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HomeGeopolitical CompassSub-Saharan AfricaConflict in the Neo-Colonial Order in Africa: The Case of Ethiopia-Tigray

Conflict in the Neo-Colonial Order in Africa: The Case of Ethiopia-Tigray

Author: Tunç Demirtaş

Organization/Publisher: Insight Turkey

Date/Place: Spring 2023/ Türkiye

Type of Literature: Analysis

Number of Pages: 21


Keywords: Neo-Colonialism, Ethiopia, Tigray Crisis, Horn of Africa, The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)



This article analyses the Tigray crisis in Ethiopia through the lens of neo-colonialism. The author emphasizes that although colonialism as the preeminent international system has ended, the power struggle in Africa continues through neo-colonialism. The study aims to demonstrate a neo-colonial agenda in the indirect involvement of global and regional actors in the Ethiopian-Tigray conflict.

The study is divided into 4 axes:

In the first axis, Neo-Colonialism in the 21st Century?, the author attempts to clarify the concept of neo-colonialism by distinguishing it from colonialism and imperialism. He argues that the main difference between these concepts is the different forms of influence colonial countries hold over their colonies in general. Colonialism encompasses direct control over colonies, whereas imperialism can provide a wider sphere of influence. Neo-colonialism generally works through economic fields, through which colonial countries tries to indirectly control other countries. The term also refers to how governments control and exploit other countries even after the end of colonialism in Africa.

Neo-colonialism is when powerful countries and large corporations control weaker nations using global capitalism instead of ruling them directly. This pattern began emerging after African countries gained independence, showing how the concept has evolved.

The author chose to focus on Africa, considering it the continent most ravaged by colonialism in the past and one that still suffers from its repercussions. He claims that the neo-colonial process in this continent was first carried out by actors with colonial pasts, such as the UK, France, and Italy, etc. However, later, global actors such as the U.S, China, Russia, and regional actors such as India, UAE, and Saudi Arabia started to participate actively in the geopolitical landscape of Africa.


After this conceptual first axis, Demirtaş moves on to study the case he selected in Africa. The Ethiopian-Tigray Issue: A Proxy War in the Shadow of Neo-Colonialism, returns to the history of Ethiopia, one of the most ancient civilizations in the world. The author considers the modern history of Ethiopia, as this country faced separatist movements in the 1960s, leading to fragility. Liberation movements based on ethnic origins, such as ELF, EPLF, TPLF, and OLF, emerged during this period and remain influential. These ethnic-based organizations are among the most pressing issues needing resolution.

Although Ethiopia does not have a colonial past, being only temporarily occupied by the European colonial powers, this independence it gained by fighting the occupiers. In the Tigray crisis, the author assumes that a war for neo-colonialism is being waged in Ethiopia through the Western media and the TPLF, whom Western government support.

The roots of the Ethiopian-Tigray issue trace back to when the Tigray region began gaining political power following the military coup in Ethiopia in 1974. In 1991, a coalition led by the TPLF played a significant role in overthrowing the Derg regime, which operated under a unitary state system in Ethiopia. The TPLF, along with other organizations like the EPRDF, aimed to establish a more inclusive and decentralized political system to accommodate the diverse ethnic groups in the country.

At the domestic level, the author identifies the conflicting parties as the TPLF troops and the central government. Regionally, in Africa, Egypt, Sudan, Somalia, and Eritrea are notable in the context of regional power and economic rivalry. Egypt and Sudan may benefit from Ethiopia’s instability, particularly due to their opposition to the Renaissance Dam project on the Blue Nile River, which helps maintain their regional power. However, the situation differs for Somalia and Eritrea. The Ethiopian Prime Minister allied with the then Somalian and Eritrean Presidents. Nonetheless, there are claims that this alliance lost power with the election of Hasan Sheikh Mahmud instead of Farmajo in Somalia’s presidential elections held on May 15, 2022.


Now, shifting to the third axis in the study titled Neo-Colonial Competition in the Shadow of the New Cold War, Demirtaş argues that countries such as the U.S, China, Egypt, Sudan, and Eritrea are actors that have the potential to influence the course of the conflict with the TPLF in Ethiopia. The study focuses on identifying the role of the United States as a key Western player, alongside the roles of regional states such as Sudan, Egypt, and Eritrea. It also compares the United States and the European Union in terms of how American policies contribute to the conflict against China in the region. Meanwhile, the author excludes Turkey from the neo-colonial perspective and includes it as an alternative regional player.

Starting by The U.S.: A Complex Relationship, with the emergence of the Tigray crisis, Ethiopia’s relations with the U.S. and the West began to deteriorate, as the government came under strong criticism. While the U.S. and the West previously referred to Abiy Ahmed as their close strategic partner and a cornerstone of security, this shifted due to widespread international opinion that suggests the possibility of the U.S. using the TPLF as a proxy actor to undermine Ethiopia’s stability, considering Ethiopia’s historical role as an ‘anchor state’ in the Horn of Africa region. However, what benefit would the United States gain from supporting the TPLF?

