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Is the War in Ethiopia’s Tigray Region Ending or Only Just Beginning?

The Jamestown Foundation | Michael Horton

On November 28, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali declared victory in his government’s three- week-long war against the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) (al-Jazeera, November 28). Abiy’s declaration followed the seizure by federal troops of Mekelle, which is the capital city of Ethiopia’s Tigray region (Nazret, November 28; Ethiopian News Agency, December 3). The fight for Mekelle, a city of over a half a million, was quickly concluded as TPLF troops carried out a strategic withdrawal from the city. The TPLF, which commands at least 100,000 fighters and possesses an abundance of heavy weaponry, could have fought to retain control of what has long been their seat of power. [1] Instead, they chose to retreat to the surrounding mountains.

This strategic retreat and the TPLF’s long and storied history as skilled guerrilla fighters does not bode well for Prime Minister Abiy’s hasty declaration of victory. Until 2018, the TPLF was the dominant political power in Ethiopia and has governed much of the Tigray region since its rise to prominence in the late 1970s. The armed forces loyal to the TPLF include many of Ethiopia’s most experienced and well-trained officers, NCOs, and enlisted men and women. The TPLF, which oversaw Ethiopia’s brutally efficient internal security service during its time as the country’s preeminent political party (1991-2018), can also draw on hundreds of well-trained intelligence officers and agents.

In addition to its thousands of soldiers, the TPLF has long had access to heavy and medium weaponry dating from its time as the predominant political power. For the three decades in which it dominated Ethiopian politics, the TPLF leadership made sure that ethnic Tigrayan troops received the best weapons and training. While there was an ethnic component to these efforts, the Tigray region shares a border with Eritrea. When the TPLF controlled Ethiopia, it oversaw a costly two-year long war (1998-2000) with Eritrea in which Tigrayan officers held many of the senior commands.

If the TPLF chooses to fight a protracted guerrilla war, it is well prepared to do so. Besides an abundance of capable fighters, intelligence officers, and caches of weaponry, the mountainous Tigray region is ideal terrain for guerrilla warfare. It is also doubtful that the TPLF would feel constrained to limit its attacks to targets within the Tigray region. The TPLF has the means to conduct covert attacks on soft targets throughout Ethiopia. [2]

A War Everyone Knew was Coming

Sidelining elites, especially when they have held power for three decades, is always fraught with potential blowback. Prime Minister Abiy’s rise to power within the ruling coalition party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), was swift. When Abiy assumed the office of prime minister in April 2018, he lost no time in enacting sweeping and much needed governmental, economic, and security sector reforms. The TPLF, which was the dominant member of the EPRDF governing coalition, had maintained a firm grip on the levers of power since its members overthrew Ethiopia’s Marxist Derg regime led by Mengitsu Haile Mariam in 1991. [3] While the overthrow of the Derg improved the lives of many Ethiopians, the TPLF leadership banned opposition parties, imprisoned dissidents, limited non-state sanctioned media, and was slow to enact needed economic reforms.

In his first months in office, Abiy’s government freed thousands of political prisoners, announced that it would amend Ethiopia’s harsh anti-terrorism law, and allowed for more press freedom. Abiy also tackled constitutional reform as he sought to move away from Ethiopia’s ethnically based federal system. On the international front, Abiy signed a Joint Declaration of Peace and Friendship with Eritrea in July 2018, for which he won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize. In November 2019, the EPRDF ruling coalition was rolled into a political party called the Prosperity Party, led by Abiy. Notably, the TPLF refused to join the new Prosperity Party Coalition (Africa News, November 21, 2019).

The speed of Abiy’s reforms over the last three years has been nothing short of stunning. The refusal of the TPLF to join the newly formed Prosperity Party in late 2019 was a proverbial shot across the bow. In October 2020, the TPLF leadership denied the Abiy-led government’s right to rule stating that Abiy’s postponement of the August 2020 elections due to COVID-19 violated the constitution (Africa News, June 24; The Reporter May 9). The TPLF held its own regional elections in September of 2020 in the Tigray region (al-Jazeera, September 9; The East African, September 9). The central government in Addis Ababa ruled the election null and void (al-Jazeera, October 19).

