The Unsettling Issue of Tigray
Amb Gurjit Singh

July 2021 was envisaged as a turning point in current Ethiopian history. The results of the partial elections held in June1 provided a resounding victory for the Prosperity Party led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. This was preceded by a withdrawal of Ethiopian Defence Forces (ENDF) from Mekelle, the capital of Tigray and several parts of the Northern state. Eritrean forces which had helped ENDF subdue and chase away Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) forces moved towards their own borders. Armed militia from the adjoining state of Amhara did not leave the lands they occupied in Tigray. A surprise unilateral ceasefire and withdrawal of ENDF from Tigray was announced on 28 June. The Foreign Minister told diplomats that this was to facilitate the farming season.2 Analysts saw this as a defeat of the ENDFwhich had retreated.3

Abiy indicated that objectives in Tigray were achieved, but their forces were facing repeated attacks and casualties, which was now not worth the effort. He also wanted to focus on other priorities.4 Political activity was to take precedence with the conclusion of the elections and the victory of the Prosperity Party. There was a collective sigh of relief heaved by the international community and friends of Ethiopia. Ethiopia could now focus on its real problems of development. The immediate requirement was of humanitarian assistance and alleviation of victims of conflict, particularly in the Tigray area.5

In reality, however, in the first half of July despite the political victory, there seems to be wariness. Despite the acquisition of legitimacy from the election, the future of Ethiopia is uncertain.

The Military Situation

Tigray forces have established control over some parts of the region. How much of administration and governance they provide remains in doubt, since infrastructure is not operational, and power and telecommunications are closed.6 Access of aid agencies is limited, and most of them are perceived as the enemy as many groups believe that aid agencies provide succour to theTPLF and their supporters. The horrendous stories of rape and starvation being used as weapons require much corroboration. International media which has accessed Tigray and the role by the US and the EU, have created a troublesome narrative. Ethiopia needs to handle this as was made clear at the UN Security Council meeting on 2 July 2021.7

The peace dividend appears short-lived and belies expectations. Tigrayan forces are organising themselves and moving into other regions like Afar to root out rivals.8 This was a surprise strike to prevent Afar militias from joining with Oromia militias. The ENDF has now gone to Afar. The Government has taken recourse to gathering regional militias to challenge the TPLF. Militias from Oromia, Southern, Somali and Sidama regions9 are reportedly sent to the Tigray border while Amhara militias continue the challenge in Western Tigray.10 Tigrayans in Addis and their businesses are under stress11.

The Political Situation

The political impasse should melt with the declaration of the election results announced on 10 July. The Prosperity Party won a pyrrhic victory with 410 out 436 seats for which elections were held. About 100 constituencies including 38 in Tigray did not poll. Other than Tigray the others may conclude by September. The idea behind the election was to win but not a landslide which reminds all of EPRDF victories. However, with several parties banned, or boycotting the elections, they had a wider absorption but yet fell short.12 Opposition parties won 11 seats. The Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice Party filed 207 complaints with the National Election Board over irregularities13.

The new parliament may meet by end of September when a new government is formed. Abiy promises to include some opposition members too. Their numbers are small, just as they were in previous Parliaments. Parties from the most populous Oromia declared their own interim government as most of them had boycotted the elections, calling them unfair.14 Therefore, the ferment is not quelled by the election and would require much more effort. Local skirmishes also continue to trouble the Government in several regions.15

The question of the future of the Ethiopian polity remains. The reason why the TPLF had withdrawn to Mekelle from Addis Ababa in 2019 was that theydid not want a unitary type of political dispensation. Abiy had asked the four main EPRDF parties representing Tigray, Oromia, Amhara and the Southern region to merge into the Prosperity Party. The others extinguished their ethnic identity and merged but the TPLF refused. The constitutional provisions for ethnic federalism have seemingly not succeeded and Ethiopia needs to conjure a more acceptable political equation.16 A new province, Sidama, was created and the Southern region may be carved into further provinces.17 That is not a unitary concept but the party may be unitary in its control.

