Abiy Ahmed’s political agenda of strength via unity calls for an expansion of federal authority over regionalisation, which has antagonised Ethiopia’s struggles over national identity. The war in Tigray further inflames these debates alongside the country’s ethnic tensions, writes Nima Khorrami, and does nothing to weaken the TPLF’s support in the region. What does this mean for Ethiopia as a state and how the current crisis might be resolved?
Ethiopia’s Prime Minister and former darling of the international community, Abiy Ahmed, ascended to power on the back of rising tensions between regional authorities and the Federal government. As a sign of his political ambitions, Ahmed moved quickly in 2018 to stamp his authority and diminish the power network in Addis Ababa centred around the mighty military-political faction representing the Tigrayan minority: the Tigrayan People Liberation Front (TPLF).
Ahmed’s new Prosperity Party (PP) promised sociopolitical reforms and a genuine push towards democratisation. He ordered the release of political prisoners, welcomed back exiled opposition figures and introduced plans to reform the economy, whereby he alleged to limit the role of the state, and managed to built a reputation for himself as a peacemaker. Such conditions make his declaration of war – officially a law and order operation – on the TPLF both surprising and contradictory. The Ethiopian leader seems to be undoing much of his own efforts over the past two years by insisting on increasing the authority of the federal government.
Ahmed’s entire political agenda of strength via unity, which calls for an expansion of federal authority over regional affairs, seems to squarely defy the very basic and fundamental demands of protestors whose desire for greater regionalisation and expanded authority led to his rise to power. To be sure, Ethiopia’s modern history has always been marked by a struggle over national identity-building and the subsequent question of the centre-periphery. In other words, the most constant and enduring aspect of sociopolitical life in Ethiopia has always revolved around what some scholars call a war of vision between two sides: those who call for more regionalisation versus those who favour a more centralised system whereby federal governments make all the major decisions independent of regional authorities.
This is why Ahmed’s breaking up of the ruling EPRDF political coalition that preceded him, and its replacement with his own political party, is now being seen by some activists and commentators as a cunning move to simply replace the TPLF and not its modus operandi – that is, to keep the same system in place with himself at the realm. In the same vein, his privatisation plans as well as cosmetic societal reforms are, so the argument goes, to primarily serve his own political ambitions.
Expectedly, Ahmed and his supporters categorically reject such claims as lies and fabrications, which they may well be. However, his military campaign in Tigray does nil to calm nerves and reduce ethnic tensions. In fact, there has been an uptick in ethnically charged clashes since the start of the Tigray campaign, and the start of Ahmed’s premiership more broadly, with activists in Amhara and Oromo fearing that the events in Tigray could set a dangerous precedent for the federal government’s treatment of regional movements in the long-term, if not the immediate future.
Prospects for the TPLF
The military campaign likewise does not help the federal authorities in achieving their goal of weakening the TPLF in Tigray and reducing its appeal and influence amongst the locals. Not only are the emotional and cultural bonds between the TPLF and the locals decades old, but the PP itself has no organic presence in the region. Furthermore, the government’s approval of Eritrean forces and Amhara militias in the region is nothing short of poisonous for its image and soft powers. Add to these his refusal to grant aid agencies access to the region – a policy stance that has led some to accuse him of using starvation as a tactic – and it then becomes reasonable to assert that the operation is undermining both his campaign to gain the good will of the locals and, more broadly, his claims to be wanting to be a leader for all Ethiopians. No wonder the TPLF’s top leadership is still at large and a guerrilla style conflict seems to have already started. There have been reports of increased attacks on government’s positions in the north, where Eritrean forces are stationed, and alongside the transit corridor between Tigray and the Sudanese border.
Given this situation, the prospect for resuming some degree of normalcy, let alone peace, is at best distant, especially if the international community continues its current and indeed unfortunate path of inaction, and to a degree indifference, towards the conflict. Beside the grim humanitarian situation, which has been widely reported on, Ethiopia is scheduled to hold an election in June 2021. As of now, it is unclear whether Tigrayans will be given the chance to cast their ballot. Given the ongoing conflict, there are reports that there will be no election held there. On the other hand, it is unclear whether the results would be accepted in the region even if there were to be elections in Tigray, because the TPLF, as main political party, has been banned from standing. With regard to other regions, there are already reports of unfair practices by the ruling PP, which is accused of using state resources, including media, to run its campaign, thereby putting itself at a clear advantage compared to its resource deprived opponents.
Needless to say, it is premature to claim that the June votes will be fraudulent in advance. However, given the current climate of mistrust and ethnic tensions, it is safe to assume that many will question the results even if votes are casted freely and counted fairly. This in turn would undermine government legitimacy in the eyes of segments of the public and could compel it to use force against its opponents by accusing them of siding with the TPLF or undermining national unity.
