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To what extent has famine made the outbreak of civil conflict in Ethiopia more likely? A study of the Tigray People’s Liberation front. 

By Arthur Willoughby

“A man starved all his life will never rebel. Up north there was no rebellion. No one raised his voice or his hand there... But just let the subject start to eat his fill and then try to take the bowl away, and immediately he rises in rebellion”. 

- Ryszard Kapuściński, The Emperor

Up until the publication of Jonathan Dimbleby’s 1973 documentary “Ethiopia: The Unknown Famine”, many in the Amharic tradition had seen famine as nothing more than a gruesome fact of Ethiopian life. Starvation in the Horn of Africa seemed as common as the changing of the seasons, with recorded evidence of prolonged periods of drought and malnourishment stretching back almost a millennium (Rubenson 1991, p. 74). Dimbleby’s film, however, would contest the notion of famine in the region as some fated reality. His narrative pitted images of the immense suffering in Ethiopia’s northern regions, where human skeletons foundered in their thousands into foreign-funded refugee camps, directly against the opulence of Addis Ababa and Haile Selassie’s imperial court. “Here, whole fields of dying scrags; there, His Highness serving meat to his dogs from a silver platter” (Kapuściński 2006, p. 109). Far from some God-given curse upon Ethiopia, the documentary showed that the 1971-74 famine had an economic or political cause. It stemmed from either the errors or unwilling of the country’s elite to adequately distribute the harvest, one which the UN would later reveal to be more than sufficient for all Ethiopians to have had their full (Khalif 2000, p. 334). This ‘great famine’, that which led to Selassie’s downfall, saw almost six million facing mass starvation (ibid, p. 334). Yet nowhere was this suffering more acutely felt than the northernmost state of Tigray. There, more than half the population would be left destitute (Berhe 2004, p. 573). 

For some, Dimbleby’s images inspired a conscious turning point that led to the collapse of Africa’s last independent kingdom (Kapuściński 2006, p. 109 & Bellucci 2016, p. 2). The documentary forced the Emperor to finally admit the extent of the crisis (Keller 1992, p. 610), and in so doing it ignited a popular resentment and unrest that has remained an almost constant feature of Ethiopian politics ever since. Yet again, to say that Ethiopia’s recent wars are entirely attributable to their famines is clearly a misguided view. Armed conflicts undeniably begin, endure and end with human decisions (Hendrix et al. 2016, p. 243). The aim of this paper, therefore, is to assess the ways by which famine provided a structural context that made civil unrest more likely in Ethiopia. Focusing on the state of Tigray, I explain the link between Tigrayan’s struggles with hunger and the fight for self-determination of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front’s (TPLF). Doing so, I hope to shed new darkness on reports that the Federal Ethiopian Government has been using hunger as a tool to starve out TPLF resistance in the conflict beginning November 2020 (The Conversation June 2022). In establishing an economic connection between famine and conflict, my aim is to demonstrate that the strategic use of famine as a tool of war is an evil extending far beyond its immediate human rights violations. Famine, in addition to the direct suffering it causes, can create enduring structural conditions that allow for continued civil unrest. 

In order to make my argument, I will first define the terms of our discussion before laying out the analytical framework from Collier and Hoeffler’s (2004) paper “Greed and grievance in civil war”. My aim here is to distinguish between the motive and opportunity dichotomy that tends to underlie most civil conflicts, explaining how famine might relate to them both. I will then show my main hypotheses along with my methodology, before undergoing an analysis of the famine in Tigray as it relates to each of my key claims. 

2. Analytical Framework 

As I am taking a qualitative approach to my analysis, I will refrain from an overly technical definition of famine and civil conflict, and instead focus my response on some key historical flashpoints of regional insecurity in Tigray. Famine, as I define it, is “mass starvation with associated elevated mortality” (Cutler 1991, p. 176), and here more generally refers to three particularly devastating food shortages in northern Ethiopia: those being 1971-74, 1983-85 and the one beginning November 2020 (The Guardian 2022). Across the first two of these periodsmillions perished, and an even greater number were supplanted from their homes (Berhe 2004, p. 571). Regarding the third, the numbers of those who suffered directly from famine are uncertain, but around 600,000 have died from the collective injustices of war, starvation and an absence of medical care (Pilling & Schipani 2023). As for ‘civil conflict’, I take it to mean an “internal conflict with at least 1,000 combat-related deaths per year” (Collier & Hoeffler 2004, p. 565). Yet, more generally, in this paper it refers to the prolonged civil war that ravaged Ethiopia from 1974-1991, alongside the more recent conflict between the Federal Ethiopian government and the TPLF. 

