Tigray’s War Against Ethiopia Isn’t About Autonomy. It’s About Economic Power
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is fighting the country’s revanchist old regime, which is intent on recapturing the economic and political influence it once held.
BY KASSAHUN MELESSE NOVEMBER 19, 2020
Source: Foreign Policy
It has been two weeks since a military conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region between regional forces and the Ethiopian federal army began. Some analysts fear that it could escalate further, leading to the disintegration of the country, which would have significant economic and political repercussions for all countries in the Horn of Africa. But the fundamental causes of the conflict are misunderstood
Outside observers and analysts tend to see the proximate cause as a recent disagreement between the regional leaders and the federal government—which is led by Nobel Peace Prize-winning Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed—regarding the constitutionality of the parliament’s decision to postpone the national and regional elections due to COVID-19. Tigray’s regional leaders held an election in defiance of that decision, in which the governing the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) won all seats, and the result was subsequently declared null and void by the country’s parliament.
Others identify the prevailing ideological differences between Abiy and the TPLF as the key source of friction. These arguments, however, do not explain why such differences would give rise to a military confrontation. That’s because they are not the underlying causes of the conflict at all.
This war is ultimately a battle for control of Ethiopia’s economy, its natural resources, and the billions of dollars the country receives annually from international donors and lenders. Access to those riches is a function of who heads the federal government—which the TPLF controlled for nearly three decades before Abiy came to power in April 2018, following widespread protests against the TPLF-led government.
In other words, this is not a conflict over who gets to rule Tigray, a small region whose population accounts for a mere 6 percent of Ethiopia’s more than 110 million people. It is a fight over who gets to dominate the commanding heights of the country’s economy, a prize that Tigray’s regional leaders once held and are determined to recapture at any cost.
The TPLF was the dominant force in Ethiopian politics for nearly 30 years, after it ousted the military government of Mengistu Hailemariam in 1991 in a protracted armed struggle alongside the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, which was led by the current president of Eritrea, Isaias Afwerki. After the fall of the military government, Eritrea seceded from Ethiopia in 1993, and the TPLF’s former leader, the late Ethiopian prime minister Meles Zenawi, ruled the country with an iron fist until his death in 2012.
The current director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, was also a member of the TPLF leadership and served as Ethiopia’s health minister for many years under Meles. Before Abiy’s rise to power, all the country’s heads of intelligence and the military chiefs came from the TPLF or were members of the military wing of the party during the armed struggle against Mengitsu. After coming to power, the TPLF-led government converted its forces into an ostensibly Ethiopian army, after completely disbanding the old Ethiopian army. This ensured that most of the top generals and other military leaders in the new army came from the TPLF’s ranks as well.
The TPLF’s political and military power eventually gave rise to economic dominance as it enabled its leaders to exercise complete control of the country’s economy and natural resources—mainly its land—as well as aid flows and loans. In recent years, Ethiopia received, on average, about $3.5 billion per year in foreign aid alone, which accounted for about half of the country’s national budget during the late Meles years. The TPLF-led government also took significant amounts of loans from private creditors and governments, mainly from China, which had reached 60 percent of the country’s GDP when Abiy came to power. In fact, Abiy’s new administration, which inherited meager foreign exchange reserves, has been struggling to service this debt and was forced to request deferral and renegotiation of terms of these loans from creditors.