Friends, foes and the deepening crisis in Ethiopia
n 5 November 2021, nine of Ethiopia’s rebel groups announced an alliance in Washington, D.C. with the aim of unseating the current government. The pact – between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), later rebranded Tigray Defense Force (TDF); the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA); Afar Revolutionary Democratic Unity Front (ARDU); Benishangul People’s Liberation Movement (PLM); Gambella Peoples Liberation Army (GPLA); Global Kimant People Right and Justice Movement (GKPRJM)/ Kimant Democratic Party (KDP); Sidama National Liberation Front (SNLF); and Somali State Resistance (SSR) – intends to create “a safe transition” from Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government “either by by force or by negotiation” to a transitional government, its leaders said.
Known as the United Front of Ethiopian Federalist and Confederalist Forces (UFEFC), the newly formed alliance has received an equal share of endorsement and consternation. While some anti-Abiy social media activists say the group signals a new, promising era for the country, Ethiopia’s Attorney General Gedion Temothewos describes it as a “publicity stunt”.
To their critics’ credit, the majority of UFEFC members have little to no influence on the ground. Some do not even have a military presence on the battlefield. The SSR is obscure, without political and military presence in the country. Established in 1993, ARDU’s influence on Ethiopia’s conflict is still unclear. In addition, the Afar regional state is aligned with the government at the moment and its militia are currently demonstrating stiff resistance to TPLF’s advance to the strategic city of Mille. The PLM, GPLA, GKPRJM, KDP and SNLF have more of a cultural and historical relevance in Ethiopia, but lack military prowess in the current state of play.
The TPLF and OLA, two of the biggest rebel groups in Ethiopia and fierce archrivals, are the only members with a strong enough military and political presence on the ground. They have been locked in war against the government since November 2020, making territorial gains and proving to be a force the administration cannot easily dismiss. Prior to the UFEFC coalition, they announced a military alliance in August of this year, seemingly casting their deep-seated differences aside to achieve a common objective. My focus is therefore concentrated on the TPLF-OLA alliance and the implication of a potential takeover by these two particular groups.
"There is no doubt that Ethiopia is in an even more hazardous state now than when the war began last November."
As the conflict escalated in recent weeks, the TPLF-OLA coalition has entertained the idea of advancing towards the capital, Addis Ababa. This would have been the easy part – the difficult part will be to maintain a cohesive transitional union thereafter. Taking the government by force might also resurrect some of the old grievances between the TPLF and OLA. Additionally, Ethiopia has many more armed groups scattered around the country than when the conflict began last November, which presents a ripe environment for long-term inter-communal and protracted civil war.
Friends In Need, Not Friends Indeed
As unwavering as the TPLF-OLA coalition might appear on the surface, beneath it lies a precarious foundation. Abiy Ahmed might have ironically succeeded in uniting the two rival rebel groups, but what divides them far outweighs that which unites them. During the TPLF rule of Ethiopia from the 1990s to 2010s, the OLA, which is the armed wing of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), received the full military wrath of the Ethiopian government. The OLA was banned in the country, and hundreds of people were arrested, killed or driven out of Ethiopia on suspicion of being alleged members or supporters of the organisation.
When Abiy resumed power in 2018, his political reforms appealed to the OLF. They laid down arms in exchange for more inclusive political participation. But that optimism soon evaporated when Abiy’s government cracked down on demonstrators following the assassination of the famous Oromo singer Hachalu Hundessa and imprisoned two prominent Oromo political leaders, Mohammed Jawar and Misha Chiri. The fallout from those events sent the OLA back to the jungle and reignited their resistance.
The OLA has never been in doubt about the Ethiopian government’s unfair treatment of the Oromo people given the historical dominance of Tigrayans and Amharas in the political system. As a result, the group has always advocated not for a united Ethiopia, but more for an independent Oromo State. Amidst the talk of marching together with TPLF toward the capital, an OLA spokesperson stated that “[the] operation will be spearheaded by the OLA,” once again revealing the group’s deep skepticism in the TPLF’s ability to bring about a new, free and fair political system.The OLA might find its marriage of convenience with TPLF resourceful at the moment, but their relationship is unlikely to remain the same if they take power in Addis Ababa.
A Dangerous Curve
There is no doubt that Ethiopia is in an even more hazardous state now than when the war began last November. The increasing number of armed groups and Abiy’s recent shopping spree for weapons in Turkey and elsewhere has elicited alarm. This situation is compounded by the heavy losses of territory and resources that the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) has faced, which increase the chances of their weapons falling into the hands of the TPLF or other rival groups in the Afar or Amhara regions. Already, weapons from ENDF soldiers have been found with unconventional and unstructured rebel groups.
This, combined with Ethiopia’s historical inter-ethnic rivalry between Tigrayans, Amhara, Oromo, Afar, Somalis, and other ethnic groups; the weakening of the central government; and clandestine weapons-smuggling into the country, is creating an increasingly destructive scenario.
The Way Forward
Given the stalemate between Abiy’s government and the TPLF-OLA et al., the trajectory towards a political solution is fluid. It would be naïve to believe that the Abiy government will manage to bring home a decisive victory against the TPLF-OLA coalition. Nevertheless, to assume that the TPLF-OLA honeymoon period will last beyond Abiy’s fall is a gross misunderstanding of Ethiopia’s social and political dynamics. For many Ethiopians, neither a TPLF-dominated government nor Abiy’s authoritarian government is the ideal solution.
It is therefore paramount for Ethiopia’s warring parties to come up with different strategies. The government lost its offensive in Tigray not earlier this month, but last November when it ousted the TPLF from the Tigray region and then later officially listed it and the OLA as terrorist organisations . This heavy-handed move by the Ethiopian parliament, which was more a self-serving strategy and less an anti-terrorism/security response, denied the Ethiopian government the benefit of flexibility in case things changed on the battlefield.
The formation of the UFEFC has presented Abiy with an opportunity to launch a peace deal without necessarily abandoning Ethiopia’s stance on the TPLF and the OLA in particular. This will be more of a symbolic move than a rational one – and symbolic it should be as neither the OLA nor the TPLF should have been on Ethiopia’s list of terrorist organisations in the first place. For the peace deal to work, Abiy should show his willingness for a negotiated settlement by lowering and ultimately eliminating all offensive operations of the Ethiopian government towards the rebels. He should then follow up with allowing access of humanitarian aid into the Tigray region. The international community – and more importantly the United States, African Union, European Union and United Nations – should pressure the rebels to cease their combat operations against the government and lay out clear expectations and consequences in case of a failure to follow through.
If indeed the day comes that the TPLF-OLA coalition removes Abiy’s government, the two groups will need to wage a long-term peace. Ethiopia’s territorial integrity will hinge on how TPLF and OLA not only resolve their differences but also extend a hand of friendship to other formal, rival rebel groups. This will require them to develop a comprehensive framework towards nationwide reconciliation, with transparent verifications and trust on power sharing; resource allocation; reconstruction of war-torn areas in the Tigray, Oromia, Amhara, Afar and Somali regions; and, most importantly, an inclusive political system that encourages compromise, not retribution.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA.
(Main image: Getty Images)