© UNHCR/Hazim Elhag

The Civil War in Ethiopia, Sparked By a Conflict in the Tigray Region, is Getting Worse

In early November a civil war broke out in Ethiopia. The conflict pitted the federal government and its allies against the regional government of Tigray.

Tigray is in northern Ethiopia and borders both Eritrea and Sudan. For decades a political party from Tigray, known as the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, or TPLF, was the dominant force in Ethiopian politics. The TPLF was essential the Ethiopian government from the early 1990s. That was until 2018, when the current Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power.  He is not of the TPLF, and as prime minister has taken certain actions that the TPLF perceived as hostile to their interests.

Tensions had been simmering for many months and came to a head in September when Tigray held regional elections, which the federal government deemed illegal. On November 4th 2020 armed conflict broke out between federal government military forces stationed in the capitol of Tigray and TPLF armed forces.

Since then the fighting has gotten worse and the humanitarian impact for people living in Tigray has been catastrophic. Exact figures about the number of people killed and displaced by fighting are hard to come by because the region has been more or less off limits for the media. Humanitarian aid agencies have had their movements severely restricted.

There have been many reports of mass atrocities and possible ethnic cleansing. The most recent of such reports was issued by Amnesty in late February, which found evidence of hundreds of Tigray civilians killed by the Eritrean military.

And it is with a discussion of that event that I kick off this interview with William Davison, a senior analyst for Ethiopia for International Crisis Group. We then discuss how and why this conflict started, and where it may be headed next.

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Reports of Mass Atrocities and Ethnic Cleansing in Tigray

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:02:34] So, just to kick off, can you describe what this Amnesty report revealed?

William Davidson [00:02:42] The Amnesty report focused on an incident over a few days -up to a week I think- in late November in the city of Axum, which is a fairly major city in Tigray. And the basic events it described is that Eritrean and Ethiopian forces entered the town and then there was an attempt to defend the town or attack the Eritrean forces by what some described as this local militia or youth, from the Tigrayan inhabitants of the town. That was repelled fairly easily by the Eritrean troops, who are far better trained and armed. And then it was subsequent to that, where essentially these Eritrean forces went on the rampage, pretty much, in Axum, as described in the report. So they went door-to-door looking for people who were of fighting age or particularly for people who had participated or may have been a part of this militia that attacked them. They engaged in looting in Axum. But most importantly, they engaged in an unknown number of killings of civilians in Axum and many of them, it seems, by execution-style. Amnesty put the number in the hundreds. So what the report described is an absolutely brutal retaliation by Eritrea’s army in late November in Axum.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:04:35] Yeah, this does seem to be, of what we know so far, the most significant mass atrocity event of this conflict.

William Davidson [00:04:45] Yes, but I think we still have to be very hesitant about assessments like that because we’re talking about an event in late November that has come to light in late February. And so the point is that information is filtering out slowly and it’s an even slower process to confirm or verify that information. Unfortunately, there are any number of reports of mass killings coming out in Tigray. There have been the well-reported incidents near Edaga Hamus to the east of Axum and to the north of Mekelle, the capital. Dengelat monastery was covered in the media recently and there have been several other similar reports of mass killings. We should also not forget that the most heavily publicized massacre, so far, has been in the town of Mai Kadra right at the outset of the war, around the 9th of November. That was pinned upon Tigrayan militia by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and also Amnesty, who did a brief report on that.

[00:05:59] And I think the other notable thing is that the acts of killing, the Dengelat massacre and others, and the systemic looting in central northern Tigray has been attributed to the Eritrean military. Human Rights Watch has reported on indiscriminate urban areas, which could constitute a war crime carried out by the Ethiopian federal defense forces. But then in western Tigray, it is the Amhara militia who were part of the federal intervention and who have reclaimed territory in western Tigray. They said they should have been part of Amhara, not Tigray. They have been accused by refugees who fled to Sudan, but also in a recent U.S. Government report covered by The New York Times, of violent depopulation with the term ethnic cleansing used to remove Tigrayans from those areas in West Tigray. And we really don’t know too much detail about what occurred there. So yes, the Axum incident is incredibly serious. Arguably, it’s the most serious incident so far, although others, particularly those who oppose the T.P.L.F. and support the federal intervention, would say that the Mai Kadra incident was by far the most serious with claims of up to 1,000 and even more civilians having been killed. But the unfortunate truth is that because of the information blackout, the lack of reporting, and the other restrictions on access, there may be even worse to come.

