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Ethiopia War Explained: A Nobel Peace Prize-Winning PM, Mass Killings & Famine

Abiy Ahmed, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, is at the forefront of one of Africa's bloodiest civil wars.

Published
Explainers
6 min read
<div class="paragraphs"><p>Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed.&nbsp;</p></div>
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On 4 October, Abiy Ahmed was sworn in for his second term as prime minister of Ethiopia.

But the Nobel laureate, who won the Peace Prize in 2019 for the reconciliation of ties with neighbouring Eritrea, has come under intense international criticism for his handling of the Tigray war.

The civil war between the Ethiopian military and the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) began almost a year ago and has completely devastated the northern region of Ethiopia.

The United Nations warned of severe famine sweeping across Tigray as reports of mass rape and murder shook the world.

In this explainer, we look at the Ethiopian Civil War in some detail. What are its roots, and who all are involved? What are the allegations of sexual violence? Why is Eritrea involved? What would the road to peace look like? Read on.

Ethiopia War Explained: A Nobel Peace Prize-Winning PM, Mass Killings & Famine

  1. 1. How Ethiopia Reached Here & the Role of Different Ethnicities

    The roots of the current civil war go back to the 1991 civil war.

    The Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a coalition of four parties but dominated by the TPLF, consolidated control over the government after ousting the Derg, a military junta that ruled Ethiopia from 1974 to 1991.

    The four parties were the TPLF, the Amhara Democratic Party, the Oromo Democratic Party, and the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM).

    Now, clarity on ethnicities is important. The TPLF belongs to the people of the Tigrayan ethnicity. But the two largest ethnic peoples of Ethiopia are the Oromos (around 35 percent) and the Amharas (around 27 percent).

    The TPLF-dominated coalition ruled for 27 years with remorseless repression and long records of human rights abuses, along with imprisonment of opposition leaders and journalists, the BBC reported.

    The EPRDF rule marginalised the Oromos and the Amharas. Eventually, executive members of both communities isolated the TPLF and voted it out of the ruling coalition in April 2018..

    In replacement, they voted to make Abiy Ahmed (an Oromo) the prime minister of Ethiopia. Ahmed merged all parties of the EPRDF, except the TPLF, and other opposition parties to create the Prosperity Party, which now rules Ethiopia.

    The TPLF refused to join this new party. It declared Ahmed to be an illegitimate ruler and relocated to Tigray, which it continues to administer today.

    Ahmed, however, did not waste any time, as TPLF officials holding key positions in the government were removed and Tigrayan dominance in the Ethiopian military was rectified.

    His efforts to restore ties with Eritrea, with whom Ethiopia had been engaged in a border conflict for 20 years, for which he was also awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, further isolated the TPLF.

    But the TPLF did not sit quietly, as it launched an offensive on the North Command of the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) on 3 November 2020, which is regarded as the official date of the start of the current civil war.

    Expand
  2. 2. What is Happening Right Now?

    Ahmed’s army carried out a retaliatory attack against the TPLF, declared a state of emergency in the Tigray region, and established a transitional government that would choose new leaders in Tigray.

    In the same month, November 2020, Ahmed’s troops captured Mekelle, the capital of Tigray, with the prime minister declaring that the next step would be to punish the “TPLF criminals and bring them to a court of law”, reported The Guardian.

    However, ever since then, horrific reports of human rights abuses and rape have been brought forward.

    Mass killings are so common across Tigray that researchers have managed to compile a list of at least 1,900 identified people who were murdered in Tigray by Ethiopian forces, according to a separate report in The Guardian.

    After the fall of Mekelle and other major cities in Tigray, forces loyal to the TPLF reorganised themselves as the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF) and retreated to the rural areas and mountains of Tigray, from where they have been launching guerrilla-styled assaults.

    By June 2021, the TDF recaptured Mekelle and expanded its operations to other cities in Tigray while transitional government officials fled.

    Nevertheless, a de facto blockade of the Tigray region by Ahmed’s government has existed for more than three months. This includes restricting the passage of food and medicine into the region, and the severing of communications and banking services, a combination of which has created a catastrophic famine-like situation with 4,00,000 people at high risk of starvation, Reuters reported.

    Many refugees have fled to Sudan, and more than 70 percent of Tigray’s population needs food aid, according to BBC.

