Why Ethiopia is at war with itself

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Why Ethiopia is at war with itself

Mohamed Mahad D. Darar

17 Sep 2021

9min min read
  • Human rights--Security

he death of Ethiopia’s charismatic former prime minister Meles Zenawi in August 2012 caught both his foes and friends by surprise. His classic rise to power on the back of a tank, his rapid consolidation of authority, and savvy navigation of Ethiopia’s ethnically complex politics granted him the prestige of a real statesman while also providing Ethiopia with relatively durable stability and economic prosperity. Zenawi’s death forced some to predict an inevitable period of instability and chaos in Ethiopia. Not because Ethiopia lacked a leader as charismatic as him before, but because the historical reality of Ethiopia’s politics, which had so long relied on the wisdom of one powerful ruler who glued the country together, would render finding another strongman like Zenawi extremely difficult.

It wasn’t long before the tenuous and fragile stability Ethiopia had maintained following Zenawi’s death unraveled. The country seemed to descend in an open-ended inter-ethnic conflict that has shown no sign of slowing down while waiting for a new leader to quell it. As a result, and precisely like pundits predicted after Zenawi’s demise, Ethiopia has been mired in chaos. It is equally plausible that the longer the crisis persists, the more likely the window for a comprehensive resolution narrows and the implications spread to the entire East African region.

The Pragmatist

Zenawi came to power in the 1990s. As a rebel who fought the Derg State in Ethiopia (a Marxist-Leninist, one-party government that ruled Ethiopia from the mid-1970s to the late 1980s), he managed to survive a decades-long armed struggle against one of Africa’s most powerful regimes. Under the pressure of a coalition of militias known as the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the Derg State collapsed, and its ruler, Lt. Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam, an ethnic Amhara, resigned and fled the country in May 1991.

The dissolution of the Derg State resulted in Eritrea’s secession from Ethiopia (which officially transformed Ethiopia into a landlocked country) and the EPRDF’s takeover of the Ethiopian government. The EPRDF, which consisted of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), Amhara Democratic Party (ADP), Oromo Democratic Party (ODP), and the Southern Ethiopian’s People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM), an eclectic representation of the country’s ethnic fabric, went on to govern in an atmosphere dominated by mistrust and power struggle among its members that eventually led to its defragmentation and the TPLF ultimately triumphing over the others.

Over the next two decades, the TPLF would rule Ethiopia, with Zenawi serving briefly as the country’s president from 1991 to 1995, and then as prime minister from 1995 until his death in 2012. He ruled Ethiopia with a combination of brute dictatorship, cronyism and compromise. Under his leadership, Ethiopia developed a fragile but functioning federalism with ethnic characteristics. Although Zenawai belonged to the Tigray minority, a powerful and influential ethnic group in Ethiopia, during his era, simply being a Tigray came with advantages. In addition to filling top government positions in the military, finance and intelligence with Tigrayans, Ethiopia’s historic inter-ethnic realities provided regular Tigrayans with power and advantages members of other ethnic groups did not wield, simply because power was not held by one of their own.

During that time, it wasn’t uncommon for speaking Tigrayan, the official language of the Tigray people, or owning a business as a Tigrayan, to yield off-record incentives such as access to government services, tax breaks, softer regulatory oversight and other benefits that Ethiopians belonging to other ethnic communities lacked. On some occasions, businesspeople from other ethnic groups would feel compelled to hire an ordinary Tigrayan to seek government access, or even just have them sit in the passenger seat of their truck filled with merchandise to avoid excessive stops and inspections at custom checkpoints.

This corrupt, ethnic-based privilege system created a sense of desperation that made non-Tigrayans feel like second-class citizens. It wouldn’t be long before members of other ethnic groups showed their resentment toward the TPLF and recalibrated their relationship with the regime by picking up arms, thus playing hit-and-run games with government forces. Armed groups like the Oromia Liberation Front (OLF) and the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) would soon evolve to catch Zenawi’s attention. His ruthless pragmatism would lead him to engage with those forces when necessary and compromise where possible.

Ethiopia’s economy flourished under Zenawi. A year before his death, the economy grew by stunning double digits (11%). Businesses boomed, trade exchanges with neighbouring countries thrived, and Ethiopia’s reputation on the world stage ameliorated. Soon, world leaders like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair would lavish praise on Zenawi. On a visit to Africa in 1998, Clinton hailed him as one of “Africa’s new generation of leaders.” As a result, the strong economic numbers provided Ethiopia with a relative stability that made the country an example for other African nations.

