There was an aura of excitement when Abiy Ahmed became prime minister of Ethiopia after the abrupt resignation of Hailemariam Desalegn in 2018. Abiy was from a new generation of Ethiopian leadership that wanted to reshape a nation in pain — from civil unrest, famine, and the lack of democracy and peace in a region known for endless conflict.
Abiy, an Oromo, was sworn in as a 42-year-old, one of the youngest leaders in an African continent full of dictators who extend their terms far beyond their time. He spoke from the House of People’s Representatives, reflecting on the protection of human rights, peaceful coexistence with Ethiopia’s archenemy Eritrea and the importance of opening up the democratic process. In 2019, he received a Nobel Peace Prize largely for his work on the rapprochement between Ethiopia and Eritrea — the true start of “Abiy-mania.”
Fast forward a year, and the relationship between Ethiopia and Eritrea is in a standstill. There is now civil unrest in parts of the nation. Most recently, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the ruling party of the region of Tigray, has been at war with Abiy’s administration after the government says it provoked a deadly conflict by attacking a federal military site last month. In response, the federal government launched a military offensive that has made more than 40,000 Ethiopians refugees in neighboring Sudan and led to untold deaths.
The roots of the conflict go back decades. The TPLF used to dominate Ethiopia’s ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which involved three other political parties. Abiy was the chairman of one, the Oromo Democratic Party. Last year, after 28 years of controlling Ethiopian politics, the coalition was dismantled and replaced with the Prosperity Party, a single united party led by the prime minister.
The TPLF subsequently announced its decision to separate with the federal ruling party over the establishment of the new party, accusing Abiy of trying to institute a unitary form of government earlier this year.
One of Abiy’s most repeated promises was to conduct a fair and free election across the country. Earlier this year, the electoral board announced its decision to hold an election in August. But due to the pandemic, the country was forced to postpone regional and federal elections. That decision was rejected by TPLF, which asserted that the federal government has no jurisdiction on regional elections.
In September, Tigray unilaterally conducted its regional election, in which almost 2.6 million voters participated and the TPLF claimed all available electable seats. The Ethiopian House of Federation then rejected the Tigray regional election, calling it “null and void.”
Tigrayan political actors have continued to complain about how they have been unjustly targeted with corruption charges, while corrupt officials belonging to other ethnic groups were not. The military conflict occurred in this backdrop. On Nov. 28, the Ethiopian government claimed it had taken control of Tigrayan capital Mekele, a city of half a million people, and declared the offensive finished.
The entire saga encapsulates the gap between Abiy’s early promises and the reality of much of his tenure. Team Abiy advocated for a pan-Ethiopian political dream, rejecting the ideals of ethnic federalism that proliferated for a generation. But now, the cycles from Ethiopia’s dark days seem to be repeating themselves.
This year, political dissidents, including Jawar Mohammed, Eskinder Nega, Lidetu Ayalew, Bekele Gerba and other journalists, were put in custody. In Tigray, the conflict took a large toll — but little information was released to the world. Internet and phone lines, along with fuel, were disrupted, making the work of aid organizations difficult and restricting journalists’ ability to report freely on the conflict, once again reminding Ethiopians of the old ways. This comes as the respected Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and the U.N. High Commissioner of Human Rights Michelle Bachelet have called for a full inquiry of possible war crimes allegations within the Tigray region.
Abiy has placed too much emphasis on his international standing when he should have prioritized national concerns. This marked his handling of the TPLF question from the outset; he was not able to narrow his differences with them and chose to neglect their grievances until they reached the breaking point. While he may win on the battleground and declare victory, this could result in a rebel movement from the north. The region’s proximity to Eritrea also means the conflict could spiral into a regional one.
The conflict in Tigray has affected tens of thousands and is spilling over to other nations. If left to fester, the situation could become worse. The international community, understanding the potential humanitarian catastrophe, must push for a peaceful resolution to Ethiopia’s challenges. Its stability and progress are integral in a region prone to conflicts. This is the only way to ensure Ethiopia moves forward from its past — instead of returning to it.
Samuel Getachew is a journalist with the Reporter newspaper based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.