Behind Ethiopia’s Civil War: From Guerrilla to Secessionist

Behind Ethiopia’s Civil War: From Guerrilla to Secessionist

December, 2020


The state formation through the alliance of ethnicity-based parties since 1991 is fragile. The simmering ethno-nationalism within Ethiopia has become clear and leads to the faltering of Ethiopian politics this year.

Tigray region of Ethiopia. source: made from google map.

On November 4, which coincided with the polling day of the US general election, the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner and Ethiopian Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, announced on Facebook that the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) attacked the Northern Command of Ethiopian Defense Force stationed in Mekele, the capital city of Tigray kilil (region). Merkley airport was immediately bombed by the Ethiopian federal army as punishment. Within a few days, the confrontation between the federal government and TPLF escalated rapidly.

On November 7, U.N. Secretary-General Gutierrez spoke with Abiy and asked the Sudanese Prime Minister, who holds the rotating presidency of the International Development Organization (IGAD), and the African Union to intervene in negotiations between the warring parties. However, Abiy tweeted on the 9th saying: “Concerns that Ethiopia will descend into chaos are unfounded and a result of not understanding our context deeply. Our rule of law enforcement operation, as a sovereign state with the capacity to manage its own internal affairs, will wrap up soon by ending the prevailing impunity.” Getachew Reda, an adviser to the president of Tigray state and a key member of the DPA, took a back-and-forth, tweeting that Abiy was a poor soldier and had started the war first, and that Tigray was merely acting self-defensively.

Subsequently, traffic in Tigray was cut off by the TPLF, outward communications were cut off by the federal Government, commercial banks were closed, and the Government of Ethiopia took control of all social media. From the outside, the two sides are almost fighting in a huge black box, with little contradictory news only managing to make it out.

According to a report by Amnesty International on November 12, the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (NDF) and Amharic Special Forces attacked the People’s Front in Lugdi on the Sudan-Ethiop border on November 9. On the night of the 9th, hundreds of people were found dead with machete wounds near the Ethiopian Commercial Bank, close to the center of Mai-Kadra town and on the road leading to Himora on the northern border, most of whom were said to be Amharans who came here to work. The survivors identified the perpetrators as the police and the armed forces of Tigray State, but Debretsion Gebremichael, the acting governor and chairman of Tigray State, denounced these accusations. On November 10, Federal Government Spokesperson, Redwan Hussein, announced that the NDF had retaken Mekele’s Northern Command. On the 13th, Abiy changed his generals and the ministers of federal intelligence, security, and police, amongst other departments. Mulu Nega was appointed as the chief executive of the interim government of Tigray State. Tigray State thus entered a situation where two heads coexisted. At 10 o’clock in the evening on the 13th, the Amhara State in the southern part of Tigray State was attacked by an air raid. The local residents said that the gunfire lasted 15 minutes.

The fighting has intensified, apparently beyond PM Abiy’s initial call of “an issue of law and order”, to the regional crisis in East Africa. At least 25,000 refugees have fled Tigray state and poured into neighbouring Sudan. The UNHCR has urged neighbouring countries to open their borders to facilitate people fleeing and has asked Ethiopian authorities to allow international aid agencies to enter the country to help an approximately 100,000 displaced people in Tigray state. On the 14th, the NDF claimed to have moved south of Tigray towards Mekele, taking control of several towns along the road, with the spokesman saying the rebellion would end quickly, and the head of the TPLF would be punished. However, on the same day, TPLF warned its northern neighbour Eritrea not to go to war and fired at least three rockets at the airport in Asmara, the Eritrean capital, hours later.

It is just one year after PM Abiy Ahmed won the Nobel Prize for ending the two-decade confrontation between Ethiopia and Eritrea – so how did a war break out? Is this war, as Abiy claimed, a military operation to maintain the rule of law? Or was it the starting point of a melee in East Africa? Why did the TPLF, once the core of the Ethiopian ruling coalition ERPDF, recede to northern Ethiopia in only five years after Prime Minister Abiy took office?

