10 Conflicts to Worry About in 2022
Deep roots to a complicated conflict hinder options for peace
Conflict between the Ethiopian federal government and the political administration of the northern Tigray region, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), continued throughout 2021, resulting in the highest levels of political violence in Ethiopia since the end of the Ethiopian-Eritrean War in June 2000. In November 2021, Ethiopia’s civil conflict passed the one-year mark and the ‘quick victory’ promised by both sides has dragged into a second year. Daily clashes, many high-fatality incidents of violence against civilians, and an increasing number of air and drone strikes have marked a difficult year for the country.
The Ethiopian government’s attempt to dislodge the TPLF from control of the Tigray region resulted in a costly occupation, despite heavy assistance from Eritrea and a military advantage at the outset of the war. Thousands of civilians were killed, and civil infrastructure in the region was devastated by looting, shelling, and government airstrikes. The TPLF — and the later established Tigray Defence Forces (TDF) — mounted an insurgency that wrested control of the Tigray region from the Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF) at the end of June. The TPLF/TDF later pushed through the Amhara and Afar regions south and east with the aim of threatening the federal government in Addis Ababa.
Subsequent conflict in both the Amhara and Afar regions devastated civil infrastructure and displaced thousands of civilians (BBC Amharic, 25 October 2021). ACLED records at least 3,200 fatalities in the Afar and Amhara regions across the last six months of 2021 as a result of the conflict, although the actual death toll is likely much higher. In December, the TPLF/TDF reached as far south as Debre Sina, located 193 kilometers driving distance from the capital, Addis Ababa, before being stopped. The ENDF and its allied Amhara and Afar regional militias, special police, and Fano militias have since managed to reverse TPLF/TDF gains from earlier in the year and have retaken most territory in the Afar and Amhara regions (Al Jazeera, 18 December 2021). Clashes remain ongoing in areas along Tigray’s regional borders with the Amhara and Afar regions.
Although the spotlight has been on northern battles, Ethiopian security forces are also currently fighting several anti-government insurgencies throughout the country. Alongside the TPLF/TDF, a coalition of eight other anti-government factions maintains aims to “totally dismantle the existing government either by force or negotiation … then insert a transitional government” (Reuters, 5 November 2021). The components of this coalition — the United Front of Ethiopian Federalist and Confederalist Forces — are variably organized, and many do not pose a substantial threat to the Ethiopian state. Of the eight factions, the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA/OLF-Shane) — operating in the Oromia region — has expanded most significantly over the past year, in part due to their alliance with the TPLF/TDF. In Oromia, both government forces and OLA/OLF-Shane fighters have been accused of perpetrating violence against civilians in 2021. Likewise, anti-government insurgents from the Benshangul/Gumuz region have been active throughout the year, despite significant attempts by the Ethiopian military to stabilize the area.
Civilians bore the brunt of conflict throughout Ethiopia in 2021. In the Oromia region, hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced by ongoing fighting, and ACLED records over 680 civilian fatalities in the region during 2021 (DW Amharic, 12 January 2022). At least 270 civilians were killed in Benshangul/Gumuz region in 2021. In the Tigray region, UNOCHA estimates that 5.2 million people — 90% of the region’s population — are currently in need of food assistance (UNOCHA, 30 December 2021). Prior to the TPLF/TDF regaining control of the region, hundreds of people were killed by occupying Eritrean and Ethiopian soldiers, with sexual violence widespread. Civilians accused of collaborating with the federal government were also killed by TPLF/TDF forces after they retook control of the region. Ongoing airstrikes and artillery attacks have devastated infrastructure and left dozens of people dead. Communication services in Tigray have remained offline since late June 2021 (USAID, 4 November 2021). Moreover, fighting and the subsequent occupation of areas by the TPLF/TDF in the Amhara and Afar regions were also characterized by the shelling of urban areas, the execution of civilians, the destruction of civil infrastructure, and sexual violence.
In other developments, the mid-year general election prompted an intensification of demonstrations around the killing of ethnic Amhara civilians in the Benshangul/Gumuz region, Oromia region, and areas of the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Region. In the Oromia region, as OLA/OLF-Shane fighters battled government troops and Oromia regional special forces, civilians were trapped in the middle. Those with suspected links to the OLA/OLF-Shane have been imprisoned, shot, and killed by federal and regional forces. Likewise, OLA/OLF-Shane combatants have been accused of targeting ethnic Amhara civilians residing in the Oromia region in a series of massacres in western Oromia. In the capital, Addis Ababa, thousands of ethnic Tigrayans were arrested and held during a declared state of emergency in November 2021 (BBC, 21 November 2021).
