Ethiopia’s current crisis is rooted in a long history of regional and ethnic defiance towards the political centre.
The recent escalation in the dispute between the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) is an alarming development. Fighting between federal forces and Tigrayan militias is the result of a collapse in the relationship between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government in Addis Ababa and Ethiopia’s northernmost province, threatening the integrity of the country and sending tremors across the Horn of Africa.
Events in Tigray – which accounts for just six per cent of the Ethiopian population, but is historically important – are emblematic of underlying conditions in the Ethiopian state. Cycles of armed regionalism, with which successive regimes have had to contend, can be traced back over several centuries. This crisis is just the latest challenge to Ethiopian cohesion, episodically undermined by violent centrifugalism and ethnic nationalism.
The TPLF was until recently the dominant force in national politics. The movement has its roots in the mid-1970s, which were dark, febrile times for Ethiopia. An increasingly brutal, authoritarian Marxist regime, known as the Derg (Amharic for ‘committee’), visited ideological, ethnic and political violence upon millions of its citizens. It was soon confronted with a range of armed insurgencies, including in Tigray. The TPLF overcame early setbacks to grow in strength during the 1980s and, under the leadership of Meles Zenawi, became the dominant partner in the alliance of guerrilla forces – the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) – founded in 1988. Alongside the TPLF was the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and a number of other groups from the west and south-west. EPRDF forces, with the TPLF at their head, entered Addis Ababa in May 1991, forcing President Mengistu Hailemariam into exile and ushering in, it seemed, an era of political stability with an emphasis on economic development. After a brief period of constitutional transition, Zenawi became Ethiopia’s prime minister.
The TPLF held the dominant role in Ethiopian politics for more than two decades. Meles, widely regarded as one of Africa’s most important leaders and part of the continent’s putative renaissance in the 1990s, was a commanding figure. Tigrayans dominated government ministries, the army and security forces as well as the economy. Conscious of the role that prolonged ethnic conflict had played in Ethiopia’s recent history, the EPRDF embarked on radical political reform, resulting in the 1994 constitution. A new federal system devolved considerable administrative accountability and responsibility to regional blocs, which were broadly designed along ethnic lines.
Ethnic federalism was a recognition of the chronic power imbalance that had long been a feature of Ethiopian politics. An optimistic view was that ethnic devolution would defuse the violence that had destabilised the country: a recognition that the empire built by emperors Menelik (1889-1913) and Haile Selassie (1930-74) had been inherently unstable and that the multi-ethnic state had to be more carefully managed. Critics argued that ethnic federalism was mere window dressing for more of the same: a cynical attempt to quarantine violence at regional level, while changing little at the centre. The Amhara, who had dominated Ethiopia since the late 19th century, had ‘merely’ been replaced by the Tigrinya, the majority ethnic group in Tigray, with a claim on power stretching back centuries.
Struggle and grievance
The dominance of the TPLF was the culmination of an ongoing struggle with its roots in a deeper past, one between Tigrinya and Amhara over the leadership of Ethiopia and access to its resources. In antiquity, Tigray was a cultural, political and commercial hub. It had formed the heartland of Axum, the major civilisation in the southern Red Sea in the first millennium AD. It was the cradle of a distinctive brand of Orthodox Christianity, which would become central to early modern Ethiopian identity, with its monasteries constituting the northern Christian frontier in an increasingly Islamic region. In the 13th and 14th centuries, while the Amhara created the Solomonic dynasty and consolidated power in the highlands to the south, it was Tigrayan monks who were largely responsible for the Kebre Negast, the ‘Chronicle of the Glory of the Kings’, Ethiopia’s national epic which justified and legitimised the new Amhara regime.
Yet Tigray was increasingly marginalised within the political and economic order. There were periods in which its leaders vied successfully for influence and laid claim to the Solomonic throne: as during the Zemene Mesafint, the ‘Era of the Princes’, between the 1770s and the 1850s, when Ethiopia all but collapsed as a coherent state and several regions waged war in the name of the Solomonic inheritance. But Shoa, the heartland of the Amhara, was increasingly dominant. Only briefly, between 1872 and 1889, did the centre of political gravity shift north, under Yohannes IV. On his death, power reverted to the Amhara under Menelik II, who built his capital, Addis Ababa, in the heart of Shoa. In the decades that followed, Tigray, its past glories faded, became an increasingly impoverished backwater. Some of its nobles even worked with the Italians against Haile Selassie when Mussolini invaded in 1935. In 1943, rebellion erupted in Tigray – the Woyane, or uprising – against the restored emperor, but it was crushed with the help of the British, who sent in the RAF to bomb the rebels from the air.
