A year ago, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched a military campaign against Tigray fighters, promising a quick victory. But Tigrayans managed to turn the tide. DW explains who they are and why they're fighting.

Since early November 2020, the Ethiopian government and Tigray fighters have been exchanging fire in a conflict that has claimed thousands of lives and has left more than 400,000 people facing famine, according to a recent UN estimate.

The conflict has escalated rapidly since June, when fighters began to retake most of Tigray and expand into neighboring regions. The fighters have managed to recruit allies and are approaching the capital, Addis Ababa.So, who are the Tigray fighters?

From militiamen to rulers

In the mid-1970s, a small group of militiamen founded the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF). With a left-wing nationalist ideology, they vowed to fight for the rights of Tigrayans, a relatively small ethnic group that account for just 5% of the population and had long been marginalized by the central government.

Throughout the 1980s the TPLF emerged as a formidable challenger to Ethiopia's then Marxist military dictatorship. The group eventually led an alliance of militia organizations, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), that overthrew the Soviet Union-backed regime in 1991.

The alliance then began to run Ethiopia under a federal system, with TPLF holding sway over the other groups and dominating politics for nearly three decades.

Tigrayan leader Meles Zenawi was Ethiopia's transitional president from 1991 until poorly contested elections in 1995, when he was elected prime minister. He would go on to rule the country until his death in 2012, and was succeeded by Hailemariam Desalegn. During this time, Ethiopia saw economic growth, but the government clamped down on dissent.

The EPRDF government led the country through periodic drought and famine, and the 1998-2000 border war with northern neighbor Eritrea. Human rights deteriorated during this time, with opposition groups complaining of persecution and corruption, which fed into growing public discontent.

In early 2018, after several years of frequent anti-government protests from different ethnic groups had seriously damaged the legitimacy of the EPRDF government, Hailemariam stepped down. The EPRDF selected Abiy Ahmed, of the Oromo ethnic group, as his successor and he was soon elected prime minister. 

Abiy, a non-Tigrayan politician with little ties to the TPLF, enjoyed widespread popularity. He unseated many Tigrayan officials, charged some with corruption and introduced a set of political reforms which sidelined the TPLF. In late 2019, Abiy disbanded the EPRDF coalition government and moved to create the new Prosperity Party (PP). Refusing to join the group, the TPLF moved back to its stronghold.

Tigrayans are Ethiopia's third-largest ethnic group

After the 2020 general election was postponed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the TPLF and some other opposition leaders accused Abiy of delaying the vote to stay in power. Despite the delay, officials in the Tigray region went ahead with regional elections in September 2020. A month later, the federal government began withholding funds from the regional administration.

In early November 2020, TPLF forces were accused of having attacked and looted federal military bases in the region. Abiy kicked off a military campaign in the Tigray region, known as Operation Law enforcement, and promised to swiftly defeat the TPLF fighters.

But since June 2021, the Ethiopian army has endured continued setbacks and has been forced to withdraw from Tigray. Now the front line is getting closer and closer to Addis Ababa, with the prime minister calling on residents to be ready to defend the capital.

The Tigray fighters might have the upper hand, but capturing Addis Ababa will not be easy. They are likely to face resistance from other Ethiopians who fear the return to power of a party that ruled the country for nearly three decades.

A city burns

Residents of Tigray's capital Mekele sift through wreckage following an airstrike by government forces on October 20. The military said it was targeting a weapons manufacturing facility operated by the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF), which the rebel Tigray forces have denied.

The haze of war

Smoke from a recent military airstrike billows above the streets of Mekele. Tigrayan fighters have accused the government of killing civilians, while the federal government maintains it is targeting arms depots. Locals have confirmed that at least one major industrial compound in Mekele has been destroyed.

Captured troops

Ethiopian government soliders captured by Tigrayan forces sit in rows and wait to be taken to a detention center on October 22. The soldiers were paraded through the streets of Mekele in open-top trucks in a show of force following the fourth day of airstrikes on the capital.

Help on the way

An Ethiopian Red Cross Society vehicle makes its way through Mekele following government airstrikes. The Red Cross has been working to provide medical treatment and basic shelter in the Tigray region. Amid a regional telecommunications blackout, the organization is also key to helping reconnect families separated by the conflict.

Rare aid

A cargo plane from the aid organization Samaritan's Purse unloads supplies at Mekele Airport back in March. The flow of humanitarian aid into Tigray has since been severely disrupted, with roadblocks on key routes stopping convoys from getting through and airstrikes forcing aid flights to be aborted.

A desperate plea

Heath workers stage a protest outside the United Nations office in Mekele, condemning the deaths of patients due to severe shortages of food and medicine. Stocks of vital supplies are dwindling in the capital, with malnutrition rates among children skyrocketing. The UN recently announced it would withdraw half of its workers from Ethiopia.

A victim of war

A victim of the Togoga airstrike is treated in hospital. On June 22, the Ethiopian Air Force launched an airstrike on the Tigrayan town of Togoga on a busy market day, killing 64 civilians and injuring 184. Ambulances attempting to reach the scene were initially blocked by soldiers before another convoy made it through and brought 25 of the wounded to a hospital in Mekele.

International protests

On the other side of the world, hundreds rallied in Whitehall, London on October 19 bearing flags and slogans as they called for an end to the violence and to the aid blockade in Tigray. Many of the protesters are members of the Tigrayan, Ethiopian and Eritrean diaspora.

Anger on both sides

Demonstrators in the capital Addis Ababa gathered outside the office of the UN World Food Program in September to protest the sending of aid to the Tigray region. The TPLF has been designated a terrorist group by Ethiopia's government. Officials and rights groups have also accused Tigrayan fighters of committing atrocities, including recruiting child soldiers.

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