Bloody war in Ethiopia rages over control of nation’s riches

By Roy Landersen
December 7, 2020

A bloody war in northern Ethiopia has continued into a third week as federal forces unleash a heavy bombardment against those led by the regional government of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. Working people bear the cost of the fighting with hundreds killed and thousands forced to flee the Tigray region to neighboring Sudan.  

Rising tensions between the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and leaders of the TPLF over control of the country’s resources preceded the clashes. Leaders of the TPLF, which is based among the Tigray people — some 6% of the country’s population — have long dominated Ethiopia’s government until Abiy came to office in the wake of widespread anti-government protests in 2018. He is driving to consolidate the central government by ending the TPLF’s stranglehold over the country’s politics, military and largest capitalist companies.  

Days of aerial bombing by government forces have destroyed Tigray’s electrical grid and hit fuel supplies in the region. The TPLF said an airstrike hit the university in Mekelle, the Tigray capital, on Nov. 19 and that federal forces target civilians, homes and churches, claims that the government denies. 

By Nov. 21, Ethiopian ground troops had captured the cities of Aksum and Adigrat. Abiy said they were advancing on Mekelle, intending to surround it and force the TPLF’s surrender. 

Some 36,000 refugees have poured across the border into Sudan to escape the assaults. The offensive is exacerbating crisis conditions in a region where 600,000 people were already dependent on food aid to stay alive.  

TPLF forces have fired long-range rockets at an airport in Eritrea in the north and into the neighboring Ethiopian state of Amhara, where local militias have joined the federal military offensive. The governments of Eritrea and Ethiopia deny any Eritrean military involvement in the hostilities. 

At stake in the conflict is control of Ethiopia’s underdeveloped but rapidly expanding capitalist economy. Both sides are resisting attempts by foreign governments to meditate and establish a truce. 

Legacy of class struggles in Ethiopia 

Under Emperor Haile Selassie, the government in Ethiopia was one of U.S. imperialism’s closest regional allies. In 1974 an uprising by peasants and workers, headed by junior military officers, toppled the Selassie regime. A deep-going social revolution unfolded, aimed at ridding the country of the semifeudal social relations that had long hampered its development. 

Nearly 20 years later, in 1991, popular protests led to the ousting of the military regime of Lt. Col. Mengitsu Haile Mariam that had ruled since 1974, bringing a coalition of different ethnic-based fronts to power. The TPLF dominated this coalition, going on to extend that control over the state and the country’s economy. 

Abiy came into office in 2018 promising to govern for all Ethiopians and develop the country. He is the first Oromo, the country’s largest ethnic group, to become prime minister. 

He ended the state of emergency, freed political prisoners and lifted the ban on three opposition groups. He also normalized relations with the government of Eritrea, ending two decades of bloody war between the rulers of the two neighboring countries — a move widely welcomed by working people. 

He set about dismantling the TPLF control of the military by arresting security officials. He undercut their practice of enriching themselves through control of state-owned companies, turning over sugar plants, industrial parks and railways to private ownership. 

In a country of about 100 language groupings, local capitalists and landlords for decades appealed for political support along ethnic lines. Abiy moved to dissolve the ruling coalition and imposed a single party, the Prosperity Party, not based on any one ethnic group. The TPLF refused to join it. 

Beijing, Washington rivalry

Abiy has encouraged competition between rival foreign investors, pitting renewed interest by capitalists from the U.S. and Western Europe against the growing influence of Chinese capital, which backed the former TPLF-led government. 

Chinese capitalists have invested in large-scale infrastructure projects in Ethiopia aimed at extending their access to trade and sources of raw materials across the African continent. 

They have been central to building hydroelectric infrastructure, part of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, on the Blue Nile. This project controls the supply of more than 85% of the water flowing into the lower Nile, on which tens of millions of people living downstream in Sudan and Egypt are dependent. The rulers in Sudan and Egypt oppose the project. Washington urges talks between the governments of Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan to settle the dispute.