Ethiopia Is on the Brink of a Civil War

Ethiopia is experiencing one of the most tense moments in its history, opening up the possibility of a new civil war.
  • Salvador Soler | 
  • December 10, 2020

On November 4, Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed launched a military attack on the region of Tigray, in the north of the country, near the Eritrean border. The attack was in retaliation for an assault on an Ethiopian army base, allegedly carried out by Tigray’s ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Since then, Tigray, home to 6 million people, has suffered an Internet and communications blackout, making it difficult to know the extent of the fighting and how the population is faring. What is certain is that at least 1 million people have fled their homes. An estimated 50,000 refugees are now living in camps across the border in Sudan.

Abiy declared victory over the TPLF after conquering Mekelle, the capital of Tigray and the TPLF’s stronghold. Fighting continues, however, between local and national forces throughout Tigray.

The conflict is being driven primarily by ethnic tensions, territorial disputes, and contests over power, and less so by competing development models, according to Fernando Duclós, a journalist who writes under the name Periodistán. Power in Ethiopia was “historically in the hands of the Tigrinya,” Duclós says, referring to the region’s predominant ethnic group. “Today it has changed hands, and [the Tigrinya leaders] do not tolerate it.” In Ethiopia this means a fight over who rules the country’s economy from above.

The crisis in Ethiopia threatens not only to harm the country’s population of 110 million people but also to fragment the country, which would have destabilizing repercussions throughout the Horn of Africa. It could create further economic crises and new migrations of refugees, and lead to even greater armed clashes among tribal, ethnic, and religious groups.

The Roots of a Historical Conflict

To understand these tensions we must review some recent history. In 1974 Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown in a military coup, after intense mobilizations driven by economic crisis and severe droughts. After the coup, power was taken by a kind of “socialist” military junta called the Derg. The Derg was linked to the Soviet Union during the Cold War and maintained several of the Selassie government’s repressive features. There began an extensive civil war that lasted until 1991.

The fall of the USSR left the Derg weakened, and it was militarily overthrown by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a coalition of armed parties, each representing a ethnic and regional base. This coalition, led by TPLF, became the basis of the subsequent government by creating an alliance between the country’s main ethnic and political forces, some born on the eve of the Selassie’s fall in 1974: the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization, the Amhara National Democratic Movement, and the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Front.

From this coalition was born the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, based on the distribution of power among these parties. The TPLF dominated the coalition for years, presiding over a system of ethnic federalism by granting autonomy to all the nations and peoples that form part of the newly founded republic. Each has the right to secede from the federation whenever it sees fit — a right that has, however, never been respected.

Ethiopia’s political and social fragmentation is evident, being divided into 82 ethnic groups and tribes, as well as autonomous armed groups and paramilitaries. The TPLF’s political strategy was to form an ethnic federal state to provide autonomy to each region by dividing the territory into nine states. This allowed the rulers of Tigray to achieve influence over the rest of the country, even though the Tigrayan ethnic group composes only 6 percent of the national population, while the Oromo and Amhara together compose 60 percent.

Each state is dominated by a central ethnic group, and those who are not part of the dominant group are denied civil rights. Within this framework, Duclós says, the federal constitution of 1995 was passed, and thereafter “the regional feeling became stronger than the national one. Many people, being of a minority ethnic group, came to feel foreign in their own country.”

The strategic line of the TPLF was supported by the entire EPRDF coalition, which dominated the parliament after the first “democratic” elections in 1995. The EPRDF was, in fact, a one-party regime that persecuted the political opposition. One of the central government’s first measures was to establish relations with the IMF and implement the necessary reforms to enter the world market as quickly as possible.

In those years, Eritrea became independent (1993). It was a commercial ally of Ethiopia, but by 1998, powerful droughts boosted a bloody military conflict between the two countries that killed about 100,000 people until the signing of peace accords in 2018.

The TPLF played a central role in leading the government for many years. It was linked to the country’s increasing poverty and accused of corruption, and it controlled most of the country’s resources. It was, moreover, responsible for much of the country’s political, ideological, and ethnic repression.

Ethiopian Game of Thrones

By 2018, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn was forced to resign after three years of demonstrations and tensions. The parliament voted in a new prime minister, Abiy, the first president of the Oromo ethnic group and a former officer in the military intelligence services.

This was seen as an opportunity for the United States to disrupt China’s advance in Africa. The TPLF has built strong ties with the Asian giant based on a development model that includes Beijing as a major trading partner. In this regard, it is unsurprising that U.S. diplomats played a role in the events surrounding Abiy’s appointment.

Abiy moved forward with democratic and political reforms to consolidate power and quell the rebellion by the Oromo and Amhara, ethnic groups that together represent two-thirds of the population. These measures ranged from greater rights for women to the legalization of political parties and freedom of the press, in addition to liberalizing the Ethiopian market and integrating the country into the WTO. The signing of peace accords with Eritrea earned him international sympathy for ending one of the longest conflicts of the century, and he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019. He was, however, criticized in Tigray for having forged an “unprincipled” friendship. Among other international achievements, he contributed to the rapprochement between the countries and to the advances in peace between insurgent groups in Sudan and South Sudan. On the economic front, his government made progress with a privatization plan promoted by the United States.