TPLF: From Hoxhaism Guerrilla to the ruling party

Without reviewing the rise and fall of TPLF, one would not be able understand its historical memory and current position. Dr Aregawi Berhe, one of the founders and the early military commander of TPLF, has by far the most in-depth and critical accounts in this regard.

In 1974, Major Mengistu Haile Mariam staged a coup in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, toppling Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I and establishing a military junta, DERGUE, which then sided with the Soviet Union. But there were rebel groups in the north, one of which was TPLF. It was from the 1970s to 1991 that the TPLF was transformed from a national liberation organization in a remote area, into the heart of Ethiopia’s ruling party: the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).

From a military point of view, the rise of the TPLF was quite unexpected. In 1978, after DERGUE had cleared the eastern Somali rebellion, it sent troops northward and planned to quell two rebel groups: the TPLF in Tigray and the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) in today’s Eritrea. In March 1988, with one of the largest military forces in Africa, the DERGUE was defeated in Eritrea’s Af-abet in just 48 hours by TPLF and EPLF. Next, the TPLF launched the Shire-Enda Selassie campaign in the mountains of the central state of Tigray. In April 1988, DERGUE regrouped its forces in Mekele. TPLF fought back in rapid movements, eliminating small groups of enemy forces and occupying commanding heights to cut off the enemy’s links with their base battalions, before then regrouping and annihilating the enemy.

In early 1989, having had seen the dawn of victory, TPLF formed the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front in coalition with other national movements. In April 1990, negotiations coordinated by Italy broke down because Meles Zenawi, the leader of TPLF/EPRDF, felt that the opposition was on the verge of collapse. On 19 February 1991, Major Mengistu began his exile and the DERGUE faltered. In April, EPRDF entered Addis Ababa, the capital city, signaling the start of its three-decade rule of Ethiopia.

What’s behind TPLF’s military achievement is its capacity to mobilize, which is inextricable to the Marxism-Leninism that emerged in Africa in the 1960s and 1970s. Ideologically, TPLF follows Hoxhaism, holding that both the Post-Stalin Soviet Union and Mao Zedong’s China were revisionist, and that only Enver Hoxha and the Albania he led were the true socialists. But such hair-splitting divergence could have [also] been the work of ethnic boundary making. The mode of mobilization, as Aregawi Berhe argues, was also highly dependent on Tigray nationalism, which ultimately sowed the seeds of separatism in the process of nation-building later on.

As early as the 1970s, in the Haile Selassie I University (now Addis Ababa University) established by the last Emperor of Ethiopia for the cause of modernization, a group of students from the Tigray region in their early 20s formed the Tigray National Organization (TNO) – the predecessor of the TPLF. Back then, the Ethiopian monarchy was already in crisis. In the context of the African independence movement, Marxist-Leninist classics were widely circulated among young students. The Marxist revelation that the imperialist oppression was the reason behind the poverty and backwardness of third-world nations, as well as the victories of the socialist revolution and developments in socialist countries, attracted young students.

Indeed, Tigray has suffered multiple hardships in modern history. This area is the origin of Ethiopian civilization. Historically, elevated plateaus with rivers cutting deep among them were geographically apt for rule by scattered feudal lords. In modern times, Tigray became war-trodden, not only because of the War of the Princes (1769-1885), but also because European colonists needed to enter Ethiopia from here. It was with Lord Kasa Mercha’s permission that the British Napier Expedition was able to pass Tigray and defeat Emperor Tewodros II. Kasa Mercha was later crowned as Yohannes IV. In 1889, he was seriously wounded in battle by Mahandist Sudanese, passing the throne to Menilik II, the powerful leader of Addis Ababa. This marked the shift of power of Abyssinia from the Tigrays to the Amharas. After WWII, Emperor Haile Selassie I strengthened centrality and appointed officials to replace the old nobles in the Tigray region. But heavy taxes imposed on local governments by these officials, coupled with corruption, provoked the revolution of Tigranian farmers. Many wars have caused the people’s livelihood in this area to decline. Bandits prevailed in Tigray. Those who went out for a living were often looked down upon by locals. In general, Tigray people had little liking towards the colonists and Ethiopian emperors.