While many of the Abiy government’s reforms are laudable, an undercurrent of fear runs alongside them. Many politicians within not only the TPLF, but also within other regional and ethnic political parties worry about the re-centralization of political power at the expense of regional level authority.

These fears were already pervasive in Tigray in September 2019, with many members of the TPLF and the armed forces it commands actively preparing for armed conflict with the national government. During this author’s trip to the Tigray region in September 2019, the tension in what were then TPLF controlled cites of Adwa, Mekelle and Axum was palpable. In the countryside, many communities—those that were able—were setting aside extra stores of grain to guard against shortages arising from a war that many thought imminent.

War and Legitimacy

Over the course of 2019 and into 2020, relations between the federal government and the TPLF steadily deteriorated. Open conflict began on November 4 when military forces loyal to the TPLF launched a preemptive attack on the Ethiopian National Defense Force’s (ENDF) Northern Command Headquarters near Tigray’s capital city of Mekelle (TRT World, December 3). TPLF forces rapidly overran the command headquarters and a number of minor outposts. However, ENDF units, which were prepositioned in preparation for such a conflict, launched successful counter-attacks on multiple fronts within 24 hours of the assault. Within hours ENDF mechanized units seized control of most of Route 1, a major road that connects Mekelle with points north and south, thereby cutting off the city. [4]

The outbreak of hostilities did not come as a surprise to Abiy’s government. Preparations for war by both the ENDF and the TPLF have been underway for months in the case of the former, and likely for much of the last year in the case of the latter. “Prime Minister Abiy and Debretsion Gebremichael (leader of the TPLF and president of the Tigray region) backed each other into a corner,” explained an Ethiopia-based analyst and former security official. “By moving slower with his reforms, especially with political reforms, Abiy could have achieved more and avoided war,” the same analyst explained. “Abiy put the old guard of the TPLF in a position where the only option left for them was to revert to what brought them to power in the first place: war.” [5]

The TPLF, which formed in 1975, grew from a few cells of no more than two hundred men and women into a highly capable political and military organization that would lead the effort to overthrow the Mengitsu regime in May 1991. [6] TPLF leaders combined political acumen with a sophisticated military strategy that embraced guerrilla warfare whilst also preparing and training its fighters to engage in traditional battles involving artillery and tanks. Simultaneously, the TPLF developed an extensive countrywide network of intelligence assets that helped its leaders to liaise with other groups battling the Derg and to coordinate attacks on regime targets.

Despite internecine fighting with rival groups like the Marxist-Leninist League of Tigray (MLLT) and the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), the TPLF retained and enhanced its role as Ethiopia’s preeminent rebel group. In 1988, the TPLF helped found the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the political coalition that dominated Ethiopian politics from the overthrow of Mengitsu in 1991 until its displacement in 2019 by the Prosperity Party.

The TPLF’s role within the EPRDF government was, for much of the last three decades, out of all proportion to the size of the population of Tigray. Tigrayans only make up six percent of Ethiopia’s population of 110 million. The TPLF long justified the disproportionate size of its role in government by pointing to the fact that TPLF fighters made up the largest contingent of those forces that opposed the Derg and battled Eritrea.

“Tigrayans and the TPLF view themselves as Ethiopia’s liberators from the Derg and as its defenders against outside enemies like the Eritreans,” a former member of the TPLF explained. “It is this position as Ethiopia’s liberators and defenders that the TPLF use to justify their power. They will fight to retain what they view as their hard-earned right to govern—at least in Tigray.”

Cycles of Violence: Igniting Ethiopia’s Ethnic and Inter-Religious Tinderbox

At a minimum, the TPLF wants to retain control of the Tigray region. Abiy’s proposed reforms to Ethiopia’s ethnic based federal system are viewed as a direct threat to the TPLF and to what many in the party and Tigray region see as de facto independence. These reforms which aim to weaken Ethiopia’s ethnically based federalism in favor of a pan-nationalist framework are also viewed as a threat to self-determination by other ethnic political parties. The TPLF has long enjoyed a free hand within Tigray where, under the federal system, it is charged with most administrative decisions and affairs. Additionally, the TPLF maintains control of regional police, security services, and militias.

