A War Fought in the Dark – A Brief Overview of the War on Tigray

Crisis-Rewind: The Qeerroo Oromo Movement
  • The common misconception of the war often revolves around the genesis. The Ethiopian central government claims that the conflict began in September 2020, after Tigray held regional elections, but it arguably started brewing in 2014 if not earlier for a variety of complex reasons.
  • In 2014, ethnic Oromo youth began demonstrating against the EPRDF, the ruling political party since 1991, demanding more political representation, fair elections, and the elimination of land grab and violent suppression of political dissidents.
  • The mass uprisings that were met with harsh militaristic government response, led to the resignation of PM Hailemariam Desalegn in 2018.
  • Abiy Ahmed Ali, the third chairman of the EPRDF and leader of the Oromo Democratic Party, OPDO, was selected by fellow coalition members to lead the country’s transitional government until scheduled elections in 2020.
  • PM Ahmed quickly became renowned for his swift and drastic socio-political reforms.
Ethiopia-Eritrea Peace “Treaty” Unlikely alliances
  • As part of his reform agenda, PM Ahmed promised to normalize relations with former foe and neighbor, Eritrea. Ethiopia and Eritrea have had a hostile relationship since the 1998 Badme War, a brutal 2 year border war with nearly 100,000 casualties.
  • A verbal peace treaty was exchanged, in which PM Ahmed promised to return disputed territories on the Tigray-Eritrea border without consulting or including Tigray’s regional government. Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF) party and the Eritrean government are hardened foes.
  • People rejoiced when borders opened as families were able to reunite. PM Abiy Ahmed and Eritrean dictator, Isaias Afewerki, superficial relationship developed. Eritrean refugees started flooding into Tigray and the borders closed within the year, inexplicably.
  • Both leaders would often be seen visiting each other’s military bases as the TPLF and central government’s relationship deteriorated.
Assassinations that Rocked the Nation
  • PM Abiy Ahmed’s descent to power was met with violence as there was a grenade assassination attempt two months into his reign, June 2018.
  • On July 26, 2018, the lead engineer of the GERD (Renaissance Dam) project, Simegnew Bekele was shot dead in Addis Ababa. He had privately disclosed that the PM was trying to undermine the internationally contested project.
  • On June 22, 2019, there were a series of assassinations that further exacerbated the growing instability and rising ethnic tensions in the nation:
    • Amhara regional leader, Ambachew Mekonnen and two of his advisors in Bahir Dar, Amhara Province.
    • General Seare Mekonnen, chief of staff of Ethiopia’s military, along with retired General Gezai Abera, in Addis Ababa. Both were ethnic Tigrayans with close ties to TPLF.
    • PM Office linked both of these assassinations to an ethnocentrist Amhara regional security chief (Asaminew) that was
    • placed in power by PM Abiy Ahmed. He was killed in military gunfire and his accomplice allegedly committed suicide.
Assassinations that Rocked the Nation Continued
  • On June 20, 2020, renowned Oromo activist and singer, Hachalu Hundessa was shot in Addis Ababa. He was killed a week after criticizing PM Ahmed’s superficial reforms. His death sparked mass protests and 239 youth were killed by police and military.
  • All of these assassinations have two things in common: victims who privately or publicly criticized PM Abiy Ahmed and unclear investigation results as to who the perpetrators were.

The Rise of the Prosperity Party, Opposition Annihilation, & Threat to the Federation
  • Although PM Abiy Ahmed was selected to lead EPRDF’s reform agenda, he quickly moved to distance himself from the party and the country’s controversial multi-nationalist constitution. In 2019, PM Ahmed dissolved the EPRDF coalition and formed the Prosperity Party.
  • By 2020, all regions in Ethiopia, except for Tigray, had a president appointed by the Prime Minister. This exacerbated further uprisings amongst the ongoing democratic struggles in Oromia, Qimant, Wolayta, Benishangul Gumuz, and Sidama to which the government and regional police responded with violent suppression, which resulted in massacres and mass displacement in the millions.
  • TPLF, the leading party of Tigray, did not agree with the Prosperity Party’s reform methodology and felt like it strayed from federalism, disregarded the democratic reform process, and side-lined ethnic minorities, including Tigrayans.
Escalating Tensions
  • PM Abiy Ahmed responded to TPLF’s refusal to join the Prosperity Party by further sidelining the TPLF by purging many of their officials from the federal government and arresting some of them.
  • TPLF’s call for inclusive dialogue and release of political prisoners were not reciprocated by the PM.
  • PM Abiy Ahmed postponed the 2020 elections in August, by citing COVID-19 as a justification. TPLF called it unconstitutional and an attempt to extend his term and illegally consolidate power.
  • PM Abiy Ahmed warned TPLF that if they were to hold regional elections, then conflict would ensue and “mothers would mourn and buildings would be destroyed.”
  • Tigray regional government decided to move forward by holding elections in September. TPLF won by a landslide.
  • The federal government called the elections unconstitutional and TPLF illegitimate. In response, they withheld social welfare funds, refused to release a budget, and confiscated locust fighting machinery during the worst locust-outbreak in decades.
The Facade of the "Law and Order" Operation against TPLF
  • On Nov. 4, 2020, PM Abiy Ahmed declared a “law and order” operation to disband the elected Tigray regional government claiming the TPLF attacked a northern military base.
  • The PM enforced a telecommunication shutdown on the entire region and asserted that the domestic operation would not kill any civilians and would only last 3-5 days.
  • PM’s Office suspended the licenses of BBC and Reuters, two of the largest international media organizations covering the conflict.
  • As the conflict worsened, PM Abiy rebuffed any suggestions of mediation by the African Union. TPLF leadership continued requesting negotiations and an all inclusive dialogue.
  • On Nov. 21, 2020, the Ethiopian military warned civilians that there would be “no mercy” if the residents don’t “save themselves” during a final offensive to capture the capital Mekelle. Shortly after, the PM declared the war was over although the war continued.
  • The federal government repeatedly denied claims of Eritrean forces involvement in the war, however, after mounting evidence was revealed, government officials publicly admitted to Eritrea’s presence in Tigray.
  • During a speech, Abiy Ahmed stated on Nov. 3rd between 10-10:30 pm, he secretly sent 500 commandos to Mekelle in a surprise attack. Additionally, a General admitted that they were preparing for war before the alleged attack by TPLF.
Realities of a War Fought in the Dark as of January 9, 2021
  • The war was not simply against a political party that would last less than a week. The war has lasted over 65 days with widespread electricity and internet blackouts throughout Tigray.
  • Thousands of Tigrayans were killed by aerial bombardments and brutal massacres, in genocidal attacks at the hands of the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF), extremist Amhara Militias (FANO), Amhara Special Forces, and Eritrean Forces.
  • Over a million Tigrayans are internally displaced and over 60,000 are refugees in Sudan. Tigrayans outside of Tigray are facing ethnic-profiling, getting fired, having their accounts frozen, being persecuted, and are being arrested in mass.
  • The federal government refuses to grant unrestricted humanitarian access to Tigray to address the needs of 2.3 million people at risk of starving to death. 4 humanitarian workers have been killed by ENDF so far.
  • Over 100,000 Eritrean refugees who were in Tigray were also made targets during the conflict.
  • What was originally claimed to be a domestic law and order operation has caused a humanitarian catastrophe fraught with war crimes, ethnic-based persecutions, and genocide.