The author argues that it is believed that the United States seeks to drag the Horn of Africa into an environment of turmoil and instability, with the aim of undermining China, one of its major competitors, and its influence in the region. On the other hand, it is known that the United States and the West still need an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. In summary, when the instability in Ethiopia is considered in conjunction with the interconnected structure of the region, it is likely to impact the Horn of Africa and all of East Africa. It is known that the connection between the Belt and Road Initiative and Djibouti is of vital importance to Ethiopia.

As for the role of China in this conflict, in China: A Strategic Partner, the author argues that the Tigray crisis is crucial for China, which has more than four billion dollars’ worth of sectoral investments in Ethiopia today. Nonetheless, it has an approach of non-interference in Ethiopia’s internal affairs. However,  the degree to which it supports the current government against the Tigray crisis is under question.

Against the U.S. and its allies, China has also stated that it will stick to its consistent position and will stand up to external powers that interfere in Ethiopia’s internal affairs under the pretext of human rights. Nonetheless, this crisis poses serious risk to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), since China constantly emphasizes that development is only possible with security and stability.

In this context, the author claims that neo-colonialism appears, because China’s economic presence in Ethiopia, including infrastructure projects and financing, reflects a form of economic influence that aligns with the neo-colonialist tendencies of exploiting resources and maintaining economic dominance.


Now moving to a regional actor and neighbor of Ethiopia, Eritrea: Once an Enemy, Now an Ally, Eritrea which sided with Ethiopia and China, is seen as siding with the Tigray Issue. Eritrea’s recent involvement in the conflicts in the Tigray region is also interpreted as an attempt to reintroduce itself to the regional system. The author believes that the Tigray crisis presented two opportunities to Eritrea:

The first is ending Eritrea’s long years of isolation from the international system; the second is re-influencing Ethiopia’s internal affairs. Thus, the second opportunity also opened up Eritrea with an opportunity to take revenge on the TPLF. This suggests a desire for power and influence, which aligns with the neo-colonialist tendencies of powerful nations or actors.

The relations between the two countries are deep and interconnected, as Demirtaş claims that Eritrea’s regional policies have been constantly influenced by Ethiopia. According to the periods, Ethiopia is sometimes an obstacle and sometimes an opportunity for Eritrea, and Eritrea currently sees the Tigray crisis as an opportunity.

Another important regional actor in this conflict is Egypt and Sudan, which the author discusses under the heading Frenemies: Egypt and Sudan.

In Egypt’s search for geopolitical hegemony on the Blue Nile River, the continuation of the crisis in Ethiopia provides an advantage. Ethiopia’s accusation that Egypt is supporting the instability in the country increased the already tense state between the two countries. This pursuit of dominance and control over the Nile River can be seen as a manifestation of neo-colonial tendencies, as it involves a powerful nation seeking to assert its influence over a neighboring country.

On the other hand, Ethiopia’s moderate approach toward Sudan strengthens its position in the negotiations on the Nile basin, creating a disadvantage for Egypt.

Although Ethiopia’s stability will keep Sudan from conflict zones, refugee influx, and human smuggling, there are uncertainties in Sudan’s current political situation. Sudan, which had good relations with the TPLF in the past, brings about a complex situation. This can be considered neo-colonial, as neo-colonialism often involves using divisions or conflicts within regions to advance an actor’s interests and maintain control.

Egypt and Sudan are not the only Arab countries concerned with this crisis, as we cannot ignore the role of the United Arab Emirates, which has increased its influence in the Horn of Africa in recent years and is an actor with high strategic flexibility. The UAE is trying to establish political and security systems in the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea region. This can also be perceived as a sign of behavior in line with the neo-colonial tendency to exert control or influence over the region to advance its interests.


After the author discusses the roles of regional and international actors, he moves on to the fourth and final axis in this study, The Future of the Ethiopia-Tigray Issue: Is Turkeys Approach an Alternative?

The author believes that Turkey, which has essential relations and investments in the Horn of Africa, will be adversely affected by the instability in the region. The fact that the U.S., the UK, and other Western countries act for their interests rather than the region’s interests and international pressure on Ethiopia leads it to different alternatives, such as Turkey. Turkey, which has significant experience in regional and global crises, has established military and financial cooperation with Ethiopia. Increasing collaboration between the two countries strategically makes it possible for Turkey to create a balance of power, especially as an essential player in the Horn of Africa.


Demirtaş argues that Turkey’s call for a ‘peaceful solution’ to the Tigray crisis and its willingness to mediate in the conflict between Sudan and Ethiopia shows that Turkey is the actor with the strongest desire for stability in the region.

The author concludes that the Tigray crisis in Ethiopia embodies a neo-colonial struggle, positing it as a zero-sum game for foreign entities. Resolving this issue necessitates robust diplomatic efforts and mediation. The persistence of neo-colonial dynamics within the Tigray crisis underscores the imperative for stability, both within Ethiopia and across the broader region, contingent upon the actions of foreign actors.

Conversely, the involvement of alternative players like Turkey, devoid of colonial legacies and refraining from neo-colonial interventions, could potentially catalyze crisis resolution. Their initiatives aimed at stabilizing the region and safeguarding state structures and territorial integrity, while respecting internal affairs, might contribute significantly to resolving the crisis.


By: Chourouk Mestour, Ph.D. Candidate in International Relations



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