On November 4, 2020, Ethiopians and people all over the world woke up to the shocking news of the outbreak of war in the Tigray region. The war was triggered by an attack by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) forces on the northern command of the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) based in Tigray. The ENDF launched a counterattack on TPLF forces in Tigray and effectively took control of the region. Underlying tensions between the two groups had already been simmering for a couple of years. The federal government designated the military operation against the TPLF an internal operation aimed at the “restoration of law and order,”1Borkena, “General Bacha Debele Reveals what Happened to the Northern Command,” Borkena, November 10, 2020, https://borkena.com/2020/10/general-debele-reveals-what-happened-to-the-northern-command/. while the TPLF called it an act of “occupation.”
The Evolution of the Conflict
The TPLF had ruled the Tigray region with an iron fist for thirty years. No other political group or organization was allowed to operate in the region. Unlike the rest of Ethiopia, independent media was not permitted. In the past two years, there has been intense mobilization effort by the TPLF against the federal government who they accuse, among other things, of attempting to centralize federal power. It was able to build a huge military force, reinforcing its Special Force (liyu hail) with militias and a regional police force. According to some sources, their numbers ranged from 200,000 to 250,000.2Hannah Gardner, “Ethiopia’s Tigray Crisis: A Failure of Ethnofederalism?” Cherwell, December 28, 2020, https://cherwell.org/2020/12/28/ethiopias-tigray-crisis-a-failure-of-ethnofederalism. The TPLF was confident that it could survive a war against and ultimately defeat the Ethiopian federal government. As Debrestion Gebremichael, the TPLF president, warned ahead of regional elections held in September 2020 in defiance of the federal government (which the TPLF reportedly won by 98 percent of votes cast), that “Tigray will be a burial ground for those forces which are attempting to obstruct the election.”3Staff Reporter, “TPLF Accuses Eritrea of Plotting to Disrupt Elections in Tigray Region,” Ezega News, July 21,2020, https://www.ezega.com/News/NewsDetails/8029/TPLF-Accuses-Eritrea-of-plotting-t. All regional and national elections initially scheduled for August 2020 were postponed by the federal government because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
In spite of the TPLF’s faith in its military capability – and to the surprise of many observers – it was dislodged from power in Tigray within two weeks of fighting, and its forces retreated to the rural and mountainous areas. From there, the TPLF intends to wage a guerrilla war against the ENDF.4Reuters, “Ethiopia’s War Is Not Over, Says Leader of Tigrayan Forces,” Haaretz, November 30, 2020, https://www.haaretz.com/world-news/asia-and-australia/ethiopia-s-war-is-not-over-says-leader-of-tigrayan-forces-1.9336853. However, the ENDF has continued to attack TPLF forces in their hiding places. Some have been killed,5Ethiopia News Agency (ENA), “TPLF Junta Leaders Killed, Military Officers Captured,” Ethiopia News Agency, January 13, 202, https://www.ena.et/en/?p=20496. others captured,6Fana, “More Top TPLF Leaders Captured,” Fana, January 10, 2021, https://www.fanabc.com/english/more-top-tplf-leaders-captured/. and the remaining are still being pursued, according to the federal government.7ECADF, “Ethiopia offers reward for help finding dissident Tigray leaders,” ECADF, December 18, 2020, https://ecadforum.com/2020/12/18/ethiopia-offers-reward-for-help-finding-dissident-tigray-leaders/. The question for most observers of Ethiopia’s federalism is: what is next for Tigray? Remnants of TPLF have promised to conduct a guerrilla war to chase out the “Ethiopian army of occupation,” in a manner reminiscent of the 1975-1991 Tigrayan War of Resistance, that culminated in the collapse of Mengistu Haile Miriam’s Derg regime and the creation of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a ruling coalition under the umbrella of a single party made up of four ethnic groups, including Tigrayans. However, the question remains as to whether a guerrilla war remains an effective option today in the face of current realities in the country and its immediate sub-region.
Guerrilla Insurgency: Examining the Prospects
Conducting an effective guerrilla war depends on a number of conditions, notably popular support, the role of the Federal Government, and external support. Popular support relates to the level of loyalty of the people of Tigray to the TPLF. The relevant question becomes: how popular is the TPLF among Tigrayans, and would they be willing to fight and sacrifice their lives in a devastating guerrilla war?
The second factor is the role of the Ethiopian federal government. The TPLF has portrayed the federal government as the enemy of the people of Tigray and its army as an occupation force. If the people of Tigray believe what the TPLF is telling them, then the federal government has to work hard to prove that it is not the enemy of Tigrayans. Secondly, the federal government would need to build trust by working relentlessly to rebuild the shattered economy, infrastructure, schools, health centers, and communication, among other things. If the federal government wins the trust of Tigrayans through inclusive peacebuilding measures, perhaps another destructive guerrilla war will be out of the question.
