Nearly three months after the Ethiopian federal army took over the northern Tigray region of the country in a well-organized and rapid offensive, the structure of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)—the political party in power for thirty years before Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed—has been dismantled and its leaders killed, arrested, or under pursuit. While the situation on the ground is far from normal, some stability is gradually returning to daily life and economic activity.
The attack on federal army bases by TPLF forces on November 4, 2020 that sparked the wider conflict was stealthy and unprovoked. Ethiopian federal soldiers of the Northern Command were humiliated on the orders of the TPLF’s leadership. The attack was used as justification by Abiy to dismantle the party, as the November attack was ostensibly an attempt by the TPLF to take over the army’s heavy weaponry and return to power in Addis Ababa. The TPLF, however, seriously overestimated its own strength and popularity.
It is difficult to ascertain whether serious armed clashes are ongoing—although pro-TPLF propaganda suggests this. It is certain that this war has been devastating and that abuses have been committed by both the TPLF and federal army, although in vastly different proportions.
From the start of the conflict, international observers of many kinds have been warning—and sometimes exaggerating—of the likely destabilization of the Horn of Africa region and the expansion of the armed conflict into neighboring countries. But indeed, the international ramifications and the ways governments are responding to the Tigray war need more attention.
Three of Ethiopia’s neighbors—Eritrea, Egypt, and Sudan—have had varied reactions. Eritrean forces seem to have been present on Ethiopian soil, and perhaps still are, although not on the invitation of the federal army. According to a recent Ethiopian Human Rights Commission Report, they may have been involved in looting and will be pressed to withdraw soon. To be noted also is that the TPLF has sown confusion by having some of its troops wear Eritrean uniforms (produced in the Almeda Textile factory in Adwa, Tigray).
More complicated is the position of Sudan and Egypt. Although no armed conflict is expected, relations are tense between Ethiopia and Egypt, as President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi adamantly refuses to accept the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile. Egypt has been working to destabilize Ethiopia via proxy parties in the country and support to Sudan. It is rumored that before the recent war there was even a rapprochement between the TPLF and Egypt.
Egypt has tacitly urged Sudan to pressure Ethiopia on its western border. Currently, there are tensions in the al-Fashaga area (with armed incidents), and negotiations on the border are stalling. It would be politically difficult for Sudan to now press claims on agrarian lands cultivated by Ethiopian farmers since it has condoned this activity for decades. There are also domestic issues at hand, as Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, head of the Sudanese military, wants to assert his power vis-à-vis Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok.
In addition to East African countries, the responses of international actors have had significant ramifications. Support for peace and rebuilding in Tigray is vital and has been started by the federal government, though much of it will also be accomplished with support of international donors. The complication is that Abiy and his government are wary of the interference, complaints, and demands made by the international community. This is especially true after the largely negative responses of the international community to the federal army’s campaign, e.g., by humanitarian agencies, media, United Nations’ agencies, the European Union, think tanks, and even by an assortment of scholars marshaled by alarmist letters from Tigray and TPLF members protesting the war. The pattern of almost categorical rejection of the government’s military operation, demands to negotiate with the TPLF, allow unconditional humanitarian access, and cease hostilities will make Abiy wary of any pedantic international involvement.
Although there continue to be skirmishes in Tigray and grave humanitarian challenges, the chorus of international voices against the course taken by the Ethiopian government belies the complicated reality and difficult choices that lay ahead. The TPLF, of course, was the strongest party in the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPDRF) and ruled the country for decades. Abiy’s decision to merge the ethnic-based parties to form the Prosperity Party was precisely to overcome the divisions wrought by the EPDRF. The TPLF chose to spoil the reputation it had—for example by boycotting the Prosperity Party—and sought to destabilize Ethiopia through support of violent insurgent groups in western Oromia, Benishangul, and Amhara regions.
The low level of development in the Tigray region damaged the TPLF’s reputation and is part of the reason for the humanitarian fallout from the conflict. For instance, well before the war, some 950,000 people were in dire humanitarian need (28 years after the TPLF came to power). They had, however, heavily invested in their military with the aim of maintaining autonomy from the federal government.
Since Abiy became the leader of the EPRDF in 2018, the TPLF has systematically refused collaboration with Addis Ababa. While Tigray’s autonomy as a region was fully supported by the new federal government, the end result of the TPLF’s policy has been the party’s demise, with their leaders fleeing and most being killed or captured. For example, the former foreign minister and Ambassador of Ethiopia to China, Seyoum Mesfin, was a key TPLF leader and was found in a very remote area, where he was killed after his security detail opened fire on approaching federal soldiers.
In these circumstances, the federal government now faces three challenges, which will be closely followed by the international community. The first is to connect with the grassroots and people of Tigray to help rebuild the region in a way that gives them ownership. The second is to further open up humanitarian access. And third— apart from bringing to trial TPLF offenders—is to avoid federal army highhandedness and abuse, and hold transgressors responsible. In responding to these, the federal government will likely draw its own course based on the interests and needs of Ethiopia, i.e., follow a domestic agenda. Abiy does not see unconditional response to the concerns of the international community—especially if expressed in moralistic terms without historical and contextual knowledge—to be in the interest of his country or its people.
In fact, for international observers and donors, the regional context and history are crucial to any response. Most important, however, is to not underestimate the dramatic impact of the shocking attack on the federal army bases on November 4 and the November 9 mass murder in Mai Kadra, carried out by TPLF-affiliated armed groups. These two tragic events were the catalyst for Abiy and the federal army to pursue the conflict to its end: dismantling the TPLF and building a new Tigray. The international community would do well to recognize this in any offers of support to, or condemnation of, the Ethiopian government.
Jon Abbink is Professor of Politics and Governance in Africa in the African Studies Centre at the University of Leiden.