The humanitarian tragedy is already stretching across borders: 27,000 Ethiopians have crossed the frontier into Sudan in two weeks, the largest influx in 20 years.
Ethiopia’s Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the political party from the northern Tigray region that is battling the central government, has admitted to firing rockets at Asmara, the capital of neighbouring Eritrea. What we’re seeing in Ethiopia might be the last gasps of an empire – akin to the dissolution of the former Soviet Union – for some 115 million people. So, how did we get here?
On 4 November, while the world was occupied with the US elections, Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed, winner of a Nobel peace prize for his role in trying to resolve the conflict with Eritrea, declared war on the TPLF, launching a military offensive in response to what he claims was an attack on the Northern Command, the most powerful division of the Ethiopian army. This dramatic escalation represents a major gamble on Abiy’s part.
Ethiopia is a complex mosaic of ethnic groups, including – to use figures from the 2007 census – the Oromo (34%), Amhara (27%), Somalis (6.2%) and Tigray (6%). For most of the 20th century, the country was ruled by an Amhara-dominated monarchy. After almost two decades of vicious military dictatorship, a new coalition government came to power in 1991. The government oversaw a federal system, although critics saw this federalism as a figleaf, behind which the Tigray minority dominated affairs. Abiy – who is half Oromo, half Amhara – came to power in 2018, promising to hold elections by 2020. His liberal philosophy entailed commitments to privatising industry, freeing some political prisoners (lately, prisons have filled up again) and came packaged in a highly ambitious, messianic aura. The honeymoon period is well and truly over.
Abiy’s relationship with his TPLF partners deteriorated, with Tigrayan leaders retreating to Tigray or being asked to take a backseat role in a coalition that they had previously dominated. The relationship finally broke down when Abiy announced plans to dissolve the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition and replace it with his own Prosperity party, a new political vehicle that the TPLF refused to take part in.
These tensions had been simmering for some time, but reached a boiling point following Abiy’s decision to postpone scheduled general elections because of the coronavirus pandemic. Determined to assert their own authority, TPLF leaders went ahead with an election in Tigray, flouting Abiy’s instructions. Lawmakers responded by cutting off TPLF from the federal government budget.
To be clear: Abiy inherited this problem, he didn’t create it, but his management made it worse. He began by demonising the TPLF and calling their leaders “Yeken Jiboch”, or “daytime hyenas”. Since he came to power, it has become dangerous for an Ahmara person to even live in Oromia, to give a sense of the fractiousness that envelops the country.
The war between Abiy and the TPLF is particularly dangerous for three reasons. First, Ethiopia is plagued by a vicious sectarianism countrywide. There is a persistent violence from insurgents in Wollega, Benishangul, the Somali and Oromia regions. As such, the conflict risks overwhelming the state. Second, Abiy will probably not win a decisive victory, as the TPLF has considerable military capacity and is used to protracted armed struggles, having come of age by waging guerrilla warfare against the Derg dictatorship in the 1970s and 80s. Third, Ethiopia’s constitution recognises the right of ethnic communities to campaign for political autonomy, and secession is a constant topic of conversation in areas such as Tigray, the Somali region and Oromia.
Abiy is telling Ethiopians and the world that what is going on is a short law-and-order-type operation, which will end with the surrender or arrest of top TPLF leaders. But even if he does manage to capture some of the TPLF leaders, there will be a new generation to take their place. Few believe the Tigrayans will accept second-class status again.
The conflict is most likely to descend into a fully fledged civil war if the military fragments. African political history reveals the central role that the military – and its allegiances – play in political stability. There are already reports of Tigrayan officers leaving the official Ethiopian army and joining the TPLF.
What we are witnessing is a tragedy, make no mistake about it. The political integrity of Africa’s second most-populous nation is at stake, as are the lives and livelihoods of tens of thousands of ordinary people – divided from each other by the dangerous allures and false consolations of ethnic absolutism.
Yohannes Woldemariam is an academic specialising in the Horn of Africa.