Back to basics: President Isaias’s objective in the Tigray war

Martin Plaut


 The war in northern Ethiopia is the least reported and – until the war in Ukraine erupted – the bloodiest in the world. Over 100,000 have died since the conflict broke out in the Tigray region in November 2020.

Abiy Ahmed tours Sawa 19 July 2020

The fighting is rarely reported, but the humanitarian outcome is regularly reported by the United Nation’s Office for Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA). The numbers involved are so large they are hard to grasp. Some 5.2 million people are in need of aid. Some are in neighbouring Amhara state, but the vast majority are Tigrayans.

The UN and aid agencies are ready and willing to provide the aid they need, but Tigray is blockaded. It is suffering the modern equivalent of a medieval siege. From the north and west the region is cut off by Eritrean forces. From the south and east by the Ethiopian military.

As a result, the aid – so badly needed – cannot get in. As UNOCHA says in its latest report: “Since 12 July, only 8 per cent of the 16,000 trucks with the needed humanitarian supplies entered Tigray. As a result, humanitarian operations have been further impacted and humanitarian partners continue to reduce their operations. Two out of three partners halted their school feeding program this week due to lack of supplies and cash.”

Tiny quantities of medical supplies have been flown into the capital, Mekelle, but without the necessary fuel and trucks, it cannot be delivered very far from the city.

But what is the Tigray war all about?

The outbreak of the war 

The evening of the 3rd and early morning of 4th November 2020 saw the start of the Tigray war. On that single fact most narratives agree; but on little else. The official Ethiopian government version was provided by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.

In the early hours of November 4, 2020, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) attacked the Ethiopian National Defense Forces Base located in Tigray region and attempted to rob the northern command of artillery and military equipment. The last red line has been crossed with this morning’s attacks and the Federal government is therefore forced into a military confrontation. The Ethiopian National Defense Forces, under the direction of a Command Post, have been ordered to carry out their mission to save the country and the region from spiraling [sic.] into instability.

The government statement went on to claim that the Tigrayan government had been following a policy of “provocation and incitement for violence” for months and that the events of the 3rd and 4th November were simply the last straw. A state of emergency was declared. In January 2021, the federal government went further, stripping the TPLF of its status as a legal party and in May labelling it a terrorist organization.

A very different perspective was offered by Debretsion Gebremichael, President of Tigray’s regional government. “We didn’t initiate any attack,” he told Reuters in a text message in December 2020, arguing that some soldiers “joined us by rejecting [the] federal treatment to Tigray.”

The exact events of the night of the 3rd of 4th November are disputed but what is clear is that the conflict was not a bolt from the blue.

Tension had been building for months. The well-informed Horn of Africa analyst, Rashid Abdi, tweeted this warning on 31st October 2020. “[Eritrean President] Afewerki & [Ethiopian Prime Minister] Abiy actively considering military action to settle dispute with Tigrai. They are deaf to calls for dialogue, de- escalation. A war is coming. Eritrean troops making provocative manoeuvres on border. International community indulged Abiy. It bears full responsibility.”

A war that was long in the planning

 That Prime Minister Abiy is prepared to crush the Tigrayans is perhaps not difficult to understand. The Tigrayans controlled the Ethiopian government for 27 years (from the moment they captured Addis Ababa in 1991 until 2018 when they agreed to hand power to Prime Minister Abiy). They had exercised immense power over that time, through the ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, which they controlled via regional front organisations. The Tigrayans also held senior ranks in the government, military and security forces with their personnel, as well as having a powerful hand in business.

When Prime Minister Abiy became premier in 2018 he was determined to remove this influence as a precursor to re-centralising the Ethiopian state. This was an explicit rejection of the ethnic federalist model which the Tigrayans had used to run the country and had long been a source of discontent.4 Once in control of the Ethiopian state, the prime minister was able to dismantle this system and purge the upper echelons of the military and security services of Tigrayans.

As an article in African Intelligence put it: ‘As soon as he arrived in power in 2018, the Ethiopian prime minister announced that he planned to reform the Ethiopian army high command, which he saw as a Tigrayan leadership stronghold. The reform, which was carried out quietly over two years, enabled Abiy to remove officers who were too closely linked to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front’.6

The attitude of Prime Minister Abiy does not, however, explain the involvement of Eritreans led by their autocratic president, Isaias Afwerki. The Eritrean president’s hatred of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) is longstanding, complex and visceral.

Isaias’s loathing came about because of deep-seated differences over politics, strategy and – perhaps above all else – the question of which liberation movement was the region’s ‘top dog’.

Since the Eritreans had been the first to revolt against Ethiopia (in 1961) while the Tigrayans did so in the mid-1970s, Isaias regarded his movement as primus inter pares. The Tigrayans at times worked with the Eritreans, but never trusted them. In the mid-1980s these divisions spilled over into an open dispute. There was a complete suspension of communications between the EPLF and TPLF between 1985 and 1988.2

In time, relations between the EPLF and TPLF were mended, since neither could successfully confront the Ethiopian government – the Derg – alone. In 1988 the two movements met and agreed to put aside their differences, but a residue and suspicion and bitterness remained. The Tigrayans and Eritreans co-operated in ousting the previous regime in 1991, each movement seizing their respective capitals.

