The civil war in Ethiopia that broke out on 4 November when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched an attack on Tigray, the state administered by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), caught the world unaware. The transition of power in the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) after the death of Meles Zenawi in 2012 to Hailemariam Desalegn, and then to Ahmed in 2018, seemingly went smoothly.
But this was not a simple shifting of chairs among the elite. It was a profound ideological change that threatens not only the viability of the ethnically fragmented Ethiopian state, but could also engulf neighbouring states in the Horn of Africa.
At the top of that list is Eritrea, which is supported by Ahmed’s forces. Drones from the United Arab Emirates base in the Eritrean port city of Assab have attacked the TPLF. Meanwhile, neighbouring Sudan has received 45 000 mostly Tigrayan refugees, with the United Nations (UN) anticipating 200 000. The British Broadcasting Corporation and other media, however, reported that the Ethiopian army is stopping fleeing Tigrayans, presumably to prevent them from telling stories of widespread atrocities committed by soldiers. The army took control of Tigray’s capital of Mekelle on 28 November, and although Ahmed was quick to claim victory, almost all of the TPLF leadership escaped capture.
While working for the Khartoum-based Sudan Times, I visited Tigray after the TPLF captured the entire state, Mekelle excluded, in 1988 from the Derg, a military cabal that overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974. The TPLF was a peasant-based movement and the 1988 campaign was designed to take its struggle to the towns. The TPLF told the residents that when the Derg returned, they would retreat to the countryside to ensure the towns would not be destroyed.
They promised to return, however, and indeed the TPLF took the towns the following year. Two years later, it led the EPRDF in the capture of Addis Ababa. Whether a similar scenario is in the offing remains to be seen, but although Tigray only has 6% of Ethiopia’s population of 110 million, the people are fiercely protective of their national rights and the TPLF brims with experienced guerrilla fighters.
Origins of the conflict
The immediate stimulus for the present war was a conflict that broke out in the northern command of the national army just outside Mekelle. But the main differences between the TPLF and Ahmed were over the fate of the EPRDF’s system of national federation, which had its origins in the TPLF’s demand for national self-determination during the anti-Derg war and became the cement that bound the various national-based movements that formed the EPRDF.
Ethiopia was an empire state similar to tsarist Russia, and the national minorities demanded the end of suppression by an elite drawn from the Amhara, the second largest ethnic group with about 35 million or 32% of the country’s population.
When the Derg was overthrown in 1991, there was a real danger of national groups seceding. These groups were led by the Oromos, the largest ethnic group with over 40 million people, or 36.4% of the population. As a result, the EPRDF federalist system radically decentralised state power and promised all national groups the right to self-determination.
It is this system that Ahmed wants to end and return Ethiopia to the centrist government against which generations of Ethiopians fought. This conflict gives impetus to Eritrean rebel groups that have long sought to overthrow the Isaias Afwerki dictatorship there, and it also encourages other aggrieved national groups in Ethiopia to rebel against Ahmed’s centrism.
Ahmed identifies as an Oromo, a community that has long felt marginalised. For the first time in the long history of Ethiopia, an Oromo is at the helm. His rise to power was greeted with great fanfare in both Ethiopia and the West. He is credited with ending the dark days of TPLF domination of the EPRDF, liberalising the state-led economy and setting Ethiopia on the road to democracy.
Building on anti-EPRDF sentiments, Ahmed disbanded the EPRDF and formed the Prosperity Party in December 2019. The party includes all the Ethiopian national groups except the TPLF. He appointed a gender-balanced Cabinet and reached a peace agreement with Eritrea that officially ended their 1998-2000 war and earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019.
A violent peace prize laureate
But Ahmed’s carefully constructed image obscures more than it enlightens. Power is centralised in the prime minister’s office and he has repeatedly overruled Parliament, indefinitely postponed elections that were due in October (because of Covid-19, he claims, while his critics say because he would lose), imprisoned opponents and shut down the internet.
He has shown little concern for the 1.8 million internally displaced people in the country, the largest such group in the world, and instead has concentrated on filling most state governments with his allies. He eliminated virtually all Tigrayans from the government, security services and state-owned corporations. He charged them with corruption but none has been convicted.
Most have fled to Tigray, where Ahmed could not touch them. Operating as strict constitutionalists or to embarrass the prime minister, the TPLF held its own elections in October. Neither the Mekelle nor Addis Ababa governments recognised each other and this set them on the path to war.
