Ethiopia’s Civil War Explained…

This is the longest produced video I’ve ever done, and I think I’m fairly proud of it? It’s the product of reading a few books and multiple lengthy reports on Ethiopia’s conflict, and following the coverage closely for over a year now. I think my coverage has also been aided by having multiple viral videos on the country on TikTok, and the responses I have gotten over there. I hope you like it!

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Video Transcript after the jump…

There are no heroes in Ethiopia today. It’s easy to see why both sides in the country’s civil war see themselves as the good guys. But from the outside looking in, all of the heroic narratives fall apart. And not just because both sides have committed horrific crimes against humanity.

On one side of the conflict that broke out in November of 2020 we have the group that used to run Ethiopia, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, and its various successor organizations, based here in Tigray. On the other side we have Nobel peace prize winner and possible genocidaire Abiy Ahmed, the Ethiopian Prime Minister since 2018. Adding to the sea of irony Abiy Ahmed swims in, three years ago he was was appointed to lead a government, the EPRDF, that was initially established by the Tigrayans he is now fighting. Today I am going to explain why both sides see themselves as the heroes of this horror, and also why neither side is worth supporting against the other. But before we get to dismantling those narratives it’s important to emphasize that they don’t begin to scratch the surface of what’s going on in Ethiopia right now. For one thing, this really isn’t a map of Ethiopia.

This map is my poor representation of a regional division that goes back to 1995. The 1990s Tigrayan led division may have done a better job, in some places, of representing Ethiopia’s many ethnic divisions, but it doesn’t even begin to reflect the complexity. New regions seem to be seceding at an accelerating pace now, with Sidama created in 2020, and the South West region created in 2021. There would have to be many more secessions to fully reflect the wishes of Ethiopia’s many ethnic groups. My understanding is that no region has a homogenous population, these names only reflect the largest of the groups present. The country’s growing wealth has the upside of making Ethiopia’s many peoples more capable of movement, but that also provides more opportunities for conflict. And this complexity doesn’t end at the border. One of the hottest conflicts of the Cold war was fought over the Somali region between Ethiopia and Somalia between 1977 and 1978. Somalia isn’t in the best shape right now, but a broader Ethiopian civil war might tempt a variety of actors to try to take the Somali region for Somalia again. The recently constructed Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is also a concern. It utilizes a source of the Nile River, which makes Egypt and now Sudan very nervous. I have mocked the popular idea that Egypt might attempt to destroy the dam. I still don’t think it’s likely, but the longer Ethiopia’s conflict wears on, the easier it would be for Egypt to jump in somehow. Eritrea only won its independence from Ethiopia in 1991. Despite fighting a long war that helped bring the TPLF to power in 1991, the Eritrean government hates Tigray, and is already deeply involved in the current conflict. There is more complexity here than I could possibly do justice to in a single YouTube video. I just wanted to point out that there are multiple smaller conflicts going on in Ethiopia right now, and more will break out if the war limps on for another year. Today I mostly just want to talk about the Tigrayans, the Amhara and the Oromo. The Oromo are Ethiopia’s largest group, and they have a glorious history. In the early modern period they first fought Ethiopia, and then ruled over large parts of it through various dynasties. My understanding, however, is that they lost out in the consolidation of the Ethiopian empire in the 1800s. From the 1840s to the 1970s, a struggle for power between Tigrayan and Amhara aristocrats became much more important. Again, this is a dramatic oversimplification, in the 19th century groups were already mixing more quickly, and well into the 20th century the feudal aristocracy was more important than modern concepts of ethnicity and nationalism. But I do think it’s fair to say that as Ethiopia fought off European empire and modernized, it was more the Tigray and Amhara peoples that reaped the benefits. Let’s take a look at one last map detail that’s vital to the current confict. The borders of today’s Tigray region were settled in the 1990s, and the Amhara firmly believe that Western Tigray was stolen from them in this division. In the early days of the current war, in late 2020, Amhara militias, backed up by the Ethiopian and Eritrean militaries seized this region, cutting Tigray off from any access to the outside world, and committing horrific crimes in the process. Despite taking back Eastern Tigray, and invading and occupying other Amhara territory, The Tigrayans have yet to dislodge their enemies from Western Tigray, one of the most important issues in today’s war. To truly understand what’s happening here, we need to roll the clock back to the birth of the TPLF.

