Thank you very much for this opportunity to speak to you about the current crisis in the Tigray region of Ethiopia.
In recent days, the situation in Ethiopia may have reached a turning point as Tigray becomes subject to an assault from two, possibly three armies: one, the Ethiopian National Defense Force, or ENDF; two, the Eritrean Defense Forces, or EDF; and three, the Amhara special forces.
For the government in Addis Ababa, the TPLF represents a threat for the following reasons: one, the TPLF are former rulers who believe that they are uniquely qualified for that role; two, the TPLF have exercised power in Ethiopia for significant stretches of Ethiopia’s history, especially from 1991 to 2018; and three, the TPLF have repeatedly demonstrated a capacity to wield power, military power, and to defeat other claimants to power. The view of the Addis Ababa regime and its allies is that if the TPLF are not eliminated once and for all, they will rise up again.
The Eritreans, under President Isaias Afwerki, have a grudge of their own with Tigray. Eritreans and Tigrayans have been allies at times and, indeed, collaborated in the past to defeat the Marxist regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991. As leaders of their respective independent states, however, they have once again become rivals.
They fought a bruising border war from 1998 to 2000, and while the Eritreans were defeated in 2000, they have not forgotten these events and seek to take back territory that they regard as their own. There are also suspicions that Eritrean President Isaias has his own designs on Ethiopia. In any event, the government in Asmara effectively has a veto over any agreement between the TPLF and the government in Addis Ababa. That is a problem.
Amharas, too, have been willing accomplices in the effort to destroy the TPLF. Amharas have historically been among the Ethiopian ruling class, and many were delighted at the displacement of the TPLF from Addis Ababa in 2018. The Amharas were territorial losers in the 1990s when the TPLF reorganized the country according to ethnic or national identity, and since the commencement of the war in November 2020, Amharas have sought to reoccupy this lost territory and ethnically cleanse western Tigray.
The TPLF itself, while apparently victims of this current crisis, is not blameless. For many Ethiopians, Tigrayan arrogance, and the privileging of its own interests after the fall of the communist regime in 1991, is a source of resentment, but the TPLF are also survivors whose capacity to endure hardship in the context of war should not be underestimated.
Again, this is a challenge. The TPLF’s defeat of the regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam in May 1991 was the culmination of a 15-year, or longer, struggle that came at enormous cost. The insurgents, as they were at that time, prevailed because of their singular vision and extraordinary organizational capacity. The TPLF then restructured Ethiopia according to a form of ethnic federalism that did address many—or at least some—of the nationalities questions in Ethiopia, but also generated new tensions.
Because of their minority status, Tigrayans—who formed the TPLF and also formed the core of another group, called the EPRDF, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, for three decades—have been extremely sensitive to changes in the local distribution of power among their rivals. Only in 2018 did the Amhara and Oromo coalition partners succeed in what some have described as an “end run” that allowed a non-Tigrayan newcomer, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, to assume the prime minister’s office.
Ethiopia now finds itself locked in a struggle among powerful and very disciplined groups, especially the Eritreans and the TPLF.
The objective of the belligerents, you should be aware, is not peace but security. Virtually every action, every act of aggression, every act of intransigence and every act of peace should be seen in this context. Even the peace between Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Eritrean President Isaias, which led to the Nobel Peace Prize, should be seen as a strategic move to isolate the Tigrayans rather than an acknowledgement of the benefits of peace.
While the Ethiopian government may respond favourably to political and economic pressure for a humanitarian solution, they are likely to resist any effort that obstructs their ability to destroy the TPLF as a military force. In humanitarian terms, the results will be disastrous.