    Expand
  3. 3. Why is Eritrea Siding With Ahmed? How History Comes In

    In a grateful speech to the Ethiopian parliament just after the civil war started in November 2020, Ahmed claimed that Eritrea had fed, aided, and armed retreating Ethiopian troops during the TPLF’s original offensive, which made it possible for them to fight back the TPLF, BBC reported.

    Even though the Eritrean government led by President Isaias Afwerki had denied it, the TPLF and UN officials have claimed that Eritrean soldiers, sometimes camouflaged in the uniform of the Ethiopian army, are present in Tigray, assisting Ahmed’s campaign against the Tigrayans, according to Vox.

    On 23 March, Abiy Ahmed himself admitted the presence of Eritrean troops in Tigray but argued that Eritrea was concerned about being attacked by the TPLF, and that Eritrean forces would leave when Ethiopian forces would establish control over the situation.

    Eritrean forces have reportedly left Tigray after the recapture of Mekelle by the TDF, but their presence and involvement in Ahmed's war against the TPLF is not disputed anymore. So, what is at stake for Eritrea?

    According to scholar Gaim Kibreab, the Eritrean president had decided to aid Ahmed because the former wants the TPLF to be decimated. The roots of Eritrea's hostility towards the TPLF go back to the 1998-2000 Eritrean–Ethiopian War, when the TPLF-led coalition was ruling Ethiopia.

    During the war, Ethiopian forces occupied a village in Eritrean territory called Badme and occupied it for 18 years until the removal of the TPLF from the Ethiopian government.

    In June 2018, Ahmed stunned both sides when he announced that his government would accept the conclusions of the UN-supervised Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC), which directed the return of several disputed territories, including Badme, to Eritrea, Al Jazeera reported.

    His administration justified the decision by claiming that "the Ethiopian and Eritrean people are tied together linguistically, by history and by lineage”, according to a UN report.

    But President Afwerki and his countrymen have not forgotten the humiliation that the TPLF regime made them go through two decades ago, says Kibreab.

    With the TPLF against Ethiopian regime, the common goal of Afwerki and Ahmed – the weakening and destruction of the TPLF – has united their administrations, leading to the Eritrea's involvement in the war against the Tigrayan forces.

    Expand
  4. 4. Human Rights Abuses & Blockade-Induced Famine

    Shocking testimonies from the people in Tigray revealed the extent to which rape was used as a weapon by the Ethiopian & Eritrean forces against Tigrayan women.

    “Rape is starting at the age of 8 and to the age of 72. Many, many have been raped and this rape is in public, in front of family, husbands, in front of everyone”, said a woman, reported The Guardian.

    An Amnesty report titled ‘I Don’t Know If They Realized I Was A Person’: Rape and Other Sexual Violence in the Conflict in Tigray, Ethiopia showed how forces engaged in sexual violence to humiliate and psychologically destroy Tigrayan women.

    Evelyn Regne, who leads the women’s rights committee at the European parliament, said that “more than 500 women have formally reported sexual violence – but the toll is expected to be much higher”, added the report.

    In addition to mass rape, mass famine is also brewing. And this famine is man-made.

    According to the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), an index that was initially created to assess the devastating 2011 Somalia famine, more than 350,000 people in Tigray are now facing a phase 5 “catastrophe”, while more than five million people are facing phase 3 food “crisis” and phase 4 food “emergency”.

    Food (the lack of it), like rape, is being used a weapon to crush the rebels. According to witness accounts, Ethiopian and Eritrean troops, during their occupation of Tigray, burnt crops, looted stores, and killed essential livestock, Vox reported.

    All of this is supplemented by the fact that Ethiopian troops have totally blockaded humanitarian aid from reaching parts of Tigray, an accusation confirmed by the UN, but denied by the central government.

    Expand
  5. 5. Can We Expect Peace Anytime Soon? 

    The longer a war persists, the harder are the prospects for peace. Additionally, sustaining peace is as difficult as bringing it about, if not more.

    To tackle the above problems, what is urgently required is a clear path, agreed to by all parties, towards ceasefires, peace-building talks, post-war reconstruction, and addressing the extensive human rights violations that have taken place over the past 11 months, as argued in The Hindu.

    A top-down peace would involve transparent talks between Ahmed and senior members of administrations with the rebel leaders of the TPLF.

    A bottom-up peace would require trust-building amongst the Tigrayans and the other ethnicities in Ethiopia, especially the Oromos and the Amharas. After all, they are all Ethiopians.