Beyond retaining control of the Tigray region, it is unclear what the TPLF’s ultimate goal might be. The current Ethiopian Constitution, ratified in 1995, guarantees the right of self-determination—and even the right to secede—to every nation and people in Ethiopia. [7] The Abiy government’s declaration of the September 2020 Tigrayan elections as illegal and the suspension of the disbursement of federal funds to the region have both been viewed by the TPLF as attacks on regional autonomy (Ethiopia Insight, October 19).

The measures taken by the Abiy government, while possibly justified, will stoke resentment among Tigrayans. If these actions are followed by punitive military campaigns and ethnic profiling, the TPLF will have no shortage of support for what could be a long and costly war. Unfortunately, incidents of ethnic based violence by the TPLF, the Abiy government, the Ethiopian National Defense Force, and regional militias are already being reported.

TPLF-linked militias are accused of attacking day laborers who belong to the major ethnic Amhara group in the town of May Cadera with machetes. Unverified reports suggest that over 600 civilians were killed in the attack. [8] The attack follows reports of Tigrayans living outside of the Tigray region being imprisoned, fired from their jobs, and expelled from ethnically mixed communities in major cities. [9]  Some reports indicate that militias consisting of ethnic Amharas, known as the Fano, are fighting against the TPLF in southern Tigray. If such ethnic based attacks persist and worsen, the war in Tigray will spread beyond the region’s borders. The TPLF possesses the ability to launch retaliatory attacks on targets outside of Tigray and indeed, as evidenced by rocket attacks on the Eritrean capital of Asmara on November 14 and 27, outside of Ethiopia (al-Jazeera, November 29). [10] Ethnically-driven attacks by any of the warring parties could lead to spiraling violence. The Abiy government has previously accused the TPLF of stoking ethnic tensions in other parts of Ethiopia like Oromia, a regional state of the country, in a bid to destabilize Abiy’s government. [11]

Ethiopia is a tinderbox of ethnic tensions. A rebellion in Tigray and a heavy-handed response by the Abiy government could ignite tensions in other areas like the Oromia regional state, the ethnically Somali regional state in the Ogaden area, the Afar region, and the Gambella region. In the case of Oromia, inter-communal and inter-religious violence have already resulted in hundreds of dead and the internal displacement of thousands. Many of these areas, like most of Ethiopia, are underdeveloped and have derived limited benefit from Ethiopia’s recent economic boom. Most of the gains from the boom remain concentrated among Ethiopia’s elite (with Tigrayans still representing many of these elite stakeholders) in the national capital of Addis Ababa. While Ethiopia, like many African countries, has not suffered much of an impact from the coronavirus pandemic, the economic fallout from international efforts to combat the virus are taking a serious toll on the Ethiopian economy. A slowing economy and reduced international investment as well as rising food prices will further exacerbate ethnic and inter-religious tensions.

While many Ethiopians view the TPLF negatively due to its former primacy in national politics, others are sympathetic to the TPLF’s claim that it is defending regional autonomy. During the 1980s, the TPLF proved adept at building ties with other ethnically based political and rebel groups. [12] The TPLF will pursue a similar strategy if it fights a protracted war in Tigray. The leadership of the TPLF will build on its relations with other political and rebel groups in a bid to combat the Abiy government. Harsh responses by Ethiopia’s security services and military to local protests and/or armed factions will feed existing cycles of violence and start new ones.

Regional Implications

Ethiopia is the preeminent military and economic power in the Horn of Africa. Any serious instability in Ethiopia will impact neighboring countries and the broader region. The war in Tigray is already in danger of destabilizing parts of Kassala state in eastern Sudan which now hosts an estimated 50,000 refugees from Tigray. [13] The Tigray region itself was already home to over 100,000 Eritrean refugees.

The TPLF, which has twice fired rockets into Eritrea, claims that Eritrean troops are aiding Abiy’s war against them. TPLF leaders accuse the Eritrean Army of operating deep within Ethiopia’s northern border, something that U.S. officials have seemingly confirmed (al-Ahram, December 2). [14] The presence of Eritrean troops on Ethiopian territory could easily revive old and long-standing tensions over border areas.

