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The Battle for Tigray: Understanding the Ethiopian-Tigrayan Conflict

Abstract: Ethiopia’s numerous human rights challenges are likely to persist into the foreseeable future. Numerous measures show a willingness to progress, through various security, historical, and environmental factors that will provide extreme challenges toward reform. This paper will attempt to summarize the last 50 years of Ethiopian history and provide context on current challenges facing the country. The paper will begin with the geography and demographics of the region, then will proceed to the history of Ethiopia starting from 1974. The paper will conclude with current issues from the beginning of the Ethiopia-Tigray war which Started in November of 2020 and ended in November of 2022.


Ethiopia is built upon cooperation from numerous ethnic groups. These groups in order of population are the Oromo (35.8%), Amhara (24.1%) Somali (7.2%), and Tigray (5.7%).[1] Ethiopia hosts significantly more groups than this, but these four groups are the most influential in Ethiopian politics. These groups also play major roles in Ethiopian conflicts and politics from 1974 onward as well.


Ethiopia is a landlocked country in the Horn of Africa. It is bordered by Eritrea to the North, Somalia to the East, Sudan to the west, and Kenya to the south. Regions in Ethiopia correlate very strongly to the ethnic groups that live there. Tigray is the northernmost tip of Ethiopia, which borders the country of Eritrea. Eritrea is a majority Tigrayan country that gained its independence from Ethiopia in 1993 via a UN referendum. Directly south of Tigray is Amhara, and directly south of Amhara is Oromiya. Somali is directly east of Oromiya, bordering Somalia. The capital, Addis Ababa is its own region and is located within northern Oromiya.


World War II, European colonization, and Italy’s invasions of Ethiopia changed Ethiopian politics several times before its renewed independence in 1944. For this paper, I will focus on Haile Selassie’s rule and the 1974 coup as the start of Ethiopia’s modern history. Ethiopia was ruled as an empire, with the emperor Haile Selassie ruling over provinces of Ethnic majorities.[2] The empire had relied on centralizing elites of ethnic groups within Ethiopia into Amhara culture, and the identity of the state was heavily influenced by Amhara culture. The imperial regime also preferred to use force to solve internal unrest.[3]

Hailie’s last fourteen years as emperor were plagued with unrest and disappointment in his failure to implement important political and economic reforms. Corruption and famine remained constant issues within the country, and urban interest groups became the most involved critics of the government. In 1974, numerous groups began to protest the regime. The most influential of these groups was the Military Officer Corps which installed a committee known as the “Derg.”[4] The Derg began the process of a prolonged coup following several mutinies in Early 1974. These mutinies were heavily caused due to inadequate supplies provided to individual military branches. Civilian and urban interest groups continued to advocate their interests, though they were heavily disregarded by the Derg who sought to act as a military dictatorship.[5]

The suspected assassination of Emperor Haile in 1975 was the final event that allowed the Derg to seize complete power in Ethiopia.[6] In 1975, the Derg chose to pursue Marxist-Leninist ideology, justifying their existence as a singular political unit that would unilaterally lead the country through reform. They began by removing the previous imperial institutions of Ethiopia, like the position of emperor as well as removing religious institutions. In 1977, a consolidation of power within the Derg occurred through the removal or assassination of political rivals, resulting in Mengistu Haile Mariam rising to power.[7] One of the key political promises made by the derg was land reform policy. The plan they announced in 1975 was the total nationalization of industry and the allotment of land to peasant farmers. These reforms did not bring about positive change in yields and were met with disapproval from the regions of Gojam, Welo, and Tigray. The nationalization of all industries into the military government was also met with suspicion.[8]

