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In 2019, Ethiopia’s President, Abiy Ahmed, received the Nobel Peace Prize for “his efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation, and in particular for his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea.” Now his government is involved in war in the northern Ethiopian province of Tigray. How have we reached this point? What is happening on the ground? And what will be the consequences of this escalating violence?
Ethiopia is a federal country with several major ethnic groups. The Tigrayans, living mostly in northern Ethiopia, are one of these. In the past, there have been persistent ethnic rivalries. But since 1991, the country has been ruled by a coalition of parties – the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) – representing multiple regional and ethnic groups. The most important of these was the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). In 2018, Abiy Ahmed became Prime Minister after anti-government protests. He shut down the EPRDF and created a new party, claiming these steps would unify the country. However, this party excluded the TPLF. His drive for unity also meant increasing the central government’s power, which was opposed in Tigray and other regions. Finally, after Mr Abiy cancelled elections last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the TPLF set up its own election board to oversee elections, undermining the authority of the central government.
Outbreak of violence
In November 2020, the Ethiopian government claimed that the TPLF had carried out an attack against a military base in the Tigray region, attempting to steal weapons and killing soldiers. Following this, Mr Abiy claimed that troops were being sent to Tigray to restore order. The TPLF said they were ready for war. Air strikes were conducted and the TPLF-led regional government was dismissed. Initially, the scale of the conflict was uncertain because of a communications blackout imposed on the region. Ever since, information has been difficult to access, and the Ethiopian government has been accused of blocking media and NGO access to the region.
The conflict escalates
Since November, the violence has escalated into full-scale war. Ethiopian government forces took control of the regional capital, Mekelle, in late November, but TPLF leaders said they would continue to fight. Some of them have already been killed, including Seyoum Mesfin, Ethiopia’s longest-serving foreign minister. Meanwhile, the situation for ordinary people has worsened rapidly. The United Nations predicts that 200,000 people will have fled the region in the six months since November and deaths from hunger have been recorded.
As well as the cost to human life, the war poses a serious threat to the Ethiopian state and the wider region. However, as the conflict continues, it is receiving increased regional and international attention, including from the new government in the United States, an important security partner for Ethiopia. Global recognition of the war and its seriousness is an important and welcome step, bringing hope that efforts to end the conflict will get the attention they deserve.