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The conflict in Ethiopia

Updated: Apr 5, 2021

Ethiopia is facing its greatest challenge in decades, if not in a century, aggravated by the conflict in the Tigray region, ethnic polarization, and youth unemployment.

Photo credit ENA, AP

In 2016, the Ethiopian people—primarily the youth in Amhara and Oromia regions—led massive demonstrations and protests against the government, dominated by the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF). This culminated in the resignation of Prime Minister (PM) Hailemariam Desalegn on March 11, 2018. The move was unprecedented in Ethiopia, opening a new chapter in the political space and heralding a new era.

The Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the governing party, brought a new candidate Dr. Abiy Ahmed, an ethnic Oromo, to complete the mandated term from the 2015 election. This peaceful transition from within the party was positively taken by the Ethiopian people and in the eyes of the world, which was followed by the release of political prisoners, the welcoming of exiled politicians, activists, and the promise of a democratic system widening the political space.

The country enjoyed a unique period of unity, and the popularity of the prime minister soared, with the 2019 Nobel peace prize award for Abiy’s role in establishing peace with Eritrea. But all this relative peace and jubilation didn’t last. It took a U-turn in less than a year after Abiy was awarded the Nobel Prize, with many unexplained killings, the TPLF’s refusal to cooperate with the federal government despite repeated mediation efforts, and the unabating massacre of civilians in the Oromia and Benishangul-Gumuz regions. The rift and mistrust between the TPLF and the federal government grew out of control, resulting in the TPLF’s self-described “preemptive attack” on the Ethiopian National Defense Force Northern Command. The Command had been stationed for two decades in the Tigray region after the Ethiopia-Eritrea border war between 1998-2000.

The rest of this article provides the reader a summary and background of the conflict in Ethiopia which includes the current war in Tigray.

Onset of the rift

In the background of the transition, one key issue ahead for the PM was the demarcation between Ethiopia and Eritrea border. Abiy Ahmed unconditionally announced the acceptance of the 2002 ruling of the Ethiopia Eritrea Boundary Commission and a willingness to sign a peace deal with Eritrea. Subsequently, President Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea announced that he would send a delegation to Saudi Arabia for peace negotiations with Ethiopia. The announcement angered the TPLF, which held significant influence on the Eritrea -Ethiopia border. On June 23, 2020, within a few days of the resumption of a peace accord with Eritrea, a hand grenade was thrown at Abiy during a rally at Meskel Square in Addis Ababa. This was the first in a series of mysterious incidents of violence across the country. Within three months, the Eritrean government announced a unilateral closure of the border on Dec 28, 2018.

Unexplained killings, assassinations and disappearances

Meanwhile, the country was slowly engulfed in ethnic slaughter across many regions, particularly in Oromia and Benishangul-Gumuz regions, with no clear accountability as to who was behind the massacres or the motives for these atrocities. It is worth noting the country’s ethnic-based constitution fueled decades of animosity among different groups and created fertile ground for such acts. The first such despicable act since Abiy came to power was on June 30, 2018, when 17 Amhara students from Demi Dolo University (located in Kelam Welega Zone, Oromia region) were abducted. The students, mostly girls, have not been seen since, and the government rarely acknowledges the incident.

On July 24, 2019, two simultaneous attacks happened in Bahir Dar (capital city of the Amhara region), and the national capital city of Addis Ababa; the murders of the Amhara regional president, Dr. Ambachew Mekonnen, and the Chief of General Staff of the ENDF General Se’are Mekonnen. The government labeled the killings an attempted coup and attributed it to Chief of the Amhara Region Security Forces Brigadier General Asamnew Tsige, who died in a shootout the following day. Very little is known about the details of the incident, and many in the Amhara region still dispute the government’s official claim about the coup.

On June 29, 2020, popular Oromo singer Hachalu Hundessa was shot to death in a suburb of the capital city of Addis Abeba. The next day, more than 160 were killed and there was massive property damage in violence across the Oromia region. Bodies were dragged through the streets and hung upside down while property thought to belong to Amhara was destroyed. After Hachalu’s death, many prominent political figures were arrested, including Jawar Mohammed, Bekele Gerba, Hamza Adane and Dejene Tafa of the Oromo Federalist Congress. In addition, top officials of the party Balderas for Genuine Democracy were arrested, including chairman and award-winning journalist Eskinder Nega, Sintayehu Chekol, Aster Seyoum, and Askale Demele. Eskinder was previously arrested and released in 2019, but in this instance, he was charged with mobilizing Addis Ababa’s youth.

Prosperity Party (PP), the COVID-19 pandemic, and postponed nationwide elections

In November of 2019, Abiy formed a new party called Prosperity Party (PP; in Amharic, “ብልጽግና ፓርቲ”) under the principle of "Medemer," (in Amharic script, “መደመር”) which means “Synergy.” The party folded the three main coalition parties of EPRDF and other allied regional parties under one umbrella. The TPLF, the leading party since 1991, refused to join the new coalition citing the proportional representation of PP. The formation of the new party for the October 2020 election had not been postponed because of COVID-19.

