With the world preoccupied with the U.S. election, little coverage was given to Ethiopia, the second most populous nation in Africa and 12th most populous in the world, being on the verge of a full-fledged civil war. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has blamed an alleged recent attack against a military facility on the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, or TPLF, a political party and former armed rebellion that dominated the country for years and still controls Tigray State, the northernmost state in the country.  

Prime Minister Abiy (in Ethiopia, an individual is often referred to formally by their first name, with their personal name coming second) has largely sidelined the Tigray ethnic minority that previously ran the country. Now, Abiy 's government has begun military retaliation against the TPLF, with reports that Ethiopian aircraft have bombed targets in the Tigray region. Although news coverage of the fighting has been heavily censored, Reuters has reported that hundreds of people have already died after several days of fighting. Thousands of people have sought refuge in neighboring Sudan, and hundreds of thousands more could end up as refugees of the fighting.

As the conflict in northern Ethiopia continues, it adds to an already unstable situation throughout the country, which is at risk of breaking apart due to unresolved ethnic tensions and inequality. Since most of the world is not familiar with this conflict, we’ve collected six things you need to know to understand what’s going on in Ethiopia and why it is so important:

1. The TPLF dominated Ethiopia for decades until suddenly losing power under Abiy

The TPLF was part of a larger coalition of ethnically-based parties called the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, or EPRDF, which ruled Ethiopia for almost 30 years. The TPLF initially arose in the 1970s as one of several armed rebel groups that fought against a brutal Communist dictatorship that ruled the country at the time. Several of these groups eventually came together to form the EPRDF, with the Tigray group leading the way. The communists were defeated in 1991 and the EPRDF took over.

In practice, the TPLF dominated the EPRDF. Even though the Tigrayans only make up about 6% of the population, the TPLF filled most of the top government and military positions with its own members and supporters from the Tigray region. The EPRDF government even helped install Tigray leaders into the top positions of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the main religious organization in the country.

In recent years, many Ethiopians have expressed discontent about the economic and political inequality in the country. Large groups such as the Oromo and Amhara, and several smaller ethnic groups as well, have claimed that they do not have access to political power and that the country’s economic growth has mostly benefited the elite. Many Ethiopians blamed the Tigray elite for the country’s inequality and for maintaining tensions with Eritrea, as Isaias Afwerki, the president of Eritrea, is said to hold a personal grudge against the TPLF. When Abiy was appointed as Prime Minister by the EPRDF government in 2018, it was assumed that he would be a puppet of Tigrayan politicians when he was appointed Prime Minister. Instead, Abiy quickly consolidated his rule, dissolved the EPRDF and created a new ruling party that the TPLF, seeing its power diminished, refused to join.

2. Ethiopia’s leader was once renowned as a peacemaker

Ironically, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy may be starting a war just one year after he won the Nobel Peace Prize. Abiy came to power in 2018 during a period of great social unrest within Ethiopia. Large-scale protests from the Oromo and Amhara, the country’s two largest groups who together make up over half the population, had been met with violence and repression by the government. Abiy, the first Prime Minister from the Oromo group, calmed tensions and brought hope to Ethiopians through his personal charisma and new policies. He removed government censorship, freed thousands of political prisoners, and made promises of greater reforms and real democracy. 

Abiy also made peace with neighboring Eritrea, which had fought a bloody war with Ethiopia in the early 2000s and remained at odds with its neighbor. He even helped negotiate an end to a decades-long dispute within the Orthodox Church, which had previously split into two branches – the government-supported Church in Ethiopia and an American-based Church for Orthodox believers in the diaspora. These and other moves branded Abiy a peacemaker and a reformer, a reputation that was capped when he was chosen as a 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner.

3. Abiy has been battling the TPLF politically for some time

Many in Tigray, meanwhile, feel that they have been unfairly targeted and blamed for the country’s problems, and that anger from other groups is not being directed at the TPLF party, but instead at all Tigrayan people. As one resident of Tigray said in an interview with the New Humanitarian last year, “The rest of the country hates us.” Tigrayan fears have only added to local support for the TPLF and exacerbated tensions between the Tigray region and the rest of the country.

With open conflict now breaking out between Tigray forces and government troops, the situation in northern Ethiopia is extremely dangerous. Hundreds of people have been killed according to some reports, including civilians, according to Amnesty International. Thousands of people from the region have already fled into neighboring Sudan. 

To make a comparison that puts the current conflict into perspective, imagine a Joe Biden administration in the United States, suspecting the Republican Party of supporting right-wing militia attacks, sending the army to attack the Republican government of Texas in retaliation. That’s basically the scenario we have in Ethiopia right now, and that’s a very dangerous situation.

4. He has also predicted a quick end to the conflict

Abiy, meanwhile has downplayed the degree of the conflict, CBS News reports. On Monday, he referred to the Ethiopian military’s actions as “law enforcement operations” that should soon come to an end. He also refuted predictions that the country is entering a civil war. However, moves such as dissolving the Tigray parliament have been seen as antagonistic and likely to prolong, rather than shorten according to BBC. 