In the 1970s, students who fell under the influence of Marxism returned to their hometowns from Addis Ababa, setting out to transform the traditional rural society in Tigray while resisting DERGUE, whose rule was even worse than Emperor Selassie. Under the leadership of the legendary Gessesew Ayele (Sihul) – who had participated in the opposition to Emperor Haile Selassie in the 1940s and served in the DERGUE government –  these students intended to follow China’s revolutionary path from their armed resistance in the countryside, before eventually engulfing the cities. It was with this intention that they went to Shire, Ayele’s hometown in the central mountainous area. The students’ organization, Tigray National Organization (TNO), was revamped as TPLF, claiming itself as the “Second Revolution” (Kalai Woyyane) to invoke the history of [the] “first revolution” of 1943, which pursued national self-determination from imperial oppression. In the beginning, farmers simply regarded these young men as educated yet unsophisticated radicals. However, TPLF went on to effectively reform the traditional Tigray society, and under the guidance of its ally, Eritrea People’s Liberation Front (EPLF, when Eritrea was still part of Ethiopia), consciously recruited farmers to participate in its armed struggle. These reforms include the following four aspects:

· the establishment of farmers’ associations and a people’s assembly to replace traditional rural governance

· land reform

· youth and women’s organizations

· and religion.

First, the establishment of farmers’ associations and [the] People’s Assembly to replace traditional rural governance by the village elderly (shimagile). In the beginning, TPLF members went to churches, funerals, markets, and neighborhood meetings to explain the goals of the revolutionary movement, encouraging farmers to join the peasant associations and prepare for land reform. Nevertheless, the elderly approved of TPLF’s conduct and discipline, but cautioned their sons and daughters against its propaganda. In response, TPLF resorted to national sentiments, presenting itself as the “sons and daughters of Tigray” to legitimize their roots  and exclude other competing fronts in Tigray. It also managed to achieve consensus among the people through the apparatus of cadres (kifli hizbi) and meetings (gämgams). In the propaganda meetings convened by the cadres, differing opinions were eliminated under group pressure, thereby strengthening their internal cohesion. Under collective pressure, many people who were sympathetic to the forces outside of TPLF were required to show loyalty through “self-criticism” or else silence themselves. Through this, the TPLF turned all farmers into members of [the] farmer’s association.

Second, the implementation of land reform. Traditionally, the land was divided into risti land (inherited from the previous generation), the communal deisaa land (which was redistributed every seven years to immigrants and new couples), and the gulti land (allocated by emperors to officials, lords, and churches. This included himsho land (or “rim” land) owned by the parish, with 20% of its farm produce used in the services of parish priests and laymen). On the eve of the revolution, it was estimated that 25% of farmers had little to no land, 45% of farmers had less than 1 hectare, 23% owned between ½ – 1 hectare, and 21% owned 1 – 2 hectares (Tekeste Agazi 1983). The purpose of TPLF, then, was to crush the highly disproportionate land system. At the same time, the socialist DERGUE was also promoting land reform through abandoning guiti lands. However, it did not consider the working class, craftsmen, and small businessmen in the city. TPLF took the lead to divide land among these groups, consolidating its political base both in the city and the countryside.

Third, youth and women’s organizations. In order to arm rural youth, TPLF raised the age of marriage to 26 for men and to 22 for women through the decision of baitos, the transformed people’s assembly. In traditional agricultural societies, only married couples could obtain land as their means of production. As a result of the postponement of marriage, young people were delayed access to land ownership but were freed from obligations to land and family. TPLF then organized the youth, who participated in logistics and other activities, becoming reserves of the armed struggle. Cadres trained the youth to shout, “I want to fight for Tigray!” “I’m going to join the TPLF army!” Young people who were reluctant to join the army were seen as “opportunists” and consequently marginalized. In the meantime, TPLF also trained radio station staff and barefoot doctors who had international aid and financial resources provided by the Tigrainian diaspora. It closed state schools in towns and cities and set up its own schools to mobilize more of the youth.