The basis of my argument relies on Collier and Hoeffler’s (2004) paper “Greed and grievance in civil war”. There they provide an econometric model that predicts the outbreak of civil conflict based on a dichotomy more commonly “analogous to the classic principles of murder detection” (ibid, p. 563). Civil rebellion, they claim, demands both “motive and opportunity” (ibid, p. 563). That is, there are two fundamental explanations for civil war onset: either the presence of atypically severe grievances (i.e., high inequality, the absence of political rights, ethnic or religious cleavages) or the existence of atypical opportunities for building a rebel group (i.e.exploitable natural resources, donations from diasporas, subventions from foreign governments). The key claim of their paper is that economic factors play a significant role in inciting civil conflicts, particularly with regard to opportunity costs. Grievances on the other hand, while ideologically significant, on their analysis add little explanatory power to civil war outbreak. Regardless of their ultimate findings, my argument will assume the significance of both opportunity and grievance as underlying factors for civil conflict. 

Relating this framework more specifically to famines, I make two key hypotheses: 

Hypothesis 1: Famine creates atypically severe grievances that encourage the foundation and continued struggles of rebel organisations. 

Hypothesis 2: Famine offers atypical opportunities for building a rebel organisation. 

To assess the validity of these claims, I will now look at a range of evidence from academic papers to newspaper articles that go some way to explaining the causes of and context behind the fighting in Ethiopia’s Tigray. My study is admittedly limited, notably with regard tounderstanding the true nature of TPLF grievances (given the marked absence of personal testimonies of individual soldiers), and it is also short regarding numerical data on the opportunity costs for the TPLF’s foundation. Whilst it might therefore be difficult to extrapolate any of my findings out of the Ethiopian context, I hope to provide enough information to make Collier and Hoeffler’s (2004) framework intelligible regarding the consequences of prolonged famine in the region, perhaps providing interesting policy implications regarding the appropriate allocation of humanitarian aid in the Horn of Africa down the line. 

3. Grievance 

At first glance, The TPLF appears a group to whom the suffering caused by famine played a major role in their initial foundation. According to at least one former senior member, the group’s conception in 1975 was born out of an “ethno-nationalist consciousness generated by the cumulative grievances of Tigrayans against successive central governments of Ethiopia” (Berhe2004, p. 569). Circumstantially speaking, it thus seems natural to presume that the group’s formation had a lot to do with the famine of 1971-74. The period appeared to mark a ‘watershed moment’, a point of no return where the people of Tigray were made bitterly aware that Selassie’s feudal government, as well as the subsequent regime of the Derg, cared little for the well-being of Tigray’s ethnically distinct population. Of course, Tigray’s extensive history with famine cannot be entirely attributed to governmental interference. Tigray has the second least reliable rainfall in all of Ethiopia (Khalif 2000, p. 335), and has suffered at least 17 famines since 1889 (Berhe 2004, p. 571). Yet the role of the government in exacerbating the frequency of these famines is not to be underestimated. Before the 1971-74 drought, for example, the provinces of Tigray and Wollo had accounted for over 40% of Ethiopia’s total food production (Keller 1992, p. 611). Feudal reappropriation and exploitation, however, had meant that not a single working factory operated in either state (Lemma 1985, p. 55), highlighting the fact that famine was made more probable merely as a result of a system that ceaselessly looted Tigray’s limited resources. “Recurring famines” and “land degradation” have thus always been high on the Tigrayan agenda, all the more so for the student wings of the organisation (Berhe 2004, p. 576). Although, naturally, one might question how they rank in relation to the many other grievances Tigrayans have suffered over the years. 

