This article seeks to place the recent conflict in Ethiopia in deeper historical context. It traces the roots of Tigray province’s identity through various phases in Ethiopia’s history, and argues that the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) is the culmination of decades, even centuries, of a struggle for status within the Ethiopian nation-state. The article proposes that Ethiopia’s history, inseparable from that of neighboring Eritrea, is characterized by cyclical shifts in access to power, as well as conflicts over inclusivity and cohesion, and that crushing the TPLF militarily will not resolve those conflicts.
The recent eruption of conflict in Tigray, Ethiopia’s northernmost province, is a deeply worrying development for Ethiopia itself as well as for the wider region. The launching of military operations by the Ethiopian Government against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) has led to intense fighting, the killing of civilians, and an exodus of refugees into Sudan. The TPLF has conducted missile attacks on Amhara province as well as on Asmara, the capital of neighboring Eritrea, in response to the Government’s offensive. The escalation has now brought Eritrea into play, rendering this an international conflict rather than simply a local one, and one which will therefore be all the more difficult to resolve. This is not a region unaccustomed to bitter conflict: in the last two decades alone, there has been a devastating war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, ongoing violence in Somalia, low-level insurgency in the predominantly Somali Ogaden province, and mounting street protests across Ethiopia. Yet the crisis in Tigray is particularly menacing.
It is also a distinctively Ethiopian tragedy, and one which has been brewing for several years. The immediate context is the coming to power of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in April 2018, and the political reforms which he immediately initiated. He sought a more liberal approach to protest, notably on the part of the Oromo, and released thousands of political prisoners. He made peace with Eritrea, signing a deal which formally ended the conflict – long in a state of standoff – in July 2018. That in itself was greeted with hostility to at least some in the TPLF; but above all, Abiy’s liberal reforms, anti-corruption drive, and ambition to create a more unitary political movement all involved the marginalization of the TPLF, once the dominant faction in the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) which had been in power in Ethiopia since 1991. In December 2019, the EPRDF was abolished and replaced by the Prosperity Party, which the TPLF declined to join. Their political journey had come full circle. Any attempt to understand, let alone resolve, the current crisis must involve an exploration of the region’s deeper history.
That journey had begun in the western lowlands of Tigray in February 1975, when the TPLF was established as one of a number of insurgent movements in the turmoil which characterized the aftermath of Emperor Haile Selassie’s ouster. In the years that followed, the new military government in Addis Ababa – the Marxist and authoritarian Derg (‘committee’) regime, supported by the Soviet Union – consolidated and sought to brutally crush dissent, armed or otherwise. The Derg was responsible for tens of thousands of deaths, but it singularly failed to suppress the multiple insurgencies, whether in Eritrea, the Ogaden, or among the Oromo – or in Tigray, where the TPLF overcame early military setbacks to become one of the most successful and dynamic of the regional liberation fronts in the course of the 1980s. By the late 1980s, the TPLF had defeated the Derg forces in a number of engagements, and had become the dominant partner in the EPRDF, the coalition of guerrilla movements which would overthrow the Derg in 1991.
Yet the TPLF was not solely the manifestation of the revolutionary politics of the 1970s and 1980s, although its leadership was in part the product of the student radicalism of the era. The TPLF, and the ethno-nationalism which underpinned it, was the outcome of decades of marginalization and impoverishment within imperial Ethiopia. Tigrayan nationalism may have been driven and articulated by a new generation, but operated in the shadow of the 1943 rebellion in Tigray against Haile Selassie’s rule which had been violently suppressed – with the help of the British. The same feelings of resentment and hostility toward Amhara domination of the state had led, a few years earlier, to some of the local nobility’s cooperation with the Italians when the latter invaded in 1935, and occupying administrative roles during the brief Fascist occupation. Plenty of Tigrayans resisted the Italians, too; but that cannot be understood as a legitimization of the Amhara state. From the perspective of the Amhara, the narrative was strengthened that ‘the north’ was not to be trusted; that its politics were venal and uncouth; and that whatever historic glories Tigray could lay claim to were long gone.
