The Ethiopian Air Force hovered over the northern Tigray region of the country this week, “pounding targets with precision,” Ethiopian Maj. Gen. Mohammed Tessema said. The federal government launched a military offensive in Tigray last week, closing the region’s borders and declaring a six-month state of emergency. It also cut off internet and communication access, making it difficult to confirm the effects of the fighting.
The conflict ignited fears of regional tensions and a humanitarian crisis. Global leaders are calling for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to deescalate the conflict as deep ethnic divides emerge in the country. Advocacy groups say hundreds have likely died on both sides.
Supply trucks remain stranded outside the region, and long lines formed outside shops for bread and other food items. United Nations humanitarian chief Sajjad Mohammad Sajid said more than 1,000 people from other countries were stranded in Tigray, while about 10,000 refugees already crossed into neighboring Sudan.
Tigray is one of 10 ethnically divided semi-autonomous federal states in Ethiopia. Though Tigrayans only make up about 6 percent of Ethiopia’s population, the well-armed Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) dominated the country’s politics for nearly three decades. The party’s relationship with Abiy’s government frayed soon after he became prime minister in 2018. The region’s leaders felt marginalized under Abiy’s reforms and refused to join his ruling coalition.
The 44-year-old leader won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for his domestic reforms and his push to end the 20-year military stalemate with neighboring Eritrea. Abiy, a native of the Oromo ethnic group, granted amnesty to thousands of political prisoners and legalized outlawed opposition groups in his first 100 days of duty.
But his attempt to implement democratic reforms reignited ethnic tensions. Patricia Rodrigues, the Kenya-based East Africa analyst with Control Risks, explained Abiy’s openness to more vocal dissent had unintended consequences: “Abiy did have the best of intentions in the beginning, but the flip side of allowing for open opposition is it emboldened more hardline ethno-nationalist groups.”
Last week, 60 suspected militants with the Oromo Liberation Army rebel group killed about 56 people in a predominantly Amhara village in western Ethiopia. The Amhara are the second-largest ethnic group in Ethiopia after the Oromos.
Tensions rose in September when Abiy postponed August national elections, citing the pandemic. The TPLF viewed it as an attempted power grab and held regional elections on Sept. 9. Since then, the federal government has called the regional leadership illegitimate and suspended budget aid to the region. The TPLF declared Abiy’s rule illegal and staged military parades.
Fighting began last Wednesday after Abiy accused Tigray’s government of attacking a federal military base in the region. Abiy replaced the army chief, head of intelligence, and foreign ministers as the offensive intensified. TPLF leadership blamed the federal government for the escalation. Tigray leader Debretsion Gebremichael said the neighboring Eritrean government sent troops across the border to back the federal offensive. Eritrea denied the claim. Pro-federal demonstrators staged rallies in other Ethiopian cities.
In August, 20 bipartisan members of the U.S. House of Representatives urged Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to confront the Ethiopian government on “democratic backsliding,” including violence against ethnic and religious communities and Ethiopian security officials using excessive force against protesters. But despite mounting pressure from the United Nations, the European Union, and other international bodies to work towards a ceasefire and talks, Abiy has insisted his government has the situation under control. “Concerns that Ethiopia will descend into chaos are unfounded and a result of not understanding our context deeply,” he tweeted on Monday.
Rodrigues said the conflict could become protracted but noted it has mostly remained localized without external actors or other militias. The International Crisis Group in a report this month said Tigray’s 250,000 troops—including paramilitary forces and well-drilled local militias—could drag out the battle: “International actors, many of whom have heavily supported Abiy since he took power, need to lean heavily on the Ethiopian government to persuade it that force cannot bring a sustainable solution to either the Tigray dispute or Ethiopia’s broader challenges.”