Non-international armed conflicts in Ethiopia
Ethiopia has been engaging in a NIAC against respectively the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA).
The Ethiopian central government has been engaging in a non-international armed conflict against the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA). Furthermore, Ethiopia was party to a NIAC against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). It has been reported that Eritrean troops were also fighting against the non-state forces.
Two criteria need to be assessed in order to establish whether the violence in Ethiopia meets the threshold for non-international armed conflict:
- First, the level of armed violence must reach a certain degree of intensity that goes beyond internal disturbances and tensions.
- Second, in every non-international armed conflict, at least one side in the conflict must be a non-state armed group which must exhibit a certain level of organization in order to qualify as a party to the non-international armed conflict. Government forces are presumed to satisfy the criteria of organization. For further information, see ‘Non-international armed conflict’ in our Classification section.
Intensity of violence
Various indicative factors are used to assess whether a given situation has met the required intensity threshold, such as the number, duration and intensity of individual confrontations; the types of weapons and military equipment used; the number of persons and types of forces participating in the fighting; the number of casualties; the extent of material destruction; the number of civilians fleeing and the involvement of the United Nations Security Council. For further information, see ‘non-international armed conflict – Intensity of violence’ in our Classification section.
Past conflict: Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)
Since the beginning of the 1990s, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) has controlled politics, economy, and the military in Ethiopia. However, at the beginning of 2018 demonstrations erupted in the country against the government, where the population expressed discontent and resentment due to the government’s corruption and repression of political opponents. Consequently, TPLF resigned and Dr Abyi Ahmed became the prime minister, dissolved the coalition in power, and created a new party. As TPLF refused to join the new coalition, its officials moved to the Tigray region. Since then, they have been challenging the prime minister and tensions have escalated. T. M. Kebebew and J. J. Niyo, ‘Instant Non-international Armed Conflict? Classifying the situation in Northern Ethiopia under IHL’, Armed Groups and International Law, 9 December 2020; G. de Walda, ‘Ethiopia: The relentless protests that forced the Prime Minister to resign’, African Arguments, 15 February 2018.
The situation worsened in March 2020, when the Ethiopian electoral board announced that they could not held elections in August, as originally planned, due to COVID-19 pandemic. Accordingly, the House of Federation, which is Ethiopia’s upper chamber, ‘extended the federal and regional governments’ terms beyond their five-year mandate until a point nine to twelve months after authorities deemed the pandemic sufficiently under control.’ International Crisis Group, Steering Ethiopia’s Tigray Crisis Away from Conflict, Briefing no. 162 / Africa, 30 October 2020. However, TPLF claimed that the decision was unconstitutional and held elections on 9 September. The central government declared Tigray’s election null and void and adopted a number of measures against the regional government, notably it provided federal funds directly to the local administrations, hence bypassing Tigray’s central administration. According to Tigray leaders, this decision was ‘tantamount to a declaration of war.’ International Crisis Group, Steering Ethiopia’s Tigray Crisis Away from Conflict, Briefing no. 162 / Africa, 30 October 2020.
On 4 November, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched a military offensive against TPLF, in response to an attack conducted against a federal army base, although Tigray forces deny their involvement in the military operation. ‘Tigray crisis: Ethiopia orders military response after army base seized’, BBC, 4 November 2020. Since then, fighting has been ongoing in the region between federal and Tigray’s forces. For instance, on 13 November 2020 TPLF launched rocket attacks on two airports in Amhara state and threatened to strike neighbouring Eritrea. ‘Ethiopia: Tigray forces target airports, threaten Eritrea’, Al Jazeera, 14 November 2020. On the other hand, Ethiopian forces have conducted armed attacks against the capital of Tigray. L. Wroughton, ‘600 civilians were killed in massacre in Tigray, Ethiopia’s rights commission says’, The Washington Post, 24 November 2020.
