This Insight was first published on 6 November and updated on 18.11.20 to reflect latest developments.

After Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared a state of emergency in Tigray region on 4 November, reports of fighting between the military and Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) has led to fears of civil war in Ethiopia. More than 27,000 people have fled to neighbouring Sudan and the UN is warning of a “full-scale humanitarian crisis.”

Ethiopia is Africa’s second most populous country and a regional power broker. The UK Government says it: “relies on a stable Ethiopia that is supportive of our foreign policy priorities in the Horn of Africa.” It has called for an immediate de-escalation.

This Insight explores recent developments in Ethiopia and the UK’s response.

Context: A new Prime Minister

The appointment of Abiy Ahmed as Prime Minister in early 2018 ushered in a period of rapid change in Ethiopia, introducing wider political freedoms.

Ethiopia is the fastest growing economy in the region, according to the World Bank. The country had growth averaging 9.8% a year from 2008/9 to 2018/19.

Regionally, Abiy moved quickly to resolve the years of frozen conflict with neighbouring Eritrea and helped mediate in neighbouring Sudan after President Bashir was deposed. These initiatives earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019.

Ending Tigrayan’s political dominance

Ethiopia has long been ruled by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a coalition of opposition groups which took power in 1991 and was led for years by Meles Zenawi Asres of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

The TPLF remained a core part of the EPRDF until 2019, when Abiy, who comes from the Oromo wing of the coalition, dissolved, reformed and renamed the governing coalition. The TPLF opted not to join the new ruling Prosperity Party leaving them outside national government for the first time in three decades.

The widening rift between Abiy and the TPLF helps explain the current situation in Tigray.

What is happening in Tigray?

The immediate spark was the TPLF’s decision to go ahead with a regional election, against the ruling of the federal government which postponed elections scheduled for August because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

On 4 November Abiy declared a state of emergency in Tigray region. He accused the TPLF of attacking a federal armed forces base, and launched a military offensive.

Verifying information about the situation in Tigray has been complicated by a communications blackout and media restrictions. Ethiopia analyst Alex de Waal observes both sides are fighting a “war of words”, each blaming the other for starting the conflict. BBC News has examined misinformation about the situation on social media.

Amnesty International says it has confirmed reports that scores of people were killed in the town of Mai-Kadra (May Cadera) on 9 November.

More than 27,000 people have fled to neighbouring Sudan and the UN is warning of a “full-scale humanitarian crisis.” There are also concerns fighting between federal and Tigrayan forces could spill into Amhara region, which sits between Tigray and the capital.

Might Ethiopia break apart?

Analysts have been warning of the potential for conflict for some time. Crisis Group warned in October that the standoff between Abiy and the TPLF could trigger a conflict that could “rip the Ethiopian state asunder.” Two weeks of fighting have only heightened concerns about the risks to the integrity of the country.

Why? One answer lies in Ethiopia’s federal system. Major ethnic groups administer their own regions. In 2019 Yohannes Gedamu, a Georgia Gwinnett College lecturer specialising in the Horn of Africa, argued the federal system is flawed and the creation of regions as ethnic boxes resulted in fierce inter-ethnic competition.

Fergal Keane, the BBC’s Africa correspondent, noted in 2019 that while ethnic nationalism was kept in check under the EPRDF, the opening of the political space under Abiy “has lifted a lid on ethnic tensions.” Emmanuel Igunza, BBC Africa reporter, similarly says there has been a rise and growth of ethnic divisions within the country since Abiy became Prime Minister.

The constitution stipulates that every region has the right to self-determination and peaceful secession (Article 39).

And while the TPLF has never expressed any desire for Tigray to secede, Desta Gebremedhin, a journalist with the BBC Tigrinya service, points out it has always called for its constitutional right to self-determination to be respected.

Alex de Waal explains that Abiy’s power base is among a mostly Amhara political elite that wants to abolish the federal system in favour of a unity government system. The TPLF opposes any dilution of regional power.

Might unrest in Ethiopia revive tension with Eritrea?

Tigray sits in northern Ethiopia along the border with Eritrea. Analysts say the 2018 peace agreement has so far brought few tangible benefits. There are fears Eritrea may be drawn into Ethiopia’s internal divisions. Martin Plaut, a senior research fellow at the University of London, says: “the relationship between the Tigrayans and Eritreans and between the leadership between them is permanently bad.”

Abiy’s closeness to the Eritrean President has been contentious with the TPLF. The EU  called on Ethiopia’s neighbours to reduce tension and abstain from provocative military deployments in a statement on 2 November.

The UK Government’s position

On 4 November the UK Government called for an immediate de-escalation in Tigray and a halt to violence. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab also emphasised the need to protect civilians and allow humanitarian access in a phone call with Prime Minister Abiy on 10 November.

James Duddridge, the Minister for Africa, visited Ethiopia in late July 2020. At the time Ethiopia was recovering from days of unrest following the killing of popular singer, Hachalu Hundessa. The Minister called for “more peaceful dialogue between ethnic groups and for space to be given for political debate.”  

Ethiopia is major beneficiary of the UK’s aid programme. The approved project budget for 2020/21 is £209 million. The Government says:

The UK relies on a stable Ethiopia that is supportive of our foreign policy priorities in the Horn of Africa, particularly in relation to Somalia and South Sudan. Ethiopia is the largest contributor of peacekeeping forces in the world and particularly in its neighbourhood.

On 17 November the Government said it is “working closely with humanitarian agencies to ensure that aid reaches civilians affected by the fighting.”

The Lords International Relations and Defence Committee had planned on visiting Addis Ababa for its inquiry on UK relations with Sub-Saharan Africa, but the trip was cancelled because of the pandemic.

Further reading

About the author: Louis Brooke-Holland is a researcher at the House of Commons Library, specialising in Sub-Saharan Africa and defence.

Photo: Tigray, Ethiopia by Rod Waddington, CC BY-SA 2.0 (cropped)