Grenzen | Borders Umstritten | Disputed

Tigray’s border conflicts explained

While Ethiopia's federal government seeks to replace Tigray's regional administration by force, the region's underlying border conflicts with Eritrea and Amhara are likely to re-erupt.

Disclaimer: This article does not intend to portray the ongoing war as a conflict about Tigray’s disputed borders – there are clearly other reasons. Nevertheless, understanding these border conflicts helps understanding the events currently unfolding.

On 9 September 2020, Ethiopia’s regional state of Tigray held elections. They confirmed the rule of TPLF (Tigray People’s Liberation Front; aka Woyane), which has administered the state since 1991 and was the dominant force within the federal government until 2018. Tigray’s elections exacerbated a crisis that was looming since Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed’s ascension to power in 2018: The TPLF lost power in Addis Ababa, but fortified its hold on Tigray and increasingly disregarded decisions made by the federal government. In summer 2020, PM Abiy decided to postpone national and regional elections due to the Covid-19 crisis. Tigray disregarded this decision. The federal government reacted harshly: It cut all ties to Tigray’s government and declared it illegitimate – and started a military intervention to replace the Tigrayan government on 4 November.

This sudden escalation brings Tigray’s border conflicts back into focus. Tigray has territorial disputes with Eritrea and Amhara, its southern neighbour region within Ethiopia, but these conflicts have been frozen for many years. Both Eritrea and Amhara are now involved in Ethiopia’s military intervention in Tigray. Even though the border issues are not the reason for the current conflicts, Tigray’s neighbours might use the opportunity to settle old scores. This article briefly explains these border conflicts.

1. Raya

Raya-Rayuma has a complex and mixed identity. The territory lies at the border of nowadays‘ Tigray and Amhara regional states. Its population has traditionally been neither Amhara nor Tigray, but Oromo. In the last couple of decades, many Amharas and Tigrayans (Tegaru) have settled in Raya. As a result of this and their distance to other Oromo lands, most Raya-Oromos have assimilated linguistically to either Amharic, Tigrinya, or both – but preserved their distinct identity. Some Raya-Oromos in Tigray, however, now see themselves as a sub-group of the Tigrayan ethnicity.

Until 1991, Raya was divided into two districts (awrajas): Raya-Azebo in the North, and Raya-Kobo in the South. Raya-Azebo belonged to Tigray province, while Raya-Kobo was part of the multiethnic Wollo province, where Amharic language dominated. After the revolution of 1991, in which the TPLF and its allies took power in Addis Ababa, the two Raya awrajas were dissolved. While the territory of Raya-Azebo remained within the boundaries of Tigray, Raya-Kobo was divided between Tigray and the newly created Amhara regional state. This means: Tigray’s borders shifted southwards, at the expense of previously Amharic-governed territories. As a result, several Amharic-speaking towns and villages in Raya became part of Tigray. In Alamata woreda, for instance, Amharic is the mother tongue of about one third of the population.

Since 2018, tensions in Raya are growing. A committee called ማንነት አስመላሽ ኮሚቴ (Committee for the Reconstitution of Raya Identity) has been formed, questioning Tigray’s current borders. The Amharic-speaking population of Waja, Tigray’s southernmost town, has repeatedly blocked the main road connecting central Tigray with the rest of Ethiopia. Tigray’s security forces violently suppressed demonstrations. Already since ethnical tensions rose in 2018, many Tigrayans avoided travelling by land to other parts of Ethiopia, fearing attacks on vehicles with Tigrayan car plates in Amhara and Oromia – as well as in the disputed Raya area.

Waja, Tigray’s southernmost town, in early 2019. The rocks on the left side of the road have been used some weeks earlier to block Ethiopia’s main North-South road.

2. Wolkayit-Tegede

Similar to Raya, Wolkayit has a mixed identity. This also applies to the surrounding woredas of Tsegede (Tegede in Amharic), Tselemti (Telemt in Amharic) and Kafta-Humera – see the map above. The population traditionally has been closer to the Amharic-speaking area of Gonder than to Tigray, but both Amharic and Tigrinya languages are used in daily life. Prior to 1991, all four woredas were part of Amhara-dominated Gonder province. When the TPLF and its allies took power in Addis Ababa, the areas were attached to Tigray regional state. Since then, many Tigrayan settlers have arrived to the area, particularly to Humera town, changing the ethnic balance.

