Ethiopia's Tigray conflict explained: How a year of bloodshed has sparked fears of a wider civil war

The conflict in Ethiopia's Tigray region has spread through the north of the country at the cost of thousands of lives amid widespread reports of atrocities committed by all factions.

Thousands killed, more than 2 million people displaced

An Ethiopian woman who fled fighting in the Tigray region carries her child near the Setit river on the Sudan-Ethiopia border in Hamdayet village, in eastern Kassala state, Sudan, in November 2020. (Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters)

The conflict in Ethiopia's Tigray region has spread through the north of the country at the cost of thousands of lives amid widespread reports of atrocities committed by all factions.

Observers say the fighting threatens to destabilize the Horn of Africa region and could worsen an ongoing famine in Tigray, while the United Nations warned that the risk of Ethiopia spiralling into a widening civil war is "only too real."

More than two million people in Tigray have fled their homes.

How did the conflict start?

The fighting began in November 2020, when forces loyal to the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) seized military bases in Tigray. It came just three months after the central government postponed a scheduled general election, citing the COVID-19 pandemic.

When the Tigray region held its own regional elections in September 2020, the central government declared the vote unconstitutional.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed responded to the TPLF's attacks with a military counter-offensive that has spiralled beyond Tigray, as militias and separatist groups from other regions took up arms against the central government.

The Ethiopian government declared a unilateral ceasefire in June, and its forces retreated from the region, but the fighting has intensified in recent weeks, as Tigrayan forces retook key towns and advance closer to the capital, Addis Ababa.

Who's fighting whom?

The TPLF rules the mountainous Tigray region, which has a population of more than five million people, and was the dominant force in Ethiopian politics for decades. The dominance of the paramilitary group effectively ceased when Abiy was elected to office in 2018 in a popular uprising following his pledge to open up what has long been one of the most restrictive political systems in Africa.

Abiy, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for his efforts in securing peace between Ethiopia and neighbouring Eritrea, has accused the TPLF of treason and terrorism.


Since coming to office, Abiy has failed to tamp down ethnic violence within his own country, and any image of him as a peacemaker appears irrevocably stained by the atrocities committed by Ethiopian forces and their Eritrean allies in Tigray.

Last week, a joint investigation by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and the UN Human Rights Office concluded that there are "reasonable grounds to believe that all parties to the conflict in Tigray have, to varying degrees, committed violations of international human rights, humanitarian and refugee law, some of which may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity."

WATCH | Ethiopian-Canadian journalist on the chances of a ceasefire: 

Canada calls on all warring parties in Ethiopia to immediately end hostilities

3 months ago
Duration 6:19
Samuel Getachew, an Ethiopian-Canadian journalist, joined Power & Politics Monday from Addis Ababa to discuss the year-long Ethiopian civil war that has seen thousands killed and millions displaced, with widespread reports of human rights atrocities. 6:19

The acts the investigation uncovered included unlawful killings and extra-judicial executions, torture, sexual and gender-based violence, violations against refugees and forced displacement of civilians.

In June, the UN's top humanitarian official, Mark Lowcock, accused Eritrean forces of "trying to deal with the Tigrayan population by starving them."

The conflict is "defined overall by a legacy of sexual violation that has happened to many women and girls," Ethiopian-Canadian journalist Samuel Getachew told CBC News on Monday in an interview from Addis Ababa.

What are Canada and the world community doing?

The threat to the capital led Ethiopia's government to declare a state of emergency last week, and Canada, the United States and other countries urged citizens to leave immediately.

Canada is also withdrawing the families of its embassy staff and non-essential personnel from Ethiopia as fighting intensifies.

Global Affairs Canada issued a statement on Sunday calling for an immediate cessation of hostilities and "an end to indiscriminate attacks on civilians and humanitarian personnel in northern Ethiopia."

U.S. and African Union envoys have been holding urgent talks in Ethiopia in search of a ceasefire. But Getachew said there doesn't appear to be any interest on the part of the Ethiopian government and the TPLF to sit down and negotiate a ceasefire.

"The Ethiopian side is saying it's [acting] for the foundation of the country, and the TPLF is saying they're trying to prevent genocide," Getachew said.

"With these kinds of words and accusations going back and forth, it's really difficult to see an end in sight, and more people will be affected as a result."

Advocates from the Tigrayan community in Canada have also called on Ottawa to open its embassy in Addis Ababa to their relatives who are seeking protection during the conflict.

With files from Reuters, The Associated Press and The Canadian Press