Effects on the economy
The ensuing instability and uncertainty, most importantly, would diminish investor confidence in the country at a time when the Ethiopian economy is already bleeding from a lack of foreign investment and the negative effects of COVID-19. Similar to its counterparts around the world, for instance, Ethiopian Airlines is struggling and the tourism industry is drying up. At the same time, some major businesses are reported to have either been forced to stop operations due to increased levels of violence or are actively planning their relocation strategies should the conflict in Tigray drag on or spread to other regions. Lastly, there are speculations over whether the government will go ahead with its privatisation plan for Ethio Telecom given its recently developed habit of shutting down communication links between the country and outside world as part of its crisis management strategy.
Regional dimensions of the conflict
Equally worrisome is the evolving regional dimension of the conflict. Relations between Sudan and Ethiopia, in particular, have been on a downward trajectory ever since Khartoum sent troops to Fashaga. Although Ahmed played a constructive role in the immediate aftermath of Sudan’s long-time leader Omar Al Bashir’s downfall, and notwithstanding Khartoum’s earlier proposal for the establishment of a joint border patrol force, Sudan has made an opportunistic move to take advantage of Ethiopian forces’ preoccupation with the conflict in Tigray and take de facto control of a region that has been traditionally home to Ethiopian farmers since 1995.
In response, Ethiopia has warned of retaliation and refused to participate in any talks until Sudanese forces have departed from the region; a demand that is highly unlikely to be met by Sudan. For its part, Khartoum has now changed its stance on the Nile dam issue, essentially causing the failure of the last round of talks by refusing, in spite of its initial agreement, to agree to the presence of the African Union’s technical experts at the negotiations.
As such, there is now a real fear of a joint Egyptian Sudanese cooperation to assist the TPLF by providing a safe haven for its leadership and resources for its fighters to prolong the conflict. Cairo and Khartoum now share a common desire to increase their bargaining power vis-a-vis Addis Ababa, albeit for different reasons: while Cairo is keen on extracting favourable concessions from Ethiopia with regard to the dam and its filling, Sudan sees a once in a life-time opportunity in the current conflict to settle the border question once and for all.
The mere possibility of a military confrontation benefits the Sudanese armed forces in its current tussle with the civilian government over political influence. Further, the fact that the TPLF leadership already has a network of friends in Khartoum in conjuncture with the recent increase in the frequency of TPLF attacks on government positions along the transit corridor between Sudan and Tigray could indicate that this cooperation may already be taking place. Add to this the reduced international and regional commitment to Somalia’s security and the resulting surge in Al Shabab activities in the run up to what is promising to be a highly contested election, combined with uncertainty over the intentions of Eritrean forces inside Ethiopia, and it becomes clear why the Tigray conflict could become the catalyst for further instability in the Horn.
Routes to resolve the crisis
Looking ahead, there is a strong possibility that Ethiopia could undergo the types of events and infighting that erupted, and in a sense characterised, the sociopolitical life of the country between the 1970s and early 1990s, which led to the separation of Eritrea from Ethiopia. As the election month approaches, the economy further stagnates and trust between and within ethnic and communal groups and federal authorities erodes, it is not unreasonable to expect both the emergence and radicalisation of student and youth led movements across the country. Indeed there is a strong tendency for populist politics centred around ethnicity, nationalism and national security.
To avert the worse, the international community needs urgently to bring the warring sides to the negotiating table. Given that both the US and China have vested interests in the stability of Ethiopia and the wider Horn, Ethiopia represents a case where they can cooperate in pursuit of a common cause. In fact, the conflict in Ethiopia can be used to test the viability of President Biden’s China strategy and whether Beijing and Washington can cooperate with each other when their interests merge.
Prime Minister Ahmed needs to realise that the more he rejects international mediation and blocks access to the region out of a desire to not internationalise the conflict, the more, rather paradoxically, internationalised the conflict will become. Yes the TPLF must not be allowed to take the country’s territorial integrity hostage by threatening secession if its maximalist demands for near total autonomy are not met. However, its total elimination is also not a realistic objective; it is deep rooted in Tigray’s sociopolitical fabric and still enjoys a relatively high degree of popularity amongst Tigrayans.
As a result, a creative combination of the South African and Emirati models could provide a viable way forward. They both recognise the importance of local/tribal identity and the right to its preservation. Yet, they also prioritise national allegiance over and above ethnic or tribal royalties, and thus they allow for the construction and strengthening of both national and local identities in tandem with each other and not in opposition.
Photo: Prime Minister Dr Abiy Ahmed welcomes President Kagame in Ethiopia for a State Visit. Credit: Paul Kagame. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
East Africa,The Crying Zone!
The former Ethiopia was so proud for its contributions to create a stable and peace full east Africa. Hundreds of thousands of Somalia refugees were sheltered in it till the war drums removed from Somalia horizon. Similarly for South Sudanese, Eritreans and others. The former Ethiopia was so proud for its successful peace keeping missions in many parts of Mather Africa and its people. The former Ethiopia was so proud for its contributions to bring a trust full bondage between the nations of the region. To create a people to people relations among the regions residents. To create a common interest based political, economical and social partnership with in the region.
