Foreign Affairs Foreign Affairs


In a year of intense conflict, Ethiopia’s Civil War has proven to be a continuing threat to global stability. The conflict has claimed 600,000 lives and displaced 5 million more since fighting broke out in 2020. Pitting the Tigray, who reside in the nation’s arid north, against the formerly marginalized Amhara has destabilized the economic output of Ethiopia and the security of the Horn of Africa. However, the tides are turning.


Before ethnic-Amhara Prime Minister Ahmed Abiy took power in 2018, the Tigray ruled over the people beginning in 1991 with the overthrow of the Derg. The Derg had staged a coup d’etat in 1974, overthrowing the long-reigning kingdom known as the “Ethiopian Empire.”

As this unfolded, a pattern emerged with each new leader. The old leadership would be deposed with accusations of oppressive practices against the people, only to be replaced by even more oppressive leaders, the very ones who had condemned such tyranny in the first place. The current PM used the same “savior” tactic to garner votes, then abused his position of power by targeting the Tigray. The tables turned on the Tigray as the old regime led by the minority group was forced out and left with zero political representation. 

What began as a hopeful journey for the Nobel Peace Prize winner quickly regressed into a vicious genocidal campaign with the help of Eritrean PM Isaias Afwerki. Old rivalries, resentments, and mistrust between the Amhara, Tigray, and Eritrea set them on a collision course resulting in Civil War and genocide. Without the external intervention seen in similar regional conflicts, the violence has festered, spilling over into neighboring states.


Putting the conflict into perspective requires an understanding of its root causes. What motivates the Ethiopian leader to approve the military’s use of human rights atrocities against the Tigray? According to a local Ethiopian identified as Yohannes, the Civil War does not come as a surprise, as he states,

 “We (Ethiopians) have heard about the prophecy given by the Prime Minister’s mother; he believes he will be the seventh king. He is trying to bring the empire back to life.”

When asked what he meant by empire, Yohannes responded, “I don’t know why people say Ethiopia has never been colonized, we lived under Italian rule for five years, and Eritrea broke away from Ethiopia after 60 years of Italian colonization. But more than that, we have been burdened with internal colonization since the beginning. So many different groups and so many confederations. That is why the country is divided. The Prime Minister wants to rule over all Ethiopians as the chosen one.” 


According to Yohannes, the justifications for the latest bout of conflict are used as a smokescreen to hide the PM’s motives. He believes the desire for power fuels PM Abiy and will determine whether the peace treaty signed in November has any merit. 

The individual testimony Yohannes gave was eye-opening, but looking at the widely accepted reasons behind the conflict is also worthwhile. The widespread consensus on the Ethiopian Civil War is that the following combination of factors caused it: 

  • Broad resentment kicked into high gear after the minority Tigray used its power to oppress the majority for 40 years, leading to fear among the people that their rights would never return.
  • Current PM Abiy is viewed as a savior from the senior leadership as the people view the present status quo better than past oligarchic leaders that starved the country of its potential or growth.
  • The Tigray were compelled to make their presence known by holding a referendum to break away from Ethiopia—the government’s refusal to acknowledge such actions led to the attack on an Ethiopian military base. The government retaliated by indiscriminately shelling civilian centers.
  • The PM used the opportunity to wage war against the Tigray because the government made a peace deal with Eritrea and openly expressed hatred for the Tigray. Both PM Ahmed and PM Isaias formed a partnership to “take care” of the problem by attacking the Tigray from all directions.
  • This blockade has resulted in the largest manufactured famine in modern history, with the government refusing entry of humanitarian aid into affected areas. Many in Ethiopia believe this cruelty is the majority seeking revenge for decades of feeling inferior.
  • The Tigray population is regularly called “cockroaches” or “weeds” that must be stamped out, dehumanizing the Tigrayans. Furthermore, camps are established where mass rapes and torture occur against defenseless men, women, and children. If Tigrayans fight back, they are accused of taking the offensive position, and when they stop firing, they are abused.
  • PM Abiy is against self-determination for the Tigray because Ethiopia needs a clear path to Europe, the Red Sea, the East, and neighboring African states to conduct international trade. A sovereign Tigray could spell trouble for Ethiopia’s economy in the long run.


Given the high level of awareness and partnership in critical areas between the United States and Ethiopia, the State Department could potentially employ the following mitigation strategies:

  1. Approach the Ethiopian leadership with an offer to mediate a peace plan between the government and the Tigray without threatening its sovereignty.
  2. If the Ethiopian government is unresponsive, remind them of the military and economic benefits they enjoy due to a Western alliance and that a reliable partner is necessary to continue the partnership, which the Civil War disrupts.
  3. Imply consequences include the involvement of an external body, particularly that of the International Criminal Court (ICC) if the meddlesome actions of the Eritrean military continue to go unchecked. 
  4. Approach neighboring countries like Sudan and Egypt to discuss the long-term negative impact of an influx of refugees, terrorism along state borders, and blockage of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) if the violence continues unabated.
  5. After reaching a peace agreement, both sides must immediately halt all attempts at gaslighting the other, especially concerning atrocities committed against both populations. The process of transitional justice must begin immediately.
  6. Involve the Diaspora as a unified front. Encourage public dialogue broadcasted on live television, demonstrating an ability for various ethnic groups (Amhara, Tigray, Oromo) to find common ground. By calling on their leaders in Ethiopia to end the Civil War and genocide, they are setting an example for fellow Ethiopians to acknowledge the humanity in one another. Outside organizations like IOM and African Union would assist and meditate. 


As Ethiopia attempts to chart a path to peace, external mediation groups like the State Department could become more involved in the peace process to ensure agreements hold. With China and Russia’s sights set on African minerals, the United States would naturally have a stake in the outcome of the conflict.

Failure to take actionable steps may allow China and Russia to replace any Western presence in Africa with their own quietly. Furthermore, the West relies on Ethiopia for regional security; if it falls, the subsequent domino effect could be catastrophic.

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