It has been two weeks since a military conflict between regional armed forces and the Ethiopian Federal Army began in the Ethiopian region of Tigray. Some analysts fear that it could escalate further and lead to the breakup of the country, which would have a significant economic and political impact on all countries in the Horn of Africa. However, the root causes of the conflict are misunderstood.
Outside observers and analysts tend to suggest the immediate cause as a recent disagreement between regional leaders and the federal government – led by Nobel Peace Prize-winning Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed – over the constitutionality of parliament's decision to postpone the national and regional decision see elections over COVID-19. Despite this decision, Tigray's regional leaders held an election in which the Tigray People & # 39; s Liberation Front (TPLF) government won all seats and the result was subsequently declared null and void by the country's parliament.
Others identify the prevailing ideological differences between Abiy and the TPLF as the main source of friction. However, these arguments do not explain why such differences would lead to a military confrontation. That's because they're not the underlying causes of the conflict at all.
This war is ultimately a struggle for control of the Ethiopian economy, its natural resources and the billions of dollars the country receives annually from international donors and lenders. Access to these riches depends on who runs the federal government – which controlled the TPLF for nearly three decades before Abiy came to power in April 2018 after widespread protests against the TPLF-led government.
In other words, this is not a conflict over who can rule Tigray, a small region whose population is only 6 percent of the more than 110 million people in Ethiopia. There is a dispute over who may dominate the dominant heights of the country's economy, a price that Tigray's regional leaders once had and determined to recapture at any cost.
The TPLF was the dominant force in Ethiopian politics for nearly 30 years after overthrowing Mengistu Hailemariam's military government in a protracted armed struggle alongside the Eritrean People's Liberation Front led by the current President of Eritrea, Isaias Afwerki, in 1991. After the fall of the military government, Eritrea separated from Ethiopia in 1993, and the former leader of the TPLF, the late Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, ruled the country with an iron fist until his death in 2012.
The current Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, was also a member of the TPLF leadership and served for many years as the Ethiopian Minister of Health under Meles. Before Abiy came to power, all of the country's intelligence chiefs and military chiefs came from the TPLF or were members of the party's military wing during the armed struggle against Mengitsu. After taking power, the TPLF-led government converted its armed forces into a supposedly Ethiopian army after completely disbanding the old Ethiopian army. This ensured that most of the top generals and other military leaders in the new army were also from the ranks of the TPLF.
The political and military power of the TPLF eventually led to economic dominance, as its leaders were able to exercise complete control over the country's economy and natural resources– mainly his country – as well as aid flows and credits. In recent years, Ethiopia alone has received an average of about $ 3.5 billion a year in foreign aid, which in the late Meles years accounted for about half of the country's national budget. The TPLF-led government also raised significant loans from private creditors and governments, mostly China, which had reached 60 percent of the country's GDP when Abiy came to power. In fact, Abiy & # 39; s new government, inheriting meager foreign exchange reserves, struggled to service those debts and was forced to require creditors to defer and renegotiate the terms of these loans.
In addition, the constitution introduced by the TPLF-led government in 1994, which only allowed public ownership of land, allowed government officials unrestricted access to abundant land resources in the southern parts of the country, particularly in the Benishangul-Gumuz and Gambela regions they owned long-term leases to overseas and domestic investors, accumulating billions of dollars in the process. According to Human Rights Watch, by January 2011 the Ethiopian government had leased 3.6 million hectares of land, an area the size of the Netherlands, to foreign investors.
In addition, through the companies of its massive conglomerate, the Endowment Fund for the Rehabilitation of Tigray (EFFORT), by far the largest conglomerate in the country, the TPLF was able to dominate practically all sectors of the Ethiopian economy. Until recently, EFFORT was managed by Meles' widow Azeb Mesfin, and TPLF officials are still directors of the large corporations of this conglomerate that had access to credit from a financial sector dominated by the state commercial bank of Ethiopia and Ethiopia Development Bank of Ethiopia.
The dominance of the TPLF was not limited to the economy. it also intervened directly in the selection of the leaders of the major religions, which it viewed as instruments of social control. During the rule of the TPLF, both patriarchs of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church came from Tigray with over 40 million followers. Its leaders also intervened in the selection process for the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs in Ethiopia, which eventually encountered opposition from some Muslim activists and leaders arrested by the government, leading to widespread protests from Muslims across the country in 2012.
Driven by massive investments in infrastructure, as well as in the education and health sectors, largely funded by foreign aid and loans, the TPLF-led government, with Meles at its helm, oversaw the nearly three decades it was in power , significant economic progress in the country. The regime was also authoritarian, frequently imprisoning opposition politicians and journalists, and generously using its defense and security forces to quell anti-government protests.
Human rights groups such as Amnesty International and the State Department often accused the government security forces of serious human abuses, including torture, against members of the opposition parties and those suspected of collaborating with groups engaged in armed struggle against the government, such as Oromo Liberation Front, Ogaden National Liberation Front and Ginbot 7 – one of the largest multi-ethnic parties in the country opposed to the system of ethnic federalism.
