Abiy Ahmed Ali’s war on Tigrai: a guide to its genesis


(By Yitbarek Mesfin*, UK, 16 November 2020)

Ethiopia is a very complex country made up of 80 different linguistic groups. Some international reporters are at last beginning to understand the cause of the civil unrest in Ethiopia from the start of Abiy Ahmed’s premiership in 2018. But there is still misunderstanding about the country’s political problems.

The following narrative has been prepared in the hope that it may help readers understand the countrywide civil unrest, and particularly the source of the current war which Abiy Ahmed has declared on Tigrai.

Throughout history, the different nationalities in Ethiopia were subjected to various degrees of oppression and exploitation by feudal kings and then by the military ‘communist’ junta called the Derg which ruled from 1974-1991.

  1. The Derg carried out a reign of terror on the Ethiopia peoples, but this was particularly intense against Tigrai, which was struggling for self-determination, and against Eritrea for its liberation from a sclerotic ‘imperial’ rule, and then from the Derg rule.
  2. The Derg ran a reign of terror but this only succeeded in spawning many insurgency movements among many of the different nationalities in Ethiopia, and then as now, there was fear that the country might splinter. The degree of the Derg’s inhumanity can be measured by its rather sickening practice of demanding payment for the bullets ‘spent’ on its murder of victims, before families were allowed to collect the bodies of their loved ones for burial.
  3. The Derg was driven out of Tigrai in 1989 after 15 years of bitter struggle. It was a true people’s war under the leadership of the TPLF (Tigray Peoples Liberation Front).
  4. The TPLF, together with other democratic forces in Ethiopia, formed the EPRDF (Ethiopian Peoples Revolution Democratic Front) and finished off the Derg rule in the rest of Ethiopia in May 1991. The EPRDF called a National Forum to decide on the future of the country and a Transitional Government was formed. The National Forum settled for a federal system of government as the best arrangement for the country. It prepared a Federal Constitution with input from international constitutional experts to incorporate best practice from other countries under federal constitutions. The draft was widely consulted on within the different nationalities in Ethiopia up to the village level, and even with Ethiopians in the ‘Diaspora’.
  5. The Federal Constitution was ratified by a Constitutional Committee in 1994 and the first multi-party elections were held in May 1995 which the EPRDF won. The Federal Constitution served the country well for the 27 years before Abiy was selected as a caregiver PM according to an article in the Financial Times “….Child mortality rate fell from about one in five to one in 20”; also “famine was banished [and] large-scale civil war was ended” says Alex De Waal: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-54932333

The country was registering double digit economic growth for the ten years up to Abiy Ahmed’s election as PM in 2018, and was heading towards becoming a middle income country by 2025. Now the IMF says that economy grew by only 1.9% in 2019 and is projected to be virtually zero for this year.

  1. However, although EPRDF’s successful management of the economy was making headlines around the world, there were deficits in the implementation of the Federal Constitution, particularly on good governance, which gave rise to the peoples’ resentment. There were uprisings against the EPRDF, and the TPLF received a lion’s share, if not the whole of the blame, as it was the dominant member within the ruling EPRDF. The party, particularly the TPLF, undertook a prolonged root-cause analysis (or gimgema). They apologised to the Ethiopian people for its mistakes and decided on a reform agenda. The reform agenda, (we were later to learn) included the release of political prisoners, opening the political space, freeing the media and a careful rapprochement with Eritrea to end the state of no-peace-no-war which had existed for twenty years. PM Hailemariam Desalegn, shortly before his unexpected resignation in February 2018 – when he said he wanted to give somebody else a chance at quelling the increasing unrest in Oromia state – had already announced that political prisoners and journalists would be released from prison.
  2. The EPRDF deliberated on the matter of succession, did some horse-trading and in April 2018 selected Abiy Ahmed Ali, who originates from the Oromia state1, as a caretaker prime minister until the next national elections which were due in May 2020, as per the Federal Constitution.

To the surprise of all, Abiy Ahmed announced at his inauguration that his mother had prophesied he would be king one day and was happy that that day had come to pass. Most people took this as simple humour from a newly-elected PM and didn’t consider it a serious matter. As the EPRDF had not announced what was in its reform agenda publicly, Abiy Ahmed made the reforms look like his own idea and ran a successful personal relations campaign to the world by announcing the opening the prisons to release all prisoners, including known criminals (some of whom went on to commit serious crimes); by freeing media from restriction and increasing the political space; and by making peace with Eritrea. The least the world could do in this situation was honour this “dynamic” and “reformist” leader with the Nobel Peace Prize 2019.

