Blood or Unity? Ethnicization of the Ethiopia-Tigray Conflict

Kyle Galea – Graduated in Bachelor of Arts (Hons) in Anthropology and Masters of Arts in Diplomatic Studies, currently Reading for a Masters in Diplomatic Studies at the Mediterranean Institute of Diplomatic Studies

Published on 25th January 2020

The main goal of a modern nation-state is a simple yet deceptively elusive vision. That is of one people, bound by citizenship, territory and political participation, who all in their own specialized ways contribute to a single commonwealth. While this unity can be taken for granted in more homogenous polities, the case becomes much more complicated when a state is home to several ethnic and religious divisions. This current flashpoint of conflict between the Ethiopian state and the regional government of Tigray serves as a case study and could potentially act as either a refutation or an example of the difficulty of ethnic politics in a single polity, depending on how the situation develops.  

In many ways, the modern state of Ethiopia has many of the makings of a regional power in the Horn of Africa. The country boasts the second largest population in the continent after Nigeria and its capital, Addis Ababa, hosts the headquarters of both the African Union as well as the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa. Economically, the World Bank states that “Ethiopia’s economy experienced strong, broad-based growth averaging 9.8% a year from 2008/09 to 2018/19”, the cornerstones of said economy being Ethiopia’s ready access to hydropower and strong agricultural sector, specifically that of Ethiopian coffee whereas historically, the country can claim a heritage of settled societies that dates back to the 8th century BC kingdom of D’mt. It also holds the distinct claim of being the only African state to avoid becoming colonized during the Scramble for Africa. 

This being said, describing the “Ethiopian identity” in simple terms proves to be impossible as the state is home to 80 distinct ethnicities; the two largest being the Oromo (35 percent of the population) and the Amhara (28 percent) with the Tigray and Somali making up 10 percent while also leaving 9 other ethnic groups with over a million members each. This diverse demographic makeup, split apart over a vast and rugged terrain, has made Ethiopia a particularly difficult state to centralize authority in. After 1991, the rise of a coalition government operating on the structure of an ethnically federated system sought to unite the many disparate peoples of Ethiopia together yet the actual execution of said system left dozens of minority groups unrepresented and overshadowed by regional majorities. Leadership of this nascent democracy was heavily centralized in the elites hailing from the Tigray province in the North of Ethiopia, specifically the Tigray People’s Liberation Front who had monopolized power on a federal level. This dominance lead to unrestricted access to both foreign aid and loans as well as exclusive rights to the economy of the country.  

The Tigray hegemony began to give way with the ascension of Abiy Ahmed to the position of prime minister in 2018 who sought to create a wider coalition government. The initial success of said government was undeniable and saw a genuine reconciliation with Eritrea, an achievement which earned Ahmed a Nobel Peace Prize in 2019. However, the attempts at centralization came at the expense of the regional elite in Tigray and this encroachment did not go unnoticed with the tensions between the federal government in Addis Ababa and the regional government in Tigray escalating to before unforeseen levels. 

Figure 1: The Tigray Province Source: Al Jazeera 

The collapse of relations between the two came when, due to the ongoing Covid-19 Pandemic, Abiy Ahmed postponed the planned elections which led to the regional government in Tigray calling the aforementioned move unconstitutional and holding their own elections which were subsequently rejected in Addis Ababa. Armed conflict arose when a brigadier general posted by President Ahmed was rejected by Tigray which referred to the move as a coup. This escalation, catalyzed by an attack on a post and subsequent revenge attacks, lead to a large part of the Northern Command defecting to Tigray, more specifically the aforementioned Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) who still are the primary political actors in the region. 

With the context established, it should be pointed out that till now the basis of the conflict has been political not ethnic with the contention being between the political elites in Tigray and those of Addis Ababa. However, as the fight has dragged on, the dangerous rhetoric of blood politics has served as a political tool to galvanize support for the respective sides. The groundwork for this ethnicization already existed with Ahmed (of Oromo descent) being heavily supported by Amhara elites and Amhara special forces have been crucial actors in the initial fighting. Fears of ethnic profiling have also been raised with reports of the profiling of Tigrayans, even in Addis Ababa itself, leading to many Tigray government employees (specifically military personnel) resigning and relocating to the Tigray Province.  

These escalations are also compounded by the fact that the Tigray landscape, being mountainous and steep, is perfect for guerrilla warfare and has led to concern that even a traditional military victory in the urban areas will only lead to a protracted conflict that would devastate the area for years to come. 

Figure 2: Ethiopia troops en route to Tigray Source: Al Jazeera 

Recent victories by the Federal government, including the capture of the Tigray regional capital of Mekelle and the killing and capturing of several top level TPLF officials, has led to Addis Ababa declaring the main operational phase over. This sentiment is not shared by the TPLF who have stated that they will “fight until the invaders are out.” As of yet, the fighting shows no sign of ceasing. This being said, the potential of the conflict becoming ethicized and forcing many to decide between their blood kin and the unity of the state is not only a regional issue but an existential threat to Ethiopia that threatens to undermine the delicate balance between the many ethnic actors that make up the federal coalition.  

As seen in other conflicts that have gone down a similar route such as the South Sudanese Civil War with its ethnicization of the conflict between the Nuer and the Dinka, the rise of blood-and-kin politics in any crisis only acts as a Pandora’s Box that proves infinitely more difficult to close then to open. 

Disclaimer:  the views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Society.


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