Ethiopia’s Tigray crisis: Rebel resurgence raises questions for Abiy Ahmed

By Vivienne Nunis
BBC Africa correspondent, Nairobi Published 3 July, 2021

IMAGE COPYRIGHTAFPimage captionRebel fighters celebrated capturing Mekelle last week

The rebel capture of Tigray’s capital city Mekelle is a significant milestone in the eight-month conflict in northern Ethiopia, which has killed thousands of people and left millions in desperate need of food and other assistance. Will it be a turning point in the war?

The Ethiopian government pulled out its troops after months of fighting, sparking celebrations on the streets.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed initially said the withdrawal was a strategic move because the city was no longer “the centre of gravity for conflicts”, but he later confirmed it was to avoid further casualties.

“We’ve seen a very significant shift in the war,” says Will Davison, senior analyst for Ethiopia at the International Crisis Group.

“It signals that either the federal government was unable to hold onto Mekelle, or it realised it is in its best interest to withdraw from Tigray. That was in light of significant battlefield gains” by rebel forces loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

After withdrawing, the Ethiopian government unilaterally declared a “humanitarian ceasefire” in Tigray, saying a pause in hostilities was needed to allow farming activity to take place and for aid to be delivered.

But since then, TPLF forces have continued fighting, seizing more territory including the town of Shire.

The Tigrayan rebels now appear to have the upper hand in this long-running conflict. How this will play out remains to be seen.

Eyes on Amhara’s brewing conflict

Experts say Ethiopia’s leader will now be focused on what happens in the west of Tigray, and the conflict between Tigray rebels and forces from the neighbouring Amhara state.


Amhara is home to one of the largest ethnic groups in Ethiopia. The fertile land around the state’s border with Tigray has long been disputed and Amhara regional forces and militias are trying to win back some of the territory which they say is rightfully theirs.

“The Amhara wing of Prosperity Party is one of the two most powerful regional branches of Abiy’s ruling party,” says Iain McDermott, an analyst at the security consultancy Protection Group International.

“So that means potentially tolerating and supporting Amhara efforts to annex areas of the Tigray region which many Amharas argue were part of Amhara region prior to 1991.”

Mr Davison says there is another reason for the federal government to focus on the Amhara region, which shares a border with Sudan along with Tigray.

He says that would prevent the Tigrayans using the area to create an international supply route, if other channels to Tigray are cut off.

Waning might and morale

What isn’t clear is the extent to which the Ethiopian military has been weakened during the past eight months of fighting.

The rebel group has claimed it recently “neutralised” tens of thousands of Ethiopian soldiers in its June offensive. It hasn’t specified whether that means those soldiers were killed or captured as prisoners of war, but either way, the losses to the Ethiopian National Defence Force appear to be heavy.IMAGE COPYRIGHTAFPimage captionMany have had no choice but to flee the violence to makeshift homes elsewhere

Alex de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation of Boston, says the ENDF “was an army of 20 divisions – seven have been completely destroyed, three are in a shambles”.

But other commentators say it’s difficult to be definitive about the scale of the Ethiopian losses.

“It’s one of the million-dollar questions,” says Mr Davison. “We don’t really know but I think it’s a pretty worrying picture for the federal forces. There’s been a significant depletion and also significant loss of morale.

“Compared to Ethiopia’s former status as a much-valued regional peacekeeper, its military is now significantly weaker,” he added.

What is certain is that for Ethiopia, the financial cost of the war has been huge.

Mr Abiy said this week that on top of the cost of the military effort in Tigray, his government had spent more than 100 billion birr (about $2.3bn; £1.7bn) on rehabilitation and food aid, a figure he said was equivalent to around 20% of this year’s national budget.

Growing international pressure

Mr Abiy’s next steps will be watched closely by the international community, which for months has been raising concerns about the plight of civilians in Tigray.

Since withdrawing from Mekelle, the federal government has been accused of cutting off the electricity supply and phone lines to Tigray, leaving hospitals there relying on generators, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

“That does not amount to a humanitarian ceasefire and instead represents a major constraint on the humanitarian operation,” says Mr Davison.

“What looks like an Ethiopian policy to make Tigray further ungovernable now that the dissident leaders are back in charge, will have a further devastating impact on the civilian population.”

More on the Tigray crisis:

Foreign governments including the Biden administration in Washington are putting pressure on Addis Ababa to ensure the security situation in Tigray improves, allowing aid to be delivered to the millions of people desperate for food and other supplies.

If it doesn’t improve, “Ethiopia and Eritrea should anticipate further actions,” said Robert Godec, the US assistant secretary of state for African affairs. “We will not stand by in the face of horrors in Tigray.”

Eritrea’s troops in question

Eritrean forces have been fighting alongside federal Ethiopian soldiers since the beginning of the war. But the conflict has gone on much longer than either country expected.

“A big question remains over whether Eritrea will decide to pull out its troops,” Mr De Waal says.

The protracted conflict has had a damaging effect on ties between the two countries, according to security analyst Mr McDermott. “Relations between Addis and Asmara have become strained,” he says.

“Much like how [Mr] Abiy has to be careful not to alienate his Amhara allies, he also has to be careful not to alienate Eritrea. They’ve been crucial to the whole operation.”IMAGE COPYRIGHTAFPimage captionSoldiers from Eritrea and other troops are accused of multiple atrocities including rape

Instability across the Horn of Africa is nothing new, but there are fears that a worsening situation in Ethiopia could have knock-on effects across the region.

So far, Prime Minister Abiy remains in control. But if that changes, the consequences could be catastrophic, says Mr Davison.

“Any further fragmentation, let alone state collapse, would obviously be disastrous for the region given Ethiopia’s status in the Horn.

“That does not appear to be imminent, but the growing level of risk has to be taken seriously.”

Tigray – the basics

  • Ethiopia is divided into 10 regional states defined on ethnic grounds and described as largely autonomous, but with central institutions
  • In 2018, following anti-government protests, Abiy Ahmed took over as PM and introduced reforms
  • Powerful politicians from Tigray, Ethiopia’s northernmost state, accused Mr Abiy of trying to increase federal power
  • Relations worsened and, after the government accused Tigrayan rebels of attacking military bases, the Ethiopian army moved in in November
  • Mr Abiy declared the conflict over in late November, but fighting continued and increased ahead of national elections on 21 June
  • Rebel forces loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) take regional capital Mekelle
  • Ethiopia calls a “humanitarian ceasefire” in the region – where 350,000 people are on the brink of famine

Ethiopia’s Tigray war: The short, medium and long story

Published 29 June, 2021

People mourn at a mass grave containing the bodies of 81 in the city of Wukro, north of Mekelle, on 28 February 2021 image copyrightAFP image caption Thousands of people have died since November in the war in Tigray

A conflict between the government of Ethiopia and forces in its northern Tigray region has thrown the country into turmoil.

Fighting has been going on since November 2020, destabilising the populous country in the Horn of Africa, leaving thousands of people dead with 350,000 others living in famine conditions.

Eritrean soldiers are also fighting in Tigray for the Ethiopian the government. All sides have been accused of atrocities.

A power struggle, an election and a push for political reform are among several factors that led to the crisis.

In simple chunks of 100, 300 and 500 words – we explain how and why the war started.The story in 100 words

The conflict started on 4 November, when Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered a military offensive against regional forces in Tigray.

He said he did so in response to an attack on a military base housing government troops there.

The escalation came after months of feuding between Mr Abiy’s government and leaders of Tigray’s dominant political party.

For almost three decades, the party was at the centre of power, before it was sidelined by Mr Abiy, who took office in 2018 after anti-government protests.

Mr Abiy pursued reforms, but when Tigray resisted, the political crisis erupted into war.The story in 300 words

The roots of this crisis can be traced to Ethiopia’s system of government.

Since 1994, Ethiopia has had a federal system in which different ethnic groups control the affairs of 10 regions.

Remember that powerful party from Tigray? Well, this party – the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) – was influential in setting up this system.

It was the leader of a four-party coalition that governed Ethiopia from 1991, when a military regime was ousted from power.Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed attends his last campaign event ahead of Ethiopia’s parliamentary and regional elections in Jimma, Ethiopia, 16 June 2021image copyrightReutersimage captionPrime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, has made sweeping political reforms

Under the coalition, Ethiopia became more prosperous and stable, but concerns were routinely raised about human rights and the level of democracy.

Eventually, discontent morphed into protest, leading to a government reshuffle that saw Mr Abiy appointed prime minister.

Mr Abiy liberalised politics, set up a new party (the Prosperity Party), and removed key Tigrayan government leaders accused of corruption and repression.

Meanwhile, Mr Abiy ended a long-standing territorial dispute with neighbouring Eritrea, earning him a Nobel Peace Prize in 2019.

These moves won Mr Abiy popular acclaim, but caused unease among critics in Tigray.

Tigray’s leaders saw Mr Abiy’s reforms as an attempt to centralise power and destroy Ethiopia’s federal system.

The feud came to a head in September, when Tigray defied the central government to hold its own regional election. The central government, which had postponed national elections because of coronavirus, said it was illegal.MapPresentational white space

The rift grew when the central government suspended funding for Tigray and cut ties with it in October. At the time, Tigray’s administration said this amounted to a “declaration of war”.

Tensions increased, and the eventual catalyst was when Tigrayan forces were accused of attacking army bases to steal weapons.

Mr Abiy said Tigray had crossed a “red line”.

“The federal government is therefore forced into a military confrontation,” he said.The story in 500 words

Ethiopia, Africa’s oldest independent country, has undergone sweeping changes since Mr Abiy came to power.

A member of the Oromo, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, Mr Abiy made appeals to political reform, unity and reconciliation in his first speech as prime minister.

His agenda was spurred by the demands of protesters who felt Ethiopia’s political elite had obstructed a transition to democracy.Anti-government protesters in Oromia, Ethiopia – 2016image copyrightAFPimage captionSeveral years of protests led the resignation of Mr Abiy’s predecessor

For more than two decades the political scene had been dominated by a coalition of four ethnically based parties – with Tigrayans, who make up around 7% of the population, holding sway.

In the 1970s and 1980s their party, the TPLF, fought a war to seize control of the government from a military junta. The party succeeded, which is how it came to be the leading member of the coalition government that took power in 1991.

The coalition gave autonomy to Ethiopia’s regions, but retained a tight grip on the central government, with critics accusing it of repressing political opposition.

So Mr Aby dissolved the coalition in 2019, but the TPLF refused to join his new Prosperity Party.

This snub was followed by further escalations.

Tigray’s decision to hold its own election last September, for example, was an unprecedented act of defiance against the central government.

Both sides then designated each other as “illegitimate”.

Tigray argued at the time that the central government had not been tested in a national election since Mr Abiy’s appointment as prime minister. Polls have since just been held in some parts of the country.

The TPLF also called out the prime minister for his “unprincipled” friendship with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, who has since sent troops to support Mr Abiy in Tigray.

There has long been animosity between Tigray and Eritrea’s government.

A dispute over territory along their shared border was the cause of a war fought between Ethiopia and Eritrea from 1998 until 2000.

You may remember this dispute making headlines in 2018.

That year, Mr Abiy signed a peace treaty with Eritrea, ending the territorial spat.

A year later, Mr Abiy won the Nobel Peace Prize. Now it is war and starvation that is drawing attention to Ethiopia.2px presentational grey line

More on the Tigray crisis:

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More than two million of Tigray’s six million people have fled their homes since 4 November, when Mr Abiy ordered an invasion after the TPLF fighters captured federal military bases.

Tens of thousands of them have sought refuge in neighbouring captionTens of thousands of people fled to Sudan when the conflict erupted

The TPLF has been designated a terrorist organisation. Resistance fighters have formed the Tigray Defence Forces (TDF), incorporating both TPLF and non-TPLF members.

With the communications largely cut in Tigray, the exact number of casualties is not clear and aid workers have been unable to access areas.

According to researchers at Belgium’s University of Ghent, there have been at least 10,000 reported deaths and 230 massacres.

As Africa’s second-most populous country, Ethiopia is pivotal to stability in the Horn of Africa.

There is also a concern that the conflict could further exacerbate ethnic tensions and could lead to the break-up of the country.

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