In addition, TPLF male fighters were known for their monkish behavior to abstain from sex. TPLF criminalized sexual violence and even imposed the death penalty to discipline its army. This won the approval of local husbands and fathers, who were rest assured when their wives and daughters were encouraged by female TPLF fighters to join the army. As a result, approximately one third of the TPLF fighters were women.

Fourth, the use of religion. Ethiopia traditionally has a strong religious atmosphere. The Tewahedo Orthodox Church, on the one hand had close ties with the community and the family, but on the other hand supported the imperial power. TPLF strategically supported DERGUE’s policy of confiscating gulti land, but it permitted the parish land system without damaging the church’s grassroots economic base. The TPLF also placed religious and social activities under the control of the People’s Assembly (baitos). They severed ties between the Tigranian Church and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and at the same time showed tolerance for Muslims as a minority group.

Participants holding photos of the martyrs in the parade of TPLF 45-year anniversary, which dates back to 18 February 1975 when the armed struggle began in Tigray. Bottom right is the TPLF logo. It has a hammer, a torch, and the national symbol Axum obelisk encircled by the wheat ear of injera, the traditional crop of Ethiopia.  Source:

To an extent, the TPLF borrowed from China [and] Vietnam’s revolutionary experience. They transformed traditional rural society and gained a high degree of control over Tigray through [their] movements. Administratively, the old governance in Tigray’s rural society, baitos, was transformed into the People’s Assembly under the leadership of TPLF. The People’s Revolutionary Assembly had armed forces at a national level, and the families of cadres and fighters were taken care by the village. The legal power was shared by the elderly (shimagle) and cadres – but the cadres, elevated as “torchbearers of the revolution”, often had the decision-making power. In this way, TPLF successfully mobilized the society of Tigray and became the sole spokesperson for the Tigray people. This is what Dr Aregawi Berhe calls the “mobilization hegemony” with a nationalist predilection.

Separatism in the 1994 Ethiopian Constitution

When overthrowing the once powerful Military Junta became imminent, the TPLF found itself standing at a historical crossroad for establishing a transitional government.  In 1989, before entering Addis Ababa, the TPLF formed the ruling coalition EPRDF (Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front) and in 1991, the EPRDF began to draft the new constitution for the liberated Ethiopia. However, these two milestones bore the markings of separatism once they were laid out by TPLF and its allies.

EPRDF is composed of four major national political groups: the TPLF, ADP (Amhara Democratic Party, formerly known as ANDM, Amhara National Democratic Movement), OPDO (Oromo People’s Democratic Organization), and SEPDM (Southern Ethiopian’s People’s Democratic Movements). Although the establishment of the EPRDF created an image of Ethiopian solidarity, for the TPLF, it was also the solution to two emerging challenges. Firstly, as a political group that only accounts for 6% of the population of Ethiopia, the Tigranians had to unite with other national forces. Secondly, they had to formally meet demands from the West to achieve democracy (at the time, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, Herman Cohen, warned that TPLF had “no democracy, no cooperation.”). 

The unification of the political forces in Ethiopia through the party apparatus seemed beneficial for the TPLF, who chose to collaborate with like-minded political organizations. The ANDM, an ally of the TPLF, was considered to merely be the “Amhara mouthpiece” of the EPRDF, while the OPDO, composed of political prisoners released by the EPRDF, was seen as its “Oromo mouthpiece”. Given the earlier fall of the communist junta, the United States was willing to accept an authoritative government.

