Fighting erupted on Nov. 4 when forces loyal to the former ruling party in Tigray launched simultaneous attacks on military bases across the region, killing soldiers and seizing military hardware, according to the government. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the movement fighting the government, denies starting the conflict but says it is fighting back on a number of fronts.
The fighting is believed to have killed thousands of people and displaced over 950,000, some 50,000 of them into neighbouring Sudan, according to United Nations (U.N.) and local government estimates. The government said it regained control of the regional capital, Mekelle, and other cities at the end of November. TPLF leaders said they had withdrawn from Mekelle but fighting continued elsewhere.
After a five-week communications blackout, some phone links to the region were restored in mid-December. But communications remain patchy, and the government tightly controls access, making it nearly impossible to verify claims by all sides.
The war has deepened divisions in Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous nation and a diplomatic heavyweight in a volatile region. Ethiopia hosts the headquarters of the African Union, and its troops serve in peacekeeping missions in South Sudan and Somalia, where the government is battling an al Qaeda-linked insurgency.
The mountainous region of Tigray accounts for fewer than 6% of Ethiopia’s 115 million people. But the TPLF’s leading role in toppling a Marxist dictatorship in 1991 gave the party outsized influence over Ethiopia’s government, armed forces and businesses for nearly three decades. Complaints about the TPLF’s increasingly autocratic rule ignited years of anti-government protests that eventually propelled Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to power in 2018.
One of Abiy’s first moves was to sign a peace deal with neighbouring Eritrea, which borders Tigray, ending two decades of hostilities stemming from a 1998-2000 war. However, the TPLF and Eritrea remain arch enemies.
In November, the TPLF fired rockets into Eritrea four times after accusing Eritrea of sending soldiers into Tigray to support Abiy’s campaign. Ethiopia and Eritrea both deny this, but the U.S. State Department said the accusations were “credible”.
Tigray’s only other international border is with Sudan, where refugees have been crossing a river separating the two nations, either by swimming or in boats.
Even before the conflict in Tigray, Abiy faced periodic outbreaks of violence across the country. His efforts to loosen the government’s grip on politics also emboldened regional power brokers and inflamed smouldering rivalries over resources, ethnicity and land, analysts said. Those struggles are expected to worsen as elections approach next year. Abiy has blamed much of the violence on TPLF operatives.
War breaks out in Tigray
The early days of the conflict were filled with confusion. Government forces were overwhelmed in some locations and thousands of troops taken prisoner, according to accounts from soldiers that trickled out. Radio communications were cut, and some Tigrayan soldiers serving in the military turned on their comrades, government and military officials said. TPLF officials denied starting the conflict, but said some soldiers did join them. Accounts from the government and TPLF frequently conflict.
Locations of major clashes
confirmed by both sides ● confirmed by one side ○
A humanitarian crisis
Aid agencies have warned of an ongoing humanitarian crisis in Tigray, where about 600,000 people depended on food aid before the war started. U.N. and other agencies were unable to access the region for more than a month. Ethiopian refugees arriving in Sudan described heavy shelling in the towns they escaped.
“We are miserably broken by what is happening there. We have lost everything,” Gebrahid Welderfael, a farmer sheltering at Sudan’s Um Rakuba refugee camp, told Reuters. “The one thing we have is that we saved our lives, but we’re suffering here, and we’re not much better off than those who died."
Calls are mounting for independent investigations into reports that civilians were targeted by fighters on both sides. Each side accuses the other of carrying out such attacks and denies that its forces are responsible. Ethiopia’s government has said it is capable of investigating any abuses itself.
The government declared victory over the TPLF after taking control of Mekelle. It has appointed an interim administration and pledged to rebuild infrastructure destroyed in the conflict.
The TPLF, however, has vowed to fight on. Most of its top leaders – including high-ranking military officials – remain at large. There is little incentive for them to surrender; they face long prison terms. The government has rejected all offers to mediate the conflict, calling it an internal law enforcement matter.