Further afield, Ethiopia has withdrawn large numbers of troops from the ethnically Somali Ogaden to bolster its efforts in Tigray (Somali Affairs, November 3). These units police Ethiopia’s long border with Somalia and periodically operate within Somalia where they aid that country’s fight against al-Shabaab. The Ogaden is also home to the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), which has fought for the right of self-determination for the ethnic Somalis who inhabit the region. The ONLF declared a unilateral ceasefire in 2018 and recently called for all parties in the war in Tigray to negotiate. However, the ONLF, like other rebel groups active in Ethiopia, may take advantage of opportunities arising from a weakened Abiy government.

If the war persists, it has the potential to attract outside powers with an interest in aiding stability in Ethiopia or, conversely, instability. Instability can be easily encouraged through the covert provision of aid and arms to Ethiopia’s armed rebel groups. One need only look at the civil war in Yemen, where at least six outside powers are involved, to see how such events could play out in Ethiopia. Even at this early stage in the war in Tigray, there are unconfirmed reports that in addition to Eritrea, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is involved, at least at a low level, in the conflict. [15]


Barring deft and realistic negotiations between the warring parties, the TPLF leadership, or at least factions within the leadership, may launch a long and costly guerrilla war. The TPLF has the means and knowledge to fight a war that could persist—at least on a low level—for years. While the Ethiopian military is capable and well-equipped, it will struggle to contain an insurgency in Tigray’s mountainous terrain. If the Ethiopian military engages in ethnically driven attacks on suspected supporters of the TPLF, the insurgency will only grow and spread. A lengthy war in Tigray will seep into other Ethiopian regions and may attract the benign and malevolent interest of multiple outside powers.


[1] Estimates of TPLF troop strength range as high as 250,000. It is difficult to assess actual troop strength due to the presence of a large number of informal militias loyal to the TPLF. A more accurate and conservative estimate of the number of men and women in formal and informal fighting forces loyal to the TPLF is 100,000 to 125,000.

[2] Author interview with former government official, September 2019.

[3] The Derg, meaning committee or council, was officially called the Provisional Military Government of Socialist Ethiopia.

[4] Author interview with multiple Ethiopia based analysts, December 2020.

[5] Author interview with former Ethiopia based security official, December 2020.

[6] See: John Young, Peasant Revolution in Ethiopia: The Tigray People’s Liberation Front, 1975-1991 (Cambridge University Press, 2008).

[7] See: https://ethiopianembassy.be/wp-content/uploads/Constitution-of-the-FDRE.pdf

[8] See: https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2020/11/ethiopia-investigation-reveals-evidence-that-scores-of-civilians-were-killed-in-massacre-in-tigray-state/

[9] See: https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/africaatlse/2018/03/28/the-unenviable-situation-of-tigreans-in-ethiopia/

[10] The TPLF is known to possess BM-21 rocket systems. However, the range on these systems, even with upgrades, is not long enough for the rockets to reach Asmara from Tigrayan territory. Therefore the TPLF’s arsenal may include some other typed of system such as the Chinese manufactured PHL-03 or the Russian made BM-30. Alternatively, the TPLF may have launched the rockets from within Eritrean territory.

[11] See: https://qz.com/africa/1936138/how-ethiopias-ethnic-power-politics-led-to-tigray-conflict/

[12] See: Jenny Hammond, Fire from the Ashes: A Chronicle of the Revolution in Tigray, Ethiopia, 1975-1991 (Red Sea Press, 1998).

[13] See: https://www.unmultimedia.org/tv/unifeed/asset/2586/2586069/

[14] See: https://www.reuters.com/article/ethiopia-conflict-eritrea/exclusive-u-s-thinks-eritrea-has-joined-ethiopian-war-diplomats-say-idUSKBN28I1OX

[15] The UAE has close military to military ties with the ENDF and with the Eritrean government and army. The UAE operates a base in the Eritrean town of Assab where it has based drones and aircraft for use in its war in Yemen. See: https://www.bellingcat.com/news/rest-of-world/2020/11/19/are-emirati-armed-drones-supporting-ethiopia-from-an-eritrean-air-base/

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