Why Ethiopia’s Nobel Peace Prize Winner Is Waging War

Fighting in Ethiopia has left thousands of people dead and forced millions to flee their homes, sparking a humanitarian crisis. The unrest, which blew up in November, has compounded economic devastation wrought by the pandemic, prompting warnings from the country about its ability to repay debt. The dispute centers on the northern state of Tigray, where regional leaders are at loggerheads with the federal government led by Nobel Peace Prize-winning Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.

1. What’s the dispute about?

Relations became strained after Abiy took office in 2018 and set about consolidating power under his newly formed Prosperity Party. That sidelined the Tigray People’s Liberation Front -- which ruled Tigray and had been the nation’s pre-eminent power-broker for decades. It refused to join the new party on ideological grounds. Tigray officials upset the government by ignoring a directive to postpone regional elections because of the pandemic. The federal parliament retaliated by halting direct budget support. Tigray’s leaders were also angered by the government’s attempt to reshuffle the military leadership stationed in their territory and calls by the nation’s House of Representatives to designate the TPLF a terrorist organization.

2. What sparked the fighting?

Abiy ordered a military incursion into Tigray after accusing forces loyal to the TPLF of assaulting a military base to steal weapons. The TPLF said the offensive was a preemptive strike because federal troops were preparing to attack its territory. After four weeks of fighting, Abiy declared victory.

3. What’s the backdrop?

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 multi-ethnic 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. Hailemariam Desalegn quit as prime minister in 2018 after failing to quell three years of violent protests over the marginalization of other bigger communities, including the Oromo and Amhara. The ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front named Abiy, an Oromo, as his successor.

Why Ethiopia’s Nobel Peace Prize Winner Is Waging War

4. How has Abiy performed?

The prime minister’s rule started with a bang. 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 put out the welcome mat for foreign capital to maintain momentum in one of the world’s fastest-expanding economies. Yet he’s had to contend with the unrest in Tigray, and beyond:

  • Violent protests after the June 2020 killing of popular Oromo musician Hachalu Hundessa claimed about 200 lives.
  • Inter-communal fighting in the western Benishangul-Gumuz region left at least 140 people dead and drove more than 25,000 others from their homes in September. More than 100 were killed in December as the authorities struggled to contain Gumuz militiamen opposed to the presence of ethnic Amharas in the area.
  • Ethnic conflict is simmering in the Amhara region north of the capital Addis Ababa that borders Sudan.
  • Militia groups have carried out attacks and abductions in parts of the central Oromia region, home to the Oroma. A number of key opposition leaders, detained since July, have held a hunger strike.

5. How deadly was the Tigray conflict?

Extremely. The region was already heavily militarized because of its proximity to Eritrea, which fought a war with Ethiopia from 1998 to 2000. The government hasn’t disclosed casualties in the fighting that began in November, but opposition parties put the death toll at at least 52,000 and estimate 3 million people fled their homes. Aid agencies say as many as 2 million people need humanitarian assistance.

6. Are other countries affected?

TPLF forces fired rockets into Eritrea, accusing Ethiopia’s neigbor of siding with the federal government. Eritrea didn’t respond to the allegation. Sudan saw more than 61,000 people enter via its border to escape the fighting by mid-February. A territorial dispute between Ethiopia and Sudan has exacerbated tensions and led to several deadly clashes. To boost its Tigray offensive, Ethiopia pulled back about 3,000 troops who’d been fighting an Islamist insurgency in Somalia, people familiar with the matter said. That’s raised concerns of a security vacuum across Ethiopia’s eastern border.

7. How are the country’s finances holding up?

Ethiopia’s $107 billion economy expanded by more than an eye-popping 9% a year for a decade until 2020 as investment flooded in. Yet Covid-19 dropped the growth rate to about 1.9% in 2020 and the prospects of a quick rebound in investor sentiment were dimmed by the current crisis. With its finances under strain, the government announced that it wants to restructure external debt (it holds $25 billion in total) under a Group of 20 program and that it may approach private creditors. S&P Global Ratings and Fitch downgraded Ethiopia’s debt rating, citing the restructuring, double-digit inflation and elevated political risks.

The Reference Shelf

  • Abiy wins the Nobel prize but struggles to maintain peace.
  • A QuickTake on why Abiy won international acclaim and another on why Ethiopia’s plans to build a giant dam stoked tensions.
  • Abiy’s Bloomberg Opinion column on what African economies need to do to survive the coronavirus.
  • A U.S. Congressional Research Service report on Ethiopia.
  • The International Monetary Fund’s home page on Ethiopia.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

BQ Install

Bloomberg Quint

Add BloombergQuint App to Home screen.