Ethiopia attempted its first democratic election in 2005 under the 1994 constitution with the main participants including EPRDF, and Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) and the United Ethiopian Democratic Forces (UEDF). The election hope was quickly reversed when the result was contested by CUD and UEDF. EPRDF, the ruling party, announced 63% of the votes while the opposition claimed it won the election and thus abstained from joining the parliament. The narrow political space that started in the 2005 election quickly closed with the arrest of opposition parties and brutal crackdown on demonstrators supporting the opposition, which resulted in more than 150 people being killed on the streets of Addis Ababa. The EPRDF subsequently did not open the political space and then claimed winning nearly 100% of the votes in two subsequent elections—with every major opposition party leaders exiled. It took more than 15 years for the next opportunity for the hope for democracy to resurrect.

Considering the impact of Covid-19 raises on the health of its citizens , the federal government requested the interpretation of the constitution so that elections could be postponed. This approach created a rift by TPLF and other allied parties citing the government overreach and lack of mandate to extend election. TPLF followed the rhetoric and held elections in defiance of the parliament interpretation and national electoral board.

The Tigray People’s Liberation Front and the conflict in Tigray

The TPLF is an ethnic-based party representing the Tigre ethnic group (which comprises 6% of the Ethiopian population) and was established in 1975. Its main goal has been to break Tigray off from Ethiopia as an independent state, absorbing in the process the fertile and strategic areas from the historic Gondar and Wollo provinces of the modern Amhara region. In its struggle against the Derg regime, the TPLF established pseudo-political parties under the name of different ethnic groups to create an impression that it had a country-wide representation. But it concentrated its real power in officials with Tigre heritage, reserving key roles for them in military and security leadership. In its 27-year rule it ran as a hegemonic, authoritarian force until it was ousted from federal power by popular protests and forced to retreat to its home region of Tigray in 2018.

Immediately after coming to power, the TPLF labeled Amhara as neftenga (in Amharic script “ነፍጠኛ”) as a derogatory term referring to settlers under the prior imperial regimes of Ethiopia. The truth is that Ethiopia had an autocratic monarchy that relied on an ethnically heterogenous feudal system that included marriage between people from different groups for administering the country and subsequently a repressive socialist regime that did not have any ethnic biases. The Amhara people fought both rulers and systems as any other ethnic group in Ethiopia, but the TPLF portrayed it differently through a grand revisionist effort.

When the TPLF was forced out of federal power in 2018 after sustained nationwide protest, it retreated to its regional government base in Tigray. Since then, multiple attempts were made for a peaceful resolution of tensions with the federal government, including a mediation effort by respected personalities, like athlete Haile Gebrselassie, the clergy and elders. The TPLF rejected the mediators and had been covertly and overtly preparing to wage war and topple the federal government by force. On Nov 4, 2020, in a treacherous attack that took place in the dead of the night, TPLF raided Northern Command compounds in the Tigray region and attacked the neighboring Amhara Region in its quest to march south and seize power by force. This triggered the conflict in Tigray and is the root cause of the current humanitarian crisis in the region.

The TPLF’s strategy from the beginning was to externalize the conflict for international attention thereby to invite regional players. Though the main conflict ended within a few weeks, it is alleged that low-grade fighting continues to this day in some rural areas. In a parallel effort, however, the TPLF, through its global diaspora, employed a campaign targeted at defaming core institutions like the ENDF, the Amhara region’s Special Force and Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC). The TPLF used its state power to siphon educational and other opportunities meant for the 110 million people and disproportionately represent itself in international diaspora communities, compared to the rest of the population.

Since the war began, several incidents of human right violations have been reported. Over 1000 civilians, mostly Amhara ethnics, were massacred in Mai Kadra by retreating TPLF forces. Tens of thousands of Tigreans have been reported displaced and unsubstantiated allegations of massacre reported in Axum. The international community is pushing to help end the war. The government of Abiy Ahmed is intent to destroy the TPLF and focus on elections, and in fact, the ousting of the rebel forces is welcomed by most Ethiopians. However, even with the TPLF gone, the country would not be cured of its flawed legacy unless the controversial ethnic federalism is addressed properly.

Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) and conflicts

The Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) is an ethnic-based party established in 1973 that promoted Oromo separatism from Ethiopia and specifically secession of a grand land mass known as “Oromia” from Ethiopia. In 2012, the party revised its manifesto from secession but continued to hold military and political options. The OLF was one of the parties exiled under TPLF rule but returned in 2018 as part of the national reconciliation process. The wing of the OLF which entered Ethiopia with its weapons and parted ways from the political wing is called the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) also known as OLF Shene or in Afan Oromo, Waraanna Bilisummaa Oromo (WBO).

