Crisis in Ethiopia: The Conflict in Tigray with Professor Terrence Lyons

We spoke with Professor Terrence Lyons, a Professor of Conflict Resolution at George Mason University, about the ongoing conflict in Ethiopia. Professor Lyons discusses how the remnants of the Ethiopian Civil War led to the political reforms Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed initiated in 2018 which created an opening for peace, but also an opportunity for divisive ethnic politics to re-emerge. Professor Lyons also discusses the humanitarian crisis along with the international community’s response to the resurgence of Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Lastly, we speak about the future of Ethiopia and how individuals can keep up with the unfolding conflict.

New York Times article: They Once Ruled Ethiopia. Now They Are Fighting Its Government


00:02:40 GEOPOLITICS IN ETHIOPIA:  “In Ethiopia there’s two things to know. First of all, it’s the second largest country in terms of population in Sub-Saharan Africa, it has around 120 million people. It’s also very close to the Gulf, to Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Somalia to places where the Gulf countries such as the UAE have been involved in building up their influence, where Turkey is involved… While on the one hand, I’m not going to make it claim that it is more strategically important than Europe or the Middle East, but it is an area that deserves attention.”

00:03:40 “The ruling party up until 2018 was called the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) was one component of that ruling party, it was actually a coalition of four parties. After a period of sustained popular demonstrations, really a popular uprising particularly in the Oromia region, the most populous region in Ethiopia, there was a transition where the TPLF leadership was displaced by others within the ruling party, particularly from the Oromia wing of the party. At first that seemed like it would be a very successful transition. The TPLF were unhappy that it had been displaced, but PM Abiy Ahmed was a younger figure, seemed very popular, had mass rallies and promised reform. He invited political exiles home, allowed political opposition groups that had been characterized as terrorists to come back and engage in the politics that at that time had promised a democracy. The TPLF represents something like 6% of the total population. It is a relatively small region and a relatively poor region, but they had been politically dominant. It looked like perhaps while they would be unhappy having lost power that the transition could progress with a powerful coalition of support. But security was always bad since 2018, when Prime Minister Abiy came into power. There were conflicts between the Oromia region and the Somali region… And on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, and then West Welega, western part of the Oromia region. The state was just much weaker than it used to be, and Ethiopia struggled to find a peaceful way forward.”

00:06:17 POLITICAL UNREST DURING 2020 ELECTIONS: “In June, the TPLF, which continued to dominate the Tigray region, the region that borders Eritrea, held its own elections. Ethiopia postponed elections because of COVID and frankly because it wasn’t prepared and did not have sufficient security to hold the elections. The TPLF decided to have their own elections in their own state. The analogy isn’t quite right, but it would be as if the US postponed elections and Massachusetts said we’re going to have our elections anyways and elect our governor, senators, and our representatives. It was a direct challenge to the government ‘s authority to govern the entire country.”

00:07:25 “It’s not a surprise that conflict was brewing… An awful lot of money comes from the capital to the region, so the money they used to pay for schoolteachers and health workers comes from the federal government. Because the federal government didn’t like the government in the region of Tigray, they began to try to transfer the money directly to sub-regions. This directly undermined the power of the TPLF, directly tried to take away their resources.

00:08:30 “Within the region of Tigray, Ethiopia has one of its largest national military outposts, the Northern Command… because it was worried about conflict with Eritrea so that’s where most of the army was based. The TPLF in a preemptive strike attacked the Northern Command. Now we have to go back to my not exact analogy. We have Massachusetts attacking the US Army in bases in Massachusetts. Really quite an astonishing act. Some people equated to during the Civil War, when the southern states began to attack Union military posts. At that point the conflict escalated extremely quickly, extremely violently, and the war has raged in Tigray.”    


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