In 1974 Ethiopia’s ancient Emperor Haile Sellaise was overthrown by a group known as the Derg, which quickly became a Communist dictatorship under Mengistu. They deposed and murdered the old emperor, and with Soviet support imposed one of the bloodier dictatorships of the century. In the process they accelerated the Emperor’s project of crushing the old feudal system in favor of a unified modern, Ethiopian identity. That may have been a step forward, but it also created its own massive problems.

The Derg inspired ethnic based resistance all over the country, which they crushed brutally. They successfully stamped out most of it, but they could not defeat the forces of the not yet independent Eritrea, and the mountainous Tigray region. One of my first memories of international politics is the 1980s famine in Ethiopia. It is widely regarded as being started, or at the least exacerbated by the Ethiopian government under Mengistu, in furtherance of its war against Eritrea and Tigray. Hundreds of thousands were starved to death in an attempt to save this doomed Communist regime. This memory of famine, in the same northern regions that are being fought over today, is one good reason why the international diplomatic community tends to be more sympathetic to Tigray.

Despite the famine, the Eritreans and the TPLF hung on, and when the Soviet Union stopped supporting Mengistu, they won. Eritrea got its independence, and the TPLF got to form the party and the government that ran Ethiopia from 1991 until 2019. Even back then, despite their military victory, the Tigrayans recognized that they couldn’t openly run a country of almost 100 million with just five to seven percent of the population. So they carefully formed the EPRDF, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, a nominal coalition of different Ethiopian ethnic parties that could run the country. For most of the past 30 years, Ethiopia has been run along the principles of ethnic federalism. That’s what the new map was about, and those are the rights that the TPLF and its allies are still fighting for today. But it’s important to remember, as the Western Tigray controversy indicates, that the Tigrayans were always the first among equals in this ethnic party, and in the Ethiopian government.

Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia’s strikingly successful authoritarian leader from 1991 until his death from natural causes in 2012 was a Tigrayan. All Ethiopians got richer during EPRDF government, but Tigrayans, just 6 million out of a population of 110 million, took a larger slice of the benefits. Most of the key posts in the Ethiopian government and military went to Tigrayans. Even the international face of Ethiopia is disproportionately Tigrayan. Tedros Adanhom, the current head of the World Health Organization, isn’t just a Tigrayan, he was a highly placed member of the TPLF. All of this means that Tigrayans have much closer ties to the outside world than any other Ethiopians. Now, I don’t want to fall down the rabbit hole of the online conspiracists who see US plots everywhere, but it is an undeniable fact of this conflict that Tigrayan interests are better reflected in international coverage than the interests of the other 104 million Ethiopians. It’s not a conspiracy, it’s just true to say that the majority of international diplomats, scholars and journalists are more favorable towards Tigrayan interests, simply because those are the Ethiopians they are more likely to have met and to have personal and professional relationships with. The significance of a zoom call between foreigners and TPLF members, has been ridiculously over-stated, but that doesn’t mean that foreign diplomats haven’t been biased. Last month most Western media was confident that Addis Ababa, the capital, and the Ethiopian government were about to fall to the Tigrayans. Instead, in the ensuing month the opposite has happened, and the Tigrayans have been pushed back. This should have been obvious. No matter how successful they had been, the Tigrayans are still just 5-7% of the country, and they were never closer than 160 miles from the Capital. The idea of them conquering the Ethiopian government should have been transparently ridiculous, but the trusted sources of most Western scholars and journalists tend to be Tigrayan, so we all got it wrong. I am certainly conscious of this bias in my own coverage. I don’t think I have to retract anything yet, in fact I think I was too friendly to Abiy Ahmed earlier in the war, but I suspect I may have been a little hard on Ethiopia’s genocidal prime minister in the last video. I am trying to be a little more careful this time around.

In one respect, international affection for Tigrayan leadership is wholly justified. In the 1990s and 2000s Ethiopia went from poster child for starvation to an economic development miracle. I believe that the way that it all fell apart is an indication of the EPRDF’s success. With the end of famine, and with war only on the Northern border with Eritrea, the whole country was able to develop. And with this development came the question why Tigray was taking so many of the benefits. This was especially important to the Oromo, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group. Meles Zenawi’s successors were unable to match his revolutionary credibility or governing prowess. Throughout the 2010s instability increased, ethnic tensions rose, and the EPRDF found itself using violent repression against the Oromo majority more and more often. It was clear that the EPRDF was losing control of the country.

