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The Conflict Testing Ethiopia’s Nobel-Winning Leader

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has been at loggerheads with leaders of the northern Tigray region since 2020. Their forces fought each other for more than 16 months before a truce was declared in March, then in August the two sides accused each other of staging fresh attacks. A United Nations human rights panel has reported evidence of widespread abuses. The conflict has pushed millions of people into hunger and tarnished Abiy’s once-illustrious reputation as a Nobel laureate. The nation’s misery has been compounded by the worst drought in four decades and soaring prices of grain and fuel. The authorities are also contending with political violence in the center of the country, a territorial dispute with Sudan and attacks by al-Qaeda-linked militants. 

1. How did Abiy’s fortunes change? 

Abiy started with a bang when he became Ethiopia’s prime minister in 2018. He scrapped bans on opposition and rebel groups, purged allegedly corrupt officials and ended two decades of acrimony with neighboring Eritrea, an initiative that won him the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize. He also welcomed foreign capital to maintain momentum in one of the world’s fastest-expanding economies, and vowed to quell civil unrest. But he struggled to contain ethnic tensions and his attempts to sideline the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the nation’s pre-eminent power broker for decades, led to civil war. The conflict stalled the planned privatization of key telecommunications assets and other economic reforms, and prompted the US government to impose sanctions on Ethiopia and withdraw its duty-free market access. 

2. What sparked the civil war?

Abiy set about consolidating power under his newly formed Prosperity Party after taking office. This meant confronting the TPLF, which had dominated the ruling coalition since a Marxist regime was overthrown in 1991 and continued to govern the Tigray region. The TPLF refused to fall into line. Its leaders ignored a government directive to postpone legislative elections in Tigray because of the pandemic, and the federal parliament retaliated by halting direct budget support to the region. Abiy ordered a military incursion into Tigray in November 2020 after accusing forces loyal to the TPLF of attacking a military base to steal weapons. The TPLF said its raid was a preemptive strike because federal troops were preparing to attack. The government eventually gained the upper hand and the rebels withdrew to within Tigray’s borders in December 2021. The government continued air strikes on Tigray and fighting continued in the neighboring Amhara and Afar regions before the truce was declared. In September this year, the TPLF accused federal forces and allied troops from neighboring Eritrea of starting a new offensive in four areas in northern Tigray, raising fears of a resumption of all-out war.

3. What’s been the fallout from the war?

The government hasn’t disclosed casualties and access to the conflict zones was restricted, but there are fears that tens of thousands of people have died due to fighting, hunger and a lack of medical care. The United Nations estimated in September that the war, and a drought in eastern Ethiopia, had left about 20 million people in need of aid. The situation was particularly dire in Tigray and Afar, where malnutrition and food insecurity were rife. The government has rejected allegations from civil rights groups that it obstructed efforts to dispense aid or that its forces were party to widespread human rights violations. The UN expert panel in September reported that all sides in the fighting have likely committed abuses such as extra-judicial killings and rape. It said that there were “reasonable grounds to believe” that in some cases, the violations amounted to war crimes and crimes against humanity. 

4. What are the other tensions about?

The government has accused members of the Oromo Liberation Army, which has aligned itself to the TPLF and has been campaigning for greater regional autonomy, of killing hundreds of civilians and deployed the army to avert further violence. The group, which controls a number of towns and villages in the central Oromia region, in turn alleges that the federal police have been targeting and killing ethnic Oromos and Nuers. Abiy has also fallen out with Fano, an ethnic Amhara group that fought alongside federal forces against the Tigrayans and opposed the truce because it wanted an outright victory and uncontested rights to disputed territory. Ethiopia and Sudan are meanwhile at loggerheads over the rights to a swathe of fertile land along their border. Al-Shabaab, a Somalia-based Islamist group that’s linked to al-Qaeda and is seeking to expand its influence in the Horn of Africa, also staged an attack in Ethiopian territory in July 2022. 

5. Why all the instability?

Africa’s oldest nation-state, Ethiopia has long been plagued by discord among its more than 80 ethnic groups. The country was an absolute monarchy until the 1974 socialist revolution that deposed Emperor Haile Selassie. It became a multiethnic federation in 1991, when a TPLF-led alliance of rebels overthrew the Marxist military regime that followed Selassie. The Tigrayans, though comprising just 6% of the population, came to dominate national politics. After failing to quell three years of violent protests over the marginalization of other, bigger communities, including the Oromo and Amhara, Hailemariam Desalegn quit as prime minister in 2018. The then-ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front named Abiy, an Oromo, as his successor. Abiy’s party won a decisive majority in mid-2021 elections. 

6. What’s been the impact on the economy? 

Ethiopia’s $105 billion economy expanded by an average of more than 7% annually between 2018 -- the year Abiy took power -- and 2021, but the International Monetary Fund sees the growth rate slowing to less than 4% in 2022. With its finances under strain, the government announced in 2021 that it wants to restructure its $28.4 billion of external debt. But the US has urged multilateral lenders to halt their engagement with Abiy’s administration, and a block on their funding could derail the debt overhaul. The IMF also has yet to initiate a new program for Ethiopia -- a key requirement for debt restructuring -- after the previous one lapsed without any money being disbursed. Ethiopia’s central bank, meanwhile, has tightened currency controls.

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