Zenawi believed that economic achievement didn’t necessarily ensure democratic reforms. He often pushed back against Western journalists in interviews, arguing that a country can be prosperous without being democratic, demonstrating a strategic cleverness that would earn him a friend miles away across the Indian Ocean: China. With Chinese investment, Ethiopia’s economy grew even stronger. One of Zenawi’s proudest accomplishments was the controversial Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a gigantic electric dam that would generate up to 6.35 gigawatts of power, a capacity that won’t only electrify Ethiopia, but will also likely go beyond to neighbouring countries like Djibouti, Sudan and South Sudan.

The Boiling Pot

Despite Ethiopia’s economic advancement, it was no secret that wealth and power were still consolidated in the hands of the few. When Zenawi died in 2012, Ethiopia’s ethnic tensions were brewing dangerously beneath the surface. The second-largest ethnic group, the Amhara, were not so secretive about hiding their resentment of the Tigray, accusing them of siphoning government resources and sidelining other ethnic groups. The largest ethnic group, the Oromo, felt completely separated from the realm of power, despite producing most of the agricultural goods, such as coffee, fruits and vegetables, with a feeding capacity that covered Ethiopia and beyond. Political activists were not so afraid of voicing their discontent with their government, knowing very well that their dissent could land them in prison or likely even end up killing them.

Zenawi’s successor, Hailemariam Desalegn, a member of the Woleyta ethnic group (a minority in Ethiopia’s one hundred million population), would prove to lack both Zenawi’s ruthlessness that he seemed not afraid to use when quelling opposition, as well as the former leader’s pragmatism. Conversely, Desalegn’s ambiguity and recalcitrance to establish a strong domestic order would plunge the nation into deeper political turmoil, paving the way for Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s current prime minister, who is a member of the Oromo, Ethiopia’s largest ethnicity.

The Reformer

When Abiy took power in April 2018, he changed the rules of the game 180 degrees. A country that had never glimpsed a shadow of democracy in the past, let alone experienced an actual democracy, found itself on the path of a democratic transformation. He announced a number of democratic reforms including releasing political prisoners, opening the door for political expatriates, gradually lifting the ban on the press, and extending amnesty to rebel groups like OLF and ONLF.


Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (centre) attends the inauguration of the newly remodeled Meskel Square on 13 June 2021 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. (Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images)

Seemingly overnight, Ethiopia attempted to perform like an actual democratic state. To the surprise of many, and the resentment of Tigray leaders who still held a significant, albeit weakened, position in the government, Abiy made peace with Eritrea, Ethiopia’s archrival and most fervent enemy in the region, which Zenawi and his Tigray-led government had fought with from 1998 to 2000 — a gesture that earned him the prestigious Noble Peace Price in 2019. In spite of being a son of the TPLF (Abiy is reported to have been an intelligence officer in the skeleton EPRDF, of which the TPLF is a member), he disavowed his sponsors and created his own Prosperity Party, a pill that would prove too tough for the TPLF to swallow.

The successive reforms, peace with Eritrea, and the establishment of the Prosperity Party would leave the TPLF feeling sidelined and unapologetically betrayed. In the following months, they would see their members relieved of their positions in the government one by one. Eventually they decided to retreat to their region, consolidate their prowess, and carry out attempts to stymie Abiy's aggressive reforms. In September 2020, the TPLF held their own parliamentary election despite the Ethiopian Federal Government declaring the election “illegal”. The TPLF argued that their election was in line with the Ethiopian Federal Constitution, a constitution they so repeatedly violated when they were in power—and had a region conducted its own election without government blessing during their time, they would not hesitate in using deadly force to whisk them back in line.

In June 2020, a tragic event of significant importance occurred. A prominent Oromo singer and activist, Hachalu Hundessa, was assassinated by unknown assailants. Angry protesters took to the streets, led primarily by ethnic Oromo groups. The government of Abiy Ahmed would soon round up members of the opposition, including the influential Oromo leaders Jawar Mohammed and Misha Chiri, two founding members of Oromia Media Network and residents of the US state of Minnesota. Later, the government would levy terrorism charges against the detainees. Political commentators soon speculated that the government's moves were nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to eliminate political competitors ahead of Ethiopia’s upcoming election.

