Hawks and doves: The great divide over the war in Tigray

Pro- or anti-war, we should all agree that independent access to the conflict zone is a must.

On 3 November, a full-scale war broke out in Ethiopia between the federal government led by Abiy Ahmed and the TPLF-run Tigray regional government.

Addis Ababa declared victory three weeks into the conflict, but the Tigray People’s Liberation Front insists the fighting is ongoing. Unfortunately, we cannot be sure either way because of the lack of independent access to the war front.

Be that as it may, Ethiopians and friends of Ethiopia are engaged in an escalating war of words, with social media being the key battleground.

Without delving into why the war started in the first place, we can identify the pro-war and anti-war camps, each having four variations.

Let’s start with the hawks.

The Vengeful

This camp seeks revenge against the TPLF for the human rights violations the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) committed. The EPRDF was a coalition of four parties, among which TPLF was one.

The other three are currently in power under a new name, the Prosperity Party (PP), also led by Prime Minister Abiy. During the 28 years EPRDF was at the helm, many crimes were committed, including arbitrary arrests, torture and killings.

The EPRDF apologised for these, and the vengeful camp forgave Abiy and his PP colleagues—but not TPLF, which was the strongest one in the EPRDF coalition.

The hawks, therefore, cheered for the war as a way of securing drone-justice against TPLF. In a shrewd move, Abiy and PP saw an opportunity to defeat their former friends who had become thorns in their sides.

Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, who sent his troops into Tigray in support of Abiy, also has his own axe to grind with the TPLF after losing the Eritrean-Ethiopian war 20 years ago. He sees the current conflict as payback, a chance to humiliate and vanquish his arch-enemy.

The Irredentists

This camp consists of Amhara nationalists who wanted the war for restoration of territory in northern Ethiopia. They argue those territories were taken from them under duress and incorporated into Tigray region in the 1990s.

EPRDF’s failure to settle the longstanding territorial dispute made war the next option. Beating the drum for it began a while back. When it broke out, the Amhara police, special forces and militias swarmed Tigray. They occupied cities and towns, appointing mayors and administrators on the way.

The One-Ethiopianists

In this camp are the fervent hawks. They see the current multinational federation, which demarcated the country’s regions into nationalities’ blocks, as a danger to Ethiopia’s unity. They argue that the federal system, championed by the likes of the TPLF and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), is destabilizing. They say it has created ‘natives’ versus ‘settler’ tensions within regions, becoming the cause of inter-communal conflict.

For the One-Ethiopianists, removing TPLF will pave the way to discard the multinational federation and replace it with a system that espouses an Ethiopian identity rather than multination identities, which, in their view, don’t exist at all, or at least should be de-emphasized.

The Status Quo Adherents

This camp sees an armed TPLF as another threat just when they thought the country was embarking on a transition into some semblance of stability. For them, the tell-tale signs were there when the TPLF decided to defiantly hold the regional election in Tigray, while Abiy and PP postponed it because of the pandemic.

Tigray’s increased autonomy and TPLF’s strength were seen as signs of a looming conflict with the federal government and perpetual instability. Hence, they see war as a necessary evil to quell TPLF and maintain the status quo.

Let’s now turn to the doves, who also fall into four camps.

The TPLFites

This camp has in it members of the party and its sympathisers. The party members are fighting tooth and nail to win the war and save the TPLF as their own existence is at risk. The sympathisers also include those who enjoyed the patronage of the TPLF and the benefits that came with it. For others, the TPLF is a symbol of Tigrayan resurgence in Ethiopian polity—a liberation movement intertwined with the Tigrayan psyche.

Here, an essential factor is the estimated 60,000 martyrs who lost their lives and the many who got injured in the fight against the Derg. As the Tigrayans would like to say, at least one member in every Tigrayan household is a TPLF fighter.

The Woyanes

In this camp are Tigrayans who aren’t members of the TPLF. Their objection to the war comes from national pride. They see the war as an attack on the people of Tigray. An attempt to subdue them once again whenever they stand up for self-determination.

This has historical undertones to it. Haile Selassie quashed the Woyane movement in the 1940s using the UK Royal Air Force. Then came Mengistu Hailemariam and the Derg who fought hard to eliminate Tigrayan opposition between 1975 and 1991.

For the Woyanes, the recent war that Abiy and PP declared on TPLF, is, therefore, another such attempt to crush Tigrayans’ aspiration for self-rule. The evidence, they say, is that Abiy and PP are allowing Eritrean troops to kill, loot and destroy property; the recent shelling of the Al Nejashi Mosque is cited as just one example.

The Federalists

This camp sees TPLF as the critical ally and architect of the multinational federation. They include the Oromo and other nationalities who consider the current federal system as the sine qua non of self-rule at the regional level.

The anti-war federalists campaigned vigorously to stop the war. They fear, with TPLF out of the way, the One-Ethiopianist forces will have a field day to replace the federation with something else, potentially bringing back the centralized hegemony of the past.

The Pacifists

In this last camp belong the classic doves who believe war is unjustifiable to resolve political differences. They are worried about the humanitarian crises already afflicting civilians. They point to the refugee crisis where over 56,000 Tigrayans have crossed the border to Sudan, and to the 2.2 million people displaced internally and the 4.5 million in need of food assistance.