In July 1991, under the diplomatic coordination of the United States, TPLF/ EPRDF held the “Peace and Democracy Transitional Conference of Ethiopia” in Addis Ababa and invited representatives of 27 national movement organizations to participate (Aregawi 2008: 335). Of the 27 organizations, 19 were based on ethnic politics, 5 on national political organizations, and the remaining 3 were civic or professional groups. The draft of the constitution discussed in the transitional meeting was prepared by the TPLF and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), who also dominated the negotiating table alongside heavy involvement from the EPLF (according to OLF), who were preparing for the Eritrea transitional government. Being the product of ethnic oppression in the past, these three parties naturally took the option of secession into account.

Notably, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP) and the All-Ethiopian Socialist Movement (MEISON) were not invited to this meeting. In the absence of these organizations, who would advocate for a pan-Ethiopia unity, the participants could easily reach an agreement for the Eritrean Transitional Government (led by the EPLF) to conduct a referendum for secession from Ethiopia in three years. Some participating organizations, such as the ENDO (Ethiopian National Democratic Organization), initiated discussions on the separation of ethnic groups and the separation of Eritrea, but the representatives of the EPRDF believed that these reservations would damage the foundation of the constitution. In the end, the provisional Ethiopian Constitution stipulates that the regional assembly shall be based on the nation and that “every Nation, Nationality and People in Ethiopia has an unconditional right to self-determination, including the right to secession.” (article 39.1). Moreover, the EPRDF only recognizes the individual ethnic identity of citizens, and not the dual or multiple ethnic identities that were a result of historical integration.

This is the design of the national federalism currently implemented in Ethiopia.

The Ethiopian Parliament which was consequently established composed of 27 ethnic organization representatives, who would form the Council of Representatives. It is a legislative body with a total of 87 seats: 32 of which belong to the EPRDF, with the remaining 55 seats belonging to 23 non-EPRDF organizations. As the highest administrative body, the Council of Ministers is headed by Meles Zenawi. As the president of the transitional government, he appointed 17 of the cabinet ministers, most of whom were held by candidates from the TPLF and the OLF.

In just a few years, Meles Zenawi controlled the power of the state through the coalition of political parties. In the meantime, the ethnic and national political parties in Ethiopia rapidly increased. Today, of the 81 political parties registered in the Federation of Ethiopia, 73 are based on ethnicities. Since ethnic politics has been legitimized, some leaders of ethnic political groups often antagonize ethnical sentiments to strengthen their power, further worsening the state of Ethiopian politics.

A war between secessionists and Ethiopianists? 

Ethiopia has long been a country with a low level of development. However, after Meles Zenawi came to power, especially since 2005, the average annual GDP growth of >10% attracted the world’s attention, while foreign direct investment (FDI) also increased significantly during this period.

Economically, Meles Zenawi pursued an authoritarian mode in developing the country, prioritizing industrial and infrastructural investments, and establishing several industrial parks in different regions. Nonetheless, such modes of development are not without precedents. The successful trajectory of East Asian economies (such as China, Taiwan, South Korea, etc.) since the 1980s became a model to emulate for some African countries, especially when IMF’s structural adjustment failed in many African countries. Nevertheless, the Tigrainians, thanks to their ethnicity and connections with the ruling party, are widely believed to hold a monopoly on Ethiopia’s economic power and accumulative wealth. The growing civil discontent towards political and economic inequality, and democratization on an ethnic basis, has brought imminent risks both to state failure within Ethiopia and the decline of TPLF.

The first serious indicator was as early as 1992 when OLF, the party who co-drafted the constitution with TPLF, withdrew from the Ethiopian government because it was marginalized by the ally of the EPRDF, the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO). The Oromo people account for 40% of the Ethiopian population, and the split within Oromo is further complicated by its diaspora in the Gulf countries and the United States. After 2016, the problem of land acquisition in the Oromo region, especially in the development around Addis Ababa, triggered political protests against the EPRDF/TPLF, bringing the country into state of emergency on many occasions.