Since many years, local activist have demanded the attachment of the areas to Amhara regional state, created in 1991 out of Gonder and other provinces. Since 2018, tensions have mounted. A group called የወልቃይት ጠገዴ አማራ ማንነት አስመላሽ ኮሚቴ (Committee to Reconstitute the Amharic Identity of Wolkayit and Tegede) has formed. In the starting days of the 2020 Tigray conflict, Amhara security forces claim to have entered the area and occupied parts of Wolkayit-Tegede.

3. Badme

Badme is the central bone of contention between Eritrea and Ethiopia. The Ethio-Eritrean border is based on colonial-area contracts between Italy and the Abyssinian Empire – contracts made by bureaucrats in Rome, which did not take into account details of local geography. Since Eritrea became a part of Ethiopia after colonial rule, the ill-defined border did not become a problem for decades. But after Eritrea’s independence in 1993, the conflict swiftly boiled up. In 1998, fighting erupted around Badme between Eritrean and Ethiopian armies, with both accusing the other side of having started. The war soon spread to other contested border areas such as Tsorona, Zalambessa, Irob or Bure.

After two years, the war ended in a cease-fire. Badme was now under control of Ethiopia, as were several other disputed villages. Both sides agreed to entrust the UN with the task to settle the border issue and promised to accept the decision without conditions. In 2002, the UN boundary commission defined the border in a binding decision, awarding Badme to Eritrea. Eritrea proceeded to accept the decision, while Ethiopia demanded renegotiations. As a consequence, the two countries entered a cold war, which lasted until 2018. During this time, the border was firmly closed, with large military contingents stationed along the contested frontline.

In summer 2018, Ethiopia’s new prime minister Abiy finally announced that Ethiopia accepted the 2002 UN decision without conditions and the Ethiopian army would withdraw Badme and other contested areas awarded to Eritrea. Between September 2018 and early 2019, most land border crossings were opened for the first time in two decades. Since 2019, however, no further progress has been made on the border issue: Contrary to the announcement, Ethiopia has not withdrawn its forces from the disputed territories, and the border crossings are closed again. A crucial reason for this is the TPLF’s opposition any withdrawal of forces: The Ethiopian army’s Northern Command is rather loyal to the TPLF government of Tigray.

Badme is a small village with few natural/agricultural ressources and little strategic value. But its symbolic value as the prize for the winner of the border war is high. In the last two decades, many Tigrayan settlers have arrived to the area. They firmly oppose PM Abiy’s withdrawal announcement. So far, Eritrea has not undertaken any military steps to retake the area.

4. Tsorona-Zalambessa

The rugged area around the villages of Tsorona and Zalambessa is contested for the same reason Badme. It has been the theatre of intensive warfare during the 1998-2000 border conflict and of sporadic skirmishes ever since. As of 2020, the actual frontline (= de facto border) still diverges significantly from the line set by the UN boundary commission in 2002. In contrast to Badme, however, Eritrea holds territory south of that line awarded to Ethiopia – but also the other way round. Hence, the divergences between the de facto border and the 2002 UN border are very complicated. There are even villages between the front lines.

The main Ethiopian-Eritrean road crossing, located between Serha (Eritrea) and Zalambessa (Ethiopia), belongs to this area. It is relatively uncontested, as Eritrea gave up its claim on Zalambessa after the UN decision in 2002. For a couple of months in late 2018, the border crossing was open – now it’s closed again.

The main border crossing between Ethiopia and Eritrea lies within this disputed area. Nowadays, both sides are quite close to each other, with only 300 meters of no man’s land between the border checkpoints. The border crossing has been open for Eritrean and Ethiopian travellers from September to December 2018 – before and afterwards, it has not been possible to cross the Eritrean-Ethiopian land border legally.

5. Irob

Irob is a district (woreda) located east of Zalambessa. Most of Irob has been awarded to Eritrea by the UN boundary commission in 2002, but remains under Ethiopian administration and military control. The area is populated by the Saho ethnic group, which consists of several tribes. Most of these tribes live in Eritrea, they are Muslims. Just one tribe, the Irob, are Orthodox Christians. As they have been under Ethiopian control for so long and the UN border would cut their homeland into two, most Irob oppose the handover of the contested area to the Eritrean side. Even though their concerns seem reasonable, so far both Ethiopia and Eritrea have avoided any meaningful discussion about the future of the area.

View from the main Zalambessa-Adigrat road towards the Irob area.

18 Kommentare

  1. You write „In the starting days of the 2020 Tigray conflict, Amhara security forces claim to have entered the area and occupied parts of Wolkayit-Tegede.“

    The Amhara forces claim that they were responding to an attack by the Tgrai special forces. Accordingly, they mounted a counterattack and removed TPLF from the area.