And then they found an answer. That answer was Abiy Ahmed. Abiy Ahmed is Oromo, so the EPRDF thought, that by putting him in charge they could reassert control. And it worked for a bit. Until Abiy got so popular that he dissolved the EPRDF in 2019. By 2020 he had so concretely marginalized the old Tigrayan leaders of the country that they felt they had to launch a war against him to hold on to any power at all.

Abiy Ahmed claims to represent the 100 million other Ethiopians against their former Tigray masters. This is propaganda, but it doesn’t mean there aren’t elements of truth to it. The ideas of national unity and justice for all that Abiy pushes are powerful and appealing, especially among Ethiopia’s growing urban areas. But Abiy’s attempts to end ethnic divisions politically are also extremely dangerous and destabilizing in the Ethiopian context. For most of past three decades Ethiopia has been organized as a one party state. There were other parties, but it’s not clear to me that the 1994 Constitution of Ethiopia can work without the EPRDF. The Constitution based on ethnic federalism may need an ethnic federal party to function at all. Abiy Ahmed formed a new, supposedly pan-ethnic party that I suspect might need this war against the old bosses in Tigray to function at all.

One indication of the complexity facing Ethiopia is the question of Oromo loyalties. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is Oromo. But there are apparently Oromo parties that disapprove of the move away from ethnic federalism. They wanted Oromo people and parties to profit from an Oromo prime minister, not to have that Prime minister dissolve the ethnic system. I think Western media have blown this out of proportion, using the dissent of some Oromo parties to claim Abiy Ahmed has lost the support of all 35 million Oromo. But it is clear he HAS lost some support. Oromo politics are just as complicated as everything else in Ethiopia.

The war definitely helped Abiy Ahmed’s Prosperity Party win an election this past September. Tigray’s friends in the Western media prefer not to talk about this election, but they can’t bring themselves to condemn it completely. Yes, some opposition parties definitely boycotted, but the election wasn’t stolen. Abiy Ahmed has a real democratic mandate from the Ethiopians he isn’t currently trying to starve to death. That needs to be acknowledged. But the forces that have been unleashed are becoming more and more terrifying. Now that the Tigrayans have been pushed back into their home province, it may be time to worry more seriously about Genocide again. Andeven if we do get peace, it’s not clear to me that Abiy Ahmed’s Prosperity Party will be able to hold Ethiopia together, when it isn’t fighting against Ethiopia’s old rulers.

While I will not apologize for calling Abiy Ahmed genocidal, his blocking of humanitarian aid to Tigray clearly fits the bill, I do have to apologize for the definiteness with which I blamed this conflict on him a year ago. As their recent victories demonstrate, the Ethiopian government is the more powerful actor in this conflict by far, but it’s now clear to me that the launch of this war is nowhere near as straightforward as I portrayed it in my video in November of 2020.

When Abiy Ahmed dissolved the EPRDF in 2019, the TPLF refused to join his new Prosperity Party. They chose to withdraw to Tigray, and focus on running their own affairs, which is very much something that is allowed under the Ethiopian Constitution. The problem though, was the Ethiopian military. Not only were most of the key positions in the military held by Tigrayans, but Ethiopia’s biggest security challenge over the past thirty years has been Eritrea, directly to Tigray’s north. So the biggest and best Ethiopian weapons were based in Tigray, under the control of Tigrayans, and the TPLF liked it that way. But that became a lot harder to justify in 2018, after Abiy Ahmed signed a peace agreement with Eritrea. That agreement got Abiy Ahmed the Nobel Peace Prize, but it made the TPLF pretty nervous. Eritrea has been described as the North Korea of Africa, and its terrifying leader, Isaias Afewerki made peace with Ethiopia, not the TPLF that had been running Ethiopia up until Abiy Ahmed. The rest of the world saw peace, but the TPLF saw encirclement.

So, to make everybody unhappy, I think its important to emphasize that everybody was right. Both Abiy Ahmed and the TPLF were in an impossible situation. Abiy Ahmed is the leader of Ethiopia. He should have control of his military, and be able to move it around if he wants. The TPLF had done a decent job of ruling Ethiopia, and withdrawn from power, mostly voluntarily, to avoid engaging in further massacres. Under the Constitution they had the right to hold onto their region’s own autonomy and power. The TPLF had no legal right to hold on to the Ethiopian military, but events have proven that they were right to fear the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments, both of which are committing war crimes in Tigray as we speak.

