The conflict between Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s federal troops and the provincial government of Tigray has been escalating and is now an almost full-fledged civil war. Our Horn of Africa correspondent James Jeffrey provides the background to the conflict in this analysis of the situation.
Last year’s Nobel Peace Prize for Abiy Ahmed is looking ever more dubious. The Ethiopian Prime Minister is locked in a power struggle with the political leadership of Tigray, Ethiopia’s most northern region, and Abiy appears increasingly unwilling to back down from taking the country to civil war over the matter.
On November 4, Abiy ordered a military offensive into Tigray, claiming it was in response to a Tigrayan attack on a military base housing government troops in the region—a claim denied by Tigray authorities.
Commentators have noted the offensive coincided with the world’s attention being seized by the US election spectacle. As of November 19, Ethiopian federal forces had seized two major Tigrayan cities and were continuing to push toward Mekelle, Tigray’s regional capital.
Abiy has resisted international calls for peace. Hundreds of people have reportedly died during two weeks of clashes, including reports from Amnesty International of a massacre in which hundreds of civilians were stabbed or hacked to death.
Thousands of civilians have fled the fighting, according to the UN’s refugee agency, the UNHCR, with estimates of 30,000 crossing the border into Sudan.
The clash comes after months of feuding between Abiy’s government and the leaders of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the region’s dominant political party, on the back of tensions simmering between the two sides ever since Abiy came to power in 2018 and launched a broadside of sweeping reforms.
The deeper context is decades of national strains over the interplay between ethnicity and political power that has dominated Ethiopian politics ever since the TPLF spearheaded the defeat of Ethiopia’s military dictatorship in 1991.
Since then, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition party that subsequently assumed power has applied a distinct political model of ethnically based federalism to the country’s heterogeneous masses.
There are about 110m people speaking more than 80 dialects spread across nine regional states like Tigray and two administrative city states. Despite the conflicting interests and disagreements between ethnic groups, the EPRDF had long managed to keep the peace on a national scale.
But that juggling act has shown signs of strain in recent years, especially since Abiy’s liberalising reforms, which some argue moved too fast, with the resulting destabilisation provoking ethnic violence.
As relations between communities and regions have soured – during the first half of 2018, Ethiopia’s rate of 1.4m new internally displaced people (IDP) exceeded Syria’s.
By the end of 2019, the IDP population had mushroomed to nearly 2.4m; observers have spoken of the parallels with 1990s Yugoslavia, where a federal state organised along similar lines failed to cohere, with awful consequences.
Shaking up the political landscape
Tigrayans comprise just 6% of Ethiopia’s population but are perceived as a powerful minority because of their ethnic affinity with the TPLF. The party wielded almost unlimited power for more than two decades, until Abiy suddenly burst out of nowhere to utterly shake up Ethiopia’s political landscape.
After coming to power in April 2018, Abiy – who comes the from the Oromo ethnic group, Ethiopia’s largest, constituting more than 35m people – instigated unprecedented redistribution of power within the EPRDF and away from the TPLF.
At the end of 2019, Abiy dissolved the EPRDF, merging the ethnically based regional parties into a single, national party – which the TPLF refused to join.
Relations between the two sides further soured when Abiy postponed Ethiopia’s June national election due to coronavirus. The TPLF responded that the central government had become illegitimate, arguing Abiy no longer had a mandate to lead the country.
In September, tensions escalated further when Tigray held a regional election in defiance of the Covid-19-related nationwide ban, and Abiy ruled the result illegitimate.
The real challenge for any de-escalation of tensions and conflict is the degree of genuine animosity involved: the TPLF for Abiy, and vice versa.
This is compounded by the fact that Ethiopians are not well versed in the art of compromise. This characteristic disregard for negotiation and concession in pursuit of mengist (Amharic for ‘power’), which both Abiy and the TPLF leaders are succumbing to, does not bode well in a federation of diverse ethnic groups that need to cooperate for the greater good.
When it awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Abiy, the Nobel committee praised a series of achievements during his first 100 days in power in 2018. The main one was his ending a long-standing territorial dispute with neighbouring Eritrea (the current fighting has already spilt over the border into Eritrea, escalating the conflict beyond Ethiopia’s borders) though the committee also highlighted his impressive litany of domestic reforms.
But all the while, especially on the domestic front, voices of concern noted worrying characteristics exhibited by Abiy. When Abiy released, in 2019, one million copies of his book Medemer that promoted his personal ideology based on the Amharic word meaning ‘synergy’, it was mocked by many as vacuous and it raised concerns that he was trying to establish a personality cult on the back of the ‘Abiymania’ that greeted his initial hopeful reforms.
Critics have also accused his approach to politics as being PR-motivated – superficial and detached from the reality of an Ethiopia that is socially conservative to the core.
His style of government has also been accused of lacking transparency, while at the same time repressing media and repeating the authoritarian ways of previous Ethiopian governments. This has included the ongoing implementation of a controversial Anti-Terrorism Proclamation to stifle dissent and gag journalists, including by imprisoning them.
What happens in Africa’s second most populous county matters, both due to its enormous populace, which has suffered more than its fair share of pains over the decades, and also because the country has become a talisman for development and hope on the international stage after its famine stricken image seared itself on the global consciousness.
That the immediate fate of this previous developmental success story may now lie in the hands of its mercurial Prime Minister whose real intentions are increasingly hard to discern, should have the Nobel committee, and a great deal many others, paying much more attention.