Power Play Along Ethnic Lines: The Tigray Conflict Explained

Written by: Lydia Nyachieo

Thursday, November 26 marks the day Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed commenced the “final stage” of the government’s military offensive in the northern Ethiopian province of Tigray against the fighters of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). After giving the Tigray fighters an ultimatum to surrender that expired on November 25th, the Ethiopian army is now moving to take the Tigray capital of Mekelle, despite the leader of the Tigray forces, Debretsion Gebremichael, vowing that they would keep fighting.  The conflict in Ethiopia between government forces and the fighters of the TPLF has grown since the beginning of November, leading several state leaders, NGOs, and human rights organizations to voice their concerns about a possible civil war, humanitarian crisis, and larger regional instability.  

The Tigray region is one of nine regional states in Ethiopia, situated in the northernmost part of the country, bordering Eritrea and Sudan. It is home to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front which, until recently, had been Ethiopia’s most powerful political party. Although tensions have been growing between the TPLF and Ahmed’s central government for the past year, the first major catalyst of the current conflict occurred this past September, when Tigray held its own parliamentary elections, defying the federal government’s order to postpone all elections due to the coronavirus. While Tigray’s regional elections were deemed illegal by the federal government, Tigray leaders defended their actions, arguing that because the national elections had been postponed multiple times due to the pandemic, Ahmed’s term had expired without a fixed election date, ending his mandate to rule the country

The second, more immediate catalyst of the conflict occurred when Ahmed accused the Tigray government of attacking and raiding a federal military base in the beginning of November – which the TPLF denied – and sent in the Ethiopian army to the region to maintain order. Since then, Ethiopia’s army has fought TPLF forces while advancing its military offensive through Tigray toward Tigray’s capital, Mekelle, with both domestic and regional consequences. According to BBC, “hundreds of people have reportedly been killed and thousands have been forced from their homes,” with more than 40,000 people fleeing across the border to Sudan. This has caused worry that the conflict could cause greater instability in the region. With the central government cutting off the internet and phone lines, civilians in the Tigray region have been subject to a communication blackout – making it hard to get information about their condition out of the region – as well as shortages of flour, fuel, water, electricity, even cash (since the bank of Ethiopia closed all its branches in Tigray). 


The roots of this conflict are key to understanding the current spiraling of events in Ethiopia. The TPLF is the leading and most powerful party of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a four-party coalition that successfully overthrew the military dictator Haile Mariam Mengistu from power in 1991 (the three other parties were the Amhara Democratic Party, the Oromo Democratic Party and the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement). Under EPRDF’s rule, Ethiopia became an ethnically based federal democratic republic, wherein each major ethnic group administers its own regions and – unlike other federations – has the right to self-determination according to the constitution.  

According to Freedom House, by the time Ahmed came to power in 2018, there had been “widespread and growing discontent with ethnic and political marginalization and repressive rule by the EPRDF” for several years. This manifested as anti-government protests in the Oromia and Amhara regions in 2015 and 2016. The EPRDF hoped that Ahmed’s prime ministership would help quell the feelings of discontent among marginalized ethnic groups such as the Oromo, the ethnic group to which Ahmed belongs. Upon becoming prime minister, Ahmed enacted several unprecedented progessive and inclusive reforms. One of the reforms that created tension between Ahmed and the TPLF-led EPRDF coalition was Ahmed’s move to merge the four parties of the EPRDF into one – the Prosperity Party. Amidst several other of Ahmed’s democratic reforms, this has effectively sidelined the TPLF and reduced their monopolization of political power – which the TPLF has resisted. According to NPR, during the current conflict, the TPLF has called Ahmed a dictator who is “endangering the unity of this ancient country,” while Ahmed claims that the TPLF is treasonous and attempting to destabilize the country. 

What Can Be Done? 

Thus far, Ahmed has strongly refused international assistance in the current Tigray conflict, calling on the principle of non-interference. Therefore, unless the conflict conflates to the point of genocide or another situation in which the international community has the reason and will to intervene against Ahmed’s wishes, there is little that foreign nations can do except offer Ahmed advise.  

It is not known how Abiy Ahmed’s “final phase” of the military offensive to Mikelle will turn out. It may be a short and ‘successful’ operation, in which the Tigray forces are conquered, or it could spiral into a larger civil conflict. Nevertheless, one thing that Ahmed should do is to allow essential goods to start flowing into Tigray again, such as water, fuel, flour, and electricity, for the sake of Tigrayan civilians. If the Ethiopian army succeeds in the offensive and reigns in the TPLF leaders, Ahmed must still address the attitudes of discontent and resentment that will inevitably remain among some in the Tigrayan population. While Ahmed has sworn that he would not negotiate with traitors (i.e., the TPLF), I believe that having a constructive dialogue with the Tigray leaders – especially with a third-party mediator such as the African Union – is imperative not only for the sake of the long-term political and ethnic stability of Ethiopia, but for all of East Africa.