The origins and escalation of the Tigray conflict
IT WILL BE TWO YEARS EXACTLY IN November this year since the primordial outbreak of the Ethiopian war in the Tigray region. This war pitted the paramilitary group, Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a former ruling party in Ethiopia, against the forces of the Ethiopian Federal Government. The catalyst for this turmoil was the holding of general elections in Tigray in September 2020. These were held despite the National Election Board of Ethiopia cancelling them, using the COVID-19 pandemic as a reason.
The conflict began to unfold rapidly after the Ethiopian government declared the Tigray elections invalid. This incited what the Tigrayan side viewed as an open declaration of war, and attempts at mediation were of little use. On November 3, 2020, forces loyal to the TPLF took over military bases in Tigray. This prompted the federal government, led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, to declare a state of emergency in the region and call upon individuals over 18 to join Ethiopian National Defense Force troops in the conflict.
Over the past two years, the conflict has expanded to involve not only national troops but also troops from Eritrea to flank the Ethiopian Federal Government. It has affected, in a broader sense, several areas beyond Tigray, such as the Afar and Amhara region. Consequently, casualties, though still uncertain in number, have surged not only in Tigray but also in the broader northern part of the region. The casualties are due to direct violence, expressed through clashes between the various factions. But they are also due to the reverberating effects of the war, from famine or lack of basic services such as health to displacements from war-affected towns.
Putting lasting peace for the region to the test
The TPLF were cornered by a lack of arms and a loss of territory to federal forces. They signed the Pretoria agreement with the Ethiopian Federal Government on November 2nd 2022. It seemed likely that this agreement would give the fighting in the area a much-needed respite.
Both sides agreed to the “permanent cessation of hostilities”. Among other points in the agreement, there was specific mention of the TPLF laying down its arms, thus allowing the return of the Ethiopian National Defense Force. An interim administration, jointly selected by the TPLF and the Federal Government, was also to oversee the transition, pending new elections. The Ethiopian Prime Minister professed about the agreement that “commitment to peace remains steadfast”. However, recent tensions in northern regions of Ethiopia are putting such words to a (hard) test, and the agreement’s effectiveness remains a subject of debate.
Amhara Region: a hotbed of unresolved disputes and discontent
This time it is the Amhara region, the country’s second-most populous, that is the epicentre of the latest tensions, preventing Abiy Ahmed from letting his guard down. Indeed, on August 4th, 2023, the Ethiopian federal government declared a state of emergency in the region, similar to the early days of the Tigrayan conflict. This followed the escalation of violence between federal troops and Amhara militias of the Fano paramilitary group. Trying to bring the situation under control, the region has been divided into four command posts. The root cause of this unrest lies in the discontent among the region’s inhabitants and beyond, stemming from various factors.
The Amhara region quickly became embroiled in the Tigray conflict. The same Fano militias that now clash with the government have in the past supported it in the war in Tigray. This move, however, should not be understood as having been open endorsement of federal troops, explains Tewodrose Tirfe of the Amhara Association of America. It was more a strategic move, motivated by Fano’s self-interest, to defend the Amhara region from Tigrayan incursions. During the conflict, the TPLF in fact stood their ground in Amhara areas. The result has been, again, an outbreak of violence, with thousands of civilians killed, displacement of such people and property damage.
The Pretoria Agreement may have brought partial relief to the federal government and the TPLF. But little – if anything – has been dealt with regarding the Amhara region and the post-war period. Thus, questions regarding the disputed territories between Amhara and Tigray – such as Wolkait, Tsegede, Tselemt and Raya – remain unanswered. Amhara claims them by historical right. They refer back to the federal constitution drafted in 1995, and plant their feet firmly on the ground conquered in the first weeks of the war. Other matters, such as massacres and displacement of people due to the conflict remain unclear. Ultimately they leave a bitter taste in the mouths of a fringe population enduring suffering caused by the war.
The political vacuum and ethnic dynamics
The political vacuum left by the Pretoria Agreement creates fertile soil for civilian discontent. The question to be asked in this context is to what extent the situation being witnessed again in the north of the country is solely a causal nexus of the war in Tigray. The federal government decided on April 6, 2023 to decommission special forces from all regions of the country in order to reintegrate them into the national forces, the federal police, or the respective regional police. This is a further aggravating factor. So much so that it caused, paradoxically, a counter action in the Amhara region. At least 30 percent of the Amhara Special Forces, in response, joined Fano and its local volunteers in an attempt to overpower what was perceived as an attack on the region’s autonomy.
This concerned the right, ultimately, to defend itself independently against attacks from neighbouring regions, particularly the TPLF, concerning disputed territories. This influx of volunteers into Fano is fueled by a deep-rooted sense of ethnic identity among the Amhara population, from the young to the old. Many feel marginalised in the Ethiopian sociopolitical landscape. This fosters a stronger sense of belonging to the Amhara ethnic group than to the broader national identity. So the unanswered questions of the peace agreement or, if one will, of the Ethiopian leadership, only endorse the Amharas’ fears of being sidelined. In this ethnic matrix also lies the answer to why the Fano militia has recently experienced an increasing influx of combatant volunteers. It has become the voice of a patriotic and indeed Amhara identity that is crying out for political recognition. It believes that this struggle will settle disaffections with the current government.
At the time of the war in Tigray, popular opinion among Amhara people seemed to be divided. On the one hand were those who supported Ahmed’s efforts of handling the situation in the region. On the other were those who saw a promise for peace, as praised by the leader in the early days, broken. But recent events, in which the government’s suppressive actions have turned in their favour, tip the balance toward a lack of confidence in the federal leadership.
Latest developments in the Amhara conflict
The first week of August this year featured clashes between federal forces and Fano militias. A state of emergency was announced on August 4th. It includes a ban on public gatherings. It allows rather arbitrary arrests of those considered dangerous elements and imposes curfews in six cities, including the regional capital. This is an attempt to restore order, but it risks at the same time placing even more emphasis on people’s sense of alienation from the federal government.
Additionally, limited internet access in the region and suspension of domestic flights have isolated the area even more, making it difficult to access credible and up-to-date information. What reaches outside ears at the moment is nothing reassuring. For example, there was a suspected air strike in the territory, in Finote Selam in West Gojam, that killed more than 26 people and injured more than 50.
While the Pretoria Agreement offered a glimmer of hope for peace in Ethiopia, recent developments in the northern regions, particularly in the Amhara region, pose significant challenges to lasting stability. Addressing the root causes of discontent, resolving territorial disputes, and recognising ethnic dynamics are essential steps toward achieving a sustainable and lasting peace in the country. At the moment, as it turns out, the threat of war is not so latent. So much for commitment to peace.
Rachel Dubale is a recent graduate in African Studies from Leiden University, currently working in Martinique, in the Caribbean, offering support to refugee women from Haiti and the Dominican Republic.