Turmoil in Ethiopia, explained

Demisse Selassie, a Penn Law student and Perry World House Graduate Associate, shares his take on the ongoing violence in Tigray.

Ethiopian refugees, mostly women and children from the Tigray region, sit and lay on blankets on a dirt floor, as some blankets and clothing hang on a clothesline behind them.
Thousands of people, mainly women and children displaced by conflict in the western Tigray region, stay in Mai Tsebri town under crowded conditions on March 18, 2021. (Image: UNICEF Ethiopia)

More than six months after Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched an offensive in the northern Tigray region, the violence shows no signs of slowing down, spurring accusations of ethnic cleansing and leading to a devastating humanitarian crisis. What led to this turmoil, and how will it end?

Penn Today spoke to Demisse Selassie, who graduates this month from the University of Pennsylvania Carey School of Law, to hear his thoughts on the continuing turmoil. Selassie’s parents are Ethiopian, and during his time as a Perry World House Graduate Associate, he has researched the new violence in Tigray and why it’s so important for the West to help the nation reach a resolution.

Man in blue suit with white shirt and blue tie smiles at the camera
Demisse Selassie graduates this month from the University of Pennsylvania Carey School of Law. (Image: Courtesy of Demisse Selassie)

What led to the current conflict?

Events leading up to the current conflict date back to the 1970s, perhaps even before then, but I would say the tipping point happened in November of last year when a military base in Tigray was attacked. The Ethiopian government claims that the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which is a political opposition group, was responsible for the attack that killed dozens of Ethiopian soldiers. There had been different events leading up to the attack, but that was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

What is the Tigray People’s Liberation Front?

It started in 1970, after Ethiopia had a pretty gruesome dictator, Mengistu Haile Mariam. Ethiopian politics is largely based on ethnic identity, hence the name of the Tigray People's Liberation Front. Of Ethiopia’s 115 million people, Tigrayans make up roughly 6% of the population. In the 1990s and the early 2000s, the Tigray ran the entire government and also the economic structure of Ethiopia: aviation, telecommunications, and so forth. This is what caused a lot of tension, that more than 90% of the permanent parliament was TPLF/Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front but they only represented 6% of the population. It didn’t really match up with Ethiopia’s claims of being a democracy. They came to power, but with a lot of opposition from other ethnic groups, and that's where you sort of see the ascension of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.

How did Ahmed rise to power?

Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, the Oromos, had for decades been trying to claw at power, but TPLF had a real stronghold on that for 30 years. Then the leader of TPLF, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, passed away unexpectedly in 2012. They appointed Hailemariam Desalegn who served a tenure about five years before the anti-government protesters got out of control, and he abruptly resigned.

Prime Minister Abiy took the role as part of this power struggle, despite another politician, Lemma Megersa, who was more popular, and he wasn’t a member of parliament which was a constitutional requirement. But the public thought it was great, and it eased tensions. Abiy came in with a progressive push, for instance half of the cabinet were women; he freed thousands of political prisoners, including journalists.

Then there was an assassination attempt on Abiy, and then a very popular singer was assassinated. Some blamed the Abiy administration, but there was a lot of speculation that the TPLF was behind it. These are just some background tensions.

Why is Eritrea involved in the Tigray conflict?

Like I said, there was a significant progressive push when Abiy first came into power, and one of those agenda items was amending the tension between Eritrea and Ethiopia. In 1993, Eritrea received its independence from Ethiopia. But in 1993 and 1998, there were two significant wars between them, and over 100,000 people lost their lives. There was a lot of tension between TPLF and the Eritrean government. Then Abiy came into power and opened up communications between the two nations. They had flights between their capitals for the first time ever. And as a result of these efforts, Abiy won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Now, when Abiy initiated his offensive against TPLF in Tigray, there was a lot of concern that Eritrean troops were in Tigray as sort of retaliation for the last two decades’ worth of turmoil. I think Abiy was in a difficult situation where he just sort of repaired this relationship with Eritrea, but he really couldn’t force them out of the country. At the same time, Ethiopians were being slaughtered by Eritrean troops.

What is at stake?

It’s a humanitarian crisis, without a doubt. It’s hard to find an accurate report, but some are saying north of 60,000 people have lost their lives and close to 100,000 people are displaced. That is 100% the top priority, but it’s also hard to discount the geopolitical issues that are going on in the region.

In the backdrop of all of this internal conflict in Ethiopia is a dam. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is the largest dam in all of Africa, but it sits on the Nile and the Nile runs upstream. Egypt and Sudan have issues with this because Ethiopia is now claiming that Egypt will have to pay for water. Egypt is claiming that colonial-era treaties established that Egypt and Sudan and all northern countries have rights and that Ethiopia doesn’t have these rights to the water, although the dam sits in Ethiopia.

This is all going on at the same time, which is difficult for Ethiopians because on one hand there’s broad support for the dam in Ethiopia and then on the other hand it’s sort of supporting the government that’s oppressing you.

If Ethiopia fails, so does the region. Ethiopia plays host for the African Union; Ethiopia is a huge ally to the United States and European countries fighting against terrorism in Somalia and in its proximity to the Middle East. It’s a very convoluted and complex issue. But the loss of life and the geopolitical problems are the biggest issues going on right now.

What has the international community’s reaction been and what should it be?

European allies have all spoken out against what’s happening right now, and some have gone as far as cutting off aid to Ethiopia, trying to pressure them to at least allow the UN to go in and provide humanitarian aid.

The United States, under the Trump administration, was disastrous. From the Oval Office, Trump made comments suggesting that Egypt should blow up the dam. That aside, the Biden administration was largely quiet early on, but now we are starting to see real pushback and strong statements coming out of the Biden administration, to allow humanitarian aid and to stop civilian casualties.

This is obviously very fascinating and ironic because Prime Minister Abiy is a Nobel Peace Prize winner, and so you would think if you had anyone to deal with and negotiate with PM Abiy would be the person to do it, but it hasn’t turned out that way. So, we’re still in the middle of it, but I think the international community is really pushing Abiy to settle things down.

What can concerned citizens in the U.S. and elsewhere do?

Individual folks can go online and donate to places like the UN Refugee Agency, and I think that’s probably the best thing to do because water and other resources are very limited right now in the region.

It’s also important for people to understand what this means for the broader context of the world. If Ethiopia falters, the implications across the world are going to be significant, especially for the West. There’s significant Chinese investment, and it is aggressive all throughout Africa and particularly in Ethiopia, but it also leaves a void for other countries like Russia to come in and inject their influences into the region.

If the United States and the West have this laissez faire, hands-off approach it could be detrimental to our influence moving forward in Ethiopia. Ethiopia is critical for our fight against terrorism. I think average Americans should read up on what's happening and donate if they can, but they should also put pressure on the United States government to do some real negotiating here to reach a resolution. Although Ethiopians are divided on the issue, I think everyone can agree that this loss of life is detrimental and devastating.