What to watch for in 2022:
Both the Ethiopian federal government and the TPLF/TDF have paid a heavy price throughout the past year of conflict. Although the ENDF achieved major victories in the last weeks of 2021, ongoing clashes in early 2022 suggest that the TPLF/TDF remains capable of exacting an unacceptable cost from the ENDF should the federal government attempt to retake control of the Tigray region. Despite ongoing hostilities, there is a glimmer of hope that peace talks could be kick-started at some point this year amid a territorial stalemate. After taking control of the Amhara and Afar regions, the Ethiopian government ordered the ENDF to halt its advances into the Tigray region, released political prisoners, and announced plans for a national dialogue (Fana Broadcasting, 23 December 2021; France24, 7 January 2022). Officials for the TPLF/TDF claim that their withdrawal from the Afar and Amhara regions was strategic and a “decisive opening for peace” (DW, 20 December 2021).
Any negotiations that could happen are likely to be highly complicated. In addition to ongoing airstrikes and daily clashes, a delicate political balance between the federal government and powers wielded by Ethiopia’s regional leaders — backed by regional special forces and militias formed during the war — will continue throughout 2022. Accommodating the interests of these regional powers could limit the federal government’s ability to negotiate with the TDF and its TPLF leaders. Contested territory in Raya and Wolkait, administered by the Tigray regional government until the start of the conflict, is currently under the control of Amhara regional forces, who have no intention of returning it to the TPLF/TDF. Any attempt by the federal government to return these contested territories to the TPLF/TDF as part of a negotiated peace would risk a fallout between the federal government and Amhara region. This is a dangerous proposition given the size and power of Amhara militias and special forces.
Similar issues are faced in the smaller conflicts throughout the country, where violence has been the chosen method of negotiating political power for Ethiopia’s elites in recent years. Conflicts over land and resources continually flare up, and are pushed by authorities who use Ethiopia’s ethno-federalist system of governance to compete for contested territory and governance rights.
There are new external dynamics at play as well, as the federal government increasingly deploys internationally sourced drones. These drones, provided by the United Arab Emirates, China, and Turkey (Reuters, 22 December 2021), highlight a new phase of international involvement in Ethiopia’s war. How these new partners continue to engage will have major repercussions on the trajectory of future conflict in Ethiopia.
Finally, grievances held by communities throughout Ethiopia will make politically negotiated settlements difficult to implement. For many in the Afar and Amhara regions, the TPLF/TDF’s destruction of infrastructure and attacks on civilians will make any negotiated settlement involving the TPLF/TDF unacceptable. Likewise, residents of the Tigray region accuse the government of serious human rights abuses, in addition to wantonly exposing them to Eritrean troops that committed massacres and looted from the region during their occupation (EHRC, February 2021). A deep mistrust of the federal government, given historical and contemporary abuses, also continues to hinder attempts at stopping violence raging in areas of the Oromia and Benshangul/Gumuz regions.
2022 is likely to be another difficult year for Ethiopia. Conflict in the country is deeply rooted and complex. While the government has announced a national dialogue, finding solutions to Ethiopia’s many conflicts will be a long and slow process requiring input from dozens of political actors with competing narratives.
Weekly updates on all active conflicts, monthly analysis of major developments, and special reports on emerging trends and thematic issue areas are made available by our Ethiopia Peace Observatory (EPO), a new ACLED initiative to enhance local data collection on political violence and protest trends across the country.
- Demonstrations: This term is used to refer collectively to all events coded with event type protests, as well as all events coded with sub-event type violent demonstration under the riots event type.
- Disorder: This term is used to refer collectively to both political violence and demonstrations.
- Event: The fundamental unit of observation in ACLED is the event. Events involve designated actors – e.g. a named rebel group, a militia or state forces. They occur at a specific named location (identified by name and geographic coordinates) and on a specific day. ACLED currently codes for six types of events and 25 types of sub-events, both violent and non-violent.
- Political violence: This term is used to refer collectively to ACLED’s violence against civilians, battles, and explosions/remote violence event types, as well as the mob violence sub-event type of the riots event type. It excludes the protests event type. Political violence is defined as the use of force by a group with a political purpose or motivation.
- Organized political violence: This term is used to refer collectively to ACLED’s violence against civilians, battles, and explosions/remote violence event types. It excludes the protests and riots event types. Political violence is defined as the use of force by a group with a political purpose or motivation. Mob violence is not included here as it is spontaneous (not organized) in nature.
- Violence targeting civilians: This term is used to refer collectively to ACLED’s violence against civilians event type and the excessive force against protesters sub-event type of the protests event type, as well as specific explosions/remote violence events and riots events where civilians are directly targeted.
For more methodological information – including definitions for all event and sub-event types – please see the ACLED Codebook.
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