‘I fear that Ethiopia as we know it today will no longer exist’

English translation of an article originally published in Dutch in MO* Magazine: https://www.mo.be/interview/vrees-dat-ethiopie-vandaag-niet-lang-meer-zal-bestaan-tigray

Tom Claes . 8 May 2021

Winning the Nobel Peace Prize and plunging your country into civil war within a year: Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed pulled it off. Norwegian Ethiopia expert Kjetil Tronvoll explains how the conflict in the Tigray region escalated and paints a grim picture of the future. ‘I don’t see a swift diplomatic solution.’

Six months ago, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced a “short operation” against the rebellious northern region of Tigray. But today, comparisons with mass violence in Rwanda or Srebrenica are increasingly frequent. According to the UN, more than two million people are now in need of emergency aid.

The country that five years ago was considered as one of the fastest growing economies in the world is showing serious cracks, and regional competitors lie in wait. Did Prime Minister Abiy overplay his hand or was he guided by blind vindictiveness?

In fact, Kjetil Tronvoll says, the war in Tigray was the best announced war in Africa. The Norwegian professor has been studying Ethiopia for over thirty years and knows the hyper-complex country like no other. ‘Tensions between the Tigrayans and the central government had been building for a long time. I knew this would happen if no mediation took place.’

With the eagerness of someone who fancies a good conversation, he explains the turbulent Ethiopian history via Skype with great clarity. Our interview lasted for an hour and half, in which, seemingly with the greatest of ease, he relates what is happening now in Tigray to the decades of developments and conflicts that explain the current crisis.

For nearly thirty years, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) was the most powerful politico-military group in Ethiopia. However, Tigrayans represent only 6 percent of the population, in a country with more than eighty ethnic groups. Such hegemony sooner or later leads to discontent, which has been growing over the past decade.

On the back of popular protests by Oromos and Amharas, among others, Abiy Ahmed came to power in 2018. Determined to get rid of the old political culture, he pushed aside the TPLF and founded the Prosperity Party, through which he sought to bridge the gap between different ethnicities. The TPLF, however, saw no point in playing second fiddle.

Against the young prime minister’s wishes, Tigray organized its own elections last September, after the planned national ballot was postponed due to corona. Tronvoll attended the elections as an observer and saw how the TPLF won by 98 percent. Still, there was no general euphoria. ‘The majority of Tigrayans I spoke to at the time were very nervous about the consequences. The fear of war was in the air.’

When the TPLF attacked a federal army military base in early November, Prime Minister Abiy pulled out the big guns. The violent escalation did not entirely surprise him, says Tronvoll, ‘but the way the civil war is being conducted, its devastating consequences, the far-reaching involvement of neighboring Eritrea, and the horror that is taking place: that was a surprise.’

Abiy declared himself victorious at the end of November, but in reality peace is further away than ever. Tigrayans are increasingly choosing the armed struggle.

Tronvoll: Indeed. The federal government is not only targeting the leaders of the TPLF, but making life difficult for the entire Tigrayan population. Bank accounts are blocked, there are arbitrary arrests, and Tigrayan officers are fired.

That lack of distinction is a capital mistake. And that’s not the worst of it. A friend from Tigray told me, ‘Soldiers kill our parents, they rape our sisters and loot our homes. We do have to fight.’

Every week thousands join the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF), the armed resistance. They fight in plain clothes, simply because there are not enough uniforms for the new recruits. They are given a Kalashnikov and some training, and are thrown into the battle.

How does the resistance movement TDF differ from the political movement TPLF?

Tronvoll: At one time the TPLF was a real resistance movement. In the 1970s and 1980s, it had the support of all Tigrayans in its struggle against the military Marxist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam. Everyone felt “woyane”, a resistance fighter.

But quite soon after the TPLF ousted Mengistu, it became a real ruling party and lost its popular support base. In addition to internal conflicts, there were repeated allegations of corruption and mismanagement over the years.

Today, TPLF leaders head the TDF, but the current struggle has nothing to do with politics. Just about all Tigrayans, whatever their background or political affiliation, have joined the resistance. Even the Tigrayan opposition parties, which have been very critical of the TPLF in the past.

