Tigray Conflict and Post-Derg Regime Economic Disparity in Ethiopia [English]


Rakyat Ethiopia membawa Bendera Ethiopia. Foto: Euractiv

Tigray conflict began on 4 November 2020, marked by the attack of several Ethiopian National Defence Forces (ENDF) bases in Dasha and Mekelle—two main cities in Tigray Region—by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a Tigray nationalist and secessionist movement. Shortly afterward, Ethiopian Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed Ali declares war on TPLF and state emergency in the region as a form of countermeasure. The ENDF began to invade the Tigray region on subsequent days, supported by airstrikes from the Ethiopian Air Force (Feleke & Rahim, 2020). Skirmishes continued and causing thousands of dead, hundreds of them identified as military personnel of both parties. Meanwhile, the conflict escalation forced thousands of Ethiopian and Eritrean people to flee to the tri-border of Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Sudan (Al Jazeera, 2020). The main phase of the conflict has finally ended as the Ethiopian PM declared Mekelle — the capital city of Tigray — had fully under the control of ENDF after the total offensive named Battle of Mekelle. Nonetheless, Tigray Conflict isn’t just finished and resolved as Debretsion Gebremichael , the President of TPLF , declared that TPLF is not subdued yet. Instead, he decided to continue the insurgency for self-determination against the authority.

The insurgency in Tigray isn’t a new issue, considering the roots of the conflict that occurred more than three decades earlier. As the Transitional Ethiopian Government was formed in 1991, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) became a dominant political party in the government (Aalen, 2018). Until now, as Ethiopia becoming more prosperous and stabilized, EPRDF continues to conquer the socio-political realm in the country. The problem is since Ethiopian politics isn’t based on ideology but ethnic politics, as argued by Berhe (2004), the representation of every ethnicity and the economic development in every region has become the main concern in political contestation. Meanwhile, Tigray people , as a minority ,  are almost unrepresented in the government ever since and the region is one of the most underdeveloped economically, compared to some Ethiopian regions. This article is concerned with a complex of economic and developmental disparity as a main factor of ethnicism since this aspect is relatively neglected, compared to the socio-political structural issue.

Development Gap in Tigray: Poverty, Hunger, and Underdevelopment

The Tigray Region is often regarded as one of the most economically-repressed regions in Ethiopian history. Since the Derg Regime took a grip over the country after a bloodless coup in 1974, the region is relatively ‘abandoned’ from the national development and modernization plan. As cited by Waal (1991), when the civil war erupted in the country in the 1980s, Mengistu Haile Mariam, the dictator of the regime tried to destabilize the region by crippling the food supply and decimating agriculture — the economic backbone in the region — as a strategic move to prevent the insurgency by the rebel group. At this point, Berhe (2004) again noted that the TPLF had already formed and actively embattling the Derg Regime. Subsequently, the widespread famine that occurred in 1983–1985 left more than 500,000 people dead — more than one-third of Tigray’s population, as estimated by FAO (Gill, 2010). As a result, the extreme poverty rate and unemployment since then also highly increased in the region, along with the deteriorated agricultural sector.

The more progressive situation begins with the stabilization and federalization of Ethiopia in 1995. Research conducted by Gebregzhiaber and colleagues (2009) argued that the Ethiopian Government invested ETB 58,000 for crop farmland development and ETB 28,900 for agriculture infrastructures such as micro dams and river diversions. The status of Tigray Region as ‘Ethiopian Breadbasket’ was gradually recovering, nevertheless, the poverty and economic disparity in the region remain eminent — with the poverty rate stands at 56% in 2002 and Tigray’s poverty gap index is 0.18, the second-highest in the country. To make the situation worse, this ‘breadbasket state’ of Ethiopia had one of the lowest-calorie consumption across Ethiopia.

Comparing with other Ethiopian states — especially in the middle flatland regions — Tigray is lacking human resources development by the Ethiopian Government, as the development policy remains centralistic since the Derg era. It is characterized by the minimum flows of capital from the economic center (Addis Ababa) to the frontier states. The war between Ethiopia and its former arch-enemy, Eritrea that lasted from 1998 until 2000 also undeniably hindered the development, as Tigray witnessed the most severe infrastructural damage and most of its people became refugees (Tadesse, 2010). Almost all the universities and higher education institutions are newly developing after the war, specifically since the 2010s, and have impacted the human development index in the region.

Investment Flow and Developmental Irony 

The huge investment flows began to come into Ethiopia in 2005, pioneered by China that pouring more than US$ 5.6 billion in five-year periods (Gamora, 2011). Until today, the value of Chinese investment reached more than US$ 15 billion, as cited by Chakrabarty (2016). Indeed, Chinese investment unarguably has pushed Ethiopian economic development, by diversified its sector and reducing dependency on agriculture by industrialization (Chakrabarty, 2016, p. 227). She also argued that the investment is attempting to reduce poverty to more than a third since 2005, increasing economic growth, and hasten infrastructural development — referring to some strategic project initiated by the Ethiopian Government as a result of the partnership with the Belt and Road Initiative.

However, the problems of equitable development becoming a rooted challenge in Tigray. Located in the frontier border which allowing the region to become a ‘main gate’ of Ethiopia, Tigray is almost ‘struggling with its power’ to develop itself economically, unanimous with the minimum capital flowing to the region. As a result, structural economic discrimination in Tigray is perceptible. This developmental irony also occurred in almost the infrastructural development aspect , as seen from only 23% of the road network in Tigray is paved and connected with major towns and cities (Schwennen et.al., 2016). Whereas with the promising agricultural and tourism potential in the future, Tigray needs a much more developed road network. The same argument is also supported by Gabriel Negatu’s argument in Atlantic Council, that the lack of resource distribution, slowly trammeling the development in Tigray and it keeps underprivileged—soaring the potential of regional secessionism as an effort to control the region’s economic sector independently.


Although the economic inequality and development factors were not the only factors in increasing the separatist movement and idea in Tigray, the evidence by various researchers in this article argued that these factors ultimately became the catalyst for these narratives. It seems that the Central Government of Ethiopia should reconsider its strategic and national economic development policies, with more attention to all aspects of development in border areas. Moreover, geopolitical stability and peace with its neighbor, Eritrea, should be the entry point for a more equitable flow of economic resources on Tigray. The hope is that post-Derg Tigray ethnic secessionism can be overcomed in the long term plan, by more equitable and sustainable development strategies.


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Alfin Febrian Basundoro is a student of International Relations at Gajah Mada University. He can be found on Instagram with his username @alfinfbasundoro

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