Why are there Eritrean Troops in Fighting in Tigray, Ethiopia?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:07:45] Can you explain to listeners why Eritrean troops would seemingly be joining forces with the Ethiopian federal government to fight against the T.P.L.F. and, in the case of this incident in Axum, be participating in atrocities against ethnic Tigrayans?

William Davidson [00:08:08] Well, the T.P.L.F. leadership has had a very long relationship with Eritrea’s president and the ruling party there. They were the liberation movements that spearheaded the rebellions or insurgencies that led to the collapse of the Derg regime in Ethiopia in 1991. As a result of that regime change and that transition, Eritrea became an independent country. And then Ethiopia’s federation, its multinational ethnic federation, was created at the same time with the T.P.L.F. becoming, arguably, the single most dominant force within that government as part of the ruling coalition.

[00:09:00] Subsequent to that, there was a lot of promise. But really, relations deteriorated quite quickly over economic and territorial issues. And then we had the 1998 to 2000 so-called “border war” between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Now because of the T.P.L.F.’s predominance within the Ethiopian ruling, within the Ethiopian regime, and including within the military, that had a strong component of a clash between these former rebel allies, the Eritrean and Tigrayan leadership. And that war was brutal, the settlement gave awarded disputed land to Eritrea, but essentially that was never implemented and that led to this frozen conflict from 2000 right through to 2018. The prime minister came to power, the T.P.L.F. lost a lot of federal power, and there was the rapprochement between Ethiopia and Eritrea, particularly between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and President Isaias Afwerki. And President Isaias Afwerki is a sworn enemy of the T.P.L.F. elite. And so in many ways, it’s entirely natural and unsurprising that, given that the federal government led by Abiy Ahmed came to blows with Tigrays and regional governments over these, well nominally, over these electoral constitutional disputes last year. When that federal intervention was launched, it was in many ways an ideal opportunity for President Isaias to see through or achieve a longstanding objective, which was the final demise of his major political opponents.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:11:03] So basically, they have a common perceived enemy in the T.P.L.F. because for so many years the T.P.L.F. controlled the federal government of Ethiopia and waged a war against Eritrea from Eritrea’s perspective. So now, with the T.P.L.F. on the ropes, because it is no longer a force in the federal government and is now on the receiving end of the Ethiopian federal government’s military advances, the Eritreans now see this as a moment to deliver that final blow to the T.P.L.F.

William Davidson [00:11:36] Yes, exactly, and the T.P.L.F., with a heavy presence in Ethiopia’s federal government, they were instrumental in the isolation of Eritrea that we’ve seen over the past couple of decades, the sanctions regime. Of course, with these things, there are different perspectives on them. Many would say that President Isaias brought that upon Eritrea himself.

[00:12:07] But, yes, it did present that opportunity. And then, of course, from the Addis perspective, from the Asmara perspective, and from their supporters, they would say that it was the disgruntled T.P.L.F. that was looking to derail Abiy’s progressive reforms and derail the peace agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea. They would say that the T.P.L.F. were the spoilers and therefore, in their presentation of events, the removal of the T.P.L.F. is the removal of the final obstacle to harmonious -harmonious which refers to the normalization of Ethiopian Eritrean relations- harmonious relations in a more peaceful and prosperous Horn of Africa.

How Did the Conflict in Tigray, Ethiopia Start?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:12:52] So can you briefly explain to listeners and take us back to the start of this conflict in November and how and why civil war broke out? What were the proximate causes of the outbreak of this conflict?

