Two years ago scenes of jubilation broke out across northern Ethiopia. The border between Ethiopia and its former adversary Eritrea was open again after 18 years. Siblings were reunited, grandparents saw grandchildren for the first time, phone links were suddenly restored. A new era appeared to have dawned in the Horn of Africa after decades characterised by bitter civil wars, famine and ideological rigidity. The youth, who represent more than half the population, placed especially high expectations in the young new prime minister. A better life with work and dignity appeared possible. Abiy Ahmed had been a surprise candidate from the party of the largest ethnic group – the Oromo – which had never headed the government. He wanted to break with the rigid developmental state concept of the previous government, which had been dominated by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Abiy’s guiding principles of democracy, privatisation and love appeared outlandish. And his peace settlement with neighbouring Eritrea was a breakthrough that thrilled the country and the region and won him the Nobel Peace Prize.
Today the borders between Eritrea and Ethiopia are firmly closed again. Hundreds of Ethiopians have died in ethnic pogroms in recent months. The killing of a prominent singer sparked weeks of protests, the government blocked the internet for months, thousands of opposition supporters have been detained. The youth, whose protests propelled Abiy to power, have turned against him, their hopes disappointed. The tinder ignited in early November: Fighting broke out between the TPLF and the federal armed forces in the northern state of Tigray. Internet and telephone connections were cut and flights suspended. The federal government imposed a state of emergency on the region, declared the TPLF a terrorist organisation and appointed a parallel government for the TPLF-run state. Federal armed forces were deployed to the state border from other parts of the country and from Somalia. Both sides now claim to have the situation under control: Prime Minister Abiy reports successful strikes on TPLF air defences, the TPLF claims to be militarily unscathed.
The escalation began after Abiy indefinitely postponed the first free national elections, which had been scheduled for May 2020, citing the Covid-19 pandemic. A few months earlier he had dissolved the previous ruling party and founded the Prosperity Party. One effect of these moves was to reduce the political influence of the TPLF and enhance the position of previously neglected states like Somali and Afar. The TPLF responded by questioning the government’s legitimacy; it regards Abiy as an opponent of ethnic federalism. In early September the TPLF gained an absolute majority in elections to Tigray’s state parliament – which were deemed illegal by the federal government. After the TPLF’s long and harsh rule many Ethiopians still bear resentment against it; mass support for the Front is therefore unlikely.
This hardening of fronts reflects the weakness of Abiy’s government, which has failed to rein in ethnonationalist divisions and prevent ethnic pogroms. The prime minister had assumed that completion of the gigantic Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile would generate enthusiasm and support across the entire population and function as a national unification project. That hope appears to have been dashed.
A situation where conflict continues to escalate in Tigray and the country spirals into civil war could spell the end for Abiy’s transition. He risks losing the army’s loyalty and his control over parts of the country. A defeated TPLF could turn into an armed opposition, within or outside the country’s borders. There is also a risk that Eritrean President Isayas Afewerki will sense an opportunity to expand his country’s regional role again by intervening on Ethiopia’s side. This would make Ethiopia weaker and dependent.
Internal collapse would have repercussions for Ethiopia itself – as the region’s most populous country – and for the entire Horn of Africa. A regional war would endanger the fragile transition in Sudan, while national fragmentation would directly impact the talks on a Nile Dam agreement and the African Union Mission in Somalia, in which Ethiopia plays a decisive role.
The first step towards conflict resolution would be for the TPLF and the federal government to recognise each other as legitimate actors. Talks could then be conducted by the region’s Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) under Sudanese leadership. The African Union, Europe, the UN and other partners should agree a shared line on deescalation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, as the mediators of the Ethiopian-Eritrean peace agreement, could also play an important role as guarantors.
But a cease-fire can only be the start. Dissatisfaction is growing in all of Ethiopia’s regions, separatist tendencies are proliferating, the system of ethnic federalism is on the verge of violent collapse. If these dangers are to be avoided it is vital that the security forces prevent ethnic pogroms. And if he is to retain popular backing the prime minister must guarantee due process for political detainees. Finally, if any hope of a new start, democratic change and devolution of power is to survive, a comprehensive national dialogue will be vital.
This text was also published at fairobserver.com.
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