Resentment at the high-handed treatment of Tigray intensified through the 1950s and 1960s, during which time a number of increasingly radical students – Zenawi among them – began to organise. The TPLF was the outcome of those deep-rooted, long-standing grievances. At first, Tigrayan nationalists wrestled with their place in Ethiopia: for some, the TPLF should fight for an independent, sovereign Tigray; for others, a northern, Tigrinya-speaking bloc was envisaged, absorbing the Eritrean highlands, also populated by Tigrinya. But Eritrea, a former Italian colony annexed by Ethiopia in 1962, was by this time waging its own war of independence and the TPLF would have a fraught relationship with the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), the dominant guerrilla movement there. At length the TPLF leadership resolved to wage war against the Derg in pursuit of the democratic unity of Ethiopia and accepted – if grudgingly – Eritrea’s desire for independence. Despite this, deep tensions remained between the TPLF and the EPLF. Between 1998 and 2000 Ethiopia and Eritrea would wage a devastating war, only formally brought to an end in July 2018.
Ethiopia has its roots in the Semitic cultural and linguistic bloc in the central and northern highlands, but it grew to incorporate other peoples, particularly as its empire expanded in the late 19th century. Over the course of the following century, the claims of those groups – most powerfully the Oromo population – became ever more potent. The EPRDF was a coalition of interests, but, as TPLF dominance persisted into the 2000s and 2010s, opposition increased.
In the wake of Zenawi’s unexpected death in 2012, protests swept across Ethiopia, especially among the Oromo, and internal conflict within the EPRDF grew. The TPLF sought to maintain control, its leadership hoping to retain influence after the appointment of the technocrat Hailemariam Desalegn as prime minister. But anger at TPLF failings and corruption proved uncontainable. Desalegn resigned suddenly in 2018 and was replaced by Abiy Ahmed, an Oromo, who set about the biggest exercise in political reform in Ethiopia since the early 1990s. The TPLF found itself increasingly sidelined, while the old guard of the movement complained bitterly that Tigrayans bore the brunt of Abiy’s anti-corruption drive. The final insult was the abolition of the EPRDF itself: in December 2019 it was replaced by the Prosperity Party, an attempt to nullify the factionalism which had long characterised it and to create a more unitary political platform. The TPLF, out in the political cold once again, declined to join.
The global pandemic exacerbated the crisis. Abiy – by now the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for his domestic reforms and for making peace with Eritrea – postponed scheduled elections indefinitely, citing the public health crisis. In Tigray the administration defied the edict and went ahead with its own elections, prompting the current conflagration.
There is something familiar about the crisis. The Ethiopian political project has long been characterised by violent centrifugalism and restless regionalism, with frontiers and provinces episodically acting in defiance of the political centre, each regarding the other as illegitimate. In some instances, the outcome of these struggles sees the frontier, the insurgent province, marching in and seizing the centre; that was certainly how the TPLF came to power in 1991.
The TPLF, now beleaguered and under attack in its northern redoubt, is the product of a long struggle for hegemony and the outcome of grievances around impoverishment and marginalisation that prompted the revolutionary politics of which the Tigrayan leadership was a part. But many other groups are staking their claims, including the Oromo, long excluded from power. For now, the TPLF has lost control of both power and the narrative.
What happens next depends on Abiy’s reputed diplomatic skill, which has been somewhat concealed during the current crisis: witness the alacrity with which he sent in the armed forces. But it also depends on Eritrea, the TPLF’s old nemesis across the border. Eritrea’s history as an independent state is characterised by authoritarianism, economic weakness, cloying militarism and a disastrous war with Ethiopia in which it was ultimately outsmarted by the TPLF leadership. The nature and extent of Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki’s involvement – motivated by a desire for revenge against the TPLF and aimed at consolidating his unlikely partnership with Abiy Ahmed – will have serious implications for Ethiopia and possibly for Eritrea itself. No conflict in the Horn of Africa remains hermetically sealed for long.
Richard Reid is Professor of African History at the University of Oxford. His most recent book is Shallow Graves: a Memoir of the Ethiopia-Eritrea War (Hurst, 2020).