Other emerging democratic voices were silenced by the ruling coalition, owing to its authoritarian nature. In the 2005 Ethiopian general election, the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) claimed to have won 49% of the votes, outnumbering the 34% held by the EPRDF. However, it was suppressed by EPRDF, and the leader of the CUD was placed under house arrest. CUD’s party guidelines have already pointed out that the primary task of contemporary Ethiopia’s development is to achieve national reconciliation.

The sudden death of Meles Zenawi in 2012 left a power vacuum in Ethiopia, which is a common problem with all authoritarian governments. In 2018, the successive prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, believed to be a puppet of TPLF, resigned because the country once again fell into a state of emergency caused by intensified ethnic conflicts. According to election procedures, the four major parties will elect the chairman of EPRDF, who will also become the next prime minister. Lemma Megers, the chairman of OPDO at the time, was unable to serve as prime minister because he was not a member of the parliament, so an emergency meeting was held to elect the next candidate within the party, Abiy Ahmed, as chairman. This crucial step successfully catapulted Abiy to the supreme position he now holds in Ethiopia.

Dr Abiy Ahamed was born in 1976. He joined the army led by TPLF where he learned Tigrinya as a teenager and served for many years in the army’s security intelligence department. In the 2010s, he was appointed as director of the Urban Development Planning Department of Oromia. Thanks to his peace-making talents, Abiy solved many land and religious disputes, and established a bridge of communication between the Oromo and Amhara peoples. The two ethnic groups alone account for 2/3 of the total population of Ethiopia. Therefore, in addition to his Oromo origin and recognition from the TPLF, Abiy became ideal for the unification of the major nations and parties. In the 2018 election, the Amhara leader withdrew at the last minute, paving way for Abiy to become chairman of the EDPRF and subsequently, Prime Minister of Ethiopia.

After taking office, however, Abiy steered Ethiopia towards market liberalism – a stark contrast from the policies EDPRF had adopted. Previously, although the Ethiopian government attached great importance to the introduction of foreign capital, their domestic retail, logistics, and financial industries had not been opened to such. Meles Zenawi even rejected the IMF’s request to open up banking arrangements. In contrast, Abiy plans to privatize state-owned enterprises in the communication, sugar, energy, and aviation industries; and liquidate the party assets controlled by TPLF.

In this process, the Metal Engineering Group (METEC), Ethiopia’s largest military industrial complex, collapsed. METEC was established in 2010 to undertake the construction of the Renaissance Dam and the sugar factory on the Blue Nile in Ethiopia, both of which are national megaprojects. In June 2018, the parliamentary committee found that the company’s US$330 million machinery and equipment had no marketvalue, and the US$3 billion sugar plant project failed to reach completion (Ethiopia’s GDP in 2018 was about 84.4 billion USD). Abiy’s administration soon terminated METEC’s contract for the Renaissance Dam and Sugar Factory, and had their CEO, Kinfe Dagnew, who was about to flee Sudan, escorted back to Ethiopia for trial.

In 2018, Abiy dissolved EDPRF and established the new Prosperity Party, underscoring a new narrative of harmony and Ethiopian unity. TPLF was among the dissidents against the Prosperity party, but its efforts to bring Ethiopia to a “federal coalition” failed in 2020.1 Having declined in power and without a strongman like Meles Zenawi, the TPLF is said to have split from within, wavering between the option to either to remain in Addis or withdraw to Tigray. In fact, although the TPLF was the initiator of ethnic politics in Ethiopia, as a minority group the Tigray people remain susceptible to antipathy from the Amharic and Oromo people. Nevertheless, the antagonism towards the TPLF and Tigray people is to some extent unjustifiable, a Tigrainian friend told me, because they sacrificed enormously fighting against DERGUE for the sake of a new Ethiopia. When asked about corruption, another Tigrainian businessman said, “as long as you put the corrupted officials in jail, you can move forward for development!” Their adamant positions reveal how history and ideology have shaped the mentality of a proud nation.

