Give war a chance? Ethiopia’s military action in Tigray

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The conflict

In November of last year, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) attacked the northern command base of the Ethiopia National Defence Force (ENDF), triggering an armed conflict in the country’s Tigray region.

As a ruling party of the Tigray region of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, the TPLF had dominated the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), an ethnically-based coalition that governed Ethiopia for nearly three decades.

The TPLF fell out with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed following Ahmed’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. The TPLF also held Tigray regional elections in defiance of Abiy’s decision, which he justified with the COVID-19 pandemic, to postpone the general elections.

It is not clear exactly why the TPLF attacked the ENDF’s northern command base, but it is part of a series of dangerously provocative acts against the federal government. It could be seen as a pre-emptive attack to weaken the ENDF, arguably based on TPLF’s intelligence that the federal government was planning a military operation.

The violent conflict in Tigray has been long coming, given the open antagonism between Abiy and the TPLF leadership. Driven by his ultra-national ideals and emboldened by nationalist Amhara elites, Abiy seems determined to crush the TPLF, which he portrays as standing in the way of his ‘reform’ agenda.

Abiy has now 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”. It has triggered a dire humanitarian crisis, leaving over 2.3 million people in need of humanitarian aid. UNHCR describes an increasingly worrying refugee crisis, with the Ethiopian Red Cross reporting that 80% of Tigray is unreachable and thus still lacking aid.

There are increasing concerns over violations of human rights and international humanitarian law in Tigray. For example. the Ethiopian government itself, through the Minister for Women, has confirmed that “rape has taken place conclusively and without a doubt”. Reports of these violations have led to calls for the UN’s intervention.

No to dialogue

Abiy has rejected calls for negotiation, terming them external interference in Ethiopia’s internal affairs.

In a February 2021 editorial, he asserted 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 argued that removal of the TPLF is necessary for Ethiopia’s peace and stability, as well as that of the entire region.

His supporters now echo his strong anti-dialogue sentiments, leading 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 argue that “it is hard to see how it can be resolved through dialogue.” Former PM Hailemariam Desalegn cites the poor record of dialogue in solving political problems in Africa, and suggests that accepting dialogue with the TPLF would unjustifiably elevate its moral stature to that of the federal government.

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”.

Though only representing a tiny ethnic group, in the decades prior to Abiy coming into power, the TPLF cunningly cobbled together a loose coalition under the EPRDF as a way to control and retain state power.

The TPLF used a political strategy of violent and raw politicisation of ethnicity to exert authority over Ethiopia’s politics and resources, taking advantage of the skewed autonomy crafted into the country’s ethno-federal system.

This is clearly a problem, but claims that Ethiopia’s biggest [perhaps only] problem is the TPLF and its ethno-federalism create a false impression that its removal will resolve the country’s political problems. Yet, this seems to be the major driving force behind Abiy’s attempt to dismantle ethno-federalism and violently dislodge the TPLF from power.

Both the ethno-federal system in Ethiopia and TPLF’s violent legacy need to be addressed, including bringing TPLF leadership to justice. In fact, there is both local and international support for holding the leadership of the TPLF to account for the crimes they committed while in control of federal power.

The question that remains in dispute, however, is how this might be done. 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, subsequent intra-state wars may result in scenarios worse than the initial situation they meant to remedy.

Does the situation in Tigray justify arguments 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 the viable solution for Ethiopia lies with non-violent approaches to addressing the country’s political problems.

In the short term, Ethiopia needs to end the military action in Tigray, release political prisoners, allow unfettered humanitarian access to the region, and investigate and punish crimes that have been committed during this conflict.

In the long term, the country should initiate national dialogue on how to deal with legacies of violence, address the troubled transition and (re)imagine Ethiopia’s political future.


Ibrahim Magara is a Policy Leader Fellow at the EUI’s School of Transnational Governance. He is a founding director of Amani Africa Consultancy based in Nairobi, Kenya, where he is actively engaged in peace research and peace policy advice in Africa.

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