    External intervention directed at peace would require mediation from African countries like Ghana and Rwanda, who want the resurgence of Africa as a strong economic and political unit of the world, reported The Conversation.

    Such countries would be better situated than the West to bring about peace, as they have a closer understanding of the cultural aspects of the civil war.

    Abiy Ahmed, from being the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner, is now being identified as a brutal ruler with a no-holds-barred approach towards the Tigrayans, who are his own people. Even if the civil war ends under his tenure, it will be hard for him to erase the stains of the war’s legacy on his Nobel certificate.

    (With inputs from the United Nations, The Guardian, Reuters, Vox, BBC, Al Jazeera, The Hindu, and The Conversation.)

    (At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

    Expand

How Ethiopia Reached Here & the Role of Different Ethnicities

The roots of the current civil war go back to the 1991 civil war.

The Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a coalition of four parties but dominated by the TPLF, consolidated control over the government after ousting the Derg, a military junta that ruled Ethiopia from 1974 to 1991.

The four parties were the TPLF, the Amhara Democratic Party, the Oromo Democratic Party, and the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM).

Now, clarity on ethnicities is important. The TPLF belongs to the people of the Tigrayan ethnicity. But the two largest ethnic peoples of Ethiopia are the Oromos (around 35 percent) and the Amharas (around 27 percent).

The TPLF-dominated coalition ruled for 27 years with remorseless repression and long records of human rights abuses, along with imprisonment of opposition leaders and journalists, the BBC reported.

The EPRDF rule marginalised the Oromos and the Amharas. Eventually, executive members of both communities isolated the TPLF and voted it out of the ruling coalition in April 2018..

In replacement, they voted to make Abiy Ahmed (an Oromo) the prime minister of Ethiopia. Ahmed merged all parties of the EPRDF, except the TPLF, and other opposition parties to create the Prosperity Party, which now rules Ethiopia.

The TPLF refused to join this new party. It declared Ahmed to be an illegitimate ruler and relocated to Tigray, which it continues to administer today.

Ahmed, however, did not waste any time, as TPLF officials holding key positions in the government were removed and Tigrayan dominance in the Ethiopian military was rectified.

His efforts to restore ties with Eritrea, with whom Ethiopia had been engaged in a border conflict for 20 years, for which he was also awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, further isolated the TPLF.

But the TPLF did not sit quietly, as it launched an offensive on the North Command of the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) on 3 November 2020, which is regarded as the official date of the start of the current civil war.

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What is Happening Right Now?

Ahmed’s army carried out a retaliatory attack against the TPLF, declared a state of emergency in the Tigray region, and established a transitional government that would choose new leaders in Tigray.

In the same month, November 2020, Ahmed’s troops captured Mekelle, the capital of Tigray, with the prime minister declaring that the next step would be to punish the “TPLF criminals and bring them to a court of law”, reported The Guardian.

However, ever since then, horrific reports of human rights abuses and rape have been brought forward.

Mass killings are so common across Tigray that researchers have managed to compile a list of at least 1,900 identified people who were murdered in Tigray by Ethiopian forces, according to a separate report in The Guardian.

After the fall of Mekelle and other major cities in Tigray, forces loyal to the TPLF reorganised themselves as the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF) and retreated to the rural areas and mountains of Tigray, from where they have been launching guerrilla-styled assaults.

By June 2021, the TDF recaptured Mekelle and expanded its operations to other cities in Tigray while transitional government officials fled.

Nevertheless, a de facto blockade of the Tigray region by Ahmed’s government has existed for more than three months. This includes restricting the passage of food and medicine into the region, and the severing of communications and banking services, a combination of which has created a catastrophic famine-like situation with 4,00,000 people at high risk of starvation, Reuters reported.

Many refugees have fled to Sudan, and more than 70 percent of Tigray’s population needs food aid, according to BBC.

Why is Eritrea Siding With Ahmed? How History Comes In

In a grateful speech to the Ethiopian parliament just after the civil war started in November 2020, Ahmed claimed that Eritrea had fed, aided, and armed retreating Ethiopian troops during the TPLF’s original offensive, which made it possible for them to fight back the TPLF, BBC reported.

Even though the Eritrean government led by President Isaias Afwerki had denied it, the TPLF and UN officials have claimed that Eritrean soldiers, sometimes camouflaged in the uniform of the Ethiopian army, are present in Tigray, assisting Ahmed’s campaign against the Tigrayans, according to Vox.