5. Though Tigray State is small, the TPLF remains powerful

The TPLF still dominates the government of the Tigray state, where it is extremely popular, and the party has largely set up an autonomous region in the north. Tensions between the TPLF and the federal government rose in September when the TPLF went ahead with an election in the Tigray region that the Abiy government had canceled; the TPLF easily won the “illegal” vote. Abiy alleges that the TPLF recently attacked an Ethiopian military base in an attempt to capture weapons for a rebellion against the federal government.

Meanwhile, Debretsion Gebremichael, the TPLF Chairman who also became regional President of Tigray in September’s election, denies that the TPLF ever attacked the military. Debretsion argued that Abiy’s attack is actually in retaliation for Tigray going ahead with the September vote and calls the military action against Tigray “clearly a war, an invasion,” and pledged to defend the region.

The TPLF remains heavily armed and could potentially put up a strong fight if the conflict continues to escalate. The New York Times reported that up to half of Ethiopia’s army and much of the military’s weaponry are located in Tigray. Also, Tigray officers have in the past dominated the national military, raising fears that parts of the Ethiopian military could defect to Tigray. Inside sources indicate that several Ethiopian army officers from Tigray have already switched over to the Tigrayan side, which could further fuel a full-blown civil war. And the International Crisis Group estimates that Tigray also has 250,000 fighters that make up the regions various militia and security forces and could be mobilized in the fight against the national government’s forces.

6. The international community has had little power over the conflict so far

To the extent that the United States has been paying attention to events in Ethiopia, the U.S. appears to be backing the Abiy government’s position. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a short statement this week, saying that “the United States is deeply concerned by reports that the Tigray People’s Liberation Front carried out attacks on Ethiopian National Defense Force base.” Pompeo went on to call for “immediate action to restore the peace and de-escalate tensions,” and pledged to “continue to follow this situation closely.”

Meanwhile, CNN reported that the African Union, the regional body made up of all independent countries in Africa and headquartered in Ethiopia, had been privately urging Ethiopia’s government to negotiate with the TPLF early in the conflict. Now, the AU is openly calling for a ceasefire between the two warring sides. Pope Francis also commented on the situation in Ethiopia on Sunday, urging a "peaceful reconciliation of discord." So far, Abiy has not been moved by these international calls for peace, and he has not backed down from using the military to handle the situation.

7. The fight with Tigray is part of a larger set of problems that could tear Ethiopia apart

Amid Abiy’s reforms, which have been intended to increase democracy in the country and grant greater autonomy to the country’s regions, many have feared that several of the regions will give in to demands from citizens to break away and form independent nations, a process which could tear the country apart. 

In theory, the political system put in place after the fall of the communists in 1991 gives each of Ethiopia’s states, which are mostly organized around different ethnic groups, the right to secede and form their own nations. This is how Eritrea, which had formerly been part of Ethiopia, became an independent country in 1993. In practice, however, the authoritarian EPRDF dominated state governments and prevented any significant movements towards separatism from gaining popular support.  

Although Abiy’s reforms have been intended to open political discourse and ease tensions within Ethiopia, his moves have also unleashed separatist forces and allowed ethnic tensions that had been suppressed by the EPRDF to reemerge. Deadly clashes between members of different ethnic groups have been on the rise. Last month, clashes along the border of the Somali and Afar Regions killed over two dozen people. Earlier this week, a massacre allegedly committed by the Oromo Liberation Army militant group killed over 50 civilians belonging to the Amhara ethnic group.

Movements with several of the ethnic-based states within Ethiopia have pushed for their regions to break away and form their own countries. For instance, the Sidama ethnic group overwhelmingly voted to become an autonomous region within the country. With the crisis in Tigray, there are now dangers that the region may attempt to break away from the country, or that a war in the north would embolden other uprisings and increase ethnic tensions throughout Ethiopia.

Any of these developments could increase the threat of Ethiopia breaking apart, much like Yugoslavia did in Eastern Europe in the 1990s, which created multiple wars and large-scale ethnic cleansing and ultimately drew in outside intervention. Ethiopia has not reached that point yet, but there’s a danger that it is on a course that may be hard to change.

8. A war could destabilize other nations

In addition to being bombarded by Ethiopian forces, CBS News reports that Debretsion has alleged that Eritrean forces have also intervened against Tigray, The Eritrean government has denied any involvement in the conflict happening in Ethiopia, but the TPLF has long feared that the current governments of both Eritrea and Ethiopia were joining forces against Tigray. Many Tigrayans have viewed the peace deal between the two countries, which won Abiy the Nobel Peace Prize, as an anti-Tigray alliance. Furthermore, large movements of refugees into Sudan could further destabilize that country, which is still building upon a recent change in government and a peace deal with rebels after decades of civil war.  Other countries in the region, such as Kenya and Somalia, that share ethnic ties with various groups in Ethiopia, could also become involved in the conflict should the fighting within Ethiopia expand into a full-blown civil war. 

All these factors have created an extremely dangerous and fast-moving situation in Ethiopia. In the weeks to come, it will be very important to see if the leadership in Tigray and especially the Abiy government heed calls to de-escalate the crisis, or if the hostilities between the two sides continue to be fought out at the cost of even more lives within Ethiopia.