The 1976 TPLF manifesto, for example, does not overly dwell on famine as a source of Tigrayan injustice (Yideg and Premanandam 2019). Instead, much of the rhetoric is aimed at the Amhara ethnic group, Tigray’s provincial neighbours, who 82.1% of Tigrayan respondents saw as their “number one enemy” due to a long history of ethnic conflict (Yideg and Premanandam 2019, p. 301). More generally, however, the manifesto emerged out of a political context “characterised by rampant poverty, political repression, autocratic rule and ethno-regional and ethno-linguistic disparities” (Berhe 2008, p. 1). In this way, famine for Tigrayans was just one tributary in a great river of hurt. Yet, even so, it is interesting to note how some of the TPLF’s core political aims seem to respond almost directly to the imminent threat that food shortages engendered. The 1975 publication “Republic of Greater Tigrai”, for example, showed the TPLF to have two primary military objectives; to expand Tigray’s borders within Ethiopia and to establish a self-governing Tigrayan state (McCracken 2004, p. 190). When the TPLF eventually managed to conquer Addis Ababa in 1991, after having emerged from the Derg ‘Red Terror’ campaign reinvigorated and rebranded due to an alliance with the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) (a partnership that would come to be known as the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and that would rule Ethiopia until 2019) (Gebreleul 2019), one of their first constitutional acts would be to annex fertile lands from the neighbouring provinces of Gondar and Wollo (McCracken 2004, p. 185 & pp. 191-192). On the other front, the Tigray-led EPRDF would soon create the Endowment Fund for the Rehabilitation of Tigray (EFFORT), which might appear part of a larger policy to strip Ethiopia of its resources before initiating a plan for Tigray to secede. As a result of Tigrayan guidance, secession is of course still legal under the 1994 constitution (McCracken 2004). Both these measures, expanding territory and seceding from the Ethiopian state, would appear to go some way to reducing the risk of man-made famine in the region. Nevertheless, it is uncertain to what extent famine motivated these policies, particularly given Tigray’s long history of ethnic conflict and political injustice. 

A final way by which famine encourages TPLF grievances lies in the fact that Ethiopian central governments have repeatedly used hunger as a tool of oppression in their conflicts in Tigray. The 1983-85 famine provides a case in point. Although its initial causes were natural, it was shown to have been exacerbated by a Derg campaign that sought to depopulate the region in order to ease its recapture (Keller 1992, p. 619). What resulted was a ‘scorched earth’ policy, where the salting of fields and destruction of crops came to symbolise the attempted eradication of an entire culture. By 1984 it was estimated that three million suffered from a phase 3 famine in Tigre and Wollo alone (Keller 1992, p. 616), and the Derg would later be accused internationally of war crimes for the systematic blockade of humanitarian aid (ibid, p. 619). Weaponising starvation in this way undeniably has long-term implications. Balcells (2012) paper, for example, provides empirical support for the claim that serious war-time violations inspire generational grudges. While I lack testimonial evidence to show that this might apply to Tigray, the ferocity of the recent conflict demonstrates how the cleavage between Tigray and the rest of Ethiopia remains strong to this day (International Crisis Group 2021). Also unchanged in this recent conflict is the same use of siege tactics to starve out Tigrayan resistance (de Waal 2022). Reports of even doctors begging for food (BBC, 28 Jan. 2022), and estimates of five out of Tigray’s six million population in desperate need of aid (de Waal 2022), quite plainly picture an environment that appears a breeding ground for political discontent. Famine clearly played a role in the formation of TPLF grievances historically, and may still today, it just remains to be seen whether Ethiopia’s Nobel Peace Prize winning Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, has the political tact to help Tigrayans move past such indignities and create a peace that endures (Gebreluel 2019)(Winning & Cocks 2022). 

4. Opportunity 

In relation to the opportunity costs of the TPLF’s foundation, I will now assess two separate sub- hypotheses that might suggest famine aided their rise to power. 

Hypothesis 2.1: Famine allows for greater ease in recruiting troops. 

