The Ethnic Roots of the War in Ethiopia and the Paradox of Tigrayan Ethnic Identity
The horrific and under-reported Tigray War in Ethiopia hinges largely on tensions between ethnolinguistic identity and national solidarity. Under both the Ethiopian monarchy during the Haile Selassie era (1930-1974) and the communist Derg regime (1974-1991), the government foregrounded the minority (30%) Amhara ethnic group and its Amharic language, pushing a harsh “Amharaization” program in many areas. Partly as a result, ethnic militias proliferated and eventually prevailed, toppling the brutal Derg government in 1991. Leading the fight was the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which represented the minority Tigrayan people, constituting only around six percent of Ethiopia’s population. The TPLF had allied with other insurgent groups in an umbrella group called the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Front (EPLF). After coming to power in 1991, this formerly Marxist-Leninist organization revised its political stance, dropping communism in favor of center-left ethnic federalism. Ethiopia’s old provinces were soon wiped off the map as the country was re-divided into semi-autonomous regions defined primarily on ethnolinguistic grounds.
Ethiopia’s new government performed well. By the early 2000s the country was booming, posting the world’s third highest gains in per capita GDP between 2000 and 2018. But ethnic problems continued to plague Ethiopia. Smaller ethnolinguistic groups, concentrated in the southwest, were unsettled by being amalgamated with other groups in composite regions. This was a particular problem in the linguistically fractured region called Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples. Owing to such ethnic pressure, the Ethiopian government eventually created several new autonomous regions. Elsewhere, ethnic groups clashed over regional boundaries, and anger was provoked when the government tried to shift internal borders. Critics argued that Ethiopia was undermining itself by insistently politicizing ethnicity.
After coming to power 2018, prime minister Abiy Ahmed sought to reorient Ethiopia away from ethnic federalism and toward civic nationalism. In 2019 he disbanded the ruling multi-ethnic coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Front (EPLF), replacing it with the non-ethnic Prosperity Party, which currently holds 454 out of 547 parliamentary seats. The Tigrayans were not pleased by this maneuver. They were already angered by their loss of prominent positions within the government and they now feared that they would eventually lose their regional political autonomy. As a result, they rebelled against the government in 2020, precipitating the current war.
The Tigrayan rebellion thus shows the continuing power of ethnic identity in multiethnic Ethiopia, as well as the relatively weakness of national bonds in many parts of the country. But the current conflict also ironically shows the limits of ethnolinguistic identity and the potential power of national bonding to unravel ethnic ties. The Tigrinya linguistic community that has historically underpinned Tigrayan ethnicity has long been spilt on geopolitical grounds, divided between Ethiopia and Eritrea ever since Italy successfully colonized the latter region in the late 1800s. Although Tigrinya speakers form a relatively small portion of Ethiopia’s population, they constitute roughly half of that of Eritrea, arguably forming the country’s dominant ethnic group. Most Tigrinya speakers in both countries also follow the same “Oriental” Orthodox Christian religion, although it was split into Ethiopian and Eritrean branches in 1991. Despite such cross-border ethnic ties, in the current conflict Eritrea is closely allied with the Ethiopian government against Ethiopia’s Tigrinya-speaking population. Eritrea has militarily occupied a small slice of Ethiopia’s Tigray Region and has reportedly attacked local people with brutality. No evidence of any pan-Tigrinya-speaking ethnic solidarity is readily available. In this case, it would seem that national identity has easily trumped language-based ethnic identity.
It is perilous to make such a claim, however, precisely because little information is available. Eritrea is one of the world’s most repressive and militarily dominated countries, sometimes put in the same category as North Korea. Its government has worked hard to generate a solid sense of Eritrean national identity and has perhaps succeeded. Its quest to do so was facilitated by its long war of independence against Ethiopia (1961-1991), followed by periodic border conflicts with the same country. But it must also be noted that many Eritreans chafe under their brutal government, prompting vast numbers to flee. As of 2016, an estimated 321,000 Eritrean refugees were living in Europe, with another half million in Ethiopia and Sudan, out of a total national population of roughly six million. Under such circumstances, it is difficult to come to any solid conclusions about ethnic and national identity in Eritrea.