The third factor would be access to external support and resources for a TPLF-led insurgency. During the Cold War, it was relatively easier due to geostrategic rivalry between global powers to elicit and gain access to external support. Today’s global geopolitical environment is different, and attention has shifted away from sponsoring proxy wars in Africa. When the TPLF commenced its insurgency in 1975 at the height of the Cold War, it was relatively easy for the insurgents to get support directly or through a proxy. The TPLF was successful in the past in waging an insurgency against the Derg regime for seventeen years because it had access to support and supplies from Eritrea and Sudan. Today, both Sudan and Eritrea are on the side of the federal government of Ethiopia. This explains why the TPLF leadership was not able to flee Tigray and run another insurgency from neighboring countries. The possibility of conducting an effective guerrilla war in Tigray, under the current circumstances, is highly unlikely.
Many Tigrayans have considered taking the option of secession from Ethiopia. However, there is no compelling legal foundation for Tigray to exercise the right to secession. Paragraph 39 of the Ethiopian Constitution of 1994 being pushed by the TPLF is based on the assumption that it gives the right to any ethnic group wishing to secede to do so. However, this clause was inserted there for tactical reasons. For a claim of secession to succeed it has to pass through constitutional deliberations in the House of Federation and the House of Representatives and get an absolute majority vote for approval. This process has not taken place in the case of Tigray and Ethiopia will not allow any secession. It is also highly unlikely that Tigrayan secession will receive recognition from the African Union, the United Nations, and the international community. Given the slim prospects of Tigrayan secession, a more viable alternative will be for the federal government and Tigray to work towards a democratic, inclusive, and representative multi-ethnic Ethiopia.
Following the defeat of the TPLF, the Ethiopian federal government has established an interim administration to run the Tigray region until the new elections scheduled for May/June 2021 are held. The interim administration is tasked with rebuilding Tigray and winning the trust of the people. The coming election will have a decisive effect on peace and stability in Tigray as well as Ethiopia as whole. It will provide an opportunity for the people of Tigray to elect their own regional leaders and participate in determining the future direction of Ethiopian federalism. Any grievances they may have concerning self-rule, identity, and culture will have to be addressed through democratic and constitutional means, in cooperation with the other ethnic groups in the country.
The outbreak of the war in Tigray came as a shock to many people within and outside Ethiopia. As many experts expected, the war was not going to be protracted. Neither did it spread to the rest of Ethiopia, or the Horn of Africa. While it was a rather destructive conflict, there is a chance that if properly managed, post-conflict peacebuilding can provide an opportunity for renegotiating national identity, reconciliation, and rebuilding inclusive national institutions in Ethiopia. The military as a national institution is now stronger; and has grown beyond previous perceptions as a party-controlled army.
- 1Borkena, “General Bacha Debele Reveals what Happened to the Northern Command,” Borkena, November 10, 2020, https://borkena.com/2020/10/general-debele-reveals-what-happened-to-the-northern-command/.
- 2Hannah Gardner, “Ethiopia’s Tigray Crisis: A Failure of Ethnofederalism?” Cherwell, December 28, 2020, https://cherwell.org/2020/12/28/ethiopias-tigray-crisis-a-failure-of-ethnofederalism.
- 3Staff Reporter, “TPLF Accuses Eritrea of Plotting to Disrupt Elections in Tigray Region,” Ezega News, July 21,2020, https://www.ezega.com/News/NewsDetails/8029/TPLF-Accuses-Eritrea-of-plotting-t.
- 4Reuters, “Ethiopia’s War Is Not Over, Says Leader of Tigrayan Forces,” Haaretz, November 30, 2020, https://www.haaretz.com/world-news/asia-and-australia/ethiopia-s-war-is-not-over-says-leader-of-tigrayan-forces-1.9336853.
- 5Ethiopia News Agency (ENA), “TPLF Junta Leaders Killed, Military Officers Captured,” Ethiopia News Agency, January 13, 202, https://www.ena.et/en/?p=20496.
- 6Fana, “More Top TPLF Leaders Captured,” Fana, January 10, 2021, https://www.fanabc.com/english/more-top-tplf-leaders-captured/.
- 7ECADF, “Ethiopia offers reward for help finding dissident Tigray leaders,” ECADF, December 18, 2020, https://ecadforum.com/2020/12/18/ethiopia-offers-reward-for-help-finding-dissident-tigray-leaders/.