Ethiopia at War – the Origins of the Tigray crisis

By Stefanie Kaiser Dec. 3, 2020 Weekly Graphs

The ongoing dispute between Ethiopia’s government and Tigray, a region in the northern part of the country, escalated on November 4th when the Ethiopian government started a military offensive against the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF). The attack took place after Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Mr. Abiy Ahmed, accused the TPLF of attacking a government defense post and attempting to steal artillery and military equipment. Tigray officials denied these allegations. Debretsion Gebremichael, chairman of the TPLF, reported that the Eritrean army had attacked his forces and that Ethiopian soldiers were launching attacks against the Tigray region from Eritrean territory. Tigrayan forces responded by firing rockets at Eritrea. On November 28th, the Ethiopian government claimed victory over Tigray, but these claims could not be verified by independent sources. 

There are fears that this conflict could destabilize the region as a whole. The UN reported that there are already 20,000 displaced people entering Sudan. This week's graph sheds light on political developments in Ethiopia's recent past that might help us understand the conflict's emergence. 

The TPLF led the coalition that ruled Ethiopia after the end of the military dictatorship in 1991. This coalition, known as the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, consisted of four main political parties, largely split along ethnic and geographic lines, and it backed a federalist approach that gave significant power to Ethiopia’s regions.

Although there was a broad coalition ruling the country, this did not mean that members from all ethnic groups received equal treatment, as shown in the graph below. The V-Dem index measuring exclusion by social groupremains high (between 0.83 and 0.89) from 1980 to 2018. These structural inequalities did not change much after the current Prime Minister came to power in 2018. Shortly after his election, members of the Tigray ethnic group were excluded from positions of power and arrested because of corruption allegations, leading to the eruption of armed conflict between the Tigray region and the federal government.

The graph below also shows Ethiopia’s scores on the Liberal Democracy Index (LDI) and the Military dimension index between 1980 and 2019. The LDI measures the quality of democracy with regard to the protection of minority rights, the rule of law, and an independent judiciary. It ranges from 0-1, with higher scores indicating a more liberal democracy. The index is very low in the 1980s at around 0.02 during the military dictatorship, but it increased after the military regime lost its power. This transition is also reflected in the Military dimension index which measures the executive power of the military; it is now at 0.1 compared to 0.93 in 1985. 

As the military conflict is getting more and more violent, there are worries that the situation might eliminate democratic progress. The Norwegian Nobel Committee, for example, stated that they are very concerned about the situation, directly addressing Mr. Ahmed, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year for ending the conflict with Eritrea.

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