So the TPLF has often not been very popular in recent decades. Then, why were they victorious in the elections that Tigray organized in November?

Tronvoll: In recent years, Tigrayans have been hit hard, all over Ethiopia. I already mentioned the ethnic profiling, the financial boycotts and the arbitrary dismissals of Tigrayan officials. Tens of thousands of them returned to Tigray because it was no longer safe for them elsewhere.

Many thought that only the TPLF could protect them, even though they did not necessarily support its policies, especially not on the economic front. It was simply the only party with sufficient military and political experience. They saw no other option.

Eritrean Interference

Abiy Ahmed’s government forces have a notorious ally. Eritrean army units are also accountable for the horror of the current conflict. And yet, thirty years ago they fought alongside the TPLF against dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam.

At that time, Eritrea was still an Ethiopian province. But soon after the joint struggle it declared its independence, and not much later the brand new neighbors fought their first war over the seeminly insignificant border town of Badme.

With the TPLF in power in Ethiopia, the border war was seen as a feud between the two former allies. Only when Abiy Ahmed became prime minister in 2018 did Ethiopia and Eritrea bury the hatchet. That surprising move earned the young leader his famous Nobel Peace Prize.

And the Tigrayans? Since the peace agreement, they have felt hemmed in by hostile neighbors. Many even see Isaias Afewerki, the unsavory leader of Eritrea, as the mastermind behind the war. After months of denial, by the end of March, Abiy finally admitted that Eritrean units were active in Tigray.

Eritrean troops are still misbehaving in the region. When will they leave?

Tronvoll: The question is not so much when, but whether they will ever leave. Should they do so, the TDF would very quickly retake the areas now taken by the Eritrean forces. Eritrea and the government in Addis will not allow that to happen. The Eritrean troops are the main fighting capacity in Tigray.

Is it really going to go that far?

Tronvoll: Because of the many conflicts in the country, Ethiopian troops have fires to put out everywhere. They also face a recruitment problem and defections. So it is unlikely that Ethiopian troops will be able to fill the vacuum if the Eritreans withdraw.

What does Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki want?

Tronvoll: Isaias is seeking revenge after losing the border war with Ethiopia twenty years ago. Since then, he has attributed all the problems in his country to the TPLF. The Eritrean soldiers have clear orders to destroy the population and infrastructure of Tigray, possibly also to kill with genocidal intent.

Isaias also has territorial ambitions. He wants to retake the border town of Badme, and possibly more than that. It is difficult to get confirmed information, but it seems that the Eritrean soldiers are annexing a larger area than what the UN-border commission assigned to them. In the meantime, they are handing out Eritrean identity cards to Tigrayans who have not fled.

Finally, Isaias is using the war in Tigray to increase his influence in Ethiopia and the entire region. His forces are active in several places in the country. Moreover, Eritrean intelligence services are very well embedded in Addis. In the immigration department, for example. Isaias wants to be the “Big Brother” in the Horn of Africa again, to put it simply.

Actually you say: Abiy threw in a deal with Isaias and it turned out differently now?

Tronvoll: In a way, yes. Abiy – I think, of course I never know for sure – wanted peace with Eritrea to stimulate economic development in Ethiopia. But he also counted on Isaias’ help to subdue the TPLF.

Compared to Isaias, Abiy is a novice. He cannot fully assess the consequences of his decisions. This also makes it much easier for Isaias to play him. And, by the way, not only Isaias, but also the Amharic political elite, who without a doubt hold the reins of power in Ethiopia.

Amharic expansionism

In addition to the Eritreans, the Amhara, the second largest ethnic group in the country, are also very active in the war. How would you describe their role?

Tronvoll: At one time, the Amhara ruled Ethiopia. “Amhara are born to rule,” as an old proverb goes. But during the TPLF regime, they had to settle for a second-class role. That was a humiliation for the Amharic political elite and a huge blow to its relationship with Ethiopia. Today this elite is driven by vindictiveness.

The Amhara also want to reclaim the territories they believe they lost when the Tigrayans came to power: Welkayt, Tsegede, Humera, Tselemti and Raya. With success, according to the Amhara regional president. These territories are under civilian control, new roadsigns have been erected, and the few Tigrayans who did not flee were given Amhara identity cards.