William Davidson [00:13:11] Well, it’s a long chain of events and very much includes some of that contemporary political history that we just ran through, of course. But in terms of the proximate causes here, the final trigger, we can say, was the decision by Tigray regional government to take over as much of the federal military stationed in Tigray -and that is known as the Northern Command- to take over as much of that as possible. And that was done in conjunction with conspiring Tigrayan offices in the federal military. That was what led to the federal government launching a military intervention, a military intervention that was obviously supported by Eritrean forces and not just the federal army in Ethiopia, but also Amhara regional forces. And those are very important components.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:14:14] Can you just describe the Amhara regional forces? This is our, I take it, ethnic militias that have historically been antagonistic with Tigrayan ethnic militias.

William Davidson [00:14:31] Well, there’s certainly a certain amount of historic competition between two power centers in Ethiopia. There’s certainly a lot of political animosity that’s been built up between their elites during the federal era and in many ways, ever since the left began its rebellion right back in 1974. But I guess the most prominent and relevant aspect of that here is the territorial issue. And that is that Amhara elites and activists with the increasing amount of popular support, they have said that when the federation was created in the 1990s, that Tigray and the T.P.L.F. effectively, forcefully, annexed what was rightfully Amhara land and attached it to Tigray for its relatively fertile land set to be growing areas, giving Tigray an international border to Sudan, and then also accusations that similar events took place in southern Tigray as well. So that became an increasing political grudge that was held by the Amhara against the Tigrayans. Generally, they’re inclined to see the T.P.L.F. as an anti-Amhara entity and the federal Ethiopia as an anti-Amhara construct. This is part of the narrative of Amhara nationalism, part of the grievance narrative, of course just one grievance narrative in Ethiopian politics.

[00:16:15] But it was in the course of this federal intervention to remove the T.P.L.F. government, that the Amhara regular security forces but also irregular militia, moved with the federal military into western Tigray where the intervention was first focused. And that was part of this successful removal of Tigray’s government in November. And since then, Amhara elements, including the regional leadership, has laid claim to these areas. They are saying they are now rightfully back under Amhara administration and they do not look, in any mood, to give up on that. And this has involved a significant depopulation of immigrants from those areas. And in many ways, that’s a reversal of what the Amhara say they suffered in the 80s and 90s at the end, at the hands of the T.P.L.F. They say that the Amhara were annexed from those areas.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:17:09] And it’s that depopulation of areas of western Tigray by Amhara, regular and irregular militias, and the Ethiopian federal government that led to this report from the United States government that was leaked to The New York Times suggesting ethnic cleansing had occurred in parts of Tigray? Is that right?

William Davidson [00:17:38] Yes, that’s exactly right. In these areas of Western Tigray that Amhara factions have long claimed, that is, indeed, the allegations of depopulation or ethnic cleansing. And there were suggestions that perhaps a million people fled east from western Tigray into central Tigray. 60,000 refugees, overwhelmingly Tigrayan, went to Sudan, of course. But I think, yes, that report was certainly significant in terms of the interest it generated and the very concerning events. But there’s a lot of detail to come out about what exactly has occurred in west Tigray, and that has not really yet emerged.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:18:28] And what do we know about the current status of fighting? I mean, it sounds just by the way you’re describing it, as if the T.P.L.F. is outgunned and outmanned by Eritreans on one side and the federal government and these Amhara militias on the other. Is there still hot fighting, active fighting, on the ground, to your knowledge?

William Davidson [00:18:53] Yes, there are certainly some very major confrontations and some in early mid-February. Most of the fighting has been concentrated in central Tigray -the major confrontations. That’s where the Tigray’s ousted leaders’ relative stronghold is and rural areas around there. So they’re mounting occasional ambushes on convoys. They’re also engaging in some major confrontations with Eritrean and Ethiopian military.

[00:19:26] They very much were overwhelmed and outgunned, including from the air and particularly by drone campaign in November and December. They lost control of the regional government. They headed to rural areas and I think they were essentially trying to survive. But since the new year, really, they seem to have consolidated and restrategized. They have a more mobile, less mechanized force now. And they have managed to take hold in rural areas and, like I said, to maintain their grip on territory and engage in these confrontations.

