This interview addresses the current crisis in Ethiopia, particularly in the Tigray region. Since November 2020, intense fighting between the central government under Abiy Ahmed and members of the former regime, along with their many allies, has caused “thousands of deaths and widespread destruction, displaced over two million people, and sent tens of thousands of refugees into neighboring Sudan” (NYT, 2020).
The Sentinel Project spoke with Dr. Patrick Wight for his insights on the situation. Dr. Wight is a political scientist with expertise in South Sudan and Ethiopia. His Ph.D. dissertation explored why international intervention was unsuccessful during the South Sudanese peace process.
The Sentinel Project: We realize that we are dealing with very complex, long-standing political issues with many stakeholders. With that being said, can you identify some of the root causes of the conflict today?
Dr. Patrick Wight: The deeper causes of conflict in Ethiopia stem from power struggles between the central government and various sub-national groups which are demanding more regional autonomy. Ethiopia was formed differently than other African states since the country did not experience colonization in the same way. Abyssinian elites from the northern part of Ethiopia (the Amhara and Tigray regions today) defeated the Italian colonial forces at Adwa in 1896. Menelik II, the King of Shewa, then consolidated his rule over the north and violently conquered the southern and eastern peoples, such as the Oromo, Wolaita, Gurage, Harari, and Somali. Haile Selassie (1930-1974) continued this process . This history of so-called “internal colonization” still impacts ethnic relations today.
In 1991, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) came into power in Addis Ababa after defeating the Derg regime led by Mengistu Haile Mariam (1974-1987). The TPLF and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) designed a new constitution based on nine (now ten) “ethnic” federal states. Within each federal state, groups deemed to be indigeneous were given special land and cultural rights such as receiving public education in local languages rather than Amharic. Multinational federalism was an attempt to address the historical grievances  of southern and eastern peoples. Tigrayans wanted assurances of regional autonomy because the previous regime had waged a brutal war against them. In practice, the TPLF proceeded to rule from the centre and ban opposition, such as the OLF, while the federal system was never implemented as designed.
In 2018, Abiy Ahmed came to power following 27 years of rule based on this constitution. In opposition to multinational federalism, the current government promotes a vision of pan-Ethiopianism. Abiy and his Prosperity Party depict the old constitution as ethnic apartheid, a view which is prevalent among the Amhara, Ethiopia’s second most populous ethnic group. Other nationalities, such as Ethiopia’s most populous ethnic group, the Oromo, tend to view pan-Ethiopianism as a negation of their sub-national identity. A common sentiment among the Oromo is that the existing federal system should be kept and actually implemented. So these conflicts are, at least in part, about competing visions over the nature of the Ethiopian state.
The Sentinel Project: The situation on the ground seems to be evolving very quickly, and it’s hard to get a sense of what is happening. Can you tell us about your current reading of the crisis?
Dr. Patrick Wight: Immediate causes of the war relate to a power struggle between Ethiopia’s current regime and the former regime. In 2015, the TPLF-led government started facing waves of popular protest that began in Oromia and spread to the Amhara region. The state responded to this unrest with violence and repression, only making matters worse. The TPLF was ultimately forced to devise a reform agenda and to give up its power. In April 2018, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) ruling coalition nominated Abiy Ahmed, the leader of the Oromia regional government, as prime minister. The TPLF subsequently moved to the Tigray region and became the regional government.
Abiy proceeded to implement many reforms, including allowing formerly banned parties back into the country and releasing thousands of political prisoners. After the Oromo-Amhara alliance that brought Abiy to power began to unravel, renewed protests in Oromia were met with state violence and mass arrests, including of many prominent Oromo political figures. Abiy also undertook a campaign to arrest former regime officials that the TPLF saw as being politically targeted. When Abiy dissolved the EPRDF and formed the Prosperity Party in December 2019, the TPLF was the only regional party that refused to join.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) extended the federal government’s political term. After the national elections were postponed, the TPLF claimed that the federal government had lost its legitimacy and, in defiance, held its own regional election in September 2020. The federal government responded by cutting off funding to the regional government of Tigray. The Ethiopian military then encircled Tigray with help from Eritrea, prompting regional Tigrayan forces to launch a “preemptive” attack on the Ethiopian National Defence Force’s (ENDF) northern command on 4 November 2020.
In the first days of the conflict, there was a massacre of some 600 people in a town called Mai-Kadra. Amnesty International’s initial reports indicated that this was perpetrated by Tigrayan militias against Amhara civilians while Tigrayan refugees who fled from Mai-Kadra to Sudan claimed to have also been targeted by Amhara militiamen. The central government then used these two focusing events, the TPLF attack on the ENDF northern command and the Mai-Kadra massacre, to generate support among Ethiopians for the war effort.
In the first months of the war, the TPLF was getting pummeled, with the government killing or capturing many of their top leaders, such as Sebhat Nega and Seyoum Mesfin. The TPLF accused the United Arab Emirates (UAE) of sending support to Abiy by launching drone strikes into Tigray from its air base in Assab, Eritrea. Eritrean forces reportedly entered the conflict and the TPLF responded by launching rockets into Eritrea and the Amhara region. At some point, it looked like the government had won the war. However, even though the TPLF is decimated, the local population and the remnants of the TPLF are mounting a fierce insurgency.
There is a constant communications blackout and whenever channels are opened up, we hear of atrocious human rights abuses. There is a steady flow of massacres, and groups on the ground are trying to count the number of people killed. For example, Human Rights Watch has documented the mass killings in Axum, CNN investigated a massacre at Maryam Dengelat, and The Telegraph reported on a massacre in Temben. The mass killings are mostly against men, who are seen as potential rebels. Women and girls are being attacked and rape is being used as a weapon of war. Hospitals, factories, and schools are being looted and the government forces are trying to destroy the means of livelihood by stealing livestock and destroying crops. Civilians are being prevented from planting for the next season. This is evidence of the central government deliberately using famine to destroy the community. Houses are also being razed, which has forcibly displaced people. In the disputed territories of Raya and Welkait, Amhara militias are engaged in an active campaign of ethnic cleansing of Tigrayans.
