By Christopher Pratt
Image source: voanews
Fights between regional forces and the national army have been raging in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region since early November 2020. Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, is accusing leaders of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) of treason and terrorism, after members of this regional political party allegedly attacked a federal military base. The TPLF claims to be resisting government oppression of Tigrayans, who reportedly felt persecuted ever since Abiy Ahmed took office in 2018. Already, the United Nations (UN) is sounding alarms over the 25 000 refugees that have escaped the fighting by crossing the border into neighbouring Sudan. As well, Amnesty International is highlighting allegations of war crimes that are coming from the region.
At first glance, this conflict could be seen as a violent climax of ethnic tension. However, the reasons driving the outbreak of hostilities go far beyond a clash of ethnic identities.
With communications down and fighting continuing, it is hard to get a clear picture of what exactly is happening in Ethiopia. However, one thing that is certain is that this conflict underscores the tensions existing within the African continent and how the toppling of one domino could lead to further devastating effects spreading across the region. For example, there is fear that Eritrea will now enter the civil conflict, after the regional government in Tigray fired missiles across the border at the city of Asmara. In fact, according to the Tigray government, Eritrea forces may have already become involved.
The chaotic situation is also drawing into question Ethiopian commitments in the region. Ethiopian troops are currently supporting the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM); with Somalia approaching national elections, those troops could become critical in assuring stability and peace in the struggling country. Additionally, the tens of thousands of refugees flooding across the border into Sudan threaten to destabilize a region that is only just beginning to recover from decades of civil turmoil. Eritrea could easily get pulled into the conflict, transforming the situation from a civil conflict to a full-scale international war.
The states that make up Africa today are each home to numerous collections of ethnic groups. In fact, Ethiopia itself is home to at least 44 distinct groups, such as the Omoros and Amharas. Historically, all of these cultures have been upset at some point over the development of their region or their political representation in the national government. Comparing experiences across Africa, we see that this is not an anomaly. The importance of ethnicity and sense of belonging to a national identity gives local leaders tools they can utilize to push political, economic or developmental agendas. Therefore, while it is easy to see the eruption of hostilities in Tigray as an ethnic conflict, it is important to emphasize the political representation Tigrayans want to secure for themselves. Similar circumstances are present in the southern Ogaden region of Ethiopia in regards to resistance against the national government. Without proper representation, this region has been unable to secure the development projects they want. That being said, ethnic tension is not the reason for conflict. It is rather the gathering of political frustration and communal action, a springboard that is utilized in attempts to reform the established societal order.
Ethnic identity plays an undeniable role in African politics and conflicts. However, if we fixate on the issue of identity, we can lose sight of the important factors (political representation, right to self-determination, etc.) that are driving conflict—factors that can hopefully be resolved in order to secure peace. Considering the African continent’s current state of stability, addressing these factors can prevent potential conflicts, foster multi-ethnic national identities and bring existing conflicts to a peaceful end before they invite the involvement of external actors.