This territorial ambition is not new, by the way. In 2016, the TPLF emprisoned Colonel Demeke Zewdu for his expansionist ideas and the demonstrations he staged at the time, for example in Welkayt. In 2018, when Demeke was released, he put the recapture of the lost territories back on the agenda of the Amhara Democratic Party. That too was a sign of things to come.

How far are the Amhara willing to go?

Tronvoll: The war over the lost territory will continue endlessly, because Tigray will never accept that loss. At the same time, we also see that the Amharic militias do not go beyond the Tekezé River, which they consider the border between Amhara and Tigray. They do not want to fight and die in the highlands of Tigray.

At this stage of the conflict, the Amhara are mostly fighting in the federal government forces. Amhara militias or special units are now more likely to concentrate on other lost areas, including in the western region of Benshangul-Gumuz, on the border with Sudan. This is part of their nationalist expansionism.


Not really perfect timing for elections.

Tronvoll: If there are to be elections, they will have little credibility. The election board has no experience whatsoever in setting up elections. They are always late, they cannot staff its local centres, and at the regional level its structures are hijacked by the ruling party. Like in the Somali region, where the opposition has already pulled back.

Still, I fear that the international community will support the elections. They have no other choice, because they have every interest in a legitimate government. Abiys mandate expired months ago, and elections can end that illegitimate political situation.

Do you think that elections will be a success for Abiy and his Prosperity Party?

Tronvoll: Abiy will only organize elections if he thinks he will win. But: what is Prosperity Party today? The party is hopelessly divided and seems to have no common vision about Ethiopia. And what will Abiy Ahmed mean tomorrow? If the Amhara – the dominant bloc in the party – no longer need Abiy, they will probably push him aside.

But things can change rapidly for the prime minister. In Amhara, there are already large-scale protests against Abiy and the Amharic part of the Prosperiy Party. People are being stirred up by the nationalist Amhara movement NAMA, which accuses Abiy of, among other things, deliberately stirring up unrest.

It is likely that there will be a crackdown in the region and that NAMA will no longer be allowed to participate in the elections. These will therefore be a sham, as this party is the only real opposition party in the Amhara region.

The Prosperity Party may not hold out. Ethiopia will?

Tronvoll: Ethiopia suffers from the typical flaws of an empire. Abiy tries to portray himself as the new emperor saving his empire, but he only creates more resistance. I fear that Ethiopia, at least in its current form, will no longer exist. Perhaps as some kind of conceptual entity, but the central authority will have to cede parts of its territory, officially or de facto.


This is certainly true for Tigray. The call for an independent state is growing louder.

Tronvoll: The harassment and persecution of recent years have made many Tigrayans realize that they no longer want to be part of Ethiopia. Once, that was different. This civil war is seen by a majority of Tigrayans as a struggle for independence. If there were a referendum, I am sure there would be a near unanimous vote for sovereignty.

Will that translate into an independent Tigray?

Tronvoll: That’s a different thing. It could perfectly be a de facto state without sovereignty. Just look at Somaliland (officially still part of Somalia, ed.). That has been one of the best functioning states in the Horn of Africa for years, but it has no international recognition.

An independent Tigray has little chance of success with hostile regimes in Eritrea and in Addis. Yet this war is also risky for those in power in Eritrea. By getting involved in the struggle, Isaias may overplay his hand. A new regime in Eritrea that is more friendly to the Tigrayans would radically change the dynamics of an independent Tigray.

Is a diplomatic solution still possible for Tigray?

Tronvoll: That should be the goal by all means. For example, Abiy could give in to pressure and accept negotiations. But his room for maneuver is so limited. He needs the support of the Amhara to stay in power. They command Abiy now, not the other way around. Moreover, they will never want to give back the territories they have conquered in the meantime. So no, I don’t see a quick diplomatic solution.

And will you also be an observer in the next elections?

Tronvoll: (laughs) I am waiting for an invitation from the election commission.

Kjetil Tronvoll is Professor of peace and conflict studies at Bjørknes University College and Director of Oslo Analytica: Political anthropologist, Africa analyst, conflict advisor ©MO

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