  1. But what the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Abiy Ahmed has done is to drive a coach and horses through the Federal Constitution and to reverse most of the gains made in the previous 27 years. He is now ruling like a latter-day medieval king, by-passing parliament, or using it as a convenient rubber-stamping personal asset, when it suits him, in order to carry out his own agendas. While side-lining the Federal Constitution, told the world that he was defending democracy against hardliners, and the Western leaders and the world media believed and accepted this. There is no accountability today in Ethiopia. After all he was a now a sainted Nobel Peace Prize winner and, therefore was automatically assumed to be defending democracy!
  2. The only group in Ethiopia who saw Abiy Ahmed’s incompetence and destructive agenda for what it is, early on were the TPLF. They knew that Abiy Ahmed was a bad choice even before the EPRDF selected him as a caretaker PM. But the TPLF were treated as losers who were crying foul and nobody took notice of their concerns.
  3. The TPLF strongly disapproved of Abiy’s illegal dismantling of the EPRDF and steadfastly refused to join his new party, Prosperity Party, (Likely after the Prosperity Gospel evangelical church to which he belongs) All the other national parties were coerced, or bribed, into joining this party in November 2019. Thus, a clear line of demarcation was drawn between the TPLF and Abiy’s party. The TPLF had become ‘disobedient’, as he saw it, but it was too strong for him to do anything about it, yet.
  4. Tigrai under the TPLF became the only state in Ethiopia where Abiy had no jurisdiction. Law and order was respected within its boundaries and people from any part of Ethiopia could lead their lives peacefully without molestation or killing. This was in marked contrast to the rest of the states where there was ethnically-motivated violence and murders which have resulted in the internal displacement of millions of people. Most of the regional states were subsequently put under military command and local leaders removed.

There is a pattern that supports the thesis that at least some of the violence and murders, including murders of senior officials like the country’s (Tigraian) Chief-of-Staff of defence forces, were instigated by Abiy’s government itself in order to cause chaos and prolong it’s time in power. Abiy always blamed others for all the strange things happening in the country, and particularly the TPLF. Meanwhile the government instigated regional chaos with violence included the burning of churches and mosques, just like ISIS did in Iraq to cause inter-communal/inter-ethnic and inter-faith violence.

  1. In accordance with the Federal Constitution, which Abiy was pretending to be protecting as he destroyed it, national elections should be held every five years in May. Abiy manipulated the date to put it off to the most inconvenient time of the year, the month of August which is a time of heavy rains and most electors would find it difficult to reach polling stations. This was done because Abiy needed more time to organise his newly formed Prosperity Party, a party which stands for a return to a unitary system of government from the centre, with one ethnic group or nationality out of the 80 diverse groups in Ethiopia, governing the whole. The Amhara, the dominating the culture and administrative language, and religion wish to be in that position the country again as they were under the Emperor and the Derg Communists. This is the system that was widely rejected by the different Ethiopian nationalities in 1991 when the Derg was overthrown and they chose to live under a federal constitution.
  2. When the coronavirus/Covid-19 came, it gave Abiy the perfect cover for postponing the already postponed elections indefinitely, so that he could stay in power forever like his close friend, Isaias Afeworki, the Eritrean dictator. The TPLF, which knew of Abiy’s clumsy ploy, insisted that the Federal Constitution must be respected. They set up their own Election Commission and carried out a very successful election in Tigrai in September 2020, which was monitored by international observers. They were very impressed by the Covd-19 compliant and electorally clean elections.
  3. Five contending parties took part2 but the people of Tigrai put their trust in the only tried and tested party, the TPLF, knowing full well what was coming from Abiy’s clique in Addis Ababa. The TPLF government thus declared that it was the only elected and constitutionally compliant (regional) government in Ethiopia. All other regional assemblies and Abiy’s government had rendered themselves unconstitutional and thus illegal. The end of the mandate was on 5th October. The Tigrai government duly declared that it would not accept any rulings that came from Abiy’s illegal dictatorship. This incensed Abiy and he got his rubber-stamping parliament to impose one sanction after another, including cutting Federal funds to Tigrai to punish it for its “illegal’ election.
  4. The distinction between the two could now be more clearly seen than ever. On one side was the TPLF government of Tigrai defending the Federal Constitution on behalf of the people of Tigrai, and the other states that have been cowed by Abiy, and on the other side, Abiy’s clique which is hell-bent on restoring a unitary order, which the Ethiopian people rejected in 1991 with the defeat of the murderous Derg regime. Abiy’s clique refused point blank to resolve the impasse by negotiation where all stakeholders, including leaders of other federalist parties who have been put in prison by Abiy, would participate.
  5. This being the situation, it was only a matter of time before these two irreconcilable political positions manifested themselves on the battlefield. Abiy officially declared war on Tigrai in the early hours of 4th November 2020. He has been promoting the conflict internationally as a domestic criminal matter, bringing to “justice” a criminal group, when it is he who is the criminal, the promoter and releaser of criminals.
  6. The TPLF had known, well in advance, of Abiy’s secret plans with Isaias Afeworki to destroy their mutual nemesis, the TPLF. The people of Tigrai had prepared to defend themselves. TPLF leaders fought and defeated the Derg from the impenetrable mountains of Tigrai. They are confident that they are even more capable now of doing this again to “Derg 2” as some are calling Abiy’s clique. Abandoned by the international media and community, they have prepared for a grim battle for the survival of Tigray and Tigraian speakers.
  7. The TPLF is only too aware of the human and material destruction that war brings and has not stopped pleading with the international community to urge Abiy to resolve the situation by dialogue.3So far, he has rejected dialogue and his army is attacking Tigrai from three sides and sending his warplanes to recklessly bomb densely-populated cities and towns in Tigrai, including the strafing of a school near a church in Mekelle on 15th November. The latter is reminiscent of the bombing of Ayder School in Mekelle by Isaias Afeworki’s helicopters at the start of the 1998–2000 Ethiopia-Eritrea war. As of 16th November 2020, the war, which Abiy had bragged would be over in three days, is entering its third week. This suggests that the war is probably not going his way.