The Derg had faced numerous challenges from Marxist civilian interest groups who were adamant about civilians running the Ethiopian government. One of these groups, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party, committed a series of attacks against the Derg in 1977. They were determined to create a socialist democracy run by civilians instead of the government. The Derg responded to this event by purging all civilian opposition groups in an event named “Mengitsu’s Red Terror.” This campaign killed thousands of Ethiopian civilians, particularly young and educated citizens in universities.[9] In 1977, the Derg faced its first external threat. The Western Somali Liberation Front, a regional militia in eastern Ethiopia, received funding from the Somalian government to rebel against the Derg. Somalia had been supported by the Soviet Union until this point, but they had begun supporting the Derg in light of this conflict. This event solidified the Derg as a USSR ally and an important source of influence in Africa.[10]

Internal threats also became significant as regional groups began to voice their unrest towards the Derg. The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (ERPDF) became the main resistance movement against the Derg shortly after its founding. The ERPDF was comprised of several regional militias that were defined based on ethnicity. The leader of the resistance movement was the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).[11] The TPLF remained the head of the ERPDF due to their military ability. The TPLF was founded as a student movement built on the Marxist idea of ethnonationalism.[12]

Ethnonationalism is a concept based on Bolshevik definitions of the “nation.” Soviet leaders disagreed on the exact definition, but Stalin’s definition was the most influential. In his view, a nation is ”a historically evolved, stable community of language, and territory, economic life, and psychological makeup manifested in a community of culture.”[13] This definition is important because it justified national independence among nations that comprised the USSR. This independence was later removed as the USSR implemented more centralized control over its nations, but the definition remained important amongst international Marxists and inspired several ethnonationalist rebellions in multicultural governments abroad.[14] This ideology justified the TPLF to rebel against the Derg, as the Derg didn’t address centralization created by the previous empire, and many nations within Ethiopia desired independence.[15]

The TPLF and its allies provided significant resistance to the Derg and eventually defeated it in the late 1980s. In 1991, the ERPDF declared a new state named the “People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia” and wrote a new constitution.[16] The TPLF sought to create a more decentralized state composed of nine ethnically distinct regions that would have more autonomy over their citizens.[17] This new constitution was ratified in 1994 after the TPLF-led transitional government signed it into law.[18]

Post-Derg transitional period

Another way to describe the reform model is “Ethnic based federalism.” At the top level, there is a federal government that is allotted some powers over its regional districts. A level below that are the ethnically distinct regions, which are allowed powers to govern that are not shared with the federal government. One of the key powers is the formation of regional militaries. This power is subject to debate and has recently become a topic of reform in Ethiopia.[19]

The structure of the People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia was born out of necessary compromises and demands the TPLF and its allies wanted to implement. Elections, as well as regional autonomy, were to become the main reforms of the new government. Kidane Mengisteab wrote about some of the new challenges of this country in his work “Ethiopia’s Ethnic-Based Federalism: 10 Years After.”[20]

Ethnic federalism is very rare, but successful examples like Spain and Belgium exist. Mengisteab argues that ethnic issues at the time of writing (2001) are due to unfulfilled promises to the 1994 constitution rather than issues associated with ethnic-based federalism. He discusses several indicators of failure on behalf of the EPRDF in reforming the country in 2001. The main argument he leaves is the failure to decentralize the government.[21]

The first indicator was the continued monopolization of revenue-generation powers. Mengisteab mentions that regional states only contributed 17% of the total GDP at the time of writing according to the World Bank’s report from 1998. This financial dependence undermined the regional governments’ ability to develop their economies and continued reliance on the central government.[22]

The second indicator was the creation of EPRDF satellite parties. Political party structure, as well as election advocacy, will be discussed later in the next section of the paper. For now, it is important to note that in past regional elections, there was usually an EPRDF-aligned party and an independent party. This strategy has helped to monopolize political power in the hands of the EPRDF and by extension its leader, the TPLF.[23]

The last indicator was the TPLF’s dominance in their coalition, despite constituting a minority of the Ethiopian population. For an ethnic federal government to run, there needs to be adequate decentralization of power to individual ethnicities. The TPLF officials dominated key decision-making positions. within both the EPRDF and the government. Whereas the previous two regimes identified as Amhara, the government after is widely considered Tigrean.[24]