In recent years, Tigray has become further isolated geopolitically. Tigray is sandwiched between Sudan to its west and Eritrea to its northeast. In 2019, Prime Minister Abiy and Prime Minister Isaias Afevolki of Eritrea reached a settlement on the 20-year border standoff, which provoked discontent between the TPLF and Abiy.

At its inception, TPLF had received military assistance from EPLF.  The latter even sent a fighter, Mussa, to the TPLF in the early days, who served as the TPLF’s military commander. However, during the joint resistance against the military government, EPLF oscillated between the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP), another political organization in Tigray, and TPLF. From the EPLF’s viewpoint, if it were to support a separatist movement, it would only give Ethiopia an excuse to expand its arms, thereby posing a threat to itself. Only when the DERGUE threatened its own survival would the EPLF tolerate ideological and strategic differences to fight alongside the TPLF (EPLF advocates the socialism of Soviet Union and positional warfare). The Ethiopia-Eritrea war from 1998 to 2000 pushed the two into a heightened confrontation. Eritrea was in a state of emergency for a long time after the war, and semi-openly supported the armed activities of the anti-government OLF in Ethiopia.

The reconciliation between Abiy and Eritrea in 2019 included a plan to transfer the disputed Badme region to Eritrea. This olive branch gesture was applauded by the international community and Abiy won the Nobel Peace Prize that year. However, as far as the TPLF is concerned, Abiy’s move was really a deal at the cost of Tigray’s interests.

The global pandemic has exacerbated the rival between the federal government and Tigray. Ethiopia was one of the first countries in Africa to take active action against the virus, thanks to its favorable relationship with China and the Secretary-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Adhanom, who served in Tigray State and the Ethiopian government. In March 2020, while experts from around the world were still debating the effectiveness of a lockdown, Tigray declared a state emergency, banning travel within the state for 14 days and canceling all social activities. The move was two weeks in advance of the federal declaration of a state of emergency on April 8. It caused debates among constitutionalists, and the move was criticized as illegal by the Prosperity Party. On April 2, Tigray State claimed to have virus detection capabilities, almost at the same time as the Ethiopian Ministry of Health, seemingly aiming for political legitimacy by way of epidemic prevention and control.

In September, Tigray State held elections, despite Abiy Ahmed’s announcement that the national election would be postponed due to the pandemic. This open defiance sparked the war between the secessionist TPLF and the federal government. Abiy called the election in Tigray a “shanty election”, for it is illegal to build a house on an illegal foundation, no matter how high it is. Since claiming a domestic and international reputation of maintaining national harmony, and with the support of Eritrea, Prime Minister Abiy now seems to have the upper hand. Framing the war as an internal affair of “law and order” and the military action as “punishment of the criminals” thus serves to diminish the constitutional crisis. 

A massive campaign harvest to protect possible locust attack in Tigray region in October, just before the war broke out. Source:

Whether it is an issue of “law and order” as declared by the federal government, or the “civil war” as recognized by the outside world, this conflict has been ongoing for several weeks; meanwhile Ethiopian social media prohibits discussing political and war-related information. From a military standpoint, it is hard to rule out the possibility of prolonged warfare – the length of which would depend on the mobilization capability of TPLF and the position of Tigranian people towards the war. The war seems to have subsided in scale recently, but the antagonizing ethnic groups in Tigray and Ethiopia; and critically, the tens of thousands of displaced men, women, and children to Sudan, are the biggest victims.

Part of the points of view in this article are from the doctoral thesis of Aregawi Berhe (2008), “A Political History of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (1975-1991): Revolt, Ideology and Mobilisation in Ethiopia” and Zhou Jin Yan (2019), “The Experience from Ethiopia – a Democratic Development State as an African Approach”. Culture Review, No. 3.

Dr Aregawi Berhe had served as the early military commander of TPLF but was expelled by TPLF in 1986. After over three decades of exile in Europe, he returned to Ethiopia at Abiy’s invitation for the sake of the political reconciliation between parties.
Chinese version of this text has been published by Initium Media, Hong Kong in November 2020

Berhanu is an anthropologist in African Studies


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