For the pacifists, no amount of political bickering, especially among former comrades, should result in a situation where civilians bear the brunt of the conflict.

Concern has also come from observers who warned about the spillover effect of the war on the entire region and the prospect of a refugee crisis that could have far-reaching consequences beyond Africa.

Wherever you find yourself in the above camps, you must agree that the ban on independent reporting from Tigray and the fettered humanitarian access are indefensible.

At the very least, this should unify all of us.

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Main photo: Dejena Hotel and Spa in Shire, which was damaged during the war; Stijn Vercruysse.

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About the author

Fassil Hailu

Fassil is a pen name for a regular Ethiopia Insight columnist. He is an independent analyst and writes on development and political economy, with a special focus on the Horn of Africa.


  • A good article overall! The writer (maybe unintentionally) diminished the federalist camp to OLF and TPLF. No ONLF,SLF(Sidama) or APP(Afar). An overwhelming majority of the wider ‘South’ supports Ethno-Linguistic Federalism. Unionist administration led to the split of Eritrea. Any move to return to it will lead to the end of Ethiopia. Remember many foreign actors have competing insterests. Unionists should tread carefully.

  • The only way out of this political mess is to keep the existing federal system and to apply it genuinely; no more or less.

    This form of goverment has the support of all ethnic groups except the urban elites. Those who are pining for the old Ethiopia cannot win election through the ballot. That is why they have been sponsoring conflicts across Oromia and Gumuz-Benishangul regionsal states. They fear that their linguistic and cultural dominance will be in jeopardy in the long run. They need to come to terms with reality on the ground and shake off their attitude of linguistic Feudalism and Darwinism.

    • Bad reasoning. Those sponsoring conflicts in the Oromo and Gumuz areas are doing so in order to kill Amhara or Orthodox followers. Saying those pining for old Ethiopia are sponsoring these killings is a complete lie.

  • You should try standup comedy cause this was nothing but a joke. You even blatantly ignored the exact reason the war started.
    The EPRDF didn’t apoligize Abiy apoligized, and the TPLF said “the only apology we owe are to the people of Tigray not to the people Ethiopia.”

    And another thing nuti Ilmaan oromoo TPLFin yoomiyyuu hin deeggarnuu.

    • We will never support TPLF as we will never support PP. TPLF Eebbisaa Addunyaa nyaate,PPn Hacaaluu nyaate. Lamaanu diina!

  • I feel like there is a missing block left out of the categorization perhaps, intentionally. There are so many who support the Federation of the country based on several key elements than ethnicity/language only. To start with, the system that we have now doesn’t even take in to account the very basic yardstick it put in place when it structured the country the way we have it now. Most of us know the reason why…and some of us want to see the other way and would constantly prefer to blame the phantom unionist (ahadawi) camp. Some places are taken away from some region and given to others as a bounty for the so called sacrifice they made to defeat the Dergu regime. Some ethnic groups are lumped together (Like SNNP) despite them being able to be Federal states on their own…like Sidama, Wolayita, Guraghe and many many more. Some are given a whole region of their own despite the fact that they are the minorities in that said Federal State. Some like Addis Ababa, which is the third largest in-terms of the size of population, is given a status that is very contentious and very dangerous. The system is constructed, so it appears, to target and disenfranchise a certain community which is constitutionally designated as enemy of all. Pah!!

    You can’t have a country where some are biting more than they can chew while others are denied of even the basic human status. Now TPLF is gone and OLF is trying to admittedly be the replacement to foster its hegemony on the fertile ground created for it by the power that is now decimated.

    We all know that the current structure isn’t accommodative of differences and is being an instrument of genocide and ethnic cleansing, where the rush for mono ethnic state building is taking the center stage. There are millions of mixed ethnic background Ethiopians who are forced to choose one parent over the other. There are also many million Ethiopians who are considered as foreigners in their own country by the design of the Federal structure itself just because they happen to be living outside of their designated ethnic enclaves.

    It would be a worthwhile endeavor to pinpoint the problems of the current structure and come up with something workable that could be a win win for all. Otherwise, misinterpreting problems and blaming something that doesn’t exist will only lead us to do more of the same.

    • Correct. Ethnofederalism is no better than the past regimes which killed innocent civilians. And the liberation fronts talk about it like it is the way for peace.

  • Thanks Fassil for the concise and short piece. It’s surely to the point analysis without much tangential issues or other minor poltical agendas and grievances. That said, I may also suggest that some of those subcategories mentioned within the “Doves vs Hawks” camps were also held and still hold sonewhat overlapping position roles vis-a-avis the deadly and avoidable conflict.. For instance, while I myself believe the preservation of the multinational federalism is sacrosanct for the future of the country to exist, I was also worried about the unfolding humanitarian crisis and human rights abuses in that region and elsewhere in the country, and of course including the free access of the independent media and humanitarian aid to the region. Nearly two months after the fact, it now seems that our fears and inclination were proven right. The million dollar
    question is what’s going on behind the black curtain? Or what rot are they still hidding behind and at what cost for the nation.?

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