Everything is being destroyed; it is not just a civil war. The Ethiopian and Eritrean governments are trying to debase and destroy the whole society. Genocide is happening in Tigray .
In other parts of the country, it is less clear-cut. For instance, there are accusations of an Amhara genocide . In reality, the rest of the country is defined by a steady stream of mass killings being perpetrated by and against all parties. The central government is seeking to consolidate its power and, in doing so, it has also empowered Amhara and Somali regional forces. These forces have been accused of committing horrific massacres, and so have their opponents – such as the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) and the Gumuz people in Metekel. There is a serious need for independent investigations into these crimes. Each region has its own conflict and there is destabilization across the whole country. A historical parallel that many are invoking is the Yugoslavian civil war and Balkanization . There is clearly a need for national dialogue, but many Tigrayans in particular no longer see any hope of existing inside Ethiopia.
The Sentinel Project: Thank you for that detailed and nuanced summary. The situation is quite dire. How has the international community reacted and responded?
Dr. Patrick Wight: It is important to understand Abiy’s ideology and the narrative he is putting forward. Abiy is seeking to combine nationalist rhetoric internally by going after the TPLF, OLA, Egypt, Sudan, Western imperialism, etc. with an externally-oriented nation-state project based on neoliberal economic ideals. There is a divergence in those two images. On the one hand, he is supportive of foreign investment, privatization of state industries (e.g. Ethiopian Airlines and Ethio telecom), and World Bank loans when it works in his favour . On the other hand, he is castigating Western institutions as imperialist when there is any criticism over war crimes taking place in the country. His supporters’ version of pan-Africanism, anti-imperialism, and non-interventionism are detached from the grounding principles of these terms.
This gets into the whole issue of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). What does the politics of non-interventionism offer in response to instances of genocide and ethnic cleansing? Some have raised concerns that human rights abuses in Tigray will be used by Western powers to justify a Libya-style intervention and to impose crippling sanctions. Yet, the case of Tigray has instead been defined more by inaction than by imperialist overreaction. It is important to separate out bilateral “humanitarian interventionism” (e.g. the Iraq war) from multilateral initiatives such as UN-led independent investigations into war crimes. The international community can play a role in pressuring the Ethiopian government to allow more humanitarian access, monitoring the situation on the ground and calling for Eritrean troops to leave. Abiy has, however, rejected numerous calls for mediation.
Former President Donald Trump’s administration constantly echoed Abiy’s talking points, all while taking Egypt’s side against Ethiopia in the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) dispute. Since Joe Biden was elected in the United States, there has been more movement on the international stage. This has led to increased humanitarian access and calls for Eritrean troops to leave Tigray . Pressured by Biden, the UAE also dismantled its air base in Eritrea.
Egypt and Sudan are likely supporting the TPLF, but they are not doing so openly. The driving concern for Egypt is the GERD, which threatens its access to the Nile’s waters. Sudan has been involved in a conflict with Ethiopia over the disputed al-Fashaga triangle. This land belongs to Sudan but is being claimed by Amhara farmers who have occupied it for years.
Eritrean leader Isaias Afwerki’s main enemy is the TPLF. From 1998 to 2000, there was a brutal border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Meles Zenawi then used the regional architecture and support from the United States to keep Eritrea at bay in a “no war, no peace” scenario. Isaias has been plotting his revenge ever since. The 2018 “peace” deal between Isaias and Abiy was really an enmity pact against the TPLF, which led to the lifting of an arms embargo against Eritrea. Somalia is supporting the federal government for much the same reason as Eritrea. The TPLF-led government’s history of interventions, both in Somalia and Ethiopia’s Somali region, bred a great deal of resentment.
As for the relevant multilateral institutions, the United Nations has issued statements but it appears unlikely that the Security Council will act or that a UN peacekeeping force will be deployed. The African Union (AU) has been largely inactive on Tigray. The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) was a mechanism set up largely by the EPRDF regime to manage conflict in the Horn of Africa. With the alliance between Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia that has formed, IGAD appears to be effectively defunct in its conflict resolution capacity.
The Sentinel Project: Knowing that the international community is a bit quiet on this topic, and that there is still little access to the region, how can members of Canadian society act on these atrocities?
Dr. Patrick Wight: Statements from Ottawa on Tigray have, at least until recently, been tepid. Garnett Genuis is a Conservative MP who is circulating a petition for the Liberal government to take more forceful action on Tigray. For every 20 handwritten and mailed petitions he can raise a motion about Tigray in Canadian Parliament. Calling your MP, MPP, or city councillor is another good way to get the government’s attention. Being active on social media, presenting at conferences, and engaging with Tigrayans are other great ways to get involved.
The Sentinel Project: Thank you very much for your insights and your time.
 Holcomb, B. K., & Ibssa, S. (1990). The invention of Ethiopia: the making of a dependent colonial state in Northeast Africa. Red Sea Press.
 Mekonnen, W. (1969). On the question of nationalities in Ethiopia. Available online: https://www.marxists.org/history/erol/ethiopia/nationalities.pdf (accessed on 29 April 2021).
 See Amnesty International’s statement about possible crimes against humanity: https://www.amnesty.ca/news/ethiopia-eritrean-troops%E2%80%99-massacre-hundreds-axum-civilians-may-amount-crime-against-humanity
 Read more here: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-ethiopia-privatisation-idUSKCN1J12JJ