The fighting has raised humanitarian concerns and civilians have been heavily affected by the conflict. Notably, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission reported that at least 600 civilians have been killed in the town of Mai Kadra on 9 November 2020. L. Wroughton, ‘600 civilians were killed in massacre in Tigray, Ethiopia’s rights commission says’, The Washington Post, 24 November 2020. On 22 December 2020, UNHCR spokesperson Andrej Mahecic reported that ‘more than 52,000 refugees have fled the Tigray region into eastern Sudan’ in only 6 weeks. ‘UNHCR and partners urgently seek US$156 million to support refugees fleeing Ethiopia’s Tigray crisis’, UNHCR, 22 December 2020. See also S. Getachew, ‘Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict sees hundreds dead, thousands flee to Sudan’, The New Humanitarian, 10 November 2020.
Throughout the year 2021, confrontations kept going between Ethiopia and TPLF. As a consequence, on 6 May the Government designated TPLF as a terrorist organization. ‘TPLF and Shene designated as terrorist organisations’, Embassy of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia – London, UK, 7 May 2021. On 28 June, TPLF entered Mekelle, the regional capital, leading the federal Government to declare a “unilateral ceasefire”. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, June 2021. The organization also launched several offensives that led to gain control over Korem and Alamata towns in July. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, July 2021. In October 2021, Ethiopia conducted several attacks against Tigray forces, such as airstrikes in North and South Wello as well as ground offensive in Amhara region. Airstrikes were also launched on the regional capital Mekelle for the first time by Ethiopian air forces. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, October 2021. As retaliation, TPLF took control of several towns (Dessie and Kombolcha in Amhara region) by 30 October. ‘Tigrayan forces say they took town in Amhara region, Ethiopia denies it’, Reuters, 30 October 2021.
By 11 August 2021, TPLF formed alliance with the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA). ‘Ethiopia armed group says it has alliance with Tigray forces’, Al Jazeera, 11 August 2021. After Ethiopia claimed to have taken control back on several towns in Amhara zone in December 2021, TPLF announced a complete withdrawal from Afar and Amhara regions before calling for ceasefire. ‘Tigray forces withdraw from neighboring Ethiopian regions’, The National, 21 December 2021. A few days later, the Ethiopian government said that National Defense Forces would pause at their current positions. Gelmo Dawit, ‘Analysts: Ethiopian Forces’ Halt in Tigray Opens Window for Ceasefire’, VOA, 24 December 2021.
However, in January 2022, airstrikes were conducted by Ethiopian air forces in Tigray, killing at least 108 civilians and injuring at least 75. It is notable that, among the 108, 50 individuals were killed in a camp of Internally Displaced Persons. ‘At least 108 civilians killed so far in January in Tigray airstrikes, UN says’, France 24, 14 Janvier 2022. On 7 January 2022, Ethiopian Government said that they would be inclined to open dialogue with political opposition before releasing 6 former TPLF leaders. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, January 2022. However, clashes and attacks between Ethiopia and TPLF continued. It was, for example, the case in late-February in Amhara and on 4 March where Ethiopian air forces operated two drone attacks in northern Tigray region, notably near the airport in Shire city. ‘EPO Monthly: March 2022’, Ethiopia Peace Observatory, 23 April 2022; International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, February 2022. Nevertheless, from April 2022, no clash has been reported in northern Tigray since an agreement on humanitarian truce. ‘Ethiopia declares unilateral truce to allow aid into Tigray’, Al Jazeera, 24 March 2022; Jeremy Williams, ‘An Immediate “Humanitarian Truce” Temporarily Ends Hostilities in Ethiopias’s Tigray Conflict’, The Yale Review of International Studies, April 2022. Since, then TPLF announced the release of over 4,200 “prisoners of war”. ‘Ethiopia’s Tigray forces announce release of thousands of POWs’, Al Jazeera, 20 May 2022.
In June 2022, after the announcement of Tigray President, Debretsion Gebremichael, on his government being ready for talks, Ethiopia announced on 28 June the creation of a committee to hold peace talks, chaired by Deputy PM Demeke Mekonnen. The first meeting took place in early July 2022. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, June 2022; ‘Ethiopia sets up committee for Tigray peace talks’, TRT World, 15 June 2022; ‘Ethiopia holds first meeting of peace committee’, Macau News Agency, 14 July 2022.