Those glories were indeed manifold. Tigray was historically and culturally of enormous significance in the very formation of Ethiopia as an empire-state over the course of several centuries – in its Christian culture, its military contribution, and its commercial importance. Although they had much in common, and shared interests, Tigrinya (the predominant ethnic group in Tigray) and Amhara vied for control of the state. It was the latter who became increasingly hegemonic from their base in Shoa province, and who dominated the sacred lineage that was the Solomonic monarchy. Thus, modern Ethiopia was shaped by struggles – often regionally rooted and increasingly ethnically demarcated – over access to political and material resources, and over the control and indeed the very definition of ‘Ethiopia.’ The inward migration of the Oromo from the south into the central highlands in the course of the sixteenth century further complicated those struggles. Only briefly, between 1872 and 1889, did the seat of power return to Tigray – under the Tigrayan Emperor Yohannes IV who, for all the TPLF’s revolutionary zeal, would occupy a powerful place in the Tigrayan nationalist imagination for decades to come. When he was killed fighting the Mahdists in Sudan, the imperial throne was seized by Menelik II, ruler of Shoa, who built Addis Ababa as his capital. The return of power to the Amhara would contribute to the sense that Tigray was denied its rightful inheritance.
The history and travails of Tigray cannot be understood without reference to neighboring Eritrea – or more specifically the Tigrinya of the central Eritrea plateau, linked culturally and linguistically to Tigray. The peoples of the area which would become Eritrea had long been on the edges of the Ethiopian imperium, alternately associating with or resisting it, occupying a liminal space between power blocs in the Ethiopian Highlands and on the Red Sea coast. In the late nineteenth century, Eritrea became an Italian colony, and thus ensued a century of increasingly complex and ambiguous relations between Tigrinya peoples on either side of the border. By the time that Eritrea was annexed by Haile Selassie in 1962, an armed struggle in the territory had already begun. In the course of the 1970s, this was dominated by the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), which in many ways had common cause with the TPLF in their respective struggles against the Derg, but which had important differences in ideology, military tactics, and the very definition of nationality; the two movements severed all contact in the mid-1980s. The TPLF recognized the EPLF’s right to fight for the independence of Eritrea, while the TPLF itself resolved to be in the vanguard of the liberation of the whole of Ethiopia from the authoritarianism of the Derg; the movements renewed a tactical alliance in the late 1980s, and together overthrew the Derg, with Eritrea becoming independent. However, profound tensions remained beneath the civility of post-liberation diplomacy and the new era which that supposedly heralded. The TPLF perceived in their Eritrean counterparts a dangerous hubris bordering on contempt for all others, while the EPLF saw in the TPLF a movement they had helped create – the former had initially helped to train TPLF fighters – and one which therefore should allow them some political and military influence in a much weakened Ethiopia.
It did not work out that way. As a result of relatively minor squabbles over the border, TPLF-led Ethiopia went to war with EPLF-led Eritrea in 1998. Over the next two years, tens of thousands of soldiers were killed, and Eritrea survived as an independent state – but was much the worse for wear. Ethiopia weathered the storm, and under the TPLF the country advanced into the twenty-first century with increasing GDP growth rates, political confidence, and – occasional criticisms over its record on human rights notwithstanding – serious regional and global clout. Eritrea withdrew into a brooding, solipsistic militarism.
Until 2018, that is – when fresh-faced, charismatic, and (most importantly) non-TPLF Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed reached out the hand of friendship and signed a peace agreement with President Isaias Afeworki. For Afeworki, no doubt, there were a number of incentives, including Ethiopian recognition of Eritrea’s remaining border claims, the opening of bilateral trade with Ethiopia, the promise of joint investment projects, and the hope that the peace agreement might lead to the lifting of UN sanctions on Eritrea. But one more opportunity to crush the TPLF was unquestionably among them.
Ethiopia has long been defined by cycles of inter-provincial and inter-ethnic struggle for national and regional hegemony, and by episodically shifting centers and peripheries. The TPLF now finds itself on the margins once more. But Ethiopian history demonstrates the dangers – and indeed the futilities – of attempting to crush local dissent utterly and to suppress ethnic identities; of seeking to marginalize and demonize particular communities to the advantage of others. Ethnic balance and internal cohesion have eluded modern Ethiopia. Abiy’s strategy toward Tigray, and the TPLF’s own behavior, seem set to ensure that that remains the case. All parties would do well to refresh themselves on the country’s past, both recent and deep, and arrive at the only sensible way forward – to seek consensus and reconciliation; to build a political system that is genuinely inclusive and representative; and to make sure that Eritrea, which should not be granted a stake in Ethiopia’s internal affairs, no more than Ethiopia should have one in Eritrea’s, is kept at arm’s length.
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Richard Reid is Professor of African History at the University of Oxford. He has published extensively on the Horn of Africa, and his books include Frontiers of Violence in North-East Africa: Genealogies of Conflict since 1800 (Oxford University Press, 2011) and Shallow Graves: A Memoir of the Ethiopia-Eritrea War (Hurst, 2020).
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