airports in neighbouring Amhara province and the next day said it had fired rockets at targets in neighbouring Eritrea.
  • Tigray's regional president, Debretsion Gebremichael, claimed Eritrea sent troops and tanks into Tigray to support the Ethiopian government.  o




  • Before populist Mr Abiy was elected in 2018 off the back of anti-government protests, Ethiopia was ruled by the TPLF as part of a coalition after overthrowing the former dictatorship in 1991.
  • The current government says it has worked hard to include members of the former ruling coalition and previously excluded ethnic groups – but this has not included the TPLF.
  • Tigray has openly resisted Mr Abiy's call to unify the country by increasing the central government's power, as have other regions and ethnic groups.
  • The TPLF viewed the ruling coalition as illegal and after Mr Abiy cancelled elections due to COVID-19, they set up their own election board to oversee regional elections in September.
  • Mr Abiy said he does not recognise the results of those elections and banned foreign journalists from travelling to Tigray to document the election.
  • The government in Addis Ababa voted to cut funds to the TPLF in October, which further enraged its leaders.

How has this affected civilians?

  • Tens of thousands of Ethiopians have fled Tigray into Sudan since early November, with the United Nations (UN) predicting 200,000 will have fled within six months.
  • The UN said 6,000 refugees are entering Sudan every day, with more than 31,000 having crossed over by 20 November.
  • Tigray was already home to as many as 200,000 refugees and displaced people, UN agencies said.
  • Aid groups have said they have been prevented from helping in Tigray and journalists are also not allowed in to report on what is happening.
  • NGOs have asked the Ethiopian government to secure access for them to Tigray so they can provide supplies to civilians stranded by the fighting.
  • Sudan's Um Raquba camp has reopened to house refugees 20 years after closing, after hosting thousands of Ethiopians during the country's worst famine of the 20th century from 1983 to 1985.
  • The UN called for an immediate ceasefire on 20 November so humanitarian corridors could be established to allow civilians to flee safely.
  • Communications and transport links to the Tigray region of 6 million people have been severed, and the U.N. and others have pleaded for access to deliver badly needed food, medicines and other supplies.


What does the conflict mean for the wider region?

  • It risks destabilising the region and could lead to the mass displacement of Africa's second-most populous country, with 110 million people.
  • A close military ally of the United States, Ethiopia was seen as an essential element in maintaining peace in the fragile Horn of Africa.
  • But this could be shattered by the war spilling into Eritrea, and by the fact about 96,000 Eritrean refugees living in Tigray could be displaced again.
  • With Ethiopian refugees fleeing into Sudan, which already had 1.1 million refugees, this risks destabilising the fragile transition it is going through, alongside the economic crisis it is already in.
  • Ethiopia also runs a successful peacekeeping mission in neighbouring Somalia, but that is now under threat because of its inner turmoil.
  • The Horn of Africa houses the countries of Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia.
  • Rebels also fired rockets into the neighbouring Amhara region. Even if Abiy is serious about keeping the operation short, it could spill out of control given the underlying complexities of the conflict. The TPLF has thousands of fighters under their command.
  • Also, the Tigray region shares a border with Sudan. The TPLF enjoyed good relations with Sudan’s ousted dictator Omar Bashir.
  • Sudan has an unresolved border dispute with Ethiopia. If Sudan’s new rulers keep the old links with the TPLF active and the border open for the rebels, the conflict could go on.
  • Earlier this year, in the midst of Ethiopia’s long-standing conflict with Egypt over the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam over the Blue Nile, Sudan had already found itself forcefully involved in the spat.
  • If the conflict were to spill outside Ethiopia's border, it may potentially destabilise the Horn of Africa Region. The U.S and China have several military bases near the region the closest being in Djibouti. If the military bases were to be impacted in any way, it may cause foreign power to get militarily involved in the regional conflict.

What is TPLF?

