Abiy Ahmed parade

Looking beyond ethnic conflict in Africa: The case of Tigray

Kathryn Urban

Kathryn Urban

Kathryn is a master’s candidate of international security at American University’s School of International Service. She has written and researched extensively on great power competition in emerging regions, such as East Africa and the Arctic.

Western commentary on civil strife in African nations frequently centers on sectarian divisions, terming these periods of insecurity as ethnic conflict even if ethnicity contributes only superficially to destabilization. The ongoing situation in the Tigray region of Ethiopia is a recent and prescient example of this ‘ethnicization’ of African conflict, and one in which media outlets play a role in promoting an ethnicity-first narrative.

“When we begin to see other as somehow less than ourselves – when we succumb to these artificial divisions of faith or sect or tribe or ethnicity – then even the most awful abuses are justified in the minds of those who are thinking in those ways.”

Former U.S. President Barack Obama

In discussing conflict on the African continent, Western thinkers, scholars, and policymakers tend to view ethnic divisions as the source of tensions. Conversely, they tend to see ethnic balance or unity as the key to restoring peace. Sectarianism – divisions based on identity markers like ethnicity, religion, or nationality – is rarely the driving cause of civil strife. ‘Ethnicizing’ conflicts, however, is an easy shorthand for leaders whose formative experiences took place within the American-European-Soviet sphere of Cold War relations, and who are rarely familiar with African issues.

This historical tendency to ignore the Global South has raised problems in other arenas, inhibiting sustainable development and sparking backlash against leaders favored by global superpowers. But the idea of identity-based warfare is a prominent one today, as major news outlets carry the story of the “ethnic conflict” sweeping the Tigray region of Ethiopia. Few experts have taken the time to look beyond these superficial ethnic battlelines to understand the legacy of those divisions, predicated on Ethiopia’s scarring experience with civil war and the compromises reached to stabilize the country’s political and economic order.

In branding African civil conflicts as ethnic warfare, global leaders actively harm conflict situations in two ways: 1) They fail to grasp the underlying drivers of violence, inhibiting good-faith efforts to mediate a peaceful settlement; and 2) their ethnicity-first framing of conflicts rejects the political maturation of African states. Rejecting this narrowly focused ethnic lens not only requires concerted effort on the part of scholars and media outlets, but it also necessitates an interest in understanding the African continent, a region which has historically been neglected by Western governments.

Today, the most visible example of so-called ethnic conflict is Tigray, which has been in turmoil since early November when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered federal troops into the region. While the incursion was officially billed as a response to looting attempts by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), most analysts agree that Abiy was principally concerned with punishing Tigray for holding regional elections in defiance of a federal mandate to postpone all contests. Violence in the region has steadily escalated since the initial invasions. Civilians have been warned they will be shown “no mercy” if they fail to flee cities under attack by federal troops, raising international concerns of war crimes. Military commanders have also reportedly ordered bombing campaigns throughout Tigray.

On November 28, Abiy declared victory in the country’s north after federal troops took Mekelle, the regional capital. However, fighting remains heavy on both sides. Reports coming out of Tigray suggest several thousand deaths and upwards of 40,000 displaced people, although verification remains challenging amidst a federally ordered communications blackout.

At a surface level, it is understandable that the Ethiopian situation has been billed an ethnic conflict. Tigrayan forces represent a different ethnic group to the predominantly Amhara national forces, and humanitarian reports coming out of the region suggest that both sides have killed civilians “based on ethnicity.” However, the drivers of the Tigrayan conflict are not these ethnic divisions, but structural systems of political and economic power.

Ethiopia functions under a unique governance structure, a federal system that gives semi-autonomous power to regions delineated along ethnic lines. These state-structured divisions, which govern all levels of legislative representation, emerged as a political compromise in the wake of the country’s 1991 civil war. This is not a system that was designed for optimal governance of Ethiopia: it was a necessary measure to end a brutal conflict, and one which has long faced criticism from political opponents.