  2. This article is biased, it tries to make it look like it is a broader conflict that has to do with borders.
    The border with Eritrea is not a matter of issue for the Tigray region but the whole of Ethiopia. The Abiy administration had a peace agreement with Eritrea which TPLF is not happy about. It is handled through international laws and verdicts. So no relation to the current war.

    The border with the Amhara region is being reviewed by the house of the federation.

    #Background: As part of the #Greater_Tigray dream (nightmare), TPLF created a map while still fighting against the DERG that incorporated land from present-day Eritrea and the then Gondar and Wollo Provinces.

    #Welkait_Tegede: Formerly part of what was referred to as the province of Begemedir (aka Gondar), it is a fertile land that TPLF incorporated into Tigray, resettling ethnic Tigrians and party affiliates and establishing large scale cash crops for exports.
    This is now liberated and will go back to historical inhabitants.

    #Raya_and_Azebo – the southwest of present-day Tigray was taken from the former province of Wollo. This is also liberated by the Ethiopian National Defence Forces and the Amhara kilil forces.
    #Result: Tigray whose children (TPLF) made Ethiopia landlocked and made it enemies with Eritrea (we could have at least used the ports with local currency or have some arrangement with Eritrea that benefits both), is now ‚border-locked“, on the North, it is Eritrea friendly to Ethiopian administration, on the West and south the Amhara kilil, East the Afar kilil. As we learned in this conflict, TPLF has no good friend in all of its neighbors and that is for a reason.
    In both cases (Welkait and Raya), it will be prudent for the government to take all the legal means and processes so that there is no future conflict of ownership.


    1. Dear Ewunetu, thank you for your comment. You are right: The borders are not the core issue of the current conflict. Sorry if the article gave a wrong impression on this, I have tried to put this more explicitly. Nevertheless, I wonder why you might call it biased. I tried to stick to the facts, i.e. that Raya and Welkait were parts of Wollo and Begemder respectively, prior to 1991. I refrain from giving an opinion on who is the „rightful“ owner of these territories or what border changes „should“ be made. The article just explains why these territories are disputed.


    2. In line with the ethnic based administrative restructuring that took language as the main criterion, provided in Article 46(2) of the 1995 FDRE constitution, Kafta-Humera along with Wolkait, Tsegede and Tselemt, became part of the Western administrative zone of Tigray. Similarly the Tigrinya speaking part of Raya was taken into the Southern Tigray zone. At the same time, a new state of Afar speakers was formed, made in part from a large area of land that used to be in the old Tigray province.

      While historically the old Begemeder province covered places like Setit Humera, as well as much of what is now the majority amharic speaking Gondar state, the fact that borders are have been redrawn with regard to ethnicity and language mean that these regions are now in the Tigray state.

      The population of Kafta-Humera was, for instance, 88% Tigrinya, 8% Amhara, 4% other in a survey carried out in 2016 (Cross-Border Analysis and Mapping – Cluster 4: Eastern Sudan-Northwest Ethiopia-Eritrea). The population of Wolkait was 92% Tigrayan, 6.5% Amhara, 1.5% other according to the official Central Statistical Agency of Ethiopia 2007 census. It is difficult to see what justifiable claim Amhara now has to take over these areas, in any case there are provisions in the constitution to resolve any problem arising regarding a state border problem – it is required to be settled in accordance with an agreement reached between the states concerned, not by force.

      The Italians, when they invaded Ethiopia in 1935, took all Tigrinya speaking areas of Ethiopia, along with what is now the Afar state, into Eritrea. This included what is now West Tigray, Wolkait was, for a time, shown on maps as being part of Eritrea.


  3. I think your article is neutral. It must be difficult to do so in this trying time for Ethiopia.

    Here is my unsolicited question/feedback. The article gives the impression that the current “war” or “law enforcement” started due to Tigray’s border conflict with its neighbors. Is it not the fact that the current conflict/armed fight came to be when TPLF ambushed the Ethiopian national army in their sleep, murdered many of them, and desecrated their bodies? This unprovoked killing was confirmed by the press conference TPLF/Woyané gave. They called the attacking of a sleeping unarmed force who was sharing a meal with them just hours before as “anticipatory defense”. Most Ethiopians call it murder.

    Yes, there was underlying current that was waiting to boil and the murdering of the national army in their sleep was the tipping point! This unprovoked attack fueled by years of anger towards woyané is the reason why Ethiopians are galvanized and support the central government despite all their deferences. We all pray for peace as the only people who will benefit from war are those who make the weapons and those who sell the weapons.