[00:20:02] Now, huge victories are always claimed by the Tigrayan forces, but that’s been very, very hard to verify. So all we can really say is that significant clashes are ongoing. This is corroborated by the actors that are on the ground, the independent actors, and also just by the fact that we could see -in terms of aid deliveries, the aid operation- it’s obvious that some of these rural areas, or huge swathes of these rural areas in central Tigray -perhaps when you get about 20 kilometers or so away from the major towns and the main roads, which are controlled by the federal forces, when you get into those rural areas about that distance- then they no longer have control. So there is still a significant conflict ongoing. And we should also note that the Eritrean military is in control of northern Tigray as well and those areas also seem to be largely, if not exclusively, inaccessible for the aid agencies.

What has been the humanitarian fallout from the Ethiopian Tigray War?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:21:10] Well, I wanted to hone in on this question about humanitarian access. I think yesterday I was watching a press conference from the spokesperson of the U.N. Secretary General who expressed exasperation about being repeatedly given assurances that humanitarian and U.N. affiliated aid agencies would be able to access certain areas of Tigray but then, when push comes to shove, they’re not allowed in. And this seems to combine with a general determination by the Ethiopian government to keep media away, to shut down the Internet, to basically keep everyone in the dark about what’s actually happening on the ground. What do we know about the ability right now of aid agencies to access Tigray?

William Davidson [00:22:05] It’s still severely restricted or limited, and of course, this relates to the conflict situation. So as you noted, it’s not just been aid agencies have been denied access, but it’s also journalists and researchers who’ve also not been present in the conflict. So that relates to a strong attempt by the federal government to control the flow of information from Tigray and therefore control the narrative.

[00:22:48] We’ve also seen, for example -I’ve mentioned the presence and we started off talking about this- atrocity committed by the Eritrean forces, but that Eritrean military presence has not been formally acknowledged by the Ethiopian federal government. So you can see the problem. A conflict is ongoing. People were already suffering or had vulnerable livelihoods, hundreds of thousands of people, pre-conflict. Then the conflict occurs. There’s all sorts of interruption to telecoms, banking, markets, transport, aid delivery. But then there are massive aspects of this conflict, such as the Eritrean role, which the federal government is trying to hide. So it’s these sorts of factors that initially led to this approach where there were very, very heavy restrictions on aid.

[00:23:55] Now we’re at a slightly different phase of the conflict, some of the basic elements of this war are now all but established. Maybe we haven’t seen a sort of formal admission but otherwise, it’s just a known fact that Eritrea’s military has been heavily engaged. And we’ve seen all these reports of atrocities. I think that has led to a slight loosening of the approach to the aid operation. But, of course, then you confront the problem of which areas can the aid agencies get into or which areas can the federal government authorize aid agencies to go. Meaning that not all of Tigray, by any means, is under the control of the Ethiopian military or the interim government that the federal government has established in Tigray. We have these large northern swathes of northern Tigray that’s in Eritrean control and there is very little access.

[00:25:04] There is no acknowledgment of ongoing conflict. So there was no acknowledgment that the so-called “Tigrayan Defense Forces” are in control of considerable amounts of territory. So there was no real access there because there were no negotiations with them. They are not recognized as a significant contingent by the federal government. And then there is also a complicated picture in terms of the aid agencies getting access to these areas that Amhara controls, because that may mean doing business, seeking permission from Amhara authorities that have no formal federal recognition or authorization to be administering the territories that there are.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:26:01] So it sounds like the upshot is that aid is extremely restricted, limited, and the ability of humanitarian relief agencies to operate is is minimal.

William Davidson [00:26:16] Yes. So we’ve seen some sort of more approval given for staff to operate. And I think maybe because now there are some of these elements that the federal government was trying to keep hidden, essentially, they’re now out in the open. So maybe there’s less need to control access to those federal government-controlled areas. But then we’re confronted with this sort of patchwork of control of the various armed entities and the fact that there is an ongoing conflict, but it’s not an ongoing conflict that the federal government is really willing to recognize. So the problem is that it’s going to be hard to get a really significant upsurge in humanitarian relief unless there is an end to the fighting -which doesn’t look likely, according to my outlook- or if there was a cessation of hostilities and therefore a humanitarian corridor. But there’s also no real sign of that, despite the sort of increasing international calls for it. So this is what makes the humanitarian situation particularly worrying because it looks like it could be exacerbated in the weeks and months to come.

