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Ethiopia’s Military Action in Tigray and the Rhetoric of Giving War Chance


The Conflict

The armed conflict in Ethiopia’s northern region of Tigray was arguably triggered by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)’s attack on the northern command base of the Ethiopia National Defence Force (ENDF). As a ruling party of the Tigray region of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia the TPLF dominated the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), an ethnically-based coalition that governed the country for nearly three decades. The TPLF fell out with PM Abiy Ahmed following the latter’s attempts to reconfigure the Ethiopian state and politics. Notably, the TPLF opposed the merger of the EPRDF in favour of Abiy’s nationalist Prosperity Party and went ahead to hold Tigray regional elections in defiance of Abiy’s decision to postpone elections citing Covid-19 pandemic. Reasons for TPLF’s attack on ENDF’s northern command base are unclear but it is part of a series of dangerously provocative acts against the federal government. It could have been a pre-emptive attack based on TPLF’s intelligence that the federal government was planning a military operation hence may have aimed at weakening the ENDF by destroying and/or stealing military hardware. The violent conflict in Tigray has long been coming given open antagonisms between Abiy and the leadership of the TPLF. Driven by his ultra-national ideals and emboldened by nationalist Amhara elites, Abiy seems determined to crash the TPLF which he portrays as standing on the way of his ‘reform agenda’. Abiy has since appointed a caretaker authority in Tigray, declared victory and announced that the TPLF has been “removed for good”. Externally, reports of the presence of Eritrean military in Tigray threatens to internationalise and complicate the conflict.

The cost of war

The conflict has been termed “a costly and divisive war” which has triggered a dire humanitarian crisis that has left over 2.3 million people in need of humanitarian aid. UNHCR paints a picture of an increasingly worrying refugee crisis with Ethiopian Red Cross reporting that 80% of Tigray is unreachable hence yet to access aid. There are increasing concerns over violations of human rights and international humanitarian law in Tigray. Ethiopian government itself, through the Minister for Women has since confirmed that “rape has taken place conclusively and without a doubt”. Reports of the said violations have seen some observers call for the UN’s intervention.


There have been calls for dialogue which Abiy rejects and terms external interference in Ethiopia’s internal affairs. Abiy’s strong opposition to dialogue has since birthed peculiar anti-dialogue sentiments among his supporters. It has equally led to a narrative that seems to suggest the need to ‘give war a chance’ in Tigray. Based on claims that Abiy had to make a tough decision due to the difficult choices that lay ahead, those who support his actions assert that “it is hard to see how it can be resolved through dialogue.” Former PM Hailemariam Desalegn advances an argument that faults the poor record of dialogue as means to resolving political problems in Africa contending that accepting to dialogue with the TPLF would unjustifiably elevate its moral stature. Justifying his decision, PM Abiy, asserts that “no government can tolerate its soldiers and innocent civilians being ambushed and killed in their dozens, as happened at the hands of the TPLF”.  He further states that removal of the TPLF is necessary for Ethiopia’s, and regional, peace and stability.

Does war have a chance?

The current crisis in Tigray is a continuum of “a bitter power struggle and a deep rift over how to rule Ethiopia”. Arguably, aware of the fact that they represented a tiny ethnic group and with a good grasp of Ethiopia’s multi-national complexity, the TPLF may have cunningly cobbled together a loose coalition under the EPRDF as a way to control and retain state power. Skewed autonomy that was crafted into Ethiopia’s ethno-federal system, as manifested in violent and raw politicisation of ethnicity, appears to have been the TPLF’s political strategy through which it exerted authority over Ethiopia’s politics and resources. Whereas this is a problem, popular discourse suggesting that Ethiopia’s biggest [perhaps only] problem is the TPLF and its ethno-federalism, creates a false impression that its removal will resolve the country’s political problems. This seems to be a major driving force behind Abiy’s attempt to dismantle ethno-federalism and violently dislodge the TPLF from power.

There are justifiable grounds for the need to address both the ethno-federal system in Ethiopia and the TPLF problem, including bringing its leadership to justice. In fact, there is both local and international support to Abiy’s attempts to hold the leadership of the TPLF to account for their crimes when in control of central power. What is in dispute therefore, is not whether or not to address the TPLF problem but how to do it. Abiy’s claims that [violent] removal of the TPLF marks the dawn of a “new Ethiopia may not exactly be the case, for indeed Ethiopia’s politicised ethnicity goes beyond the TPLF. Furthermore, as recounted by dia Wamba, in reference to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)’s complex transition, intra-state wars may result in situations worse than the problem they aim to address.

The question that then arises is whether the situation in Tigray justifies the need to ‘give war a chance’. My simple answer to this question is no. Regardless of how compelling the case for ‘a violent solution’ may appear, weighing the benefits and costs of war calls for a rethinking of ‘giving war a chance’. I think that Ethiopia’s viable solution lies with non-violent approaches to addressing its political problems. In the short term, Ethiopia needs to end the military action in Tigray, release political prisoners, allow unfettered humanitarian access, and investigate and punish crimes that have been committed during this conflict, among others. In the long term, there is need to initiate national dialogue on how to deal with legacies of violence, address the troubled transition and (re)imagine Ethiopia’s political futures.   

This article also appeared on the EUIdeas website at: https://euideas.eui.eu/2021/03/18/give-war-a-chance-ethiopias-military-action-in-tigray/


Ethiopia’s Military Action in Tigray and the Rhetoric of Giving War Chance Ethiopia’s Military Action in Tigray and the Rhetoric of Giving War Chance Reviewed by Ibrahim Magara on April 11, 2021 Rating: 5

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