The timeline leading up to the war starting in November 2020 will be argued over for decades, but it does now seem likely that the TPLF started the shooting, and captured large caches of Ethiopian military equipment at the outset of the war. I was wrong to blame Abiy Ahmed for the start of the shooting war. That does not mean that that Abiy Ahmed is blameless.

The Ethiopian government was attacked by an armed group of Tigrayans. That does not mean that genocidal actions against Western Tigrayan farmers are justified. Arguing that is just as ridiculous, as Turks using the fact that a few Armenians fought for Russia to justify the Armenian Genocide. Crimes against civilians do not become OK just because there is a war on.
So far, despite the pro-Tigray bias in Western media, I believe the US has done a fairly good job of staying out of the conflict. Many Ethiopian government supporters think the US government is plotting against Abiy Ahmed, but I don’t see it. For one thing, almost a year into the conflict there aren’t any sanctions against him or his government.

In September, Joe Biden finally issued an executive order providing the authority for sanctions. Crucially, the order does not pick sides. It gives the state department the right to sanction Ethiopia, and the TPLF, but no sanctions have been ordered against any Ethiopian actors to date. In November we saw the first sanctions, but they were only against Eritrean entities. Yes, the Eritreans are allied with the Ethiopian government, but they are a foreign country, invading their neighbor anyway. It seems hard to complain about those sanctions.

US indecision on this conflict has been infuriating to both sides. Getachew Reda, a highly placed Tigrayan politician gave a highly publicized speech complaining about the lack of US support. And of course Ethiopian government propagandists have lifted sections of that speech to claim that the US Is supporting the Tigrayans. People hate this confusion, but it’s actually the right policy.

Both sides have strong arguments, and we shouldn’t be rushing in to support one side or the other just to do something. One of the worst things about US foreign policy, is the way that we typically pick good guys and bad guys and just keep supporting the same people, no matter what happens on the ground. Our Ethiopia policy over the past year has shifted in response to developments, and that’s a much smarter way to deal with the world. At the outset of the conflict, in November 2020, when the Ethiopian government achieved what looked like a lightning quick victory, we were concerned about the fate of the Tigrayan minority, and reports of crimes against humanity against them. It’s now clear that the well-connected Tigrayans were better able to get their story out than other persecuted minorities, but so what? Atrocities were happening, and whether you support Abiy Ahmed’s aims or not a minority was being crushed. Concern was appropriate.

This concern turned to shock and probably a little too much excitement in June of 2021, when the Tigrayan forces came roaring back, capturing most of their own province as well as thousands of prisoners of war. This was objectively good news. A group in danger of being genocided didn’t just survive it crushed the militaries sent against it. It remains a cool story. But I think it fooled us into giving the Tigrayans a blank check they didn’t deserve.

Instead of using this moment of Ethiopian government vulnerability to force a ceasefire on both parties, we kept cheering on our plucky revolutionaries as they went on to commit the same sorts of genocidal acts against civilians in the Amhara and Afar regions that had been committed against them. The power imbalance between Tigray, and the Ethiopian government will always make me want to cut Tigray some more slack, but the outright celebration of the Tigrayan March on Addis Ababa was messed up.

At the beginning of November, after the fall of the towns Dessie and Kombolcha to the Tigrayans, Washington,DC shifted it’s sympathies a bit, realizing that the fall of the legitimate government might really be possible, and just how destabilizing that could be. The US finally got serious about working with the African Union towards a ceasefire. Of course, we now know that the Tigray advance also galvanized the Ethiopian government, convincing it to finally draw together its massively larger resources to push the Tigrayans back. And now they have done it. As of last week the Tigrayans had been forced back into their own province. We have a real chance for a Christmas peace, a holiday that Ethiopians celebrate on January 7th. By the time I finish producing this video, the chance for this peace may have already dissipated, but it’s important that the world community do what it can to get a ceasefire. In Ethiopia, both sides seem to be convinced that the US is against them, and I kind of like that. We should not be playing favorites here. We do need to name and shame any genocidal actions against Tigrayans. But we also need to avoid helping the Tigrayans take back a country of 110 million that does not want them in charge.

Honestly, I think the US response to the war in Ethiopia is kind of a model we should follow. Wishy washy is the way to go. We need to respond to events as they happen, not pick a side and fight for it. There are no heroes in Ethiopia. Some sanctions may be worth trying, to attempt to force a ceasefire, but beyond that, we should let the Ethiopians figure things out for themselves.