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I live in Ethiopia, a volatile political society in the volatile region of Eastern Africa. This region is disproportionately producing new states: I’m older than both Eritrea and South Sudan. In the Horn, Puntland and Somaliland, after breaking away from Somalia, still struggle for international recognition. As I write, it is unclear if Ethiopia will disintegrate and break into multiple weaker states as well. The war in the northern region and the insurgencies in the west of Ethiopia reinforce the fear of disintegration.
The worst part is that, despite the “liberation” promises the rebel leaders make, the new states are born at a cost to their citizens. Take Eritrea for example; it is a country with no freedom of the press, assembly, and demonstration. South Sudan is in a civil war. Sudan struggled with a fragile transition, after toppling two decades of dictatorship, and have it now stolen by a coup. And now Ethiopia, the most populous and arguably hegemonic force in Eastern Africa, has already joined the crisis on a bigger scale.
Three years ago, the world welcomed what was then promising peaceful transition which led to release of political prisoners, closure of notorious detention and torture centres in Addis Ababa and Jigjiga, making a peace deal with Eritrea, and launching legal reforms. Fast forward a mere three years later, today, the world watches as Ethiopia and the region implodes. In this blog piece, I demonstrate how violence and incompetence of Ethiopia’s leadership undermined a potential transition to democracy.
Background to the conflicts
Most of Ethiopia’s current conflicts have their roots in its long history of formation, foundation, and evolution to its modern statehood status.
In the 1970s, a socialist military junta that took power by overthrowing the Solomonic Christian kingdom demolished major class differences through its famous “land to the tiller” proclamation and turned the country into a secular state. This answered parts of the class and religious questions but political organizations that were founded to lead the “liberation movements” of groups such as the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) shifted their politics by centring ethnic-based subjugations in the struggle for nationhood; the Eritrean case is different as it was united with modern day Ethiopia after the second world war. In 1991, the liberation forces, through armed dominance, reestablished Ethiopia as an ethnic federal state where more than 80 ethnic groups coexisted in a decentralized legal set-up that allowed them ethnic autonomy and the possibility of secession.
As is implied above, even though imperfect, there is always progress in the state. Regardless, unelected political elites have always mobilized supports and led a rebellion against old or new regimes without a sound attempt to adapting peaceful means. There have always been armed opposition groups in Ethiopia since imperial times until today. This instrumentalization of violence as a means for change or resistance to change has put citizens in a war imposed poverty quagmire.
Friends turned to foes
The EPLF used to be a godfather of the TPLF in that it provided ideological support to the liberation struggle both were involved in. Jointly, they defeated the Ethiopian army, one of Africa’s strongest. In 1998, the Ethio-Eritrean war broke out because of disagreements between the leaders of the two parties under the guise of borderland contestation, which ended with the dominance of the Ethiopian army.
Furthermore, the leader of the TPLF, the late Meles Zenawi, outplayed his former mentor and the long-time dictator of Eritrea, Isaias Afeworki, in the face of global diplomacy. This cost Eritrea all its early hopes of becoming “the Singapore of Africa” gaining instead the status of “the North Korea of Africa“, a label that the Eritrean government rejects. Eritrea, like North Korea, has built the highest proportion of military personnel per capita.
Ethiopia, on the other hand, was relatively free and able to expand economically. But it was also repressive of civil liberties in the all too known form of periodic and sham elections. The attempts by Ethiopians to protest this authoritarianism and the ruling coalition that had delivered it have resulted in internal fractures within the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). Members of the Front, specifically the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO) and Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM), jointly created a loose coalition and broader social support, remembered as “Oro-Mara”, and took steps that could undermine the influence of the TPLF in the Front. This led to the election of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and gradual marginalization of the TPLF from federal incumbency.
Hopes turned to fears
Many people were hopeful of the changes as they witnessed potential for democratic reforms. The most celebrated version of the transition led by Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has been the “peace deal” between himself and President Isaias Afeworki of Eritrea. The TPLF, however, was not part of the peace deal and complained of being “encircled” by the enemies. Later, the exclusive deal was dubbed as a “military pact” by its opponents as the two (Ethiopian government and EPLF) fought against the TPLF together. Before the current war, the transition was challenged by different patterns and forms of violence. It started with mob violence against individuals, then communal conflicts among ethnic groups, and then political assassinations targeted at officials and individual figures, and finally a fully-fledged war.
The violence was instigated by three groups: the power holders, those who lost it, and the power seekers. The attempted coercion and co-optation between each of them to consolidate or reclaim cost thousands of innocent lives and closed doors on meaningful progress.
War is no solution
In this struggle for power, the elites of the TPLF also created a false perception that war is a better shortcut to regain power. Alula Solomon, Director of Tigrayans Association in the US, CEO of the Tigray Media House, and an influential agenda setter among Tigrayans now, has used his social media platform to incite violence and widen popular divisions. In May 2020, on his media platform he said: “if it is inevitable, war is a traditional game for Tigray”. He was not alone. Daniel Berhane, a famous pro-TPLF activist, was also interviewed on the Tigray Media House a little earlier before the war broke and argued that “war may not be a bad thing” to stop the tension between the federation and Tigray government going on since TPLF lost its dominance in the incumbent. Daniel added, “war is one method of bringing them [the federal government] to negotiation. … we have to shorten the war process by using preemptive strike if we need to.” That was exactly what a TPLF official said when they admitted attacking the northern command of the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF). The end of the war started so easily does not seem so easy. The humanitarian crisis and the economic bankruptcy as well as the social division it is creating are beyond imagination.
A return to pessimism
In my circles, it is common to hear that it is the prime minister who has failed Ethiopia. Indeed, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who was contestably the most welcomed leader in Ethiopian history when he assumed power, had his popularity diminish soon after. The issue is not one of personal capacity, but failure to seek help from those experienced. The failure is manifested on many fronts; Ethiopia’s diplomatic relationships with the West are deteriorating; a lack of transparency and clear communication about the terms of transition; the high and unmanageable cost of living; and now the military crisis.
Currently, Abiy Ahmed’s incompetence is interpreted as though the TPLF’s administration was better. In reality, the TPLF’s three decades long repressive regime and its resistance to the reform during the transition is equally, if not more, responsible for leading the country to the current crises it is in. The TPLF is not coming back to Addis Ababa, if it could, to correct the past wrongs but to further divide Ethiopia across its political societies. The narrative of confederation it has been propagating in the past months is evident for this consequential ambition. The story of violence by all actors and the incompetence of the federal government is bigger than the closure of the transitional window in Ethiopia. It is also holds consequences for the entire region of the Horn of Africa.
Ethiopia has been a hegemonic force in Eastern Africa. It was also one of the biggest recipients of migrants from Somalia and Eritrea. It acted as a mediator of conflicts in South Sudan. But as it stands, Ethiopia has the probability of becoming more of a burden than a stabilizing force in the region. I would love to be wrong, but conflicts might breed and Ethiopia could become the biggest producer of migrants itself. The influential pressure of the West has not been impartial, so far, to mediate the war into a peacefully negotiated settlement. Only a nuanced engagement of all stakeholders and commitment to genuinely participatory peace talks, not arbitrary interventions, would save the region from terrible fate.