Ethiopia’s Nobel Prize laureate, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, began a military campaign in the rebellious Tigray region earlier this month. Mr Abiy said it would be a small campaign focusing on the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the militia-cum-political party that runs the northern region. However, almost 2 weeks after the conflict, Ethiopia risks being part of an ethnic civil war with international consequences.
The TPLF was established in 1975 as a resistance army of the Tigrayan people against a military dictatorship called the Derg. The left-wing Derg, founded in 1974, would change its title in 1987, but remained basically in power until it was ousted by armed rebels in 1991. The TPLF played a key role in ousting the junta, and in 1991 they were accepted as national heroes.
TPLF leader Meles Zenawi took over as interim president in 1991 and became the first Prime Minister to be elected in 1995. He is commonly seen as the founder of the national ethno-federal structure and remained in power until 2012.
But over the years, the government led by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a coalition founded by Mr Zenawi, has been accused of being increasingly authoritarian and there have been regular mass protests in the regions. Although the EPRDF includes regional political parties such as the Amhara Democratic Party, the Oromo Democratic Party and the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement, the TPLF remained the dominant political power.
In 2018, the EPRDF elected Mr Abiy, a former military intelligence officer, to lead the government amid increasing demonstrations and political deadlock. For 17 years, the EPRDF has given a stable rule with high economic development and there has been increasing criticism of the ethno-federal structure of the country.
The Tigray people make up about 6% of the population, while the Oromos have a 34% share and the Amharas have a 27% share. While the TPLF dominated the levers of power via the EPRDF, the Oromos argued that they were marginalised.
As Prime Minister, Mr Abiy has taken a range of measures to reduce the undue power of the TPLF in the country. He purged TPLF officials from key government positions, released political prisoners (jailed by the TPLF-led government) and promised a free media. He reached out to Eritrea, the sworn enemy of the TPLF, which has a long border with the Tigray region.
Mr Abiy, the country’s first leader in Oromo, argued that his acts were not motivated by racial calculations, but rather aimed at solving the country’s historical power imbalance and making peace with its neighbours. But the TPLF saw his gestures as hostile.
Tensions have been building up for a while. When Mr Abiy formed a new political alliance, the Prosperity Party, all the members of the EPRDF, except the TPLF, joined the new forum. The TPLF saw the creation of a new party as an effort by Mr Abiy to consolidate further power. The leadership of the party moved from Addis Ababa to Mekele, the provincial capital of Tigray.
In August, when the government of Mr Abiy agreed to postpone the parliamentary elections, citing COVID-19, the TPLF publicly questioned the decision. They accused the Prime Minister of taking power and went ahead to hold elections in the region in defiance of the federal government. On 3rd November, militants of the TPLF attacked a federal military command in the Tigray area and seized military vehicles and equipment, leading Mr Abiy to announce a military operation.
Mr Abiy’s outreach to Eritrea was outraged by the TPLF, which had waged a lengthy war with the government of Eritrea along the Tigray frontier. The TPLF now accuses Eritrea of endorsing Mr Abiy’s offensive. On Sunday, rebels launched rockets from Tigray and Eritrea, threatening a broader regional war in the Horn of Africa. Tigray rebels also fired rockets at the nearby Amhara area.
Even if Mr Abiy is adamant about keeping the operation short, it might be out of reach, given the underlying dynamics of the dispute. The old guard of the TPLF cut their teeth in the resistance against the Derg and they have thousands of fighters under their rule. The Tigray area also shares a border with Sudan. The TPLF enjoyed good relations with the former Sudanese dictator Omar Bashir.
Sudan is in a border conflict with Ethiopia. If the new Sudanese rulers (the transitional government includes civilian and military leaders) keep the old relations with the TPLF active and the border is open to the rebels, the conflict could continue. If it does, it could derail Mr Abiy’s reform agenda at home as well as his diplomatic agenda abroad.