Recent conflict in the East African country's northern Tigray region threatens to drag in neighbouring powers. Here's a look at the reasons underpinning Ethiopia's ethnic tensions, which have been decades in the making.

Ethiopian refugees gather in Qadarif region, easter Sudan, November 16, 2020.
Ethiopian refugees gather in Qadarif region, easter Sudan, November 16, 2020. (AP)

Ethiopia is on the knife’s edge of a brutal civil war that is threatening to draw in regional powers. 

The Ethiopian army is launching air strikes on arms and fuel depots in Tigray as heavy fighting between the region's forces and the military continues. The Abiy government says federal forces have taken control in the west of Tigray as the region's leaders threaten to fight until the very end without any sign of surrendering. 

Hundreds of people have reportedly been be killed. Both Reuters and Amnesty International have detailed a massacre of civilians in the town of Mai Khadra. 

Fighting the Ethiopian army is the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), once a Marxist-leaning armed liberation movement that is now a political party with an armed wing. They hail from Tigray, the northernmost region of Ethiopia, bordered to the west by Sudan and Eritrea to the north, and home mostly to the Tigrayan people, who make up six percent of the national population of over 110 million people.

Ethiopians who fled the ongoing fighting in Tigray region sit with their belongings in Hamdait village on the Sudan-Ethiopia border in eastern Kassala state, Sudan, November 14, 2020.
Ethiopians who fled the ongoing fighting in Tigray region sit with their belongings in Hamdait village on the Sudan-Ethiopia border in eastern Kassala state, Sudan, November 14, 2020. (Reuters)

Fledgling state

This is not the first time Ethiopia has been embroiled in conflict. 

Ethiopia today is made up of 80 varied ethnic groups. The oldest nation in Africa, it was once home to the highlanders, initially comprised mainly of those identifying as Amhara, Tigray and Oromo. The Amhara today make up 27 percent and Oromos make up 34 percent of the population. 

They “eventually started to create this empire by basically incorporating other groups into the Ethiopian state, historically speaking, throughout the 19th and 20th century”, Tobias Hagmann, an associate professor in international development & comparative politics at Denmark's Roskilde University, told TRT World

“This was a process of, you could say, nation-building, but you could also say it was an imperial process,” continued Hagmann. 

"The highland groups would subjugate all these other so-called ethnic groups into the Ethiopian state and the narrative was always: We are Christian and Amhara speaking," he said. 

"But of course, there were many groups who were not Amhara and not Christian and who saw the Ethiopian state as being oppressive."

And so the rebellions were born, tired of a unitary state that sought to erase unique ethnic identities and favoured the Amhara for leadership positions. 

Fractured or united? 

The Marxist-Leninist Derg ruled Ethiopia from 1974 to 1991, when the TPLF wrested power from them and under the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) wing, set up a new constitution that birthed a new system in 1995 with 10 semi-autonomous federal states organised along ethnic lines.

The EPRDF alliance of four major parties was comprised of the Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement, the Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation and the Southern Ethiopia Peoples Democratic Front, but was dominated mostly by the TPLF.

A map showing Ethiopia's federal states.
A map showing Ethiopia's federal states. (TRTWorld)

“When TPLF came to power, they said we cannot have this unitary system that imposes the Ethiopian state on all these different societies. We need to federalise the country, giving each ethnic group a regional state,” Hagmann said. 

The constitution, which the current government wants to do away with, also enshrines self-determination should the country fall apart, allowing each state to decide its own future. It is one of the core causes of conflict between the Tigrayan TPLF and Abiy.

But this was maybe too simplistic and impractical for a country comprised of various ethnic groups scattered around the country, groups not necessarily confined within state boundaries. 

The TPLF was a centre of authoritarian power and influence, controlling the government for three decades, essentially a one-party system that did not cater to the federal states on a national level. 

Founding an ethnic federalist nation

It is the division of these states along ethno-federal lines in 1995 with a minority party in power that raised concerns among critics that the country would ultimately fracture. 

On paper, the concept of ethnic federalism seemed fantastic. 

But poor execution, failing to engage citizens at a grassroots level set the stage for a less inclusive nation-state. 

