Is the violent conflict between TPLF and the Federal Government of Ethiopia a Civil War?

On Wednesday, November 3, 2020, early morning, the Ethiopian Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed announced that TPLF led militias attacked the north military base in Ethiopia, which has been located there for more than 20 years because of the war with neighboring country Eritrea. On the other hand, TPLF claims that the North Military base has started supporting TPLF and the federal government initiated the attack. Since then, there have been further updates. Some journalists and social media activists call the violent conflict a civil war, while others disagree with the violent conflict being categorized as a civil war.

Before jumping to a conclusion, however, it is essential to investigate how scholars define a civil war and categorize war as a civil war? It is then possible to access the current violent conflict in the Northern part of Ethiopia and conclude whether it is a civil war or not.

Civil War and the Characteristics of a Civil War

Civil war is one type of armed conflicts within one sovereign country that cause large-scale destruction. A civil war is also known as an interstate conflict, while a conflict between two sovereign countries is called intrastate conflict. For a war to be categorized as a civil war, in addition to the conflict being fought within one sovereign territory, the following characteristics must be present.[i]

  1. There need to be at least two conflicting parties and the government must be one of the principal combatants. In case of lack of functioning government, then the party which is representing the government internationally or acting as a government must be one of the combatants;
  2. The conflicting parties must be politically organized and have publicly stated their political objectives or demands. Moreover, the major combatants must be locally present and recruit their soldiers locally. If the combatants are operating from the neighboring countries, then they must have some territorial control/base within the country where the civil war is.
  3. There should be a certain amount of death toll. The Correlates of War Project, the leading data set, requires 1000 deaths per annum for a war to be considered a civil war.[ii] However, this is considered disadvantageous because, if strictly applied, the required 1000 deaths per annum will remove eminent civil wars from being considered as a civil war.[iii] Sambanis (2004) argues that the death toll does not need to be precisely 1000 deaths per annum if the violence has satisfied the other civil war elements. He suggested to be flexible and consider a war as a civil war if a range of 500 to 1000 deaths occur as an event of mass destruction. Gleditsch et al. (2002) also agree with minimizing the number of deaths and suggest 25 deaths per year as it is high enough for the violence to represent a politically significant event. On the other hand, Fearon & Laitin (2003) consider a war as a civil war if at least 1,000 were killed over the duration of the civil war, with a yearly average of at least 100 deaths.[iv]
  4. The violence should be sustained for a long time.  According to Sambanis (2004), if there is a range of 100-500 deaths in the first year and if there are more than 1000 deaths in total within three years, then one can conclude that the violence has sustained to be listed as a civil war.
  5. The violence should be reciprocated. Even if one party is weaker than the other, it must still put in place a significant resistance. There is a significant resistance if at least 100 deaths are inflicted on the stronger conflicting party.[v] If the conflict is one-sided, it either just began, or the conflict is ending.


Based on these elements of civil war, let us analyze the current violent conflict between the Federal Government and TPLF. Of course, the government is the principal conflicting parties and TPLF has stated their political objective and control a territory within the country. Since the violence started four days ago and all communications devices in the Tigray region are blocked, it is difficult to determine the number of deaths and affected people. Therefore, it is too early to categorize the violent conflict between the TPLF and the federal government as a civil war since it does not fulfill the aforementioned civil war elements. However, if the conflict is not managed and settled peacefully, it might last longer and could be listed as a civil war.

[i] Sambanis, N. (2004). What Is Civil War? Conceptual and Empirical Complexities of an Operational Definition. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 48(6), 814-858

[ii] See Singer, J., & Small, M. (1994). Correlates of war projects: international and civil war data, 1816-1980. Ann Arbor, MI: Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research.

Small, M., & Singer, J. (1982). Resort to Arms: International and Civil War, 1816-1980. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

[iii] See Sambanis, 2004.; Gleditsch, N. P., Wallensteen, P., Eriksson, M., Sollenberg, M., & Strand, H. (2002, September). Armed Conflict 1946–2001: A New Dataset. Journal of Peace Research, 39(5), 615-637.

[iv] Fearon, J. D., & Laitin, D. D. (2003, March 12). Ethnicity, Insurgency, And Civil War. American Political Science Review, 97(1), 75-90

[v] Sambanis, 2004, pp. 829-831

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s