  • The TPLF was founded in 1975 as a resistance army of the Tigrayan people against the military dictatorship, which was called the Derg.
  • The leftist Derg, which was established in 1974, practically remained in power till it was ousted by the armed rebels in 1991.
  • The TPLF played a crucial role in ousting the junta and they were welcomed as national heroes in 1991.
  • TPLF leader Meles Zenawi took over as the interim President in 1991 and became the first elected Prime Minister in 1995.
  • He is largely seen as the architect of the country’s ethno-federal system and remained in power till 2012.
  • It had played a dominant role in the country’s ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF – put together by Zenawi)
  • Though the EPRDF contains regional political parties such as the Amhara Democratic Party, the Oromo Democratic Party and the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement, the TPLF remained the dominant political force.
  • The Tigray people make up roughly 6% of the population, while the Oromos have a 34% share and the Amharas 27%. The Oromos have alleged marginalisation and called for better representation.
  • Over the years, the government led by the EPRDF was accused of being increasingly authoritarian and there were frequent mass protests in the regions.
  • In 2018, the EPRDF chose Abiy, a former military intelligence officer, to lead the government amid growing protests and a political deadlock.

Party System of Ethiopia

  • Over the years, the government was led by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).
  • EPRDF is a coalition put together by Mr Zenawi, was accused of being increasingly authoritarian.
  • Eventually, there were frequent mass protests in the regions.
  • Though the EPRDF contains regional political parties such as the Amhara Democratic Party, the Oromo Democratic Party and the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement, the TPLF remained the dominant political force.
  • In 2018, the EPRDF chose Mr Abiy, a former military intelligence officer, to lead the government amid growing protests and a political deadlock.

Rise of Abiy

  • The EPRDF provided a stable rule with high economic growth for 17 years.
  • During the same time, there was mounting criticism against the country’s ethno-federal arrangement.
  • The Tigray people make up roughly 6% of the population, while the Oromos have a 34% share and the Amharas 27%.
  • While the TPLF controlled the levers of power through the EPRDF, the Oromos alleged marginalisation.
  • As Prime Minister, Mr Abiy took a host of steps to cut the outsized influence of the TPLF in the government.
  • He purged TPLF functionaries from key government posts, released political prisoners (jailed by the TPLF-led government) and promised freer media.
  • He reached out to Eritrea, a sworn enemy of the TPLF, which shares a long border with the Tigray region.
  • Mr Abiy, the country’s first Oromo leader, claimed that his actions are not driven by ethnic calculations.
  • He rather aimed at addressing the historic power imbalance in the country and making peace with the neighbours.
  • But the TPLF saw his moves as hostile.

India's Relations with Ethiopia

  • India's relations with Ethiopia have been traditionally close and friendly. Successive Ethiopian regimes have been appreciative of the fact that India was never been hostile to Ethiopia’s interests.
  • However, our relations have passed through various phases largely in response to the change in regimes in Ethiopia. Relations during Emperor Haile Selassie regime (1941-74) were close. He encouraged a large number of Indian teachers to come to Ethiopia and who worked in the remotest parts of Ethiopia which brought tremendous goodwill that India still enjoys.
  • The subsequent Communist Derg Regime (1974-91) favoured the Soviet bloc and many resident Indian businessmen and teachers left Ethiopia. India enjoys close and friendly relations with the current democratic regime.
  • Bilateral trade between Ethiopia and India stood at USD 1.28 billion in 2018-19, out of which Indian exports to Ethiopia were USD 1.23 billion and imports were USD 55.01 million.
  • There are more than 586 Indian companies in Ethiopia employing more than 55,000 people with the licensed investment of over USD 4 billion.
  • About 58.7% of Indian investments are in the manufacturing sector, followed by agriculture (15.6%).

Lines of Credit:  

  • India provides assistance in developmental projects in Ethiopia with sanctioned Lines of Credit worth more than US$1 billion to the Government of Ethiopia for sectors such as rural electrification, sugar industry and railways. Ethiopia is the largest recipient of long term concessional credit from India in Africa.
  • Out of the three Sugar Factory projects being undertaken through LoC funding of US$ 640 million, Finchaa Sugar Factory has already been completed and handed over to the Ethiopian side. The other two, WonjiShoa and Tendaho Phase-I have commenced production.

Way Forward

  • With the decision to bomb Tigray, Mr Abiy has declared war on his people at a time when ethnic tensions are running high. He may be trying to send a strong message to the rebel politicians of the Tigray region that patience is wearing thin. But if he thinks a military campaign would solve the conflicts between ethnicities and regions, he could well be mistaken.
  • The regions, largely divided on ethnic lines, have militias that cut their teeth in the struggle against the junta.
  • Instead of bombing his own country, Mr Abiy should reach out to regional political leaderships, especially the TPLF, find common ground, and run the country peacefully by restoring the balance between ethnicities and regions and decentralising the federal government.

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