Although the United States and the European Union were aware of the government's poor human rights record, the economic progress made and Ethiopia's key role in fighting al-Shabab militants in neighboring Somalia meant they were unwilling to put adequate pressure on those from the TPLF led government pursue democratic reforms even after government security forces shot and killed hundreds of demonstrators in Addis Ababa in 2005 protesting the election results the government allegedly won. They looked away again when the government claimed to have won all seats in parliament in the last general election in 2015, which opposition parties claimed had been rigged.
For many years it was clear that the political dominance of the TPLF could not last indefinitely. In 2018, widespread protests broke out in the Oromia and Amhara regions, the homes of the country's two largest ethnic groups, forcing the TPLF-led coalition, the Revolutionary Popular Democratic Front of Ethiopia, to replace then Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn who succeeded Meles after his sudden death in 2012. (Although Hailemariam was an ethnic minority in the south, he did not pose a serious threat to the dominance of the TPLF. Abiy poses such a threat because he is an ethnic Oromo – the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia.)
At this point, the leaders of two parties in the TPLF-led coalition, the Amhara National Democratic Movement and the Oromo People & # 39; s Democratic Organization, who so far played second fiddle to the TPLF, secretly decided to band together and end the TPLF hegemony breaking by voting for Abiy to lead the coalition, a move the TPLF leadership never saw coming and which never forgave.
Since taking office in 2018, Abiy’s new federal administration has directly threatened the longstanding economic dominance of the TPLF in Ethiopia as a whole by trying to limit its sphere of influence to the small Tigray region.
Abiy has proposed or implemented major economic measures threatening the economic dominance of the TPLF leaders. These include his government's plan to privatize state-owned Ethio Telecom, Ethiopian Sugar Corporation, and energy companies with assets of over $ 7 billion.
More recently, the government has introduced new banknotes, which the Prime Minister says are intended to fight corruption and smuggling. Some observers noted that this was mainly aimed at controlling the outside of the financial system money held by former government officials and their economic entities that authorities suspect may be engaged in illegal trade and activities.
In fact, the attorney general announced on November 17 that the government had frozen the bank accounts of 34 of these companies in order to “fund ethnic attacks and terrorist activities, establish links with TPLF, tax avoidance and corruption, and provide financial assistance. ”
Abiy & # 39; s reforms have also reduced the TPLF impact in the security sector. Immediately after taking power, Abiy released thousands of political prisoners and journalists imprisoned by the government, unaffiliated groups waging armed struggle against the Ethiopian government, and signed a peace treaty with Eritrea under which the TPLF-led government waged a border war claimed the lives of tens of thousands of soldiers on both sides.
Then he fired the fearsome and withdrawn security chief Getachew Assefa and replaced the military chief. Soon he began to implement reforms in the military and security sectors in order to achieve a more balanced representation of the ethnic groups. This made it clear to the TPLF leaders that Abiy posed a serious threat to her long-standing dominance in the Ethiopian armed forces and economy. And they acted to regain control.
On June 23, 2018, almost three months after Abiy came to power, he was assassinated during a rally in Addis Ababa. Shortly afterwards, the government identified former TPLF security chief Getachew as a thought leader, but who had already fled to the Tigray region. A federal court issued an arrest warrant for the attempt and other human rights violations, but the Tigrayan regional government refused to hand him over. However, his former deputy was arrested while fleeing from security forces.
Since the TPLF lost control of the federal government, the incidence of ethnic conflicts has increased significantly in all regional states with the exception of Tigray. While there is deep ethnic rivalry in the country, this does not explain how millions have been displaced. how hundreds of Orthodox Christians and ethnic Amharas living in the south were massacred and their homes, churches and businesses burned down; how ethnic Amhara students were abducted; or how important Oromo figures like the musician Hachalu Hundessa were, who sparked protests that resulted in the deaths of over 150 civilians.
Many of these attacks appear to have been orchestrated and funded by those lost to Abiy's rise to power and the reforms he carried out. They are determined to make the country totally ungovernable unless they rule it. And there is an overwhelming consensus that the leaders of the TPLF were the main losers in Abiy's reforms while also having the ability to plan and execute such attacks – using the financial muscle and safety network they built over three decades of political domination had.
It is clear that the current conflict over who is allowed to rule Tigray is not over as the postponement of the national and regional elections has extended the terms of the legislative and executive branches of all regional governments in the country, including in Tigray, which is still ruled by the government TPLF. Nor is it a clash between federalists and unitarists. The federal system of Ethiopia remains intact, as a recently founded 10th regional state shows.
Rather, at the center of the ongoing conflict are Abiy's economic and political reforms and the relentless pace at which they have been unveiled – moves that TPLF leaders see as unacceptably threatening to the economic and political domination they have long enjoyed , and wield the considerable influence they still have across Ethiopia.
This dominance is something the TPLF is ready to maintain, as evidenced by the decision to launch what a TPLF top official called a “pre-emptive strike” against the federal army's northern command, which sparked the current conflict. The risk now is that the persistent and increasingly bold actions of the TPLF could render Abiy & # 39; s peaceful reform impossible and thereby make a violent transition inevitable.