A more cynical argument Mengisteab considers is the intentionality of the TPLF’s actions to keep themselves in power with a more centralized government. Some argue that the TPLF’s intention was never to decentralize power, and to instead manipulate the rest of the country into advancing their own interest. He cites the EPRDF’s intimidation of independent political parties, especially those with secessionist tendencies. Mengisteab ultimately disagrees with this argument as he believes genuine decentralization would have weakened secessionist tendencies by allotting important autonomy to groups.[25]

1995 Elections Onward

1995 marked the first elections since the founding of the new Ethiopian state. Political organizations within Ethiopia were, and still are defined heavily by ethnicity. It was also ethnically organized militaries that toppled the Derg, and reforms after leaned heavily into this strategy by organizing regions based on ethnicity.[26] This creates a dichotomy where there are two or more ethnically focused parties in one region, one EPRDF-aligned and one independent.

The 1995 election, as well as future elections, were heavily one-sided as independent parties outside of the EPRDF coalition often dropped out of or boycotted elections. The 1995 elections in particular demonstrated the beginning of this process. The Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) was the most important challenger to the EPRDF, as it represented the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia. The OLF seemed poised to win a regional election, as the EPRDF’s counterpart, the Oromo Peoples Democratic Organization (OPDO), was unpopular and relied on intimidation as their electoral strategy. There was a motion to postpone the 1995 elections, which was denied by the EPRDF transitional government, resulting in the OLF and 17 other independent parties boycotting the election. The end result of the election was EPRDF parties winning 97% of the seats in Congress. The OLF later pulled their troops from federal camps, resulting in a short war that destroyed their military capacity.[27]

The decision to withdraw from an election may seem strange, but many parties reported widescale harassment, arrests, and intimidation leading up to the 1995 election.[28] The perception at this time, from many political opponents was that Ethiopia would suffer from Electoral authoritarianism. Electoral authoritarianism, as Andreas Schedler writes, is a regime where elections are held, but they are not democratic and there are no sufficient rights and freedoms needed to engage democratically with society. For example, dominant parties are able to deny access to public media and use threats to limit enemy participation.[29] Schedler also describes why opposition parties would boycott elections. Their strategy is to sow distrust in the political process and bring attention to the authoritarian practices of the regime. They also decide whether they will boycott or participate, and accept or reject election results depending on benefits.[30] This is the strategy that the ERPDF’s opponents chose to employ throughout the following elections in Ethiopia.

Unfortunately, this also served to reinforce the EPRDF’s control over the central government as they were virtually unopposed. They essentially had unlimited control over government institutions, and media, and the ability to improve their track record without any organized political groups contesting them. This also served to improve the internal structure of the EPRDF into a more cohesive national party with a general platform.[31]

While the 2000 elections were a rerun of the 1995 elections, the 2005 elections represented a major break from the norm. Opposition parties unanimously agreed to participate in the 2005 election. Although they only decided to participate in late 2004 and early 2005, their decision led to more candidates and more debate than at any other time in Ethiopian history. The opposition parties did so well that many important EPRDF politicians lost their spots in parliament.[32] Although the EPRDF won the election due to widespread rural support, 31% of the total seats were won by opposition candidates.[33]

The 2005 elections seemed like a meaningful turn in Ethiopian politics but ultimately ended with numerous controversies and allegations of fraud. Opposition parties demanded recounts, and international observers were concerned with the intimidation of opposition voters and candidates. When the parliament met for the first time, some opposition candidates refused to take their seats in protest. Violence erupted in November resulting in arrests of opposition leadership and journalists.[34] Terrence Lyons describes the EPRDF's actions after the election, detailing three different responses to challengers from the opposition. The first is that the EPRDF used legal institutions to create division within opposition parties. Opposition candidates were forced to address legal challenges instead of building their party and increasing support.[35]

The second was that the EPRDF placed new laws that restricted political parties, independent media, and civil society. This led to many NGOs leaving the country, as well as discouraging many forms of protest that may fall under a broad anti-terrorism proclamation. This also gave the EPRDF many opportunities to monitor their political opposition. The final reform was that the EPRDF expanded its dominance over government-owned media, developmental and humanitarian assistance, government jobs, university positions, and party membership.[36]

