Is Ethiopia Headed for Civil War?

Abiy Ahmed’s military move against the Tigray region could spark a conflict with the party that once dominated Ethiopian politics—and tear the country apart. 

A man enters a polling station on the day of Tigray's regional elections, on Sept. 9, 2020 in Mekelle.
A man enters a polling station on the day of Tigray's regional elections, on Sept. 9, 2020 in Mekelle. EDUARDO SOTERAS/AFP via Getty Images

ADDIS ABABA—In a major escalation of a bitter feud with his rivals in the northern region of Tigray, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered military action after what he said was an attack on a federal army camp in the early hours of Nov. 4. The announcement, which came after weeks of escalating tensions, may mark a dangerous tipping point for a country whose stability has been repeatedly tested since Abiy came to power in 2018.

The sharp deterioration did not come as surprise to close observers of Ethiopia’s once-promising transition to democracy—a shift that has largely been ushered in by Abiy, who also won a Nobel peace prize for his role in ending a 20-year cold war with neighboring Eritrea.

A showdown has been brewing between Abiy Ahmed and Tigray’s rulers, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), who dominated Ethiopia’s ruling coalition from 1991.

For months, many observers had sensed a showdown brewing between him and Tigray’s rulers, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), who dominated the country’s ruling coalition from 1991—when they overthrew the previous military dictatorship—until 2018. On Oct. 30, the International Crisis Group warned the standoff risked triggering a “damaging conflict that may even rip the Ethiopian state asunder.”

The roots of enmity run deep. The TPLF refused to join Abiy’s new ruling party, the Prosperity Party, when it was formed late last year; it views the new party as an attempt to dismantle the constitution. And earlier this year the Tigrayan leaders accused him of laying the groundwork for dictatorship by postponing elections due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In September, in defiance of the federal government, the Tigray region held its own elections, prompting parliament to vote to sever all ties with the regional leadership last month.

The TPLF also claims Abiy’s government has overseen the persecution of ethnic Tigrayans, who make up about 6 percent of the population, and a selective purging of Tigrayan officials and security service leaders in government. As a condition for dialogue, it demands Abiy step down as prime minister and allow for the establishment of a caretaker government.

The Prosperity Party, for its part, claims TPLF leaders are masterminding Ethiopia’s myriad troubles—which include political assassinations, protests, armed rebellions, and massacres of minorities—in order to derail the political transition and reclaim the power they’ve lost by force.

Both sides have been building up their military capacity—Tigray, as one of Ethiopia’s 10 semi-autonomous ethnically based regional states, has its own police and militia—and trading increasingly bellicose rhetoric. The federal government recently halted its monthly grant to Tigray, the latest in a volley of punitive fiscal and administrative measures designed to put pressure on its leaders.

It was not immediately clear who really fired the first gunshots. According to the federal government, the TPLF attempted to “loot” equipment from the federal military’s Northern Command, which is stationed in Tigray near the border with Eritrea and is said to comprise most of Ethiopia’s armed personnel and mechanized divisions. The TPLF has long believed this command’s officer corps—many of whom, insiders say, are Tigrayan—will not obey Abiy’s orders. Last month, it said it would not accept any changes to the regiment’s leadership or structure, and then it refused to allow new commanders appointed by Abiy to take up their postings.

It is plausible, as Abiy claims, that the TPLF tried to seize assets belonging to the command. But it is not certain whether this took place before or after federal troops were deployed. A former Tigrayan general in Mekelle, the region’s capital, told me last week that taking such equipment “out of the equation” might be necessary should tensions boil over. A politburo meeting this weekend resulted in “historic decisions” taken to bolster the region’s preparedness, said Getachew Reda, a senior TPLF official, on Twitter. On Sunday the regional president, Debretsion Gebremichael, declared that “if war is imminent, we are prepared not just to resist but to win.” 

But it is also apparent that there were significant movements of federal troops in the days preceding Nov. 4. According to a United Nations diplomat, units had been withdrawn from several parts of southern Ethiopia, including the areas of Hararghe and Somali in the southeast, and from the Welega zone in western Oromia region. “[The federal government] will have difficulty convincing anyone worth their salt that this wasn’t pre-planned,” the source said.

With internet and phone networks cut throughout Tigray, details about ongoing confrontations between federal troops and Tigrayan paramilitaries are patchy and hard to verify. According to a source in Mekelle, who spoke to me via a satellite connection, gunfire in the city lasted around one hour in the early hours of the morning.

The fighting was confined to the area around the airport. Several sources in Addis Ababa said the federal government deployed commandos in military aircraft to Mekelle with the goal of securing military assets and, possibly, removing the TPLF leadership. This does not seem to have been successful, and the Tigray’s special police are reported to have taken control of the federal military base. The city was quiet for the rest of the day.

In his statement, Abiy also claimed the TPLF had attacked federal forces in the town of Dansha in western Tigray near its border with the Amhara region. Since the morning of Nov. 4 there have been reports of fighting in the west, but these are particularly difficult to corroborate. The number of casualties is unknown. 

Many in Addis Ababa hope Abiy’s military operation will be limited to a surgical strike against the TPLF in order to assert the federal government’s authority in Tigray. But the conflict could easily spread across the wider region. Neighboring Amhara state has territorial claims over parts of Tigray, and members of the ruling party there—key allies of the prime minister—had been clamoring for him to take firm action against the TPLF. On Nov. 4, its president called on Amhara military veterans to take up arms in the fight against it.

More troubling still is the possibility of intervention by Eritrean troops on the side of the Ethiopian federal army—until recently their arch-enemy. Eritrea’s president, Isaias Afwerki, nurses an old grudge against the TPLF—dating back to before the Ethiopian-Eritrean war of 1998-2000—and has drawn close to Abiy since the two made peace in 2018. Few observers doubt Isaias might be tempted to intervene in some way should he spy an opening. “We are not under the illusion that the Eritreans would sit idly by,” the TPLF’s Getachew told me last week.

Even without a spillover into neighboring countries, a limited operation to dislodge the TPLF will not be straightforward. The party controls every government office in the region down to the very lowest level. Its security forces are led by battle-hardened veterans of earlier wars. And neither it nor the federal government looks in any mood to compromise.

“When I think about a war between Abiy and the TPLF, you know what comes to mind? Iraq and Afghanistan,” said a well-connected analyst in Addis Ababa. In other words, he continued: “A quagmire.”

Tom Gardner is a journalist based in Addis Ababa, covering Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa.