Ethiopia’s war in Tigray; a fight of the past and for the future

Mohamed Eltayeb

An unforgiving war is raging in Ethiopia. Just a year ago, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize; now, his government has declared war on the region of Tigray. Thousands of civilians have perished from starvation and murder; tens of thousands have sought refuge, and millions of children have been cut off from humanitarian assistance. Here’s what we know about the war in Tigray.

I want people to know that innocent people across the board feel the effects of this war more than the politicians that are at war with each other. If you stand for human rights and justice, this should be something you are raising awareness from and advocating in your local community/social media for the war to stop immediately” (Anonymous).

The Tigray region

Source: AP

The Tigray region is located in the northern part of Ethiopia. Mekelle (Mek’ele) is the capital city of the Tigray region; it is home to half a million civilians; Tigrayans make up around 6% of Ethiopia’s rising population.

The Tigray region is one of 10 semi-autonomous federal states that is formed along ethnic lines. With more than 80 ethnic communities, the East African country is subdivided into ethnolinguistically based regional states. The Ethiopian constitution allows for each regional state to institute its own government and democracy. Each state has its own council, where members are elected to represent the legislative and executive power. It should also be noted that all regional states have the right to secede from Ethiopia if they choose to.

How it all “started”

For more than 50 days, Ethiopian government forces have been fighting against The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). According to the Ethiopian government, the fighting started on November 4th when TPLF militias attacked an Ethiopian National Defense Force base near Mekelle, killing soldiers and stealing military hardware. In response, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared the attack on base as the last straw after months of discussion to resolve differences with the Tigray regional government so-called failed. Thus, the Ethiopian government launched several airstrikes in the Tigray region to ensure that the TPLF government would not use the stolen weapons for a retaliatory purpose. For Abiy, the operation was the beginning of a “large-scale law enforcement operation” in order to restore law and order in the country. A communication blackout was initiated by the Ethiopian government, leaving millions of Tigrayans in the dark, abandoned without any comfort from their families living overseas. The blackout also left journalists and humanitarian organizations unable to verify the events going on the ground. The blackout would be restored several weeks later, but the stories told would be horrifying to hear.

TPLF officials deny starting the conflict and believe they are in a position to defend themselves. Tigray’s regional president, Debretsion Gebremichael, a former rebel fighter and once a former opponent to Abiy in the 2018 general election, has affirmed the TPLF’s position in the war. “We are ready to be martyrs.”

Built tension

If it weren’t for the TPLF’s involvement in overthrowing the Derg military government in 1991, Ethiopia would not be the country it is today. Officially named the Provisional Military Government of Ethiopia, the Derg introduced a Marxist-Leninist one-party state, aka a dictatorship. Thousands of political opponents and protesters of the government were imprisoned and executed without trial. The 1983-1985 famine brought Ethiopia to a still, the impact of severe drought combined with the Marxist regime ignorance of the severity of the famine brought an estimated number of 1 million Ethiopians to death.

The TPLF’s victory brought a series of changes to Ethiopia. Multi-party policies were adopted along with a constitutional democracy. For almost thirty years, Tigrayans were the center of power. That all would change until Prime Minster Abiy Ahmed came to power in 2018. Years of anti-government protests in the country brought the ruling of TPLF to a stop. The protests initially started over land disputes but eventually grew to demonstrations demanding for more inclusive political representation at the national level. Hailemariam Desalegn, who served as Prime Minister of Ethiopia from 2012 to 2018, would resign, and the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) would nominate and elect Abiy as the country’s 4th prime minster of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

Abiy, who was once a founding member of the Ethiopian Information Network Security Agency, a department that gathers intelligence information by the interception of signals, a former lieutenant-colonel in the army, and Ethiopia’s head’s science and technology ministry, was perceived as a prolific reformist and communicator. On paper, he was exactly what Ethiopians needed, a young modernist political thinker that would steer the country into peace and stability. Moreover, Abiy’s mixed family background of a Muslim father and Christian mother was a background that could symbolize the unity of the two religions. Abiy would also make history as he would the first Oromo to become prime minister; the Oromo tribe is the largest ethnic group in the country, estimated to be 35% of the Ethiopian population.

Peace was swift in Ethiopia under Abiy as he signed a peace deal with Eritrea ending decades of hostilities and conflict. Still, as Abiy made peace with other nations, he ignited tension with his own country. Abiy would dismantle the EPRDF, the ruling party that elected him into power, and established the Prosperity Party (PP). The new party would merge the TPLF, Amhara Democratic Party, Oromo Democratic Party, and the Southern Ethiopian People Democratic Movement into a countrywide party as a method to leave a distance between ethnic ruling and politics. But as the merge looked promising, Abiy’s government failed to consider the constitutional law and, more importantly, how some of the parties would feel.

The TPLF refused to merge, and its leader, who felt betrayed and believed the PP Party was illegal, returned to their home in northern Ethiopia. Since then, tension has been building between the two governments as Abiy has accused the TPLF of coordinating ethnic violence across the country. The TPLF would deny all claims and create their own electoral commission. On 9 September 2020, the TPLF held regional elections, which was deemed illegal by Abiy, who postponed the general elections because of the Coronavirus pandemic. Abiy’s government cut any source of resources or funding to the Tigray Region and a few months later would accuse the TPLF of attacking a military base. Airstrikes would be deployed, and the fighting would erupt. Given that both sides have near equal military forces, the war will most likely disturb the country’s current status and could cause a destructive impact on the Horn of Africa.

Voice of the voiceless

According to the United Nations (U.N), the war has taken the lives of thousands of people displaced over 950,000, many of them seeking refugee into the neighboring country of Sudan, and put millions of children at risk as Abiy’s government has restricted humanitarian aid. Internet blackouts in the Tigray region targeting mobile phone data, which is how most Ethiopians get online, has now been restored, but to a certain extent. Consistency remains a problem, and Abiy’s government monitors all networks, so Tigrayans have little to say to their families overseas.

“Mama Shewa lived in Zalambesa, a Tigrayen town bordering Eritrea. About 40 days ago, the people in town heard bombing and shelling and ran to seek refuge in the nearest church. Churches are meant to be safe places during war. Still, the soldiers entered the church and began shooting everyone” (Hewan Kassa). Hewan found out about her mother’s aunt’s tragic and cold-blooded murder just a few days ago; communication blackouts in Tigray have limited her family’s communication with their loved ones back home. Her aunt’s daughter was also harmed as she was shot in the leg and was unable to seek medical care due to hospital lootings and there being no electricity to aid in any medical procedures because of the federal government cut of resources. Unfortunately, Hewan’s story is the story of many; her pain is one that numerous families abroad have felt.

War with Eritrea?

Source: Aljazeera

In the town of Humera, where mass graves have been reported and one of the first towns to be attacked by the Ethiopian government, several sources that want to remain anonymous for their family members’ safety have narrated lost contact with their close ones. Residents of Humera claim that the Eritrean government has been assisting in the bombing with the Ethiopian government.

This claim has been backed by US diplomats who believe thousands of Eritrean soldiers have crossed into Ethiopia to support Abiy’s government in the war against the TPLF. If this remains to be true, Abiy’s government has invited a foreign country to commit acts of terror in his own country, breaking several humanitarian laws. The TPLF has fired weapons at Eritrea’s capital, Asmara, as it believes it is fighting a war within its own country and the country of Eritrea.

Ethnic targeting

Face marks as expression of cultural identity

One anonymous source tells on how soldiers were targeting specifically the homes of Tigrayans and setting them on fire. Humanitarian organizations have reported ethnic targeting, several Tigrayans have been questioned, including those working as journalists and the African Union. Another anonymous source tells that the face marks on some Tigrayans have made them their family members targets by soldiers. Kidnapping, rape, and street execution have been witnessed by Tigrayans that have managed to escape their homes and seek refuge in Sudan.

The diaspora

Denver, Colorado Dec 28th 2020; (A call to protest the war on Tigray)

With more than 2.5 million Ethiopians living outside of Ethiopia, the diaspora community is vast and prominent. Since independent, unbiased media isn’t welcomed in the country, many Ethiopians overseas are the reporters of the events going on in their country. In the US alone, the diaspora is estimated to be anything from 250,000 to a million.

Millete Birhanemaskel, an activist and Denver resident

Millete Birhanemaskel, a longtime Denver resident, has been one of the vocal activists organizing protests on raising awareness to stop the war on Tigray. “Shame on the UN, shame on the African Union, shame on all of them watching these crimes happen and not doing anything to stop it,” Birhanemaskel voiced at the Denver Capital on December 28th. Birhanemaskel has urged the Ethiopian diaspora to use social media to spread information on the events going on in Tigray. Hashtags like #StopTheWarOnTigray, #TigrayGenocide and #EritreaOutOfTigray have been used to inform the global public on the war in Tigray; it has also been used to raise donations and create resources for those affected by the war.

“When you hear these devasting stories, and you have a prime minister who won’t allow anybody in to see for themselves, families aren’t able to see for themselves. Third-party independent groups aren’t allowed to see for themselves; what other conclusion are we left with?” (Millete Birhanemaskel).


Abiy’s actions expose a suspicious and alarming pattern that the international community has failed to act on. The longer this war continues, the higher the probabilities of Ethiopia’s destabilization as a country becomes more realistic. The people of Tigray are in desperate need. Humanitarian groups have warned that history will repeat itself once again in Ethiopia if the war does not come to an end.

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