Nowadays, Ethiopia is not in its position and no more will be again. It is a sort of instability, displacement, sorrow and lament, massacre, rape, looting, destruction, separation, war crime, crime against humanity etc. Unable to solve its own internal problem, And a so called example for all atrocities.
Ethiopia declared war against its own people using rental drones from united Arab emirates. Rental troops from Eritrea and Somalia to destruct its own infrastructures, public institutions, Religious and heritage sites. To kill, Rape, loot, abuse, displace, harass, terrorize, and so on.
Ethiopia became a sort of greate resistances from the victims being attacked. Not only in Tigray, but also in other parts of the country. The killers are facing the same fate. They even are not capable to stop the war they emossionaly declared. The resistance forces are eliminating them. Tens of thousands are being war causalities by the victim resistant’s. Their armaments are burning to ash. Tens of thousands of East African mothers are yet to cry. The Somalia mothers are the only permitted to do so. Hundreds of thousands of East African children are yet to be orphans. Hundreds of thousands of East African women are yet to be widows. Hundreds of thousands of East African elders are going to be helpless.
We still are hearing unstopable war drums from the active participants of the ongoing war. None of their midea out lets are talking about the greate causalities of their troops. Nor the peace and stability to be developed in the region. They only are talking about their plans to continue the war till the last. But where is the end point of the so called last? Let me tell you something which is a very trueth, none of any Tigrian origin is crying for any death or lost in this time. Every life spent in this war will bring the better Tigray. Thats what every Tigrian origin is hopefully looking forward.
Good insight overall but I’m not sure the dichotomy of federalism versus centralism is accurate. The situation is more complex than that. My reading of Abiy is neither centralist or federalist . He just wants power and he sees the TPLF as the main threat to him.
But he may have committed a fatal error by opting for war. I believe Ethiopia is not a viable country to begin with and Abiy is too erratic and adventurous to salvage it.
I read it with interest. You have substantiated the objective of the war to consolidate personal individual power of the Pm, by weakening the federal system. you could further discussed the Eritrean factor ,which has crucial role in the war. The humanitarian crisis ;looting, destruction of heritage, and crime against humanity has reached a genocide .This could have been central to the article. Otherwise Tigray has eight points of negotiation for your reference.
The economy is not struggling.
Ethiopian Airlines is not struggling..it has adjusted brilliantly.
Abiy has massive support.
2 million in Tigrai already needed food aid due to 30 years of misrule by TPLF.
Ethiopia would in fact be better off without Tigrai altogether.
Those of us actually in Ethiopia are more optimistic.
Ethiopian Airlines is certainly not struggling, nor is the economy.
Western media reports on Ethiopia including LSE ones are full of massive FAKE NEWS.
Againist the fact analysis, full of defamation. Please leave the issue of Ethiopians for her owen citizen. Don’t consider Ethiopia like countries bowed for their colonial masters. We are independent and free people who knew our dignity and die for our integrity. We are peace loving people don’t like to interfere in others issue but inpatient for those who want to twist our arms seating their Trojan horse like Tplf. Enough is enouh you were ride our county for more than 3 decades sitting yourself on the back of Tplf. Sudan’s political leaders did historic error and they will get the repay in their hands. They boldly leading their county to failing state. We gave chance for Sudanese people to challenge his insane leaders not to break the historic relation built brotherly for long. Because we Ethiopians recognize and respect the importance of the Sudan people as a neighbor during the good and the bad times. If the Sudanse political leaders don’t refrain their hands from Ethiopia they will get in soon to the grave they are digging in like the Tplf.
The TPLF started the war not Abiy.
95% of Ethiopia is delighted at their demise.
Too much pessimism by far.
Life here is normal.
Good analytical and multi-dimensional review the current situations which are mainly the results of the wrong deeds of those in the helm of power before the current PM. Looking forward the key thing are ensuring stability and establishing confidence in security as well as the economy and politics.
At the moment, except perhaps the Ethiopian airlines, the rest of the economy sectors seem to be heading towards recession. Some of the indications are the high inflation and sky-rocketing basic commodities in the streets, compounded by drying up local and foreign investments, and suspension of international aid. The problems has been exacerbated by conflicts and lack of security not only in Tigray, but also elsewhere across the country.
Looking forward once again, there is the additional dimension of the postponed general election which is now scheduled to take place in June/July 2021. The forthcoming election is creating anxiety and concerns (also excitement), by the all concerned parties, for all hosts of reasons. Time and space do not permit here to go into detail. In any event, it seems the Prosperity Party led by the PM would likely win most of the seats, if not all.
The optimistic view is, after the current PM legitimatise his power through the general election, he would have more mandate to act decisively to address the security and political-economy problems. This needs to be done quickly, if possible within first 100 days as they do it elsewhere or even in the first year; particularly ensuring law and order. The pessimistic view is that, if the PM willingly or unwillingly fail to address all of the above, the country would head into unchartered territory.