All telephone and internet services to Tigrai remain cut. Therefore, what international reports are telling us is mostly guesswork. For example, none of reporters seem to realise that the Northern Command of the Ethiopian Federal Defence Forces, which has been stationed in Tigrai ever since the 1998-2000 war with Eritrea, is fighting on the side of the people of Tigrai with all its more up-to-date arsenal of war (except warplanes). This gives them an even greater chance of winning on the battlefield, if that is, unfortunately, the road Abiy and his clique want to take. Meanwhile the heart-breaking death toll both in soldiers and civilians continues to escalate.

  1. Despite the cynical promotion of this in the media, it would be wrong to characterise this struggle as a ‘revenge’ by side-lined “TPLF fugitives” who have been “licking their wounds” hiding in the rocks of Tigrai for the past two-and-half years. Many of the nationalities in the other states in Ethiopia, big and small, are deeply unhappy with what Abiy has done, dismantling their federal order, and would do the same as the people of Tigrai if they had a similar organisation and capacity to challenge Abiy and his clique. They are keenly watching what is unfolding as Tigrai as it is a fight for the survival of all Tigaru in this war.
  2. This war is also about the ethnic-cleansing of Tigray. We can see this from the fact that Abiy’s main supporters are returned diaspora Amhara extremists in the form of the Amhara Prosperity Party who have a visceral hatred of Tigraians that goes back over a hundred years. They have never forgiven the TPLF, and the people of Tigrai, for ousting them in 1991 when the EPRDF defeated the Derg, putting an end to the Amharas lording it over the other nationalities that make up today’s Ethiopia.

Now Abiy Ahmed is working with these extremists to reverse the internationally defined and consulted Federal Constitutional order and aims to unilaterally impose a unitary system that would put the other nationalities in their command once again. Abiy has surrounded himself with remnants of the hated Derg, the EPRP (Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party and Meison (All-Ethiopia Socialist Movement) which the TPLF and the people of Tigrai fought and defeated in the 1970s and ‘80s. The TPLF lost 60,000 fighters and 100,000 were left maimed and injured. This is a very high sacrifice which the people of Tigray cannot forget as they fight the new war Abiy Ahmed and his clique have declared on them. 

MY/November 16, 2020

* Mesfin Yitbarek is a pen name, to protect the writer’s family in Ethiopia.

1Abiy Ahmed is from Oromia but in fact is half Oromo, half Amhara.

2 In order to ensure that there would be MPs from the 4 opposition parties in parliament, voters were asked to vote for 152 of the 190 seats. TPLF won 98% of the vote and the other 38 seats were divided up between the 4 opposition parties according to their vote totals. A simple but effective form of proportional representation.

3 On 6th November, TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael wrote to the African Union Chair Cyril Ramaphosa agreeing to peace talks.


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