For two years, Ethiopia was at war with itself.
Fighting there has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions more in Africa’s second most populous country, a scale of conflict that some have compared to that of Ukraine.
But a sudden cease-fire aims to halt the violence and one side says it has withdraw nearly 2/3 of the troops from the front lines in recent weeks. I spoke with Abdi Latif Dahir, the East Africa correspondent for The Times, who has covered the war, about what the peace deal means for Ethiopia.
Lauren: Ethiopia has gone from one of the most prosperous countries in Africa to the site of a devastating civil war. How did you get there?
Posters: The story begins in northern Ethiopia, in a region called Tigray. It is home to an ancient kingdom, with jagged mountains and sesame fields.
The Tigrayan ethnic group makes up a small part of the country’s nearly 120 million population. But for the past few decades, the Tigray people have controlled Ethiopian politics. Their party, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, dominates the ruling coalition in the Ethiopian parliament.
Their rule was defined by both tremendous economic progress, but also a great deal of repression. The government imprisons journalists and suppresses the opposition. They also feuded with Eritrea, a neighboring country with whom they had contested a disputed border town. In 2018, following nationwide protests demanding political reform, the prime minister of the ruling coalition dominated by the TPLF resigned.
After his resignation, Abiy Ahmed, a member of the Ethiopian parliament, rose to power and quickly won the Nobel Peace Prize. Tell me about him.
I was sitting in a taxi in the Ethiopian city of Bahir Dar after Abiy became prime minister. My driver was so excited that he followed me out of the car after the ride was over, standing in the street to tell me Abiy’s story. He is one of Africa’s youngest leaders, only 41 years old, and everyone thought he was going to change the country. He did.
After Abiy took control, he won the Nobel Peace Prize, in part for brokering a deal with Eritrea. He also removed the Tigrayans from government positions in order to weaken their power. Then tensions increased with the group.
In November 2020, Abiy sent troops to Tigray after he accused TPLF forces of attacking a federal military base there. But what started as an incursion quickly turned into one of the bloodiest conflicts in the world.
How did war develop so quickly?
Abiy wanted to make sure the Tigrayan forces were defeated. He calls TPLF a “cancer” and a “weed” that needs to be uprooted. That kind of dehumanizing talk was a shock to many people across the continent.
Other actors in the region harboring resentment toward the Tigrayans or motivated by other interests soon joined the war. The Eritreans allied with Ethiopian forces. Militia forces including the Amharas, the country’s second-largest ethnic group, have also begun killing Tigrayans and are accused of carrying out massacres in several towns. Tigrayan forces responded violently.
Can you tell me the scale of the devastation?
It’s sad to even talk about. Tigray was once one of the most developed regions in Ethiopia, filled with bustling universities and businesses. There are bookstores and beekeepers. Everything was destroyed.
The Ethiopian government has shut down the internet, cutting the region off from the rest of the world. Journalists had to rely on satellites and limited reporting to understand conflicts. But acts of ethnic cleansing are well documented, not only by the government and Eritrean forces, but also by the Tigrayans.
The US government estimates that up to 500,000 people have been killed. Allegations have emerged of children being recruited as soldiers. The warring parties used famine and rape as weapons of war. And millions of survivors were displaced.
Is there a story that sticks with you from your report?
At the beginning of the war, I met a refugee Tigrayan in Sudan. He told me a militiaman tied a noose around his neck and dragged him behind a motorbike for hours, then left him to die. He awoke later and staggered his way to safety. I still think about him.
I also think about the town of Sudan, where he has found refuge. It’s called Hamdayet, across the border from Tigray. When refugees arrive, people give them jobs and even their own homes. Many times, we cover negative stories across Africa. But that town gave me hope.
Last month, the Tigrayans and the Ethiopian government reached a truce. How did that happen?
The war intensified and Ethiopian forces captured several major towns in Tigray. After months of resistance, they are now ready to accept offers to sit at the negotiating table.
After a few days, the party finally announce an agreement. The ceasefire calls for Tigraan forces to disarm within a month and Ethiopian forces to take over airports and government facilities in Tigray. There is a clear winner.
Will this ceasefire be maintained?
The TPLF says it has withdrawn 65% of its forces from the front lines. Party officials say they will not be fully discharged until Eritrean withdraws, as the Tigrays are worried about ongoing attacks from their northern neighbour. So the question of Eritrea is hanging over this crisis.
What’s next for Ethiopia?
The Ethiopian government has been trying to defeat the Tigray forces for years, using every tool of war to destroy them. What does justice and reconciliation look like? How does Tigray economic recovery? How can Ethiopia rejoin the rest of the world?
Ethiopia is home to the headquarters of the African Union. It is the only country on the African continent that has never been a colony. Before the war, Ethiopia meant a lot to Africans. It still matters, but for a completely different reason.
Abdi Latif Dahir is based in Nairobi and has been covering East Africa for The Times since 2019. He grew up in Mogadishu and has 21 siblings. Together, they can put on two full teams.
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