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Who started the Ethiopian Civil War?

By Simon Mwebaze

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed here are those of the authors. View more opinion on ScoonTV.

Ethiopia is Africa’s second-most populous country with 110 million people and 80 ethnic groups. Recently, it has been in the limelight because its prime minister won the Nobel Peace Prize for brokering a peace deal with Eritrea. But on the other hand, a more pressing issue that has the world’s attention is the two-year civil war in Ethiopia. The war is between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali’s government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Could it be that the current government has brokered in both peace and war?

To understand the current situation in Ethiopia, you need to go through the history of the country, specifically how its governments have been run. The political scene in Ethiopia had been dominated by Tigrayans for two decades. This is because they held the largest sway of a coalition of four ethnically-based parties. In 1991, they rose to power in Ethiopia after seizing it from a military junta in the 1970s and ‘80s. Once in power, the coalition chose to give autonomy to Ethiopia’s regions while maintaining a firm hand on the central government. 

In 2018, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali was elected into power. His party, the Prosperity Party, consisted of several ethnic-based parties and managed to oust the TPLF. As a result, the TPLF left the central government and returned to Tigray where they would focus on maintaining their power and minimizing the influence of the ruling government. 

In 2020, scheduled elections were postponed due to COVID-19. In defiance of the postponement, the TPLF held its elections. The central government considered them illegitimate. More so, TPLF continued to cause a stir in the government with the continuous seizure of military bases.

Eventually, the government of Ethiopia responded. They sent the Ethiopian army into Tigray which began the conflict. Worse still, the Ethiopian government involved Eritrean forces in the conflict. This made the current government more unpopular considering the unfavorable Tigrayan history with Eritrea. 

The war has led to a humanitarian crisis. The affected population in Tigray has suffered a lack of food and humanitarian assistance. The United Nations has reported that farms, seeds, and livestock have been destroyed. Over 5.2 million people are in need with 1.7 million displaced; only 10% of the aid has been delivered. It is claimed this is due to Ethiopian forces deterring the movement of aid to Tigrayan areas. Rather than allow the movement of 100 trucks a day which would help the situation, the Ethiopian government has limited them to 686 in July and none in October. More so, the government has halted operations by the Dutch branch of Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) and the Norwegian Refugee Council and expelled seven senior UN officials. Worse still, there have been over 10,000 reported deaths and 230 massacres as a result of the war.

But recent developments bring a glimmer of hope to the beleaguered people. In November 2022, with the help of the AU, the Ethiopian government and Tigrayan forces agreed to cease hostilities. The formal peace talks were held in the South African capital Pretoria, where an agreement was reached within a few weeks. The agreement includes disarmament, restoration of law and order, restoration of services, unhindered access to humanitarian supplies, and protection of civilians. 

But there is a concern. Some of the other forces that participated in the war were not parties to the agreement, including the Eritrean forces. Additionally, the agreement does not address the deeper ethnic tensions that have been at the forefront of the conflict. Both sides have different ideas of governing the country. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed wants a more centralized and unified Ethiopia without ethnic divisions, while the Tigrayans prefer the divisions by region catering to different ethnicities. 

Ethiopians also have to deal with their enmity with Eritreans with whom they had a two-year war that started in 1998. The war was fought over control of the border town of Badme. It led to the injury and deaths of tens of thousands. 

Despite the war ending in June 2000, the peace deal signed to establish the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission was only signed six months later. 18 months later, its final and binding ruling awarded Badme to Eritrea but Ethiopia did not accept the agreement requiring further negotiations with Eritrea. This has kept the conflict alive through border skirmishes that are direct or through rebel groups.

The significance of past peace agreements in the region gives a clue of the expected end of the most recent agreement between the current ruling Ethiopian regime and the Tigrayans. This particular conflict also has a different dynamic because of the involvement of other countries in the war. They need to come to the table as well for the peace negotiations to have any hope of success. 

All the parties involved in the war are instigators of the war. The government of Ethiopia along with the Tigrayans must take responsibility and work together to find a common ground to avoid any more displacements, deaths, injuries, and food shortages suffered by the Ethiopian people.

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Simon Mwebaze

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