The Costs of Ethiopia’s Internal Conflicts between 2020 and 2022

Updated 28 December 2022

The internal conflicts in Ethiopia between 2020 and 2022: Humanitarian, social, economic, and political costs, and regional ramifications.

The internal conflicts in Ethiopia between 2020 and 2022 have undone considerable progress in Ethiopia’s economic and social development of the last few decades.

After the political transition of 2018, the new government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was widely praised for enabling a stronger political opposition, including by releasing political prisoners from detention, and for signing a peace agreement with Eritrea after a two decades-long stalemate. Ultimately, however, the subsequent handling of the transition by the different players in the erstwhile coalition of power ended in its collapse and a deep conflict in Tigray and beyond. 

This paper reviews the extensive costs in the short and long term to Ethiopia of the internal conflicts and regional tension, including but also beyond the conflict in Tigray.

Its purpose is to identify these costs, but also identify areas where constructive international engagement may be possible. The focus is not on allocating blame, but factually reporting costs, broadly defined, as a means of identifying the counterfactual, namely a sustained peace and recovery.

The rising human cost is widely reported, even if finding reliable data on the full scale remains difficult.

The war in Tigray, insurgency movements, and communal violence in Oromia and other regions of Ethiopia have killed, wounded, and displaced several hundreds of thousands of people. The apparent use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and severe acute malnutrition of over a million children stand in stark contrast with previous gains in women rights and socio-economic development. Basic services like health care and education have been destroyed or disrupted, and not just in Tigray. Even without full resolution, peace will reduce this human suffering. 

Economic costs are significant and will undermine development for years to come.

Comparing current growth forecasts by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and our forecasts without the conflict, we estimate that by 2027 the cumulative losses to the Ethiopian economy since the start of the conflict will reach approximately 125 billion current US dollar, which will make the economy 19 percent smaller than it would have been without the conflict by 2027. This is equivalent to the amount of money required to ensure immediately that 10 million rural Ethiopians or all urban poor are out of poverty for the next four years, and represents a setback in real economic growth of about five and a half years. This relative decline is caused by the reduction in economic activity due to the conflict, severe macroeconomic instability, and the inability to attract private and public inflows of capital. Abiy’s ambitions for poverty reduction, a modern economy, and middle income status are no doubt undermined. Access to financial stabilisation resources from multilateral lenders such as the IMF proves difficult. There are risks that these economic factors will fuel more tensions; societal and security stabilisation will also require economic stabilisation. 

The state’s monopoly of the legitimate use of violence is greatly undermined, which in turn undermines the government’s ability to stabilise security in the country.

Privatisation and decentralisation of the means of violence have emboldened non-state security actors. Tensions and conflict between security forces of regional states have also increased. The diversion of resources, priorities and attention of the state to the war mobilisation and counter-insurgency efforts is affecting the delivery and quality of services in areas that aren’t directly affected by the conflicts. All these have weakened the state’s capabilities to ensure the provision of security as a basic public good. Stabilisation will require steps to rebuild this public good provision in terms of security.

Social capital is in decline, and societal routes towards resolution were critically harmed.

All indications are that the underlying fabric of society has been badly affected. The numerous conflicts have damaged communal relations, social fabric and cultural norms, in turn widening differences, and weakening religious, communal and traditional mechanisms for conflict resolution and peace building. Social cohesion will take considerable time and effort to recover, affecting the functioning of society.

Progress on democratisation, accountability, and human rights has stalled, or even reversed.

The conflict has polarised and fragmented society and institutions, and justified a crackdown on human rights and civil liberties including extrajudicial killings and illegal mass detentions. Efforts to democratise the state and liberalise the political space were reversed and the state suppressed dissenting voices in the opposition, the civil society and the press. The role of the military and the security services in political and public lives increased undermining civilian oversight and democratic accountability of security forces. Reversing this will not be self-evident: balancing a quest for stability while reconnecting to democratic and accountability processes will be essential. 

The fundamental questions about the nature of Ethiopia and the state, never absent through history, are raised with force, without much scope for resolution.

The conflicts disrupted aspirations and initiatives for inclusive, comprehensive and independent processes to discuss and debate the highly-contested issues of citizenship, history and identity, and reach a consensus on a governance model and organisational principle for the Ethiopian state. The conflicts have affected state cohesion and state-society relations, and have weakened the features of the Ethiopian state that brought the relative stability, growth and development in the past decades. Steps to drive constructive debate and potential reconciliation of opposing views will be required for longer term stability. 

The conflicts harmed relations with neighbouring states, multilateral institutions and international security and development partners, undermining Ethiopia’s standing as a trusted regional partner.

The violence and serious accusations of war crimes and ethnic cleansing negatively affected the image, reputation, and relations of the Ethiopian state and compromised its participation and position in multilateral organisations. The conflicts and subsequent disagreements with neighbouring states also compromised Ethiopia’s regional role and cooperation. The apparent dependence on Eritrea has made this worse. The war in Tigray and Ethiopia’s continued military cooperation with Eritrea consolidated Eritrea’s influence in political and security spaces in Ethiopia and the wider Horn of Africa.  With a peace deal now reached, Eritrea’s role cannot be ignored, especially in a solution for Western Tigray and the implementation of an effective security sector reform (SSR) strategy.