What Can the International Community, United States and United Nations Do to Bring and End to the Conflict in Ethiopia?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:27:22] So lastly, can I ask you about that international pressure campaign? It’s striking to me that U.S. Secretary of State, Tony Blinken, twice in maybe just in the space of a week phoned Abiy Ahmed, encouraging and pressing him to relent, allow humanitarian access, and seek a peaceful resolution of this conflict. What does the fact that Abiy Ahmed so far seems to have rebuffed these calls by its long-time ally in the United States and also seems to be rebuffing calls from the United Nations as well? I mean, that to me is a striking turn, it seems.

William Davidson [00:28:07] Yes, and I think I just want to go back to the causes of the conflict to help explain this, to try and explain some of these dynamics and why they are indeed so worrying. This Tigrayan takeover of the federal military was seen as the sort of final straw, let’s say, by the federal government. It was treated as an act of treason. But, of course, war was coming because the Tigray region had run an autonomous election after the national elections were delayed by COVID and term limits were extended. And that led to the federal government classifying the newly elected Tigrayan executive as illegal and unconstitutional. And then they had prepared to redirect the federal budget away from Tigray’s executive. And all that time, Tigray’s leadership had been saying that the federal government’s leadership was illegitimate because it outstayed its constitutionally mandated term limits. And they said that this effort to redirect the budget away from Tigray’s executive was a breach of the federal compact. So, there was a clear, complete breakdown of relations between the federal government and the regional government. So, the war was coming. And then this Tigrayan attack, they describe it as preempting a federal military intervention on the military was the final straw.

[00:29:49] But my point is that the parties got into this civil war stage because of the complete failure of peaceful politics, as with many situations of this type. Now, that the new U.S. Administration is exerting, showing some concern and urgency over the situation, they are looking to apply some pressure and to encourage a return to some form of peaceful politics. But that’s not how the Ethiopian federal government sees it, and it’s not how the Amhara factions see it. Nor is it, we think, how Eritrea’s government sees it. And that means that they are still very much intent on their military objectives of completely disarming the former ousted Tigray leadership by bringing those leaders to justice and establishing this interim administration. And then obviously the Amhara have their territorial claims. And with Eritrea, there is this seeming revenge mission. And it seems that a longstanding ambition of President Isaias to see the back of the T.P.L.F. for once and for good and he is intent on realizing that.

[00:31:20] So even though the international community is now very much actively seized of this matter, it’s not immediately clear how to change the conflict dynamics or the conflict situation and the political dynamics surrounding it, because all the parties are still intent on a military victory here. And that goes for the Tigrayan leadership as well. They are expressing increasing confidence. They say they are willing to negotiate with the preconditions that they put in place for talks to occur with the federal government but they are not practical, to put it mildly. They want to essentially be returned to regional power and the federal government is not going to take those steps. So just these calls for humanitarian access to expand are not realistically going to happen at the scale they need to, at the scale the access needs to be expanded unless there is a significant reduction in the fighting. But unless there is an altered political approach from the belligerents, then we’re probably not going to see a significant reduction in the fighting. And that, I think, is what makes the situation so worrying and also means that, yes, the international community is likely to continue to make these calls. There will be some concessions from the federal government. So some progress will be made. But there is reason to think that the fundamentals of this situation that has taken these parties to conflict -it’s not clear what the levers are to alter those. And therefore, we could be looking at indeed an intensifying conflict over the next weeks and months.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:33:15] Well, William, this is obviously very disconcerting, but thank you so much for your time. It was nonetheless a helpful understanding of the drivers of this conflict right now. So thank you.

[00:33:28] Okay, thank you very much, Mark.