At the end of October 2022, peace talks mediated by the African Union took place in Pretoria (South Africa). Only one week after the beginning of the negotiations, on 2 November 2022, the parties to the conflict in Tigray announced the decision to stop fighting. Olusegun Obasanjo, head of the AU mediation team, clarified that: ‘[t]he two parties in the Ethiopian conflict have formally agreed to the cessation of hostilities as well as to systematic, orderly, smooth and coordinated disarmament.’ A. Winning and T. Coocks, ‘Parties to war in Ethiopia's Tigray region agree to stop fighting’, Reuters, 2 November 2022; ‘Ethiopia's Tigray conflict: Truce agreed’, BBC, 2 November 2022.
At the beginning of 2023, the peace process continued making progresses. At the beginning of March, during a conference in Tigray, the main leaders of Tigray agreed to form an Interim Regional Administration (IRA), that was created in April 2023. However, three opposition parties did not attend the conference because they retain that TPLF monopolizes power. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch: Ethiopia. In light of the foregoing, it seems possible to declassify the conflict.
Oromo Liberation Army (OLA)
In 6 May 2021, the Ethiopian authorities designated the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) as a terrorist organization. In August 2021, TPLF and OLA formed an alliance. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, May 2021. If at first the actions and attacks of OLA were mainly targeting regional forces, the organization started to direct its attack towards government troops as well. It was for example the case in late-August and early-September 2021, when OLA claimed to have captured localities from government forces in East Wollega and parts of Borona Zones. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, September 2021. In October 2021, clashes started in Oromia region between OLA and the Government. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, October 2021. Towards the end of 2021, OLA claimed to have taken control of several cities in Shewa and Wollega, while fighting off government offensives such as drone attacks and airstrikes. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, November-December 2021.
In 2022, the conflict intensified. Indeed, Ethiopian forces have conducted intense offensives against OLA in Oromia Zone engendering several clashes between the government forces and the organization in January, February and April. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, January-February-May 2022; ‘Ethiopia: Additional fighting between military and armed groups likely in southern Oromia following clashes in early April’, Crisis24, 4 April 2022. Furthermore, on 14 June, OLA and Gambella Liberation Front rebels conducted a joint military operation against governmental forces. ‘Ethiopia: Clashes in Gambela June 14’, Crisis24, 14 June 2022.
Towards the end of 2022, fighting between OLA and Ethiopian forces intensified. For instance, in November state air forces launched drone strikes in West Wollega Zone, which led to the killing of 55 individuals. By the end of November, the group was controlling over a dozen districts in East and West Wollega zones. intense fighting continued at the beginning of 2023. Nevertheless, on 23 April 2023, Ethiopian PM Abiy announced the beginning of peace talks with OLA, which started on 25 April in Tanzania. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch: Ethiopia.
In light of the foregoing, it seems possible to conclude that the intensity requirement is met.https://www.crisisgroup.org/crisiswatch/database?location%5B%5D=116&date_range=last_6_months&from_month=01&from_year=2023&to_month=01&to_year=2023
A series of indicative factors are used to assess whether armed groups exhibit the required degree of organization, such as the existence of a command structure and disciplinary rules and mechanisms; the ability to procure, transport and distribute arms; the ability to plan, coordinate and carry out military operations; the ability to negotiate and conclude agreements, e.g. ceasefire or peace agreements. If the minimum criterion for organization of the armed groups is not fulfilled, there is no armed conflict. For further information, see ‘Non-international armed conflict – Organization’ in our Classification section.
Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)
The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) was founded in 1975 in Dedebit, northwestern Tigray, inspired by Marxist-Leninism. In 16 years, the group succeeded in gaining control over the Ethiopian and remained in power for nearly 30 years. J. Burke, ‘Rise and fall of Ethiopia’s TPLF – from rebels to rulers and back’, The Guardian, 25 November 2020. Since 2018, TPLF has trained its own special military forces and it has been reported that in Tigray there is ‘a large paramilitary force and a well-drilled local militia, thought to number perhaps 250,000 troops combined.’ International Crisis Group, Clashes over Ethiopia’s Tigray Region: Getting to a Ceasefire and National Dialogue, 5 November 2020. The organization requirement is further confirmed by the military capabilities of the group, notably by its capacity to carry out military operations outside the region under its control, for instance in the Eritrean capital. ‘Ethiopia Tigray crisis: Rockets hit outskirts of Eritrea capital’, BBC, 25 November 2020.
Oromo Liberation Army (OLA)
The OLA has firstly emerged as being the armed wing of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), a registered political party. In October 2018, The OLF decided to begin the disarmament of OLA, nevertheless, no deal was reached. OLA therefore decided to split from OLF and announced in April 2019 the establishment of its own High Command. ‘Guidance: Country policy and information note: Oromos, the Oromo Liberation Front and the Oromo Liberation Army, Ethiopia, March 2022’, UK Visas and Immigration, UK Government, 22 March 2022. Despite the split from the OLF, OLA continued to oppose the Government in Ethiopia. As a consequence, the organization was designated as a terrorist organization and decided to form alliance with the TPLF. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, May 2021; ‘Ethiopia armed group says it has alliance with Tigray forces’, Al Jazeera, 11 August 2021.
Debretsion Gebremichael, leader of TPFL, accused Eritrea of helping the central government, and claimed that ‘Eritrean soldiers are everywhere.’ The presence of Eritrean troops has been confirmed by aid workers present in the region, notably UN and EU officials. Furthermore, Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, affirmed that UNHCR has received ‘an overwhelming number of disturbing reports of Eritrean refugees in Tigray being killed, abducted and forcibly returned to Eritrea.’ International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, December 2020. As a reaction to the Eritrean involvement, TPLF has conducted armed attacks against the neighbouring country. J. Hursh, ‘Ethiopia’s Tigray Crisis: Escalating Violence and Mass Displacement Threaten Ethiopian and Regional Security’, Just Security, 25 November 2020. Nevertheless, the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments have denied any Ethiopian involvement in the conflict. Accordingly, it is premature to conclude that Eritrea is party to the conflict. ‘'Slaughtered like chickens': Eritrea heavily involved in Tigray conflict, say eyewitnesses’, The Guardian, 21 December 2020. It was only in March 2021 that Abiy Ahmed, the Ethiopian PM, admitted that that Eritrea had deployed troops in Tigray while Eritrea agreed to withdraw its forces. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, March 2021. Though it was said that Eritrean troops had started withdrawing mid-April 2021, the UN humanitarian chief, Mark Lowcock, said that the United Nations had not seen any proof of their withdrawal. ‘No proof of Eritrean troops’ Tigray exit, crisis worsening: UN’, Al Jazeera, 15 April 2021. Following the peace process between the Ethiopian government and the TPFL, which started in Autumn 2023 in the Tigray region, it has been reported that most Eritrean forces have withdrawn from Tigray, while small units still remain. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch: Ethiopia.
All parties to the conflict are bound by Article 3 common to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, which provides for the minimum standards to be respected and requires humane treatment without adverse distinction of all persons not or no longer taking active parts in hostilities. It prohibits murder, mutilation, torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, hostage taking and unfair trials.
All parties are also bound by customary international humanitarian law applicable to non-international armed conflict. Customary international law consists of unwritten rules that come from a general practice accepted as law. Based on extensive study, the International Committee of the Red Cross maintains a database of customary international humanitarian law.
In addition to international humanitarian law, international human rights law continues to apply during times of armed conflict. Under human rights law, the territorial state has an obligation to prevent and investigate alleged violations, including by non-state actors. Non-state armed groups are increasingly considered to be bound by international human rights law if they exercise de facto control over some areas.
- Oromo Liberation Army (OLA)