The Blowback

When, in November 2020, the TPLF staged what they described as a “preemptive” attack on Ethiopia’s military, Abiy’s government launched a military offensive comprised of infantry and ground assault combined with air support via high-tech drones provided by the United Arab Emirates. The military power that the TPLF had been building in Tigray for the previous two decades would wither within days. Eritrea, who harboured a personal animosity toward the TPLF for the 1998 war, soon joined the fight in support of the Ethiopian government. Abiy’s calculated decision to use Eritrea to defeat the TPLF shocked the world, casting doubt on his previous overture to extend the olive branch to Asmara on the grounds of losing an enemy. Commentators soon connected the dots that this had been Abiy’s grand plan from the beginning: make peace with Eritrea, for one day they will be useful and help you consolidate power. Ethiopian and Eritrean forces soon took over Mekelle, the regional capital of Tigray.

The months that followed saw scenes of shocking atrocities committed by the Ethiopian and Eritrean forces. International human rights organisations reported innumerable abuses, including extrajudicial killing, door-to-door assassination, rampant rape of women, burning of churches, and denying the entry of aid into Tigray. The death toll rose to the thousands among civilians and enemy combatants. Condemnations and calls for an immediate ceasefire came from across the globe, maintaining the pressure on Abiy. And then another surprise: Almost eight months after entering Tigray and refusing to withdraw, the Ethiopian government declared a unilateral ceasefire. That same week, the TPLF recaptured Mekelle and called Abiy’s declaration of a ceasefire a “sick joke” — vowing to continue fighting until all Tigray territory had been cleared of Ethiopian and Eritrean forces.

Ethiopia now

Today, Ethiopia remains mired in all-out inter-ethnic violent skirmishes. With TPLF forces advancing at an alarming rate, Amhara, Oromo, Somali and Afar ethnic groups continue to send reinforcements to the frontline of the battlefield to slow down the march. In other parts of the country, reports of abuses by ethnic Afar groups, with government support, against Somali ethnic civilians have emerged, prompting dissent in other parts of the Somali region and leading to the blockade and vandalism of the Djibouti-Ethiopia railway system and other roads, a strategic lifeline for Ethiopia’s economy.

The continued inter-ethnic conflict combined with the Ethiopian government’s recent calls to arm ethnic militia to counter the advance of the TPLF will set the country on a dangerous path. Ethiopia’s ethnic demography transcends its borders, and the longer its crisis persists, the more likely it is that that crisis will spread to neighbouring countries. For instance, in late July, clashes erupted between Afar and Somali ethnic groups in neighboring Djibouti, with at least three killed and a dozen others injured. The Djibouti government deployed the military in the capital to placate the situation.

The longevity of the crisis is also likely to diminish any opportunity toward a comprehensive conflict resolution, as evidenced by the TPLF’s recent refusal to withdraw from the territories it seized in Afar and Amhara regions. The TPLF went as far as entertaining the idea of marching toward Addis Ababa, if necessary.

The weakening of Ethiopia’s central government due to the ongoing crisis will widen the security vacuum, which will likely invite transnational threats from elsewhere. The mounting pressure of Somalia’s government on local terrorist organizations, and its increasing crackdown on Al-Shabab, in particular, will likely push those groups beyond Somalia’s border to Ethiopia, where they will seek safe haven amidst the broadening security vacuum.

Ethiopia is East Africa’s most populous country, with over 100 million people. If it plunges into a deeper civil armed conflict, the consequence will be far more damaging than the war in Afghanistan. The humanitarian catastrophe will be far more gut-wrenching and devastating than that of Yemen. It is therefore crucial for the world to pay attention and improvise mechanisms to address it immediately, because once Ethiopia’s crisis spins out of control, it will no longer be an Ethiopian or an African problem — it will become a major global disaster.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA.

(Main image: A man hangs an Ethiopian national flag at a school in Zarima, 140 kilometers from Gondar, Ethiopia, on 16 September 2021 after it was liberated by Ethiopian National Defence Forces (ENDF) soldiers who are battling against pro-TPLF (Tigray People Libration Front) rebels. Amanuel Sileshi/AFP via Getty Images)