By Cosimo Ceccarelli, Lake Dodson, & Nick Kimble
“War is the epitome of failure for all involved’—Abiy Ahmed, 2019
When Ethiopia’s newly elected Prime Minister (PM) accepted his Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, the world welcomed his words after twenty years of border conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea. In the wake of the constant skirmishes and death, Abiy would deploy federal security forces against rebel forces in his own country, not even a year after claiming his Nobel Prize. Now in March 2023, an estimated 600,000 civilians have been killed in Abiy Ahmed’s new war. Understanding Ethiopia and the Tigray region is essential to understanding perhaps the deadliest war of the twenty-first century.
The Historical Background of the Tigray Region
The history of the Tigray region and Ethiopia can be characterized by the vicious cycle of power struggle. From the ancient Kingdom of Aksum to Benito Mussolini, Tigray has been the center of control for the whole upper Horn of Africa.
Following Ethiopia’s release from Italian bondage, the restored Ethiopian Emperor Hailé Seilassié governed the country until 1974, which installed a Marxist-authoritarian regime in Ethiopia. The people of the Tigray region played a central role in the clash between Mengistu and the rebels. Under the banner of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), they allied with the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), fighting for Eritrean independence from Ethiopia, a separatist perspective that many Tigrayans shared.
Relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia deteriorated after Eritrea won independence in 1993. By 1998, they were back to full-scale war, with Eritrea attempting to conquer the city of Badme, the core of the territorial dispute. The Algiers Agreement in 2000 ceased hostilities and led to the deployment of the peacekeeping United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE). For nearly two decades, the border resembled North and South Korea.
In 2018, PM Abiy Ahmed and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki signed a Joint Declaration of Peace and Friendship in which Eritrea received Badme, and the Tigray region remained fully incorporated into the Ethiopian state.
The Tigray War (2020-2022)
Ethiopia, the second-most populated nation in Africa, has eleven administrative areas. Each region is mostly autonomous and split along ethnic lines with a history of conflicts between ethno-nationalist groups.
Abiy’s administration had labeled the TPLF, which dominated the nation for more than thirty years, as a terrorist organization. In a deft political move, he reorganized the TPLF’s ruling coalition into the “Prosperity Party,” cutting them out of national-level politics.
With its bitter history with neighboring Eritrea and increasing isolation from Ethiopia, Tigray’s leader decided to hold autonomous elections for the region’s government in September 2020. These elections undermined Abiy’s authority and held the region in a TPLF iron grip. With this public challenge to long-standing federalism, Tigray crossed the Rubicon and launched a war against the head of state.
The Tigray War began with the TPLF assault on the Ethiopian military’s Northern Command Headquarters in November 2020. The Ethiopian government responded by deploying troops with support from neighboring Eritrea. The TPLF militarized as the Tigray Defense Force (TDF), and the conflict rapidly escalated into a war of attrition. The TDF leveraged other separatist regional militias and conquered Tigray’s southern regional neighbors during the summer of 2021. The rebel forces reached peak momentum when they nearly marched on Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia.
Although Ethiopian forces began a bombing campaign in late December of 2021, the lives being taken daily by this dreadful war had noticeably decreased. The two groups reached a ceasefire in March of 2022, where they maintained unsteady peace until August 2022, when fighting re-escalated after Abiy-backed groups launched a massive offensive maneuver from September to October 2022, capturing strategic cities in Tigray’s northern area. In particular, Eritrea escalated the intensity of this conflict by funneling more soldiers into Tigray.
At the end of October 2022, mediation by the African Union allowed the TPLF and Ethiopia to initiate talks for a second ceasefire agreement, agreeing to the cessation of hostilities on November 2nd. Eritrea did not sign the ceasefire agreement, a bad omen for the future.
Ethiopian and Eritrean forces have targeted the Tigrayan civilians. The UN and European Union expressed concern regarding reports on war crimes and crimes against humanity, whereas the World Health Organization declared that “the region is close to witnessing a genocide.” The TPLF had shifted from their 2021 offensive approach to a 2022 insurgency approach, leaving Abiy unable to end the conflict on his terms.
Foreign Influence in Ethiopia
Italy retains extensive ties to its former colony and plays an active role in its tumultuous politics. Former Italian PM Mario Draghi was close with PM Abiy Ahmed and signed an agreement for military cooperation in 2019. Italy even financed the election of Abiy Ahmed in June 2021 amid the Tigray war. Indeed, the Draghi administration funded the organization of elections that many view as unfair, considering that the opponents of PM Ahmed could not compete.
Draghi’s Minister of Defense, Lorenzo Guerini, visited Djibouti and Somalia to reaffirm the Italian effort to export weapons before calling off the aforementioned agreement with Ethiopia in February 2022.
Nevertheless, Ethiopia still received military aid from Rome, a strong display of Italian power in the region. Somalia and Djibouti became conduits for aid to Ethiopia despite the aforementioned human rights abuses, introducing questions about Italy’s interests in the conflict.
Italy has concerns about Ethiopia’s role in the region, fearing that political instability may destabilize East Africa more broadly. This “too big to fail” approach rests on concerns about jihadism and piracy, accompanied by the threat of refugee crises and humanitarian concerns. In part, this is because of the threat of Ethiopian refugees flooding into Southern Europe.
Italy’s newest Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni, welcomed the ceasefire agreement of November 2022 and supported the peace process in Ethiopia. Therefore, it is predictable that Italy will continue to support the stability of Ethiopia through the peace process or, indirectly, militarily.
Additionally, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has long maintained strong ties with Ethiopia. In September 2018, Riyadh contributed to the pacification process between Ethiopia and Eritrea, mediating an end to the conflict. Saudi Arabia’s interest in the stability of the Horn of Africa relates to the flow of refugees. This concern manifested during the Tigray war of 2020-22 as thousands of Tigrayans crossed the Saudi borders. Human Rights Watch reported that such migrants had suffered forced disappearance, illegal detention, and torture in Saudi Arabia. Currently, the powerful Arab nation is repatriating 40,000 Ethiopians that are likely to face the same or even worse treatment by Addis Ababa.
Money is key to this relationship, as Saudi Arabia has an interest in the internal stability of Ethiopia due to its consistent investments in the country. These 236 projects have a combined capital of 20.5 billion birr (about $380 billion). Similarly, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has been a major financial player in Ethiopia since 2018 and provided critical air support to Abiy at the height of the Tigrayan conflict.
The continuous violence within the Horn of Africa’s interior has been dotted by periods of an anxious armistice, conflict crescendos, and tenuous foreign ties. While the withdrawal of Ethiopian and Eritrean troops offers a glimpse of hope to end the cycle of brutality, little has been done to address the roots of these violent patterns. It is hopeful and noble to believe that this is the new beginning of an era of peace. Still, realistically, the fate of the Horn of Africa continues to waver with unsatisfying uncertainty.
Lake Dodson is a regular writer for the Realist Review. He studies Political Science and Global Security at the University of Mississippi. Lake’s writings on nuclear weapons deterrence have been published by Harvard. His main areas of research are East Asian Relations and nuclear energy.
Cosimo Ceccarelli is a guest writer for the Realist Review. He studies International Relations and Diplomacy (MA) at LUISS Guido Carli, Rome. Cosimo has been awarded by the US Department of State for his service at the US Consulate General of Florence. Security and international crimes in Sub-Saharan Africa are his core interests of research.
Nick Kimble is a guest writer for the Realist Review. He studies International Relations and Diplomacy at Seton Hall University. He is a Harvard Public Policy Leadership Scholar. He has a research background in East African Affairs with a published policy memo on how the US can strengthen relations with Kenya by Stanford University.