It also achieved enormous popularity within the country under the slogan “One Love, One Ethiopia,” calming protests and achieving sustained economic growth of 7.7 percent until the beginning of the pandemic. His rhetoric is based on national unity and reconciliation among the tribes, highlighting that hundreds of political prisoners have been released.

Yet the “glorious past” that Abiy constantly appeals to was not defined by “unity” but by controlling and oppressing the people since the formation of the modern Ethiopian state. There has been no moment in Ethiopian history when the country’s peoples were fully and voluntarily united; they were simply controlled by centralized authorities in Addis Ababa who ignored cultural and social differences. This is why the opposition is trying to become the new “emperor” of Ethiopia and once again wage a war against “diversity, democracy, and freedom” in the name of national unity.

War Drums of 2020

According to Duclós, Abiy’s Oromo ethnic group “has been very discriminated against since the federal constitution was issued.” As a result, he says, the Tigrinya have been displaced from positions of power. “When one person from an ethnic group comes to power, it puts his own people in power, and in Africa the political correligion is very much linked to the ethnic groups.”

To this we can add Kassahun Melesse’s analysis in Foreign Policy: “This war is a battle for control of Ethiopia’s economy, its natural resources and the billions of dollars the country receives annually from international donors and lenders. Access to those riches is a function of who heads the federal government, which the TPLF controlled for nearly three decades before Abiy came to power in April 2018, after widespread protests against the TPLF-led government.”

For this reason, several analysts identify the turning point as the moment when Abiy, in 2019, decided to break the ruling coalition and build a new front, the Prosperity Party. This new front would be joined by all the traditional ethnic-based parties, except the TPLF. For this northern party, Abiy’s strategy is to dispense with ethnic federalism and return to a centralized system.

The dispute escalated to a critical point in September, when Tigray challenged the central government by holding its own regional elections. The central government, having postponed national elections due to the coronavirus, declared the regional elections illegal. In October the central government suspended funding to and cut ties with Tigray. The Tigray administration said this amounted to a “declaration of war.”

Tensions rose. Then, in what the International Crisis Group called a “sudden and predictable” escalation of the conflict, Abiy said Tigray had crossed a “red line.” He then accused TPLF forces of attacking an army base to steal weapons. “Therefore, the federal government is forced into a military confrontation,” Abiy said. Since then, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, with the support of UAE drones, has maintained an offensive against the “insurgent” state of Tigray, targeting civilians, and has declared a six-month state of emergency.

In a few weeks the federal army advanced rapidly to capture Mekelle. But it is not enough; the conflict is becoming more and more atrocious. There are reports of massacres perpetrated against the civilian population, resulting in hundreds of deaths. There are reports of 600 civilians having died so far.

Ethiopia has become a very important country at the regional level in recent years. It has achieved great influence and established strategically important economic and geopolitical agreements with China, but also with neighboring countries such as Sudan and Djibouti. Furthermore, Ethiopia is frequently mentioned for maintaining a unified and independent state from European colonialism throughout its history. But internally it is a complex world of peoples who dispute their autonomy from the central government. This is the basis of the war against Tigray which is once again dismantling the myths about an Ethiopian revival. Rather, it is a repressive offensive against federalism that most of the country’s states want to sustain.

Fernando tells us that Ethiopia has very particular characteristics that mean that “everything that happens in Ethiopia is very Ethiopian” due to its differences with the rest of Africans “as they say, it is, is in Africa but it is not Africa.” It would be “difficult to expand such a war” to the international African level, “except Eritrea, which is basically Ethiopian.” In the case of Djibouti “it would be difficult for the conflict to expand because of the number of interests at stake there.” He concludes that “the whole region is very convulsed. I would believe that this conflict is very local and comes from a federation with many ethnic differences where national pride prevailed, but that seems to be starting to crack, unfortunately.”

According to the strategic analysis site Stratfor, “A violent confrontation in Tigray risks triggering other ethnic and regional conflicts in Ethiopia if Tigray succeeds in leading regional leaders to calculate that they too can challenge the government in Abiy and limit its attempts to strengthen federal control over its regions.”

The situation is very unstable. Several ethnic conflicts erupted in 2020, including the riots after the June 29 assassination of Oromo musician and activist Hachalu Hundessa, whose killing precipitated a government crackdown on Oromo activists. More recently, clashes have erupted between rival Afar and Issa groups over disputed cities. On the other hand, Ethiopia has found a prominent place for its strategic water resources, such as the tributaries of the Blue Nile in Lake Tana, which generate tension pointing to a direct confrontation with Egypt and Sudan.

Destabilization in Ethiopia could quickly turn into a deeper national crisis that could damage the stability initiatives that Addis Ababa has previously encouraged, undermining or even reversing peace with Eritrea.

A nationwide balkanization would imperil Abiy’s strategic objectives, as well as the geopolitical objectives of China and Russia, which are penetrating strongly into the region. On the other hand, the West has returned to sub-Saharan Africa, where U.S. imperialism has found an important entry in Ethiopia. The race for strategic resources in Africa is fanning the flames of ancient interethnic and religious disputes, leading to violent confrontations between regional powers in a continent that has been starving and bleeding for centuries.

First published in Spanish on December 9 in La Izquierda Diario.

Translation: Maryam Alaniz

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