Understanding Ethiopia’s Tigray War

February 2023 9781787388116 392pp
Available as an eBook
EU Customers


The war in Ethiopia’s northern region of Tigray began in November 2020. It inflicted more casualties than any other contemporary conflict in the world. It has also been among the least understood.

The fighting and accompanying blockade led to an estimated 600,000 deaths – more than the number who died in the 1984-5 famine. International journalists were banned as the region was sealed off from the outside world by Ethiopian and Eritrean governments prosecuting a strategy designed to crush Tigray at almost any cost.

Hatred of Tigrayans was stoked by senior advisers to Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed: they have called Tigrayans ‘weeds’ who must be uprooted, their place in history extinguished. Their language was reminiscent of that which preceded the genocide in Rwanda.

The war was also orchestrated by Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki, who came to wield increasing influence over Ethiopian affairs. It drew in Somali troops as well as Eritrean forces. Peace agreements signed in November 2022 ended the worst of the violence, but without resolving the war’s underlying drivers, which continue to feed a tense and uncertain situation.

This book provides the first clear explanation of the factors that led to the conflict, unravelling their roots in Ethiopia’s long and complex history. It describes the battles that were fought at such terrible cost and the immense suffering, particularly of women, who were brutally abused.


‘Sarah Vaughan and Martin Plaut’s book represents the first serious attempt at an account of the conflict.’ — London Review of Books

‘The book is well structured and insightful. Its strength lies in effectively connecting historical, political, social and international dimensions, making it invaluable for understanding the Tigray crisis and its broader implications across the Horn of Africa.’ — International Affairs

‘[A] comprehensive and compelling study …  This is the definitive account of Ethiopian’s most recent civil war.’ — CHOICE

‘Timely, forceful and essential. A groundbreaking and deeply researched exploration of the war still ravaging Tigray. A vital contribution to the understanding of a devastating but largely hidden conflict, which could well prove to be a defining moment, not just for Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa, but for the whole continent.’ — Andrew Harding, BBC Africa correspondent, and author of The Mayor of Mogadishu

‘With historical depth, trenchant analysis of current events and concern for the human suffering involved, this is essential for understanding the tragic war in northern Ethiopia.’ — Christopher Clapham, Centre of African Studies, University of Cambridge

‘The Ethiopian–Eritrean war against Tigray is the world’s most lethal conflict, characterised by extreme brutality and the use of mass starvation as a weapon. It has unfolded behind a wall of silence and disinformation. This important book sets a high standard, paying scrupulous attention to the evidence and analysing the conflict and atrocities in their political context.’ — Alex de Waal, Executive Director of the World Peace Foundation

‘A moving account that chronicles the genesis, nature and key features of the Tigray war, as well as the Tigrayans’ resistance. This lucid analysis of developments will be of significant interest to scholars of contemporary Ethiopia.’ — Mulugeta Gebrehiwot, Senior Fellow and Program Director, World Peace Foundation, Tufts University, and author of Laying the Past to Rest: The EPRDF and the Challenges of Ethiopian State-Building

‘Not only a good political history of modern Ethiopia, but an attempt at answering the question: is war the only way to arbitrate between a unitary and a federalist version of a nation?’ — Gérard Prunier, author of The Country That Does Not Exist: A History of Somaliland and co-editor of Understanding Contemporary Ethiopia


Martin Plaut, the BBC World Service's former Africa Editor, has published extensively on African affairs. An adviser to the Foreign Office and the US State Department, he is Senior Researcher at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies.

Sarah Vaughan PhD has worked in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa since the late 1980s, and has taught African politics and social theory in Scotland and Ethiopia.

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