The OLF in its short stay during the transition period of EPRDF massacred more than 150 ethnic Amharas in Arba Gugu in 1991 and another 150 in Bedeno towns of former Harrarge in 1992. It has contributed to the suffering of many Amharas and created massive population displacement before it was forced into exile by the TPLF-led government.

On Nov 1, 2020, the OLA massacred more than 54 ethnic Amhara in Guliso District of West Wollega Zone. This happened right after security forces left the area, probably alerted by an insider. OLA presence in Wollega zone and the adjacent Benishangul-Gumuz region created significant civilian casualties, mass displacement of local Amhara, Oromo, and Gumuz people. The Benishangul-Gumuz region also saw an internal displacement of tens of thousands of ethnic Amhara and the killing of unidentified numbers over the last decades.

A few weeks after the main battle in Tigray was over, Abiy made a televised speech in front of the parliament detailing the challenges he faced as he assumed power including the ethnic violence in all regions but the Tigray region. He alleged that the TPLF had financed and supported those who incited violence. A month later, as the massacre failed to abate after the Tigray war was over, he paid a visit to Metekel in the Benishangul-Gumuz region. Following the PM’s departure and in an act of apparent defiance, more than 100 civilians were massacred in Metekel in an area not too far from where Abiy visited less than 24 hours earlier.

On March 20, 2021, the OLA besieged the Amhara region in Ataye,/Efeson, Majete, Shewarobit in North Shewa and Kemise (Oromo Special Zone) in Wollo. Many civilian deaths were reported as well as property destruction, the burning of churches and the kidnapping of women and children. Additional massacres have been reported in Wollega, Guraferda and the Oromia region, as well as Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s region.

Amhara - Tigray disputed lands

Wolkait is a generic name for a vast collection of land that includes Wolkait, Tegede, Telemt and Setit Humera. It is located in the northwest of Ethiopia, bordering Eritrea to the north and Sudan to the west. The area was historically inhabited and administered by ethnic Amhara as part of Gondar region until 1991. Areas such as Wolkait are rich in fertile agricultural land and a variety of natural resources. It is also a strategic area establishing an outlet from Ethiopia to Eritrea and Sudan.

In the 1970s and 80s people from neighboring Tigray and Eritrea would cross the Tekeze River back and forth for work in Wolkait, especially during harvest seasons. This pattern of life was disrupted when the TPLF took control of the area during its guerrilla years, as the area served primarily as a junction for arm supplies from Sudan. Aregawi Berhe, the first leader of the TPLF, confirmed this in his book, A Political History of the Tigray People's Liberation Front.

Once the TPLF took over the central government in 1991, the Wolkait region was incorporated into Tigray. This was formalized by the ethnic federal constitution and set off protracted opposition by local Amhara. The TPLF’s response was harsh, displacing hundreds of thousands of Amhara and committing alleged genocidal crimes that failed to earn little to no attention from the West. In the meantime, tens of thousands of Tigre settlers were relocated there as part of a demographic engineering campaign.

In 2016, the plight of the Wolkait people was taken up by the entire Amhara people as a cause when the TPLF besieged Colonel Demeke Zewdu, the leader of the Wolkait Tegede Identity and Self-Determination Committee. Colonel Zewdu was rescued by the people. After the TPLF attacked the Northern Command of ENDF, a resolute response by ENDF along with the Amhara region Special Force led to TPLF's defeat. The Wolkait area is now controlled by the Amhara region. Free from oppression, the local people are detailing harrowing crimes they endured under the TPLF over the past decades. In a documentary recently released, a surviving elder stated that it “killed our elders who know the history of the area. They told us they want only the land and our women. They displaced countless men. They banned us from using our language even for prayer and punished a priest who held Mass in Amharic by cutting out his tongue. They forced our children to attend school in Tigrigna language.”

Concluding remarks

The constitution of Ethiopia ratified in 1995 excluded the representation of Amhara during the consultation and ratification phases. Ethiopia's current problem is rooted in the ethnicity-based constitution that established unequal rights among citizens. The upcoming election will not solve this problem, and it will continue to be a destabilizing factor so long as ethnic federalism exists.

A system that divides the country into ethnic lines will never be governable, and the party that wins the next national election should revise the constitution as the first order of business, with the full support of the international community. Short of this, ethnic tensions and secessionist tendencies will continue to flourish, threatening the country’s very existence. A constitutional order that fosters citizens’ and group rights in a multilingual, multicultural country without ethnic boundaries is the only way Ethiopia can come out of its current predicament. When this happens, disputes over territories like Wolkait should gradually become a non-issue.

Because of Ethiopia’s unabated conflict, the country currently hosts hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people. Thousands have perished, millions more have been indoctrinated with hate. How then can the nation heal? No new system is complete without justice and compensation for the families of those displaced and killed. Ethiopia should set up a truth and reconciliation commission to independently investigate all the crimes in the last three decades and publish its findings so that the country can mark the end of the TPLF era and the start of a new chapter of Ethiopia's history.


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