Why Ethiopia is on the Brink of Civil War

By Ayaan Ali

New York City, New York

The TPLF shows little sign of surrendering (Photo Credit: Eduardo Soteras)

Tensions between the Ethiopian government and the leaders of the northern Tigray region of the country have intensified in the past three months. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent federal soldiers to the region as a response to an alleged attack by Tigray forces on a federal military base. Tigray leadership denied this attack. Violence ensued soon after between the Ethiopian army and the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the region’s local militia. In September, tensions spiked again after the Tigray government defied the federal government’s attempt to postpone the region’s legislative elections due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Tigrayan officials accused Ahmed of acting unconstitutionally, to which Ahmed responded by pulling large amounts of federal funding from Tigray. This act sparked mass opposition and galvanized the Tigray region to militarize for war. 


“We have prepared our army, our militia and our special force, Our preparation is aimed at averting war, but if we are to fight, we are ready to win” Tigrayan leader Debretsion Gebremchieal said. The TPLF has a fighting force of approximately 250,000 troops and shows little sign of surrendering. Although overall communication from the region has been sparse, reports show that the ongoing violence has caused hundreds of civilian casualties. Despite the casualties, Ahmed went on Twitter to vehemently deny the possibility of civil war. He maintained that the “concerns that Ethiopia will descend into chaos are unfounded and a result of not understanding our context deeply.” This conflict has damaged Ahmed politically, as he pledged to be a reformist leader and prevent conflict, corruption, and human rights violations in the country. Last year, Ahmed won the Nobel Peace Prize after resolving a two decade-long conflict with Ethiopia’s neighboring state of Eritrea. Even so, the conflict resolution has caused a resurgence of ethno-nationalism within Ethiopia and has contributed to the increasing controversy between the nation’s diverse ethnic groups. 


Foreign policy analysts have compared this conflict to the breakup of Yugoslavia during the 1990s. The split of the country caused the division of multiple ethnic lines, which created persisting conflicting in the region. If the civil war in Ethiopia follows suit and redraws ethnic lines, then conflict among regional ethnic groups is expected to worsen. Gebremicheal has made pleas with the African Union of the U.N. to intervene and help de-escalate the conflict. While the U.N. pledged support for peace negotiations, an armistice between the two battling parties has yet to be decided.