How regional aspirations are addressed will see the transformation from the current ethno-federal constitution and remains a moot point. This will need to satisfy the current regional states. When that experiment succeeds perhaps there will be a template to negotiate with the Tigray as well. Thus, the question of a political engagement to follow the ceasefire with Tigray remains adrift. Ethiopia needs to find a way to deal with its own people and their aspirations quickly. A new parliament will give them an avenue of setting out an agenda and perhaps fulfilling some of the aspirations.

The Perception Problem

Meanwhile, inflation is at unprecedented highs in Ethiopia. Due to poor economic conditions, impact of pandemic and the war effort, which cost $2.5 billion18 so far, the Ethiopian birr on 18 July fell to its lowest value to the US dollar. The growth rate has fallen to 2% compared to 9% in 2019 and 6% in 2020.19 Inflation has ascended from 13% in 2018 to 20% in 2020. The FDI inflows are slowing.20

Prime Minister Abiy was handed over the leadership of EPRDF in 2018. He became the head of the same party which had ruled Ethiopia since 1991. He came with a fresh outlook based on expanding democracy, human rights, free economy and freeing political prisoners. He embraced Eritrea a traditional enemy of Tigray. He won a Nobel Peace Prize for that. The political and economic expectations of a peaceful development of Ethiopia have been shattered since then. The perception of Ethiopia has changed from the euphoria of the Nobel Peace Prize to a debilitating and savage civil war.

Government sources complained that Western media, aid agencies and the US/EU combine were pressing them while ignoring the challenges and role of the TPLF. This was causing a negative perception which affects the economy as well. Ethiopia is now facing the conundrum of hard domestic policy coming up against international expectations of it.

Ethiopia is grateful to India for its quiet understanding and support at the UN SC, the Human Rights Comisene and debt relief in 2020. Indian businessmen are also supportive of Addis Ababa even though investments in Tigray suffered badly. A return to peace is what India and Indians consistently seek. It is up to Ethiopia to deliver that hope.

  1. Gurjit Singh:The Importance of Ethiopian Elections, VIF, 29 June 2021,
    The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ethiopia, Facebook post, 2 July 2021,
  2. Declan Walsh and Simon Marks.Ethiopian Forces Retreat in Tigray, and Rebels Enter the Capital, The New York Times 28 June 2021,
  3. Abiy Ahmed: Why I withdrew ENDF from Tigray, Garowe Online,1 July 2021,
  4. U.N. warns of more violence in Tigray, Ethiopia denies blocking aid, Reuters 3 July 2021,
  5. Ethiopia - Tigray Region Humanitarian Update Situation Report, 9 July 2021, OCHA Relief Web, 9 July 2021,
  6. Ethiopia (Tigray): Open Briefing, UN Security Council, 2 July 2021,
  7. Dawit Endeshaw, Maggie Fick, Ethiopia's Tigray forces enter neighbouring Afar region, Afar says
    Reuters 19 July 2021,
  8. Brook Abdu, More regional security forces join Tigray war,More regional security forces join Tigray war, The Reporter, 17July 2021,
  9. Sisay Sahlu, Amhara forces reclaim towns from TPLF forces, The Reporter, 17July 2021,,
  10. Purely ethnic profiling’: New wave of Tigrayans detained, AP, 13 July 2021,
  11. Gurjit Singh, The Importance of Ethiopian Elections, VIF, 29 June 2021,
  12. Landslide victory for Ethiopia’s ruling party, second term for PM Abiy Ahmed, The Hindu, 11 July 2021,
  14. EHRC reports 39 killed in Benishangul Gumuz, The Reporter, 17July 2021,
  15. Gurjit Singh,In Ethiopia, an unnecessary war over federalism, ORF, 19 November 2020,
  16. Yonatan Fessha, Ethiopia’s Sidama people have voted for their own state, a turning point for an uncertain federalism, Quartz Africa, 4 December-, 2019
  17. How the conflict in Tigray is fraying Ethiopia’s finances, Al Jazeera, 17 July 2021,
  18. Ethiopia: Growth rate of the real gross domestic product (GDP), Statista,
  19. Giulia Paravicini, Ethiopia's economic reform drive splutters for foreign investors, Reuters, 15 June 2021,

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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