Ethiopia’s Tigray crisis explained: The long, medium, and short story

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A conflict between the government of Ethiopia and forces in its northern Tigray region has thrown the country into turmoil.

Members of the Ethiopian Army stand holding Ethiopian national flags during an event to honour the national defence forces in Addis Ababa, on November 17, 2020.

Members of the Ethiopian Army stand holding Ethiopian national flags during an event to honour the national defence forces. Photo: AFP

Fighting has been going on for almost two weeks, destabilising the populous country in East Africa, with reports of hundreds dead.

A power struggle, an election and a push for political reform are among several factors that led to the crisis.

Here, we’ve broken them down to explain how and why this conflict has flared.

In simple chunks of 100, 300 and 500 words, this is the story of the crisis so far.

The story in 100 words

The conflict started on 4 November, when Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered a military offensive against regional forces in Tigray.

He said he did so in response to an attack on a military base housing government troops in Tigray.

The escalation came after months of feuding between Abiy’s government and leaders of Tigray’s dominant political party.

For almost three decades, the party was at the centre of power, before it was sidelined by Abiy, who took office in 2018 after anti-government protests.

Abiy pursued reforms, but when Tigray resisted, a political crisis ensued.

Abiy Ahmed, Prime Minister of Ethiopia, stands during an event to honour the national defence forces in Addis Ababa, on November 17, 2020.

Abiy Ahmed, Prime Minister of Ethiopia. Photo: AFP

The story in 300 words

The roots of this crisis can be traced to Ethiopia’s system of government.

Since 1994, Ethiopia has had a federal system in which different ethnic groups control the affairs of 10 regions.

Remember that powerful party from Tigray? Well, this party – the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) – was influential in setting up this system.

It was the leader of a four-party coalition that governed Ethiopia from 1991, when a military regime was ousted from power.

Under the coalition, Ethiopia became more prosperous and stable, but concerns were routinely raised about human rights and the level of democracy.

Eventually, discontent morphed into protest, leading to a government reshuffle that saw Mr Abiy appointed prime minister.

Abiy liberalised politics, set up a new party (the Prosperity Party), and removed key Tigrayan government leaders accused of corruption and repression.

Meanwhile, Abiy ended a long-standing territorial dispute with neighbouring Eritrea, earning him a Nobel Peace Prize in 2019.

These moves won Abiy popular acclaim, but caused unease among critics in Tigray.

Tigray’s leaders see Abiy’s reforms as an attempt to centralise power and destroy Ethiopia’s federal system.

The feud came to a head in September, when Tigray defied the central government to hold its own regional election. The central government, which had postponed national elections because of coronavirus, said it was illegal.

The rift grew in October, when the central government suspended funding for and cut ties with Tigray. Tigray’s administration said this amounted to a “declaration of war”.

Tensions increased. Then, in what the International Crisis Group termed a “sudden and predictable” descent into conflict, Abiy said Tigray had crossed a “red line”.

He accused Tigrayan forces of attacking an army base to steal weapons.

“The federal government is therefore forced into a military confrontation,” Abiy said.

A make-shift shelter housing Ethiopian refugees who fled fighting in Tigray province, at the Um Rakuba camp in Sudan's eastern Gedaref province.

A make-shift shelter housing Ethiopian refugees who fled fighting in Tigray province, at the Um Rakuba camp in Sudan’s eastern Gedaref province. Photo: Photo by Ebrahim HAMID / AFP)

The story in 500 words

Ethiopia, Africa’s oldest independent country, has undergone sweeping changes since Abiy came to power.

A member of the Oromo, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, Abiy made appeals to political reform, unity and reconciliation in his first speech as prime minister.

His agenda was spurred by the demands of protesters who felt Ethiopia’s political elite had obstructed the country’s transition to democracy.

The Tigrayan politicians that led the ruling coalition for 27 years were deemed to be part of the problem.

In the 1970s and 1980s their party, the TPLF, fought a war to wrest control of government from a military junta known as the Derg. The party succeeded, becoming a leading member of the coalition government that took power in 1991.

Pro-Tigrayan demonstrators display placards during a protest in front of the Chancellery in Berlin on November 12, 2020.

Pro-Tigrayan demonstrators display placards during a protest in front of the Chancellery in Berlin on November 12. Photo: John Macdougall / AFP

The coalition gave autonomy to Ethiopia’s regions, but retained a tight grip on central government, with critics accusing it of repressing political opposition.

Now the party finds itself in opposition.

In 2019, it refused to participate in Abiy’s new government and merge with his Prosperity Party.

This snub was followed by further escalations.

Tigray’s decision to hold its own election in September, for example, was an unprecedented act of defiance against the central government.

Since then, both governments have designated each other as “illegitimate”.

Tigray argues that the central government has not been tested in a national election since Abiy’s appointment as prime minister.

Tigray has also called out the prime minister for his “unprincipled” friendship with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki.

A youngster stands below an Ethiopian national flag during a blood donation rally organised by the city administration of Addis Ababa on 12 November, 2020.

A youngster stands below an Ethiopian national flag during a blood donation rally organised by the city administration of Addis Ababa. Photo: AFP / Eduardo Soteras

There has long been animosity between Tigray and the government in Eritrea, which shares a border with the region.

A dispute over territory along this border was the cause of a war fought between Ethiopia and Eritrea from 1998 until 2000.

You may remember this dispute making headlines in 2018.

That year, Abiy signed a peace treaty with Eritrea’s government, ending the territorial spat.

A year later, Abiy won the Nobel Peace Prize. Now it is war, not peace, that is drawing attention to Ethiopia.

Thousands of civilians have been displaced since 4 November, when Abiy ordered his military to strike forces in Tigray. Hundreds more are reported to have died, with reports of a civilian massacre.

With the communications largely cut in Tigray, the exact number of casualties is not clear.

The Ethiopian government has announced a six-month state of emergency in Tigray. A full-blown civil war could last far longer.

“Given the strength of Tigray’s security forces, the conflict could well be protracted,” International Crisis Group, a non-profit organisation, says.

“Tigray has a large paramilitary force and a well-drilled local militia, thought to number perhaps 250,000 troops combined.”

As Africa’s second-most populous country, Ethiopia is pivotal to stability in the Horn of Africa.

If the conflict intensifies, there are fears it could spill over into neighbouring countries. There have already been reports of missiles fired into Eritrea and 27,000 refugees fleeing to Sudan.

There is also a concern that the conflict could exacerbate ethnic tensions elsewhere in Ethiopia.

– BBC

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