One of the most impressive achievements of the TPLF lies in the fact that they managed to mobilise enough of the Tigrayan population to wage a successful campaign against the Derg in the late 1980s (Berhe 2008, p. 8). Nonetheless, the role of famine in this mobilisation is rather complex. A shared sense of suffering undeniably offers a point of unity and a common cause that might have aided conscription, but the most evident ideology behind TPLF recruitment took an ethnic formulation instead (ibid, p. 8). Tigrayan resistance depended, on the face of it at least, on the larger historical claim to a Tigrayan nationalism. However, interestingly, at some point shortly following the TPLF’s foundation a decision was made to focus on recruiting those who had suffered famine’s worst effects (Berhe 2004, p. 587). The reasoning behind this was that peasants, unlike students, had become more accustomed to hardship as a result of sustained periods of drought. For the TPLF leadership they made for better, more rugged recruits with a proven track record having already survived a devastating period of hunger. Moreover, at first, recruitment from this population seemed remarkably easy (ibid, p. 589). “There was a general desire in Tigray for change” (Berhe 2004, p. 583), and in this way famine appeared to create a political context where military action became more permissible, or even desirable. Yet again, it is difficult to claim a linear relationship between famine and recruitment in this way, because the nature of the famine in question is also likely to affect the motivations of potential conscripts. When famine is used as a tool of war, for example, the opposite appears true. The recent starvation tactics of the federal government might be argued to have ‘broken the will’ of Tigrayans, perhaps indicated by increasingly common reports of forced conscriptions by the TPLF (Paravicini & Houreld 2022). At the same time, in situations of famine soldiers are often the only ones with access to food, which complicates the picture even further as dying from war might appear more desirable than dying from hunger. I think what is important to note, therefore, is that in certain contexts famine can provide an atypically strong ideological motivation for conflict. The universality of this claim, however, remains in question given the variety of ways that famine can emerge. 

Hypothesis 2.2: Famine reduces the cost of rebellion.

One of the key findings of Collier and Hoeffler’s (2004) paper is that low foregone earnings facilitate the probability of conflict. The philosophy here is akin to a ‘nothing to lose’ style approach. A country with a high GDP and quality of life is one where violent civil war seems incredibly undesirable, whereas in poorer countries conflict might offer a ‘way out’. Ethiopia, unfortunately, falls into the latter category. In fact, it is one of the poorest in the world, ranked “172nd by the UN in its 174-country listing” (Khalif 2000, p. 336), and its long historical relationship between famine and conflict creates a context where rebellion may not seem as costly as elsewhere (Rubenson 1991). One difficulty already noted by Collier and Hoeffler’s regarding this approach, however, is that low opportunity costs might matter because they are a source of grievance rather than the fact that they make uprisings inexpensive (Collier & Hoeffler 2004, p. 588). At the same time, even if famine makes the initial cost of rebellion cheaper, in the long run it certainly makes rebellion harder to sustain (Hendrix et al. 2016, p. 231). So much is seen from the apparent desperation of the TPLF to find an immediate solution to the conflict towards the end of last year (Winning & Cocks 2022). The insinuation, therefore, is that famine creates a more immediate political instability, and can function at opposite ends of the military spectrum as both a catalyst and extinguisher of desires to rebel. More importantly still, famine should be understood according to the incentives and constraints it embeds rebel groups within (Hendrix et al. 2016, p. 246). While it may not be a direct cause of conflict, it certainly impacts upon the ease with which civil wars are fought. The TPLF, fighting always in the shadow of famine, offers an excellent example of just how true this claim seems to be. 

5. Conclusion 

The relationship between famine and conflict is unquestionably embedded with endogeneity. More often than not, famine has been seen as consequence of conflict, but here I have tried to show how the opposite might be true. In Tigray, it is unquestionable that famine played a significant role in the foundation of the TPLF and their numerous conflicts over the past several decades, yet the extent to which famine represents the main cause will remain the subject of much debate. What famine does represent, however, is a structural condition which using Collier and Hoeffler’s (2004) framework provides a reasonable explanation for the continued unrest in Tigray. In this way it seems true to say that famine makes civil conflict more likely, as it generates both grievances and opportunities for conflict, but it is also a variable incapable of causing war by itself. War, rather, requires the commitment of human actors to take up arms, only famine might propel them along their way. This might therefore act as a warning against the continued use of famine as a method of war. Even if famine provides short-term military solutions, it also appears to create a legacy that promotes unrest down the line. 



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