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Unity against the rich can undercut ethnic divisions in Ethiopia

This article is over 3 years, 6 months old
Ethiopia is facing a civil war—but the chaos won’t be solved by imperialist powers, writes Charlie Kimber
Issue 2732


Ethiopias prime minister Abiy Ahmed (left) with president of Rwanda Paul Kagame in February
Ethiopia’s prime minister Abiy Ahmed (left) with president of Rwanda Paul Kagame in February (Pic: Paul Kagame/Flickr)

Ethiopia, a country of 110 million people, is on the verge of civil war.

The fighting could draw in other counties in the Horn of Africa region and lead to mass starvation and vast numbers of refugees.

Hundreds of people have already died and tens of thousands have fled into neighbouring Sudan.

The United Nations has said a “full-scale humanitarian crisis” is unfolding.

Ethiopia’s national government declared war on the northern region of Tigray earlier this month.

Tigray is one of ten ­semi‑autonomous federal states and home to around six million Tigrayan people.

Prime minister Abiy Ahmed ordered airstrikes and a ground invasion after what he claimed was an attack by the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). This is Tigray’s ruling party.

“Tigray is now a hell to its enemies,” said TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael.

“As long as the army of the invaders is in our land, the fight will continue.”

On the other side Abiy’s spokesperson promised to end the “deadly crime spree” of Tigray’s “disgruntled, reactionary and rogue” leaders.


For 27 years Tigrayans were at the centre of the Ethiopian government.

That was a legacy of the TPLF’s war against the Derg military regime. Launched in 1975, the resistance toppled the Derg in 1991.

Meles Zenawi, a leading member of the TPLF, was prime minister from 1995 until 2012.

He set up a highly authoritarian regime designed to ram through industrial expansion to boost profits and compete with other countries.

Meles became a favourite of the West. He was part of former Labour leader Tony Blair’s Commission for Africa and supported the march of neoliberalism across the continent.

Ethiopia was one of only two African countries named as part of the US’s “coalition of the willing” supporting the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

It also hosted some of the “black sites” where people were taken for torture by the US and its allies.

The Ethiopian military played a key role in hosting US bases and invading Somalia in an attempt to break Islamist movements.

But gradually resistance grew against the regime.

Meles’ successor was forced out in 2018 after years of demonstrations, strikes and road blockades.

Abiy, who took over, was determined to reduce the TPLF’s influence.

He speedily returned to repression. Now he has moved to war.

But Tigray has a powerful military, with an estimated 250,000 troops.

The TPLF has used rockets to attack Asmara, capital of Eritrea. This neighbouring country broke away from Ethiopia in the early 1990s and the TPLF says Eritrea is siding with Abiy.

Some analysts say Ethiopia will become “Africa’s Yugoslavia”, the break-up of a state that will lead to years of violence involving Somalia, Eritrea, Djibouti and Sudan.

Ethnically-based killings have begun.


Amnesty International confirmed last week that “scores, and likely hundreds, of people were stabbed or hacked to death in Mai-Kadra town in Ethiopia’s Tigray Region on 9 November”.

Ethiopia’s ordinary people will not gain from the victory of either side.

They already faced accelerating coronavirus infections, water shortages and the worst locust infestation for 25 years before the fighting began.

Outside powers will seek to gain influence.

The US, China and the Gulf states have all tried to bend Ethiopia to their will in recent years.

They will continue to use the country as a pawn in their greater games.

Just 300 miles east from Ethiopia is Yemen, a terrible warning of the devastation caused by imperialist intervention.

However difficult it may seem, the only hope is a resurgence of protests and a united struggle of workers and the poor—whatever their ethnicity—against the rich.

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