Abiy came to power seeking a more cohesive and centralized Ethiopia. The country’s first leader to hail from the historically marginalized Oromo group, Abiy views a minimization of ethnic divisions – especially the quasi-independence enjoyed by the semi-autonomous states – as the best path towards peace. Abiy’s efforts at national unity have, however, led to heightened violence in recent years as ethnic militias have targeted members of out-groups. This paramilitary resurgence is driven in large part by fringe members of dominant ethnic groups like Tigrayans reacting to Abiy’s centralizing agenda. Having enjoyed privileges as a result of their power in Ethiopian politics, they are loath to surrender those advantages for the sake of “Ethiopianization.

Tensions between Abiy and the TPLF over state autonomy reached a peak of violence with the invasion of Tigray, but these debates are not new. Near the start of his term, Tigrayan leaders criticized Abiy’s peace negotiations with Eritrea, arguing that as a border state between Ethiopia and its long-time enemy, Tigray should have been consulted on settlement terms. The region also opposed Abiy’s mass release of political prisoners, fearing future acts of “terrorism” against Tigrayans. Even the rejection of Addis Ababa’s ban on regional elections should not have come as a surprise. Tigrayan leaders first signaled their discontent in June, insisting that Abiy lacked the legitimacy to unilaterally suspend elections. None of these issues are rooted in ethnicity, but rather in how much control regional leaders are prepared to give up to a centralized government.

It is important to note that although other regions of Ethiopia, notably Amhara and Sidama, have also rebelled against Abiy’s anti-federalist agenda, neither of these situations were met with the same degree of violence nor the civilian targeting that has taken place in Tigray. One reason for this imbalance may be political obligation: Abiy’s campaign receives strong support from the Oromo and Amhara ethnic groups, both of whom have a vested interest in undermining the TPLF to advance their own political power. Secondary considerations are the questions of resource distribution and political control that are inherent to the debate around federalist governance.


Abiy Ahmed parade
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed with military commanders @ Wikimedia Commons

Tigray is a strategically important region of Ethiopia. Not only is it an extraordinarily wealthy state, but it also hosts a large proportion of Ethiopia’s military hardware. Similarly, Tigrayan leaders have been “in the driver’s seat” of Ethiopia’s ruling political coalition since 1991. By targeting the TPLF and bringing Tigray squarely under federal control, Abiy and his political allies remove a powerful impediment to his agenda of centralization.

Ethnic divisions are a pervasive element of the ongoing civil conflict in Ethiopia, and the atrocities perpetrated against civilians because of their ethnic identities should not be overlooked or minimized. However, the situation in Tigray is not an ethnic conflict, but a war over three interrelated aspects of the future of Ethiopian governance: which political factions will hold power in Parliament, the degree to which states will be subordinate to Addis Ababa, and who will exert control over the country’s financial and military resources.

The reductive ethnic conflict view of African civil conflicts is not unique to Ethiopia. Some of the continent’s most-studied crises, including Darfur and Rwanda, were portrayed first and foremost as ethnic conflicts by U.S. policymakers, an approach which colored international responses. Today, political thinkers and scholars are doing a better job of reckoning with the external influences that systems of colonialism and neo-colonialism have had on African affairs, both directly and indirectly, in setting up leaders driven to capitalize on divisions for personal and political gain.

This growing recognition that “the modern African state is the product of Europe, not Africa” has influenced the way Westerners think of leadership in the region, sparking a renewed debate around the historical influences that continue to color modern African governance. However, the political and media dialogue around conflict on the continent continues to center on superficial divisions. Ethnicity is a pervasive issue in Africa not because it is inherently African, but because of the way it has been manipulated by powerful actors, both within the region and without. To frame all conflicts on the continent as ethnically driven satisfies the imagined view of Africa as a land of loincloths and click languages, but it is also wildly detached from reality. Comprehensive action towards peace, a “silencing of the guns,” requires a recognition of more fundamental truths about African politics, history, and social balance.


Kathryn Urban


Received: 18.12.20, Ready: 11.01.21; Editors: Federico Germani, Alexander F. Brown

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One thought on “Looking beyond ethnic conflict in Africa: The case of Tigray

  1. One of the best articles I’ve had the pleasure to edit so far. Thanks Kathryn for your simple and effective explanation of the Tigray conflict, with a broader look at how the post-colonial notion of ethnicity has been an obstacle to peace in Africa.

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