When Eritrea finally achieved internationally recognised independence in 1993 the Tigrayan leader, Meles Zenawi, went to Asmara to celebrate the achievement. In his speech to the crowds he made what at the time appeared to be a strange remark: he advised his Eritrean hosts that it was time for both movements to put the past behind them and not to “scratch the wounds” of the past.

It was a warning that – unfortunately – neither side heeded.

The wounds festered, leading in time to the disastrous border war on 1998 – 2000. It is the issue that underlies President Isaias’s plots to destroy the Tigrayans. While the Tigrayans ran Ethiopian the Eritrean leader backed rebel movements attempting to overthrow the Ethiopian government. This took many forms, including, in January 2011, an attempt to attack an African Union summit being held in Addis Ababa.5 As the UN Monitoring Security Council Monitoring team reported:

[T]he Government of Eritrea conceived, planned, organized and directed a failed plot to disrupt the African Union summit in Addis Ababa by bombing a variety of civilian and governmental targets… Moreover, since the Eritrean intelligence apparatus responsible for the African Union summit plot is also active in Kenya, Somalia, the Sudan and Uganda, the level of threat it poses to these other countries must be re-evaluated.”

The 2011 plot failed, but Eritrea continued to host a variety of organisations that were bent on destroying the Tigrayan led Ethiopian government. It was only after the Tigrayans lost power in 2018 that the policy ended, with a number of rebel groups returning to Ethiopia from Eritrea.

Abiy Ahmed becomes Prime Minister in 2018

 With Abiy Ahmed installed as Prime Minister, President Isaias moved swiftly to win the Ethiopian leader’s confidence and to gain Abiy’s support for a complex scheme to destroy his Tigrayan enemies once and for all. None of this was undertaken in public, but just three months after Abiy assumed the premiership in April 2018 of Ethiopia he was in Asmara signing a peace deal with President Isaias.

With the relationship between Isaias and Abiy cemented, the two men began a series of bilateral meetings and visits as they planned what to do next. Below are some of these meetings, but there were more. “Mr. Abiy and Mr. Isaias met at least 14 times from the time they signed the peace deal until war broke out, public records and news reports show,” the New York Times reported.

A trilateral alliance 

It is worth noting that what began as a peace deal, celebrated by the international community, morphed into preparations for war over the following two years, with the Eritrean and Ethiopian leaders visiting each other’s military bases.

Perhaps the most important development was the transformation of what had been a bilateral relationship between the two neighbours into a trilateral alliance, including Somalia. This was sealed at a

summit meeting between the leaders of Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia on 27 January 2020 held in Asmara. Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo joined Prime Minister Abiy at a tripartite meeting hosted by President Isaias Afwerki. The formal declaration, although bland, revealed a plan to co-operate across a wide range of sectors – including security.

The three leaders adopted a Joint Plan of Action for 2020 and beyond focusing on the two main and intertwined objectives of consolidating peace, stability, and security as well as promoting economic and social development. On the security front, the three leaders formulated a comprehensive plan to combat and neutralize the common threats they face, including terrorism, arms and human trafficking and drug smuggling.

What was being outlined was an entirely novel re-organisation of the Horn of Africa, with the Somali leader being offered a junior partner role in re-shaping the region. They also provided a blueprint for the conflict that lay ahead, designed to re-shape the Horn of Africa.

In the weeks and months running up to the opening of the Tigray war in November 2020 these plans were refined and developed. Just prior to the conflict erupting in Tigray that President Isaias brought his closest political and military advisers together for an intense discussion on how to proceed.

The president told them that the country had to accept that it has a small and not very viable economy and a lengthy Red Sea coast, which Eritrean cannot patrol on its own. He is reported to have suggested that some sort of “union” with Ethiopia might be possible, at least in terms of economic co-operation and maritime security. In so doing Isaias appears to be echoing Prime Minister Abiy’s grandiose dream of re-establishing the old empire-state of Ethiopia.

Eritrean observers believe that Isaias has a grand vision of uniting the region, envisioning himself at the Horn’s helm. And he also believes that the biggest obstacle to the realisation of this vision is TPLF. Hence, the irreconcilable enmity.


 It is this vision that has been behind the tragic war in Tigray that began in November 2020. It explains why it has been so difficult to resolve.

The Biden administration has worked tirelessly to end the conflict, supported by the EU. They have worked with the African Union, which has been largely ineffective at resolving a conflict on its very doorstep.

Prime Minister Abiy and President Isaias remain determined to defeat the Tigrayans, who continue to resist. Hence the siege of Tigray and the immense loss of life and tragic use of indiscriminate bombing, looting and rape and sexual violence as weapons of war.



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