On 23 March, Abiy Ahmed himself admitted the presence of Eritrean troops in Tigray but argued that Eritrea was concerned about being attacked by the TPLF, and that Eritrean forces would leave when Ethiopian forces would establish control over the situation.

Eritrean forces have reportedly left Tigray after the recapture of Mekelle by the TDF, but their presence and involvement in Ahmed's war against the TPLF is not disputed anymore. So, what is at stake for Eritrea?

According to scholar Gaim Kibreab, the Eritrean president had decided to aid Ahmed because the former wants the TPLF to be decimated. The roots of Eritrea's hostility towards the TPLF go back to the 1998-2000 Eritrean–Ethiopian War, when the TPLF-led coalition was ruling Ethiopia.

During the war, Ethiopian forces occupied a village in Eritrean territory called Badme and occupied it for 18 years until the removal of the TPLF from the Ethiopian government.

In June 2018, Ahmed stunned both sides when he announced that his government would accept the conclusions of the UN-supervised Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC), which directed the return of several disputed territories, including Badme, to Eritrea, Al Jazeera reported.

His administration justified the decision by claiming that "the Ethiopian and Eritrean people are tied together linguistically, by history and by lineage”, according to a UN report.

But President Afwerki and his countrymen have not forgotten the humiliation that the TPLF regime made them go through two decades ago, says Kibreab.

With the TPLF against Ethiopian regime, the common goal of Afwerki and Ahmed – the weakening and destruction of the TPLF – has united their administrations, leading to the Eritrea's involvement in the war against the Tigrayan forces.

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Human Rights Abuses & Blockade-Induced Famine

Shocking testimonies from the people in Tigray revealed the extent to which rape was used as a weapon by the Ethiopian & Eritrean forces against Tigrayan women.

“Rape is starting at the age of 8 and to the age of 72. Many, many have been raped and this rape is in public, in front of family, husbands, in front of everyone”, said a woman, reported The Guardian.

An Amnesty report titled ‘I Don’t Know If They Realized I Was A Person’: Rape and Other Sexual Violence in the Conflict in Tigray, Ethiopia showed how forces engaged in sexual violence to humiliate and psychologically destroy Tigrayan women.

Evelyn Regne, who leads the women’s rights committee at the European parliament, said that “more than 500 women have formally reported sexual violence – but the toll is expected to be much higher”, added the report.

In addition to mass rape, mass famine is also brewing. And this famine is man-made.

According to the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), an index that was initially created to assess the devastating 2011 Somalia famine, more than 350,000 people in Tigray are now facing a phase 5 “catastrophe”, while more than five million people are facing phase 3 food “crisis” and phase 4 food “emergency”.

Food (the lack of it), like rape, is being used a weapon to crush the rebels. According to witness accounts, Ethiopian and Eritrean troops, during their occupation of Tigray, burnt crops, looted stores, and killed essential livestock, Vox reported.

All of this is supplemented by the fact that Ethiopian troops have totally blockaded humanitarian aid from reaching parts of Tigray, an accusation confirmed by the UN, but denied by the central government.

Can We Expect Peace Anytime Soon? 

The longer a war persists, the harder are the prospects for peace. Additionally, sustaining peace is as difficult as bringing it about, if not more.

To tackle the above problems, what is urgently required is a clear path, agreed to by all parties, towards ceasefires, peace-building talks, post-war reconstruction, and addressing the extensive human rights violations that have taken place over the past 11 months, as argued in The Hindu.

A top-down peace would involve transparent talks between Ahmed and senior members of administrations with the rebel leaders of the TPLF.

A bottom-up peace would require trust-building amongst the Tigrayans and the other ethnicities in Ethiopia, especially the Oromos and the Amharas. After all, they are all Ethiopians.

External intervention directed at peace would require mediation from African countries like Ghana and Rwanda, who want the resurgence of Africa as a strong economic and political unit of the world, reported The Conversation.

Such countries would be better situated than the West to bring about peace, as they have a closer understanding of the cultural aspects of the civil war.

Abiy Ahmed, from being the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner, is now being identified as a brutal ruler with a no-holds-barred approach towards the Tigrayans, who are his own people. Even if the civil war ends under his tenure, it will be hard for him to erase the stains of the war’s legacy on his Nobel certificate.

(With inputs from the United Nations, The Guardian, Reuters, Vox, BBC, Al Jazeera, The Hindu, and The Conversation.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Edited By :Saundarya Talwar
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