Tigray’s War Against Ethiopia Isn’t About Autonomy. It’s About Economic Power.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is fighting the country’s revanchist old regime, which is intent on recapturing the economic and political influence it once held.
It has been two weeks since a military conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region between regional forces and the Ethiopian federal army began. Some analysts fear that it could escalate further, leading to the disintegration of the country, which would have significant economic and political repercussions for all countries in the Horn of Africa. But the fundamental causes of the conflict are misunderstood.
Outside observers and analysts tend to see the proximate cause as a recent disagreement between the regional leaders and the federal government—which is led by Nobel Peace Prize-winning Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed—regarding the constitutionality of the parliament’s decision to postpone the national and regional elections due to COVID-19. Tigray’s regional leaders held an election in defiance of that decision, in which the governing the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) won all seats, and the result was subsequently declared null and void by the country’s parliament.
Others identify the prevailing ideological differences between Abiy and the TPLF as the key source of friction. These arguments, however, do not explain why such differences would give rise to a military confrontation. That’s because they are not the underlying causes of the conflict at all.
This war is ultimately a battle for control of Ethiopia’s economy, its natural resources, and the billions of dollars the country receives annually from international donors and lenders. Access to those riches is a function of who heads the federal government—which the TPLF controlled for nearly three decades before Abiy came to power in April 2018, following widespread protests against the TPLF-led government.
In other words, this is not a conflict over who gets to rule Tigray, a small region whose population accounts for a mere 6 percent of Ethiopia’s more than 110 million people. It is a fight over who gets to dominate the commanding heights of the country’s economy, a prize that Tigray’s regional leaders once held and are determined to recapture at any cost.
The TPLF was the dominant force in Ethiopian politics for nearly 30 years, after it ousted the military government of Mengistu Hailemariam in 1991 in a protracted armed struggle alongside the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, which was led by the current president of Eritrea, Isaias Afwerki. After the fall of the military government, Eritrea seceded from Ethiopia in 1993, and the TPLF’s former leader, the late Ethiopian prime minister Meles Zenawi, ruled the country with an iron fist until his death in 2012.
The current director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, was also a member of the TPLF leadership and served as Ethiopia’s health minister for many years under Meles. Before Abiy’s rise to power, all the country’s heads of intelligence and the military chiefs came from the TPLF or were members of the military wing of the party during the armed struggle against Mengitsu. After coming to power, the TPLF-led government converted its forces into an ostensibly Ethiopian army, after completely disbanding the old Ethiopian army. This ensured that most of the top generals and other military leaders in the new army came from the TPLF’s ranks as well.
The TPLF’s political and military power eventually gave rise to economic dominance as it enabled its leaders to exercise complete control of the country’s economy and natural resources—mainly its land—as well as aid flows and loans. In recent years, Ethiopia received, on average, about $3.5 billion per year in foreign aid alone, which accounted for about half of the country’s national budget during the late Meles years. The TPLF-led government also took significant amounts of loans from private creditors and governments, mainly from China, which had reached 60 percent of the country’s GDP when Abiy came to power. In fact, Abiy’s new administration, which inherited meager foreign exchange reserves, has been struggling to service this debt and was forced to request deferral and renegotiation of terms of these loans from creditors.
Furthermore, the constitution that the TPLF-led government introduced in 1994, which allowed only public ownership of land, gave government officials unfettered access to abundant land resources in the southern parts of the country, particularly in Benishangul-Gumuz and Gambela regions, which they leased to foreign and domestic investors in a long-term lease, amassing billions of dollars in the process. According to Human Rights Watch, by January 2011 the Ethiopian government had leased out 3.6 million hectares of land, an area equivalent to the size of the Netherlands, to foreign investors.
Moreover, the TPLF was also able to dominate virtually all sectors of the Ethiopian economy through the companies under its massive conglomerate, the Endowment Fund for the Rehabilitation of Tigray (EFFORT), by far the largest conglomerate in the country. Until recently, EFFORT was administered by Meles’s widow, Azeb Mesfin, and TPLF officials are still board members of the major companies under this conglomerate, which enjoyed access to loans from a financial sector that is dominated by the state-owned Commercial Bank of Ethiopia and Development Bank of Ethiopia.
The TPLF’s dominance was not confined to the economy; it also directly intervened in the selection of the leaders of the major religions, which it regarded as instruments of social control. During the TPLF’s rule, both patriarchs of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, with over 40 million followers in the country, came from Tigray. Its leaders also intervened in selecting Ethiopia’s Islamic Affairs Supreme Council, which was eventually met with resistance from some Muslim activists and leaders, whom the government jailed, leading to widespread protests by Muslims throughout the country in 2012.
Driven by massive investment in infrastructure and the education and health sectors, mainly financed with foreign aid and loans, the TPLF-led government, with Meles at the helm, oversaw significant economic progress in the country over the nearly three decades it held power. The regime was also authoritarian, frequently jailing opposition politicians and journalists and liberally using its defense and security forces to quell anti-government protests.
Human rights group such as Amnesty International as well as the U.S. State Department frequently accused government security forces of severe human violations, including torture, against members of the opposition parties and individuals suspected of working with groups that were waging armed struggle against the government, such as the Oromo Liberation Front, Ogaden National Liberation Front, and Ginbot 7—one of the major multiethnic parties in the country opposed to the system of ethnic federalism.
