Location: Tigray province, parts of Wollo and Bergemir provinces, northern Ethiopia
Population: about 5 million
% of population: about 12%
Religion: Christian, Muslim
Language: Tigrinya, minority languages

The Tigrayans are the chief inhabitants of Tigray province in Northern Ethiopia and in some adjoining areas in Wollo and Bergemir provinces. Seventy per cent of its estimated population of five million are Christians, members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, while one-and-a-half million people are Muslims. Eighty per cent of the population speak Tigrinya and the remainder is made up of minority groups such as the Afar, Agew, Saho and Kunama. Most Tigrayans are peasant farmers.

Background and history

Tigray is made up of a central highland plateau bordered on the east and west by lowland plains. The highland region has the highest population density in the country owing to its favourable climate, although the western plains have a more fertile soil. The eastern region is the site of the Danakil depression, one of the hottest places on earth. It is dry and infertile and supports only small numbers of nomadic and semi-nomadic pastoralists. Tigray has frequently undergone catastrophic drought, famine and locust plagues, the effects of which have been exacerbated by economic underdevelopment, an oppressive land tenure system and the lack of an administrative infrastructure.

Tigray has been under the control of various dynasties since the founding of the first Axumite empire in the first century AD. An Amhara emperor led a successful campaign against the Italian invasion of 1896; however the cost of the campaign was high and the country was left in a poor economic state which deteriorated further after the accession of the new Amhara emperor, Haile Selassie in 1930. A Tigrayan National Movement composed of peasant armies revolted in 1943 both against the emperor’s soldiers garrisoned throughout the country and the Tigrayan feudal lords who held taxation rights over much of the cultivated land. The rebellion was halted with the help of British warplanes, and soon after thousands of people living in the southern and western regions were dispossessed of their land and crippling taxes were imposed. Under Haile Selassie’s rule Tigray was administered by Tigrayan feudal lords although few Tigrayans held government office.

War with the Dergue

The Tigrayan National Organization (TNO) was formed in the early 1970s with the aim of improving literacy and promoting political debate, and it also played a part in bringing about the overthrow of the Emperor in 1974. With the ascendance of the new military regime, the Dergue, the TNO opposed military rule, especially after it became clear that national self-determination would not be granted to Tigrayans and after the use of Amharic, declared the official language of Tigray in 1958, was retained by the predominantly Amhara Ethiopian government and publications in Tigrinya were suppressed.

In 1975 the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) was formed. Its objective was self-determination for the Tigrayan people. Its ideology had much in common with that of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF); however whereas the EPLF is fighting an anti-colonial battle with Eritrean independence as it goal, the TPLF sees its struggle as one of national liberation against an undemocratic central regime which has allowed their country to stagnate economically. Like the EPLF, the Tigrayan movement recognized the importance of major change for the most oppressed groups in society: the landless, poor peasants and women.

The Ethiopian government launched a series of military campaigns in Tigray. The sixth such campaign, waged in 1980-81, was aimed at disrupting agricultural production and the economy of the densely populated central region. Government troops were heavily armed and were successful in their aim; however the major damage done to vast areas of cropland at a time of prevailing famine had the effect of causing an upsurge of popular support for the TPLF, and by 1983 it controlled about 85% of Tigrayan countryside and was administering several sizeable towns. Government troops remained in urban garrisons and government convoys were heavily protected. Despite the successes of the TPLF many people fled over the border into neighbouring Sudan, most of them during the period of the “Red Terror”, when thousands of young people were shot or tortured on suspicion of having opposed the military regime.

The TPLF has gained the active support and participation of the majority of the Tigrayan population. Land reforms were implemented and a campaign to promote women’s interests was mounted. The Relief Society of Tigray (REST) has undertaken education, health, agricultural, craft and resettlement programmes and by 1983 was administering over 40 schools, over 35 clinics, 70 mobile medical teams, eight resettlement schemes and a nationwide literacy programme.

Drought and famine

The drought from 1983 in northern Ethiopia was equal to that of 1970-73 in which an estimated 200,000 people died in Tigray and northern Wollo province. According to REST officials, in early 1983 two million people were living in drought-affected areas under the TPLF’s control, of which at least 1.2 million were in urgent need of assistance. There was a large-scale displacement of people and, by February 1983, 400,000 had arrived in western Tigray. REST launched an appeal for food supplies and set up reception centres and collection points for food. Because of the slowness and limited amounts of aid these were later disbanded and the affected people distributed to villages in the west. There were logistic problems also with transport. Tigray was frequently unable to have access to food supplies donated by Western governments and agencies, most of which went through the Addis Ababa regime, which also attempted to deal with the famine by resettlement schemes to send people from the north to the relatively unpopulated areas in the south. There were allegations that the resettlement programme aimed to depopulate the rebellious northern areas, including Tigray, and there were well attested reports of forced resettlement and human rights abuses both during the movement of people and in camps in the south. Some Tigrayans managed to escape from the camps, and after a hazardous journey, to reach the Sudan. Despite the devastating effects of the drought of 1983-5, in which hundreds of thousands of people died throughout Ethiopia, the TPLF retained its support in Tigray and continued the war against the Dergue.

From early 1988 fighting intensified, leading to large scale casualties. By the end of May the TPLF had gained control of most of Tigray including the historic centre of Axum and the area surrounding the regional capital of Makelle. Government forces counter-attacked, beginning a ruthless aerial bombardment of the main TPLF towns, including the use of napalm. This bombing seriously disrupted economic activity, as towns, villages and fields had to be evacuated during the day, and killed and injured large numbers of civilians. But the TPLF remained largely intact and confident and in early 1989, acting in co-ordination with forces in Eritrea and Afar areas, decisively defeated Ethiopian government forces, taking the strategic garrison at Endaselassie, and Makelle. The TPLF claimed that 26,000 government troops had been killed, wounded or captured.

There was now intense pressure on the Addis Ababa regime, by the USSR among others, to make peace with the Tigrayans and Eritreans. There was internal disaffection also which resulted in an attempted coup by military officers in May. On June 5 the government announced that it would be prepared to enter into unconditional negotiations with the TPLF. In March the TPLF had issued an eight-point peace plan as a basis of discussion. Among other things it proposed an immediate ceasefire as soon as a peace agreement was reached, restoration of democratic rights and the establishment of a provisional government made up of all political organizations. It also insisted that a mediator or third party should be present at the talks. However, no talks took place and by September 1989 the TPLF and allied forces were advancing rapidly southwards through Gondar and Wollo provinces towards Addis Ababa.

(See also Eritreans; Falashas of Ethiopia; Oromo of Ethiopia)