“The problem was there was no genuine democracy although you have this federalism behind the scene was still controlling everything, this one party state,” Hagmann said. 

Amnesty International researcher Fisseha Tekele says there are unresolved and unaddressed issues stemming from long-held feelings of injustice. 

“I cannot pin the problem of ethnic divisions and hatred and violence on ethnic federalism but I can pin it to the feelings of injustice by another group, which is not addressed," Tekele told TRT World

"The government has not been very proactive in terms of addressing and remedying what happened in the last 100 years, even in getting the factors right and identifying the truth from the fiction,” Tekele said. 

A woman waits to give blood at a blood drive in support of the country's military in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, November 12, 2020.
A woman waits to give blood at a blood drive in support of the country's military in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, November 12, 2020. (AP)

Disputes decentralised from centre to local units

“Historically, its very important to understand the following: when Ethiopia was federalised on ethnic grounds political conflict and competition was decentralised to the local level,” said Hagmann. 

These unresolved issues, stemming from disputes over land, turned out to have deadly consequences. In December 2003, “ENDF soldiers and highlander [Amhara] civilians launched a brutal attack on Gambella town’s Anuak population”, a Human Rights Watch report said. This was in response to a “series of ambushes of highlander civilians carried out by armed Anuak”.

“Soldiers raped several Anuak women, over 400 Anuak houses were burned to the ground and huge numbers of civilians fled into the forest or took shelter in compounds belonging to two of the town’s largest churches.“

“Land disputes triggered by administrative boundary changes incited a confrontation between the Guji and Boran in June 2006, causing at least 100 deaths and massive displacement. Some 70,000 fled the border area between Oromiya and Somali after conflict erupted between Boran and Garri over a borehole,” an International Crisis Group report detailed. 

“By a very conservative estimate, several thousand people were killed in inter-ethnic conflicts in Ethiopia between 1991 and 2005,” the report said. 

Militia members from Ethiopia's Amhara region head to face the Tigray People's Liberation Front near a border with Tigray, Ethiopia, November 9, 2020.
Militia members from Ethiopia's Amhara region head to face the Tigray People's Liberation Front near a border with Tigray, Ethiopia, November 9, 2020. (Reuters)

Promise of prosperity

The circles of violence and disputes over land between different ethnic groups has bred a lot of discontent. 

“That’s why people were so upset and they had these continuous protests for a long time which escalated in 2018,” Hagmann said. 

When Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Ahmed Abiy came into office in 2018, he had the very ambitious plan of healing a country divided by decades of violence. 

He did this by reverting to the old mindset of a unified Ethiopia. Initially, it worked well – he opened up freedom speech and released political prisoners and split the TPLF from the coalition, renaming it the Prosperity Party.

But some challenges proved insurmountable. 

Unresolved ethnic tensions

“In terms of realpolitik, the TPLF always dominated the EPRDF so there was a need to make it most balanced, more representative," Hagmann said. 

"But the TPLF was accustomed to ruling and they were very strong and a bit arrogant so he basically kicked them out. To some degree, he had to, but it is a very powerful group of people so they are crashing the country,” he said. 

Liberalising political space did not pan out the way it was supposed to either. 

“They did mobilise people and as lots of people got excited, the discourse became ethnicised. All these pre-existing ethnic tensions just came to the fore,” Hagmann said. 

“All these things have been repressed for such a long time once you open up it was uncontrollable.”

These tensions are best exemplified by the murder this year of popular Oromo singer Hachalu Hundessa, sparking protests in which more than 180 people died. 

Abiy then postponed elections, citing the coronavirus pandemic, in a move that would effectively lengthen his term longer than is set out in the constitution. 

The TPLF went ahead with their regional elections anyway, angering the prime minister who called it a “shanty election”.

Abiy then launched air strikes and a ground offensive after accusing ex-comrades and the local TPLF of armed revolt, accusing them of attacking a government base in Mekelle. TPLF denies the accusation. 

The war has killed hundreds and possibly thousands on both sides, sent 30,000 refugees fleeing into Sudan, but Abiy is defiant and so is the other side.

But when the fighting stops and the smoke eventually clears, the premier will find that there is still a divided nation to heal. 

Source: TRT World