    I enjoyed reading your article as i found it to be informative


    1. Dear Kasey, thank you for your friendly comment. I fully agree that the current conflict was not provoked by the border issues, which are decades old. As for the reason of the conflict, the event you mention was certainly the imminent trigger. However, tensions were high even before that event. I prefer not to give an opinion on who is to blame for this war, as this goes beyond my personal knowledge. Me too, I hope Tigray and all the affected regions surrounding it will soon come to peace again!


  4. Thanks for trying to clarify the border issue surrounding Tigray. May be if you start looking at this issue from the time in which modern day Ethiopia has entered into Ethnic conflict / border conflict would help you and your audience more/
    Border / Ethnic conflict begin when Emperor Menelik (1889-1913) invaded the southern states. This followed by the acts of Emperor Haileselassie (1916 – 1974) to make Amharic the official language of modern day Ethiopia and divide the provinces to this reflection in which he begun giving away Raya Kobo upto Aloha to Wollo province in which his Son was the Governor and Wolkait / Humera region to Gondar in which at the time of Emperor Yohannes thise areas were clearly part of Tigray with their Tigray Governors.
    These acts of land grab are the causes of the 2 border issues with Gondar and Wollo and not what TPLF did recently in which most people miss.


    1. Dear Yikuno, thank you for your comment. In many border conflicts, the disputed areas are borderlands whose borders have shifted repeatedly in the past. In Europe, Alsace-Lothringia (between France and Germany) is a classic situation. It is common to see one side claiming „this was already ours in the …th century“ and the other side referring to a different period, when the area in question was theirs. It looks a bit like this in Raya and Wolkait as well. I therefore personally prefer not to judge who is the „rightful“ owner of a certain territory.


      1. Thank you about the article as its an informative one but with its shortcoming at least in one area which I would like to clarifay below if I may ,

        RAYA this area was taken from (Wello province) which was part of Amhara region now and consolidated to Tigray region by the TPLF lead government just after the fall of Derg without the approval of the Amhara region.

        Also about the population there were Amhars,Tigryans and some Oromos the languge is Amharic Tigringa and Oromifa. You may call it mixture of the three ethnicitues not only Oromo.

        I am sure there are reserchers and experts in the fields of Ethnic studies that can shade some light with the same.


  5. It is all about a group wanting to secede from Ethiopia by grabbing strategic and resourceful areas from Ethiopia and Eritria. They have been working on this for over 50 years, of which 30 years in govt power in Ethiopia. No one but TPLF knows why they want to secede from Ethiopia. Now it looks they are stranded. They can neither secede nor live peacefully with the rest of Ethiopians. And no one is ready to give them a second chance to deceive and sabotage the region. TPLF is the cancer of East Africa, and I am astonished to see some sympathizers irrespective of the misery they brought to the region.


  6. It is all about a group wanting to secede by grabbing strategic and resourceful areas from Ethiopia and Eritria. They have been working on this for over 50 years, of which 30 were as govt power in Ethiopia. No one but TPLF knows why they exactly want to secede. Now it seems they are stranded: they can neither secede nor live peacefully with the rest of Ethiopians. And no one is ready to give them a second chance to deceive and sabotage the region. TPLF is the cancer of East Africa. I am astonished to see some sympathizers irrespective of the misery they brought to the region.


  7. Thanks Daniel. You did attempt to provide history based information. Did you know the TPLF plan was loosley based on Rudolfo Graziani’s map to carve out ethnic Homelands out of Ethiopia ? Here is his map

    Often history is a reed bent seemingly to the point of breaking by winds of change. But though its takes time to right, right it will. Tigray is what is and what it always will be. Neither its past, nor its current sons and daughters are responsible for the excesses and ill-will the TPLF visited and continues to visit on its people and Ethiopia in general. It did carve out territory from Begemidir and Wollo to create a „greater“ Tigray. As his Highness Prince Ras Mengesha Seyoum, hereditary Prince of Tigray, proclaimed in 2016 when this question was put to him, „the borders of Tigray are the Tekezze river“.
    The TPLF removed the Derg for us, when others tried and failed. But it betrayed its own legacy and became worse than the Derg. It’s created, like the Derg, a generation of violent youth to whom ethnic violence is second nature.


  8. The article is pretty much unbiased and true.But the Ethiopian government did not start the conflict with
    the TPLF as you mentioned; rather it was TPLF that started by attacking the military.


  9. Why don’t you mention Haileselassie here who took land from Tigray and gave it to Amharic speaking population? Ethiopians claim to have long history so why start narrating from 1991GC


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