Federal officials in Ethiopia say they’ve wrangled control over the northern region of Tigray, claiming active hostilities with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) ended with their capture late last month of the regional capital, Mekelle.

But even after the partial lifting of a communications black-out, the conflict remains marked by myriad uncertainties, says former ICWA fellow Robbie Corey-Boulet (West Africa 2015-2017), who is now covering the conflict for Agence France-Presse.

“We don’t know to what extent the federal authorities are going to be able to assert control over the region, if the population is going to accept them, or if the TPLF is going to stop fighting or not,” the Addis Ababa-based correspondent said. He was the first Western reporter to enter Tigray after violence broke out there.

The conflict erupted after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed—winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for mending fences with neighboring Eritrea—sent troops to tame an increasingly defiant TPLF, which led the country for three decades before Ahmed’s rise to power. Fighting broke out in early November after TPLF forces attacked a federal military base.

Tens of thousands of refugees have fled to neighboring Sudan since then while just as many were internally displaced by the fighting. The UN said last week that it had sent more than $35 million in aid to both countries.

Still, even some of the basic facts of the conflict remain unclear. For instance, the government hasn’t released an official casualty count, leaving journalists such as Corey-Boulet to search for people who have visited local hospitals to understand just how many troops and civilians have been killed and wounded.

Access to water and electricity are reportedly sporadic, while food insecurity is a growing concern because recent fighting has disrupted the harvest. The entire region also remains cut off from the banking system. Even those with the resources to feed their families are facing difficulties: “If they don’t have access to money, then they can’t pay for food,” Corey-Boulet said.

And there’s an array of potentially destabilizing factors further down the line.

Among the most important dynamics to watch in the coming weeks and months is how strong a role officials from the Amhara region—which borders Tigray to the west and south—will retain providing security for and administering parts of Tigray. It’s unclear how the federal government will handle probable demands from those officials to establish firmer control over land to which they’ve long laid claim.

“There are going to be some long-term issues over who’s in charge of what once the dust settles,” Corey-Boulet  said.

For its part, the TPLF has vowed to fight on—likely in a guerrilla-style conflict that would pose a serious threat to the government. That’s bad news for civilians caught in the middle: “Those displaced by this conflict are living on borrowed time,” a representative of the Norwegian Refugee Council told The Washington Post earlier this month.

The clock is also ticking for Nobel laureate President Ahmed to prove he’s capable of delivering peace once more.


Robbie Corey-Boulet’s fellowship was in West and Central Africa, where he researched LGBTI activism and homophobia. He published his first book, Love Falls on Us, last year.

Photo: Children in Tigray (Rod Waddington, Wikimedia Commons)