The 2010 and 2015 elections followed trends seen in the 1995 and 2000 elections, with the 2005 elections being the only break in continuity. Intimidation and harassment continued throughout these elections, and the EPRDF’s grip over civil society continued. In Amhara and Oromia regions in 2016, detentions of journalists and activists, feelings of political marginalization, and discontent with the government led to protests and demonstrations. The government responded harshly and declared a state of emergency from October 2016 to August 2017.[37]

Political issues from 2019 onward

2019 represents a very important break as the EPRDF, almost sporadically, dissolved after the election of a new prime minister. Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, is the first Prime Minister of Oromo ethnicity to hold office over a significant period of Tigrayan leadership. The EPRDF decided in 2018 to pursue a more sympathetic direction to quell ethnic tensions. This included electing a non-TPLF prime minister who ran to alleviate tensions. The TPLF refused to participate in a reformation of the EPRDF, so they remained absent in Abiy’s formation of the new Prosperity Party.[38]

What caused drama to initially boil over was the delay of the 2020 elections. The federal government decided to postpone elections due to COVID-19, but Tigray decided to hold their regional elections despite this. The action was an act of defiance against the central government. The Tigrayan side claims that the central government had gone through too many changes without being held accountable via election and that Abiy’s ties with Eritrea, which engages in border conflicts with Tigray, are “unprincipled.” They also argued that Abiy was attempting to remain in power by delaying future elections.[39] On the other hand, Tigray had held a significant amount of power since 1991, and this led to oppression and intimidation of civil society and unrest, precisely what made the EPRDF reform and elect Abiy in the first place. Fighting between Tigray, and the Ethiopian central government, along with Eritrea began in November 2020.[40]

2020 Civil War

On November 4th, 2020, Prime Minister Abiy ordered an attack on Tigrayan forces. He argues that it was in response to an attack by Tigray on the central government's troops.[41] This sparked a civil war between the Ethiopian central government and the Tigrayan regional government. This war was first framed as an operation against TPLF leadership by the Abiy government. Due to a communication blackout early on, it is difficult to know exactly what happened, but NGOs and international organizations reported Eritrean involvement as well, as Amnesty International had reported over 100 civilians killed by Eritrea in December 2020. Abiy would admit Eritrea’s involvement in early 2021.[42]

Prime Minister Abiy of Ethiopia
Prime Minister Abiy of Ethiopia

Eritrea’s involvement in the war was seen as a serious betrayal from Tirayan leadership.[43] Eritrea historically has always seen itself as independent from Ethiopia, to the extent of fighting against border forces in Tigray throughout 1998-2000.[44] Although peace deals were made, they were not universally respected until Abiy committed to honoring the 2000 peace agreement. This included a controversial ruling demarcating a border between Eritrea and Tigray.[45] One of the difficult parts of this war was monitoring human rights abuses. All sides as it stands are accused of committing atrocities against civilians. Amharan commanders attempted to reclaim parts of Tigray with large Amharan populations, The Eritrean army saw benefits in continuing the war, the federal government forced people to relocate from their homes, and international actors all agreed that serious human rights abuses had occurred. Unfortunately, it is difficult to hold actors accountable due to the reliance on eyewitness testimony in many African regions.[46]

There are a couple of examples of this ambiguity. In March of 2021, the UN and Ethiopian Human Rights Commission initiated investigations into various human rights abuses. The accuracy of the report was called into question, as some massacres like the Axum Massacre, did not have investigators on the ground to verify claims. The UN report presented evidence that all sides of the conflict had committed abuses such as weaponized rape, violence against children, and ethnically targeted killings.[47]

