A research on the current conflict between the Ethiopian government in Addis Ababa and the TPLF in the Northern Province of Tigray
By Michael Flucht
Since I worked in the field of culture and education in Addis Ababa in 2004 – 2006, I have been following what is happening in Ethiopia with sympathy and interest. I guess you could say that I have become a friend of Ethiopia. In this respect, the recent developments in Ethiopia give me reason to take a look at the country: what is behind the Tigray conflict and how should we position ourselves?
Addis Ababa is the capital of a multi-ethnic country. The strongest population groups are Amhars and Oromo, each with a share of about 30%, while the population in the north-eastern province of Tigray accounts for only about 6%. A large number of other ethnic groups are found in the southern regions towards Kenya and in the east towards Somalia. Ethiopia is home to about 110 million people. Abiy Ahmed has led the country since 2018. And since he has been leading the government, the old leadership in politics and society is increasingly losing its lustre and influence.
Abiy Ahmed, born in 1976, is in his mid-forties and ethnically belongs to the Oromo, the most populous ethnic group in Ethiopia. Since Abiy Ahmed became Ethiopia’s prime minister in 2018 and promptly ushered in a political spring, he has been seen as a rising star in Africa’s sky. The renowned Parisian magazine Jeune Afrique named him Africa’s leading personality in 2019.
Abiy Ahmed not only reduced the number of ministries, he also appointed women to head ten of the 20 ministries. He opened up prisons, made peace with hostile neighbour Eritrea and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019. The development of the country, long considered an economic problem child, is making significant progress: road and railway projects have been successfully completed, and agriculture and energy supply are experiencing new impetus. Ethiopia is on the threshold of a new era as a supplier of electrical energy that will flow to Sudan, Djibouti, Kenya and all of East Africa. Education and training are valued. Relations with China and India are equally good: China is Ethiopia’s most important trading partner in Asia. India sends lecturers to Ethiopia’s higher education sector.
But the wave of affection Abiy Ahmed enjoys nationally and internationally has not been without envy: at a rally in Addis, in front of tens of thousands of people, he was assassinated in June 2019. Thanks to the efforts of stout-hearted supporters, he was personally unhurt, but dozens of people were injured, some died. Then, exactly one year later, in June 2020, there was a military coup attempt. Two high-ranking officers as well as the governor of Amhara province and two of his associates were killed by the coup plotters. Ethnic and separatist conflicts were also repeatedly stirred up in the provinces. For example, the well-known and popular musician Hachalu Hundessa fell victim to an assassination attempt, which brought political agitation to a boil.
Against this backdrop, due to the Corona pandemic the parliamentary elections originally scheduled for August 2020 were postponed to June 2021, a decision the government in Mekelle, the capital of Tigray province, rejected.
Since the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie, the authoritarian-communist military junta of the Derg, headed by Mengistu Hailemariam, had ruled Addis Ababa since 1974. The Derg was supported by the Soviet Union. In 1991, with the decline of the Eastern bloc, Mengistu, who ruled dictatorially and had been convicted of human rights violations, was ousted by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in a tenacious guerrilla struggle. The TPLF then took over key positions in Addis Ababa. Men from Tigray occupied all important offices for the next 30 years. One of them was Debretsion Gebremichael, born in 1950. Among other things, he was head of intelligence, minister of telecommunications and deputy to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. Zenawi was an authoritarian prime minister from 1995-2012, hailing from Tigray, who did not succeed much politically and economically towards the end of his tenure.
Since Abiy Ahmed was able to prevail over Gebremichael with an overwhelming majority in the internal party election for prime minister, the power of the Tigray faction eroded. Gebremichael, deceived by his hopes of succeeding Meles Zenawi as prime minister, sulkily retreated to Tigray. In September 2020, Gebremichael and his followers in the TPLF had themselves confirmed as the leading political force in Tigray through early elections that the government in Addis Ababa considered illegal. This was an affront to the government, but not yet the trigger for the open, armed conflict between the government of Abiy Ahmed in Addis and Debretsion Gebremichael in Mekelle. The attacks of 4 November were the trigger: militias set up by Gebremichael carried out a series of attacks on the units of the Northern Command of the Ethiopian National Armed Forces, which were quietly on duty in their garrisons and positions in Tigray. The raids by armed militias on regular national forces evoked in the country the feeling of a second Pearl Harbour: a sneaky, bloody attack on national forces in peacetime. But it did not stop there; slaughter of Amhars followed: Tigrin militias allegedly killed 600 Amhara migrant workers in the town of Mai-Kadra, according to the Ethiopian human rights organisation EHCR. A massacre reminiscent of the so-called “ethnic cleansing” in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The militarily far superior national forces of the Republic of Ethiopia quickly prevailed and brought Tigray back under their control, but the fighting is said to have claimed many lives. There are said to have been attacks on both sides. Many people are still on the run. 60.000 of Tigrinya have sought refuge in refugee camps in the neighbouring Sudan. There is a lack of everything there.
The eleven-member executive committee of the TPLF chaired by Gebremichael must have planned the rebellion long in advance. Driven by a thirst for power, envy and frustration, Debretsion Gebremichael seems to have recklessly jeopardised the well-being of his countrymen and the integrity of the country. The solution to the problems created by Gebremichael can only come through political means. Abiy Ahmed’s often proven negotiating skills are now particularly needed. The porcelain that Gebremichael smashed must now be mended by Addis Ababa. A thankless, difficult task for which Abiy Ahmed and his government deserve the trust, support and patience of the EU and its member states.
There is – fortunately for Ethiopia, for Africa and for Africa’s friends in Europe and around the world – a stable, legitimate, successful political leadership in Addis Ababa, a leadership that has repeatedly reached out, even across deep divides.
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