Although the United States and the European Union knew of the government’s poor human rights record, the economic progress they saw and Ethiopia’s key role in fighting al-Shabab militants in neighboring Somalia meant that they were reluctant to exert sufficient pressure on the TPLF-led government to undertake democratic reforms, even when government security forces shot and killed hundreds of demonstrators in Addis Ababa in 2005, who were protesting the election results the government claimed to have won. They looked the other way again when the government claimed to have won all seats in the parliament during the last general election in 2015, which opposition parties claimed was rigged.
It was clear for many years that the TPLF’s political dominance could not go on indefinitely. Widespread protests broke out in 2018 in the Oromia and Amhara regions, homes of the two largest ethnic groups in the country, forcing the TPLF-led coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, to replace then-Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, who succeeded Meles following his sudden death in 2012. (Although Hailemariam was from a minority ethnic group in the South, he did not pose a serious threat to the TPLF’s dominance. Abiy does pose such a threat, because he is an ethnic Oromo—the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia.)
This is when the leaders of two parties in the TPLF-led coalition, the Amhara National Democratic Movement and Oromo People’s Democratic Organization, which were hitherto playing second fiddle to the TPLF, secretly decided to join forces and break the TPLF’s hegemony by voting for Abiy as the leader of the coalition, a move that the TPLF leadership didn’t see coming and never forgave.
Since coming to power in 2018, Abiy’s new federal administration has directly threatened the TPLF’s long-standing economic dominance in Ethiopia as a whole by seeking to limit its sphere of influence to the small Tigray region.
Abiy has unveiled or carried out important economic measures that threaten the economic dominance of the leaders of the TPLF. These include his administration’s plan to privatize the state-owned Ethio Telecom, the Ethiopian Sugar Corporation, and companies in the energy sector with assets of over $7 billion.
More recently, the government introduced new currency notes, which, according to the prime minister, are designed to fight corruption and smuggling; some observers noted that this was principally aimed at controlling the money outside the financial system that is held by former government officials and their economic entities that authorities suspect are engaged in illegal trade and illicit activities.
Indeed, on Nov. 17, the federal attorney general announced that the government had frozen the bank accounts of 34 of these companies for funding “ethnic-based attacks and terrorist activities, having links with and providing financial assistance to TPLF, tax avoidance and corruption.”
Abiy’s reforms have also reduced TPLF influence in the security sector. Immediately after taking power, Abiy released thousands of political prisoners and journalists the government had imprisoned, unbanned groups that were waging armed struggles against the Ethiopian government, and signed a peace treaty with Eritrea, with which the TPLF-led government fought a border war that claimed the lives of tens of thousands of soldiers from both sides.
Then he sacked the fearsome and reclusive security chief, Getachew Assefa, and replaced the military chief. He soon began undertaking reforms in the military and security sectors aimed at bringing about more balanced representation of the ethnic groups. This made it clear to TPLF leaders that Abiy posed a serious threat to their long-standing dominance in the Ethiopian armed forces and economy. And they acted to regain control.
On June 23, 2018, nearly three months after Abiy came to power, there was an assassination attempt against him during a rally in Addis Ababa. The government shortly after identified the former TPLF security chief, Getachew, as the mastermind, but he had already fled to the Tigray region. A federal court issued an arrest warrant for him for the attempt and other human right rights violations, but the Tigrayan regional government refused to hand him over. His former deputy, however, was arrested while fleeing security forces.
Since the TPLF lost control of the federal government, the frequency of ethnic-based conflicts in all regional states, except in Tigray, has spiked significantly. While there is deep ethnic rivalry in the country, it does not explain how millions have been displaced; how hundreds of Orthodox Christians and ethnic Amharas living in the South were massacred and their homes, churches, and businesses burned down; how ethnic Amhara students were kidnapped; or how important Oromo figures such as the musician Hachalu Hundessa were killed, sparking protests that led to the deaths of over 150 civilians.
Many of these attacks appear to have been orchestrated and financed by those who lost out from Abiy’s rise to power and the reforms he has been undertaking; they are determined to make the country utterly ungovernable unless they are the ones ruling it. And there is overwhelming consensus that the TPLF’s leaders were the main losers from Abiy’s reforms while also possessing the capacity to plan and carry out such attacks—by employing the financial muscle and security network they built over three decades of political dominance.
It is clear that the current conflict is not over who gets to govern Tigray because the postponement of national and regional elections extended the tenure of the legislative and executive branches of all regional governments in the country, including in Tigray, which is still ruled by the TPLF. Nor is it a clash between federalists and unitarists; Ethiopia’s federal system remains intact, as evidenced by a 10th regional state that was recently created.
Rather, what’s at the heart of the ongoing conflict are Abiy’s economic and political reforms and the unrelenting pace at which they were unveiled—moves that TPLF leaders perceive as unacceptably threatening to the economic and political dominance they have long enjoyed and the considerable influence they still wield across Ethiopia.
That dominance is something the TPLF is willing to fight to preserve, as evidenced by the decision to carry out what a top TPLF official described as a “preemptive strike” against the federal army’s Northern Command, triggering the current conflict. The risk now is that the TPLF’s persistent and increasingly audacious actions could make Abiy’s peaceful reforms impossible and thereby make a violent transition inevitable.
Kassahun Melesse is an assistant professor of applied economics at Oregon State University who lived in Ethiopia for over 25 years.