Human Rights Watch in their 2023 World Report details some of the war crimes committed. One of the largest crimes committed was by the federal government on January 7th, 2022. A drone strike targeted a camp in Dedebit, killing at least 57, many of whom were civilians. The Federal government also blockaded the region from December 2021 to April 2022, allowed some humanitarian aid to reach Tigray, and then continued the blockade from late August 2022 to November 16th. Services such as banking, electricity, and communication were shut off, and famine and food insecurity affected 89% of areas in Tigray. Population transfers of Tigrayans to other regions where they were held for detention were also detailed. Furthermore, airstrikes on residential districts, as well as abuses committed by Tigrayan counter-offensives have further resulted in crimes against civilians.[48]

The US State Department summarizes many cases of abuse that occur worldwide in their yearly publications. Their most recent publication for Ethiopia cites many different reports from NGOs monitoring the region. Important details regarding the Ethiopia-Tigrayan civil war include air strikes on civilians, abductions and population transfers, torture, use of child soldiers, and blocked access to humanitarian supplies.[49] In September 2022, and after multiple failed agreements, the Tigrayan leadership and the federal government agreed to negotiate an end to the conflict. Peace came on November 2nd when Tigrayan troops disarmed and returned to Tigray. Full humanitarian aid was also permitted to enter Tigray and provide assistance. One concern is that Eritrea never participated in these talks, so their involvement is a significant cause for international monitoring. Although the war is currently over, tensions are still there as many other groups are currently displeased with government proposals.[50]

Recent news

Attacks from militia groups like Fano, and renewed heightened tensions with Eritrea are current-day issues facing Ethiopia. Another state of emergency was declared following violence from an Amharan militia group named Fano. According to ACLED database data, roughly 30 clashes were recorded in Amhara, providing a constant threat to the federal government. The territory Amharan generals took control over from Tigray remains a major source of instability in the region.[51]

From their perspective, the TPLF arbitrarily put these areas into Tigray in the 1990s without consultation from other stakeholders. These inter-border issues also compound with the fact that the Fed did not manage to protect Amharan citizens from TPLF advances during the 2021 civil war. Similarly, the government's recent proposal to dissolve all regional militaries into the federal government has caused much concern amongst internal military groups. Finally, many groups are worried that peace talks may result in compromises to forgive crimes against civilians, which some groups are not willing to compromise over.[52]

Abiy has also created much media attention following statements he made regarding Ethiopia’s maritime access. He claimed that Ethiopia should assert its right to access the Red Sea as much as possible through peaceful means. Although he has restated he intends to reach peaceful deals with Eritrea, many in the region took it as a threat. It is unclear whether this will amount to conflict in the future, but it should be taken into account as a recent security development.[53]


Picking sides is not a possibility for many issues worldwide. Ethiopia is a prime example of a complicated situation with no easy answers. Conflict is likely to persist in response to reforms and provocations, intentional or otherwise. Many groups in the conflict can justify their distrust of the federal government, and the federal government can justify its distrust of regional militaries and opposition parties. Solutions and recommendations are far beyond the scope of what I hope to provide with this short paper. I simply hope to catch interested parties up on some of the main historical points to promote understanding of the Ethiopian-Tigrayan Conflict.


[1]“Ethiopia - Country Summary.” Central Intelligence Agency. Accessed November 16, 2023.

[2] Crummey, D. Edward and Marcus, Harold G. "history of Ethiopia." Encyclopedia Britannica, October 26, 2023.

[3] Mengisteab, Kidane. “Ethiopia’s Ethnic-Based Federalism: 10 Years After.” African Issues 29, no. 1/2 (2001): 20–25. 20

[4] Ofcansky, Thomas P, Laverle Bennette Berry, and Library Of Congress. Federal Research Division. “Ethiopia: A Country Study.” Washington, D.C.: Federal Research Division, Library of Congress: For sale by the Supt. of Docs., U.S. G.P.O, 1993. Pdf. 51-56

[5] Ofcansky, Thomas P, Laverle Bennette Berry, and Library Of Congress, “Ethiopia: A Country Study.” 51-56

[6] Crummey, D. Edward and Marcus, Harold G. "history of Ethiopia." Encyclopedia Britannica.

