In early November, Ethiopia’s federal government launched a military offensive in the country’s Tigray region. Why would leaders declare war on their own people? Could the violence potentially spread to other countries?

How the conflict started

The Ethiopian state is structured according to the principle of ethnic federalism, with nine regional ethnic states and two federally administered city-states. The northern Tigray region is inhabited by ethnic Tigrayans, and it is ruled by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The TPLF was the dominant faction in the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a multiethnic, four-party coalition that ruled the country for almost 30 years before Abiy Ahmed became prime minister in 2018.

The conflict began Nov. 4, when Abiy ordered a military response to a TPLF attack on a federal military compound in Tigray, where the Ethiopian military’s Northern Command is located. Abiy accused the TPLF of attacking the military camp in an attempt “to loot” military assets.

As the violence has escalated, thousands of civilians have been displaced and hundreds have died, amid reports of civilian massacres. In Tigray, information blackouts have made it nearly impossible to confirm the claims made by the government and Tigray leaders.

Ethiopia has a number of slow-burning tensions

Since 2018, there have been several points of tension between Ethiopia’s federal government and Tigray leaders. In 2019, Abiy formed the Prosperity Party in an attempt to merge the factions in the EPRDF coalition into one party. The TPLF rejected the merger and split from the coalition, choosing to remain the governing party of the Tigray region. Abiy also created the new party to increase the federal government’s power and minimize regional autonomy. But opponents saw this move as an attempt to concentrate the national government’s power. The Abiy government further exacerbated tensions by removing key Tigrayan government leaders accused of corruption and mistreatment of prisoners.

Ethiopia was scheduled to hold elections in August, but in March, the country’s electoral management body postponed the elections because of the coronavirus pandemic. Tigray executives rejected this mandate and held regional elections in September.

The federal government deemed these elections illegitimate. In response, the parliament asked the treasury to direct funding away from the Tigray executive council and transfer funds directly to Tigray’s local administrations. Tigray officials contend that bypassing Mekelle, Tigray’s capital, violates the constitution, which requires that the federal government cooperate with regional governments.

Tigray leaders also resent the normalization of relations between the central government and Eritrea, which shares a border with Tigray. Border disputes caused a 1998-2000 war between Ethiopia and Eritrea. The prime minister’s decision to sign a peace treaty with Eritrea’s government in 2018 ended the territorial dispute. Although this move led to Abiy being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the detente with Eritrea has left many in the Tigray region feeling marginalized.

The conflict puts “ethnic federalism” under scrutiny

Did Ethiopia’s governing system contribute to the conflict? Ethiopia’s centuries-old monarchy fell in a 1974 military junta takeover, further contributing to ethnic tensions. Two movements in particular, the TPLF and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), pushed back against what they perceived as the domination of the Amhara ethnic group and the Amharic language. In 1991, the military regime collapsed and a resulting EPRDF coalition took power. Despite comprising only 6 percent of Ethiopia’s population, the Tigray enjoyed disproportionate power and influence in government after 1991.

The central question facing this coalition was how to govern Ethiopia in a way that guaranteed respect and freedom for all ethnic groups. The resulting constitution allows every ethnic group the right to self-government in their own defined territories, while institutions in each region are allowed to use the local language.

In this framework, ethnic groups administer their internal affairs by setting up their own legislative, judicial and educational institutions. Ethnic federalism in Ethiopia allows for self-determination by ethnic groups, up to and including secession. This is a radical departure from the norms of state-building in the broader African context.

Under the EPRDF coalition, Ethiopia experienced rapid economic growth and stability. But its human rights record was problematic and regional representation was not always truly democratic. While Ethiopia’s experiment with ethnic federalism appeared to keep the country from sliding into civil war, the low-level repression that minority groups experienced suggests that political power remains concentrated in the central government.

The conflict in Ethiopia exposes the fragility of the country’s experiment with ethnic federalism — the approach some scholars have seen as a way to mitigate conflict in societies that are highly polarized along ethnic lines. However, there is little empirical consensus on whether ethnic federalism is an effective way to manage diverse societies. Some studies suggest that federalism can help reduce interethnic conflict in multiethnic countries. Other studies show that federalism exacerbates conflicts.

What happens next?

The situation in Tigray appears to be escalating. On Nov. 21, the prime minister gave Tigrayan regional forces 72 hours to surrender, and federal forces have surrounded Mekelle, the capital. Tigray forces vowed to fight on, and the Ethiopian government has refused mediation offers proposed by African leaders.

Tigray has a large and heavily armed paramilitary force and local militia, and appears well prepared to dig in for continued hostilities. African leaders have expressed concern that the conflict could spill over into other parts of the Horn of Africa region — or exacerbate ethnic tensions in other areas of Ethiopia.

The country’s ethnic federal character has set the stage for this type of confrontation. Given the long-standing hostility between the center and Tigray’s leaders, a peaceful resolution may be difficult to achieve.

Safia Farole (@SafiaFarole) is an assistant professor in the departments of Political Science and International and Global Studies at Portland State University.