The much-heralded peace agreement with Eritrea has been a bust, with borders quickly closed after most of Eritrea’s youths fled to escape forced conscription, which can last a decade or more. The secrecy surrounding the agreement and the lack of Tigrayans’ involvement, even though they are ethnically linked to the Eritreans, led many to believe that it involved a pact between Ahmed and Afwerki to eliminate the TPLF.
The TPLF did dominate the EPRDF government and favoured national over individual rights. Its human rights record was often poor, and the EPRDF explicitly rejected liberal democracy, maintaining that it was inappropriate for a desperately poor country like Ethiopia. From taking power in 1991 until his death in 2012, Zenawi controlled the EPRDF and the government. For the past eight years, however, the prime minister’s office has not been held by a Tigrayan.
Tigrayans also dominated the security agencies, in part because most of the EPRDF forces that overthrew the Derg were from the TPLF, but their numbers were declining even before Ahmed eliminated the last vestiges of TPLF influence in the military.
Moreover, the TPLF was only one of four components of the EPRDF, and with only a fraction of Ethiopia’s population. Its representation in Parliament and the Cabinet was minimal. What has been ignored in the negative portrayal of the EPRDF was its efforts to maintain the country’s sovereignty and its remarkable success in tackling Ethiopia’s endemic poverty.
Ethiopia’s successes before Ahmed
The EPRDF rejected neoliberalism and International Monetary Fund (IMF) demands that it privatise land and telecommunications, along with opening up its banking system. Instead, it adopted a system of state-led development. Under this system and Meles’ leadership, the country ranked among the top three performing economies in the world for about 15 years, until internal unrest brought an end to the Ethiopian growth miracle. Between 2004 and 2017, GDP grew by an average of 10.8% a year.
A 2014 World Bank study found that the Ethiopian government’s pro-poor policies and provision of basic services dramatically decreased the number of people living in poverty and produced growth rates averaging almost 11% a year. This was reinforced by a 2015 IMF study that found that unlike other rapidly growing economies, Ethiopia had not experienced a significant increase in inequality and was one of the most egalitarian countries in the world. In almost every social index, from infant mortality and life expectancy to literacy, the achievements of the EPRDF were phenomenal. It is this economic model that Ahmed wants to dismantle in favour of an open economy, just like he wants to break up the EPRDF’s system of national federalism.
Meanwhile, Ahmed has almost completely lost the support of the Oromos, who for generations have opposed the kind of centrist government he espouses. Instead, Ahmed’s followers are now largely Amharas, whose elites favour the centralised administration practised by the Haile Selassie feudal regime and the Derg, in which they assumed the leading role. While the Oromos accuse Tigrayans of historically allying with the Amhara in their domination as well as the TPLF dominating the EPRDF, they and other national communities in Ethiopia give no indication of wanting the unitary government pressed by Ahmed.
Knowing that the longer the war continues, the more likely it is that other aggrieved national groups could make common cause with the TPLF, Ahmed has resisted all appeals for foreign mediation. At the forefront of calls for mediation is the African Union (AU) and Tigray’s President Debretsion Gebremichael, who wrote to President Cyril Ramaphosa, as chairperson of the union, appealing for an “all-inclusive and comprehensive dialogue [to] avert an all-out civil war in the country”.
Ramaphosa sent an AU delegation to Addis Ababa, but Ahmed made it clear – as he has with appeals by the European Union, the UN and the US – that he will not accept any mediation or dialogue with the “criminal” TPLF. However, despite growing pressure, Ramaphosa has thus far refused to call an emergency meeting of the heads of state of the AU to consider the Ethiopian conflict.
A quick Ahmed victory in Tigray is unlikely: the TPLF has a large force of trained, dedicated and experienced fighters and generals, substantial hardware captured from the national army, and the support of a people that spent 16 years to defeat the Derg and defend their rights. While the TPLF did not call for secession in its October election campaign, the youths whom I met in Tigray in late February 2020 were virtually of a mind in wanting independence.
As the war continues, the TPLF may demand independence, whereas Ethiopian ethno-nationalist forces may conclude that if the TPLF is defeated, they will not be able to withstand the centralising neoliberal administration of Ahmed and thus launch their own armed struggles. It is also possible that the TPLF will make common cause with rebel groups fighting Afwerki and call for the unity of Tigrigna speakers in both countries. The Horn, uniquely in Africa, has produced two secessionist states – Eritrea and South Sudan – and more protracted struggles for national self-determination are on the horizon.