Understanding Ethiopia’s Tigray War


The ongoing war and consequent famine in the Ethiopian province of Tigray are increasingly critical. International journalists are not being allowed to travel to the region, which is almost completely sealed off from the outside world. This is a deliberate strategy by the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments prosecuting the war: their aim is to crush the Tigrayans at almost any cost.

This differentiates the current crisis from the famine of 1984-5, when 400,000 died of starvation primarily as the result of a prolonged drought, exacerbated by war and government inaction. Today’s famine is a direct result of supplies to the region being cut off. Hatred of Tigrayans has been 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. This language is reminiscent of the statements that preceded the genocide in Rwanda.

The present situation has been orchestrated since 2018 by Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki, who wields considerable influence over Ethiopian affairs. His troops are deep inside Ethiopia, his security agents in its towns and cities. For both the Eritrean President and the Ethiopian Prime Minister, this appears to be a fight to the finish.


‘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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