[7] Ofcansky, Thomas P, Laverle Bennette Berry, and Library Of Congress, “Ethiopia: A Country Study.” 56-57 [8] Ibid. 56-58

[9] Crummey, D. Edward and Marcus, Harold G. "history of Ethiopia." Encyclopedia Britannica.

[10] Ofcansky, Thomas P, Laverle Bennette Berry, and Library Of Congress, “Ethiopia: A Country Study.” 59 [11] Ibid. 59

[12] Tefera Negash Gebregziabher, Ideology and power in TPLF’s Ethiopia: A historic reversal in the making?, African Affairs, Volume 118, Issue 472, July 2019, Pages 463–484,

[13] Stalin, Joseph. Joseph Stalin: Marxism and the national question, selected writings and speeches. New York: International Publishers, 1942.

[14] TEWATIA, T. C. “SOVIET THEORY OF FEDERALISM.” The Indian Journal of Political Science 36, no. 2 (1975): 177–91.

[15] Mengisteab, Kidane. “Ethiopia’s Ethnic-Based Federalism: 10 Years After.” African Issues 29, no. ½. 21

[16] Ofcansky, Thomas P, Laverle Bennette Berry, and Library Of Congress, “Ethiopia: A Country Study.” 59

[17] Kessels, Eelco, Tracey Durner, and Mathhew Schwartz. “ETHIOPIA.” Violent Extremism and Instability in the Greater Horn of Africa: An Examination of Drivers and Responses. Global Center on Cooperative Security, 2016.

[18] Mengisteab, Kidane. “Ethiopia’s Ethnic-Based Federalism: 10 Years After.” African Issues 29, no. ½. 21 [19] Ibid. 23 [20] Ibid. [21] Ibid. 22 [22] Ibid. 23 [23] Ibid. 23 [24] Ibid. 24 [25] Ibid. 24

[26] Lyons, Terrence. “Ethiopian Elections: Past and Future.” International Journal of Ethiopian Studies 5, no. 1 (2010): 107–21. [27] Ibid. 113 [28] Ibid. 113

[29] Schedler, Andreas. Electoral authoritarianism. Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2006. [30] Ibid.

[31] Lyons, Terrence. “Ethiopian Elections: Past and Future.” International Journal of Ethiopian Studies 5, no. 1. 108 [32] Ibid. 114-117 [33] Ibid. 108 [34] Ibid. 117 [35] Ibid. 117 [36] Ibid. 118

[37] Crummey, D. Edward and Marcus, Harold G. "history of Ethiopia." Encyclopedia Britannica. [38] Ibid. [39] Ibid.

[40] “Ethiopia’s Tigray War: The Short, Medium and Long Story.” BBC News, June 29, 2021. [41] Ibid.

[42] Center for Preventative Action. “Conflict in Ethiopia | Global Conflict Tracker.” Council on Foreign Relations. Accessed November 19, 2023.

[43] “Ethiopia’s Tigray War: The Short, Medium and Long Story.” BBC News, June 29, 2021. [44] Ibid.

[45] Crummey, D. Edward and Marcus, Harold G. "history of Ethiopia." Encyclopedia Britannica.

[46] “Ethiopia’s Tigray War: A Deadly, Dangerous Stalemate.” Crisis Group, April 14, 2021.

[47] Center for Preventative Action. “Conflict in Ethiopia | Global Conflict Tracker.” Council on Foreign Relations. Accessed November 19, 2023.

[48] Human Rights Watch. “World Report 2023 | Events of 2022.” Human Rights Watch, 2023. © 2022 by Human Rights Watch

[49] “2022 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Ethiopia.” U.S. Department of State, March 20, 2023.

[50] “2022 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Ethiopia.” U.S. Department of State, March 20, 2023.

[51] Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project. “Fact Sheet: Crisis in Ethiopia’s Amhara Region.” Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, 2023. [52] Ibid.

[53] Endeshaw, Dawit, and Giulia Paravicini. “Ethiopia PM Abiy Seeks to Quell Neighbours’ Concerns over Invasion.” Reuters, October 26, 2023.


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