How Ethiopia’s Conflict Deepened in 2021

After more than a year of fighting, is peace on the horizon—or does wider war loom?

Members of Ethiopia’s Republican March Band stand on guard.
Members of Ethiopia’s Republican March Band stand on guard.
Members of Ethiopia’s Republican March Band stand on guard during a ceremony to support Ethiopian military troops in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Nov. 7. Getty Images

2021

Ethiopia’s civil war, which began in November 2020, has escalated and taken multiple turns throughout 2021 as government forces battle rebels from the country’s former dominant party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). What was initially presented by Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed as a swift “police action” has turned into a protracted conflict involving the presence of troops from Ethiopia’s former enemy, Eritrea, and allegations and compelling evidence of war crimes committed by all parties.

In August, the federal forces that had retaken the northern region of Tigray were forced out of its capital, Mekele. In recent months, TPLF soldiers have pushed south toward Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, and announced an alliance with other separatist groups, most notably the Oromo Liberation Army, further threatening the federal government. In December, the tide appeared to turn again as Abiy announced he was headed for the front line and federal forces recaptured several key towns, followed by a TPLF announcement that its forces would retreat to Tigray. The U.S. government has responded with sanctions while the African Union has sought to mediate—so far in vain.

Throughout the year Foreign Policy has covered the conflict extensively, offering analysis of the war and proposing possible paths to peace. Here are five of the most important articles on the conflict published in the past year.

Ethiopia’s civil war, which began in November 2020, has escalated and taken multiple turns throughout 2021 as government forces battle rebels from the country’s former dominant party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). What was initially presented by Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed as a swift “police action” has turned into a protracted conflict involving the presence of troops from Ethiopia’s former enemy, Eritrea, and allegations and compelling evidence of war crimes committed by all parties.

In August, the federal forces that had retaken the northern region of Tigray were forced out of its capital, Mekele. In recent months, TPLF soldiers have pushed south toward Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, and announced an alliance with other separatist groups, most notably the Oromo Liberation Army, further threatening the federal government. In December, the tide appeared to turn again as Abiy announced he was headed for the front line and federal forces recaptured several key towns, followed by a TPLF announcement that its forces would retreat to Tigray. The U.S. government has responded with sanctions while the African Union has sought to mediate—so far in vain.

Throughout the year Foreign Policy has covered the conflict extensively, offering analysis of the war and proposing possible paths to peace. Here are five of the most important articles on the conflict published in the past year.


1. In Tigray, Sexual Violence Has Become a Weapon of War

by Helen Clark and Rachel Kyte, April 27

A former New Zealand prime minister and the Fletcher School’s dean argue that there is clear evidence of mass rape in Tigray and demand that the international community label it a war crime. “We should not need to wait until we are able to conduct full and thorough investigations before we act to stop rape as a weapon of war,” they write.


2. Why Eritrea Won’t Leave Ethiopia

by Seeye Abraha Hagos, May 4

A former Ethiopian defense minister contends that Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki has no incentive to remove his troops from Ethiopian territory, despite assurances from Abiy. Drawing on his personal experiences dealing with Isaias—as both an ally and an enemy—Seeye Abraha Hagos contends that Eritrea will continue to pursue its economic interests at the expense of Ethiopian sovereignty.


Demonstrators take part in a rally in support of Ethiopia's national defense forces in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Nov. 7.

Demonstrators take part in a rally in support of Ethiopias national defense forces in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Nov. 7.Eduardo Soteras/AFP via Getty Images

3. A Blueprint for Peace in Ethiopia

by Adem K. Abebe, Nov. 12

Adem K. Abebe, a constitutional law expert, takes a closer look at some of the specific obstacles standing in the way of a durable peace in Ethiopia. He points to the contested territories of Welkait-Tsegede and Raya that have been a source of ongoing conflict between the Amhara and Tigray regions. “A possible compromise is for the TPLF to withdraw its forces from Afar and Amhara areas, while Amhara forces also withdraw from Welkait-Tsegede,” Abebe writes, with the goal of establishing a joint political administration in disputed areas. The country will also need a “national dialogue” to address a number of thorny issues, starting with the demobilization of all regional militaries, which Abebe notes are a source of “inherent instability.”


4. How to Avert Catastrophe in Ethiopia

by Addisu Lashitew, Nov. 15

Addisu Lashitew, an assistant professor at Canada’s McMaster University, calls on the U.S. government to exert pressure on the TPLF to abandon its offensive while demanding a cease-fire from all parties. Once the shooting stops, he proposes that “rival factions could start by extending mutual recognition to each other: The Ethiopian government could remove the terrorist designation it applied to the TPLF and recognize the legitimacy of Tigray’s regional elections. In turn, the TPLF could recognize the 2021 national elections that were won by Abiy’s party.”


5. Ethiopia’s Breakup Doesn’t Have to Be Violent

by Teferi Mergo and Kebene Kejela, Nov. 27

Teferi Mergo and Kebene Kejela argue that the unitary Ethiopian state is irrevocably broken. Noting that Article 39 of the country’s constitution permits unilateral secession, they call for regional referendums that “empower the colonized and oppressed nations of Ethiopia to decide their political destiny” and propose an EU-style confederation. “At this point,” they write, “a confederation of different states is the optimal solution that could permanently resolve the costly contradictions of the Ethiopian state.” The alternative, they warn, is “the bloody path of the former Yugoslavia.”

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