Political transition in any country is a difficult process and requires a sagacious leadership to guide it through. The nature and pace of political changes usually creates certain beneficiaries and also takes away power from certain groups. If the pace of changes is rapid, it has a potential to undermine the entire process of political transition, precipitate uncertainties and instead of moving forward, can result in setting the country back. It is at this point that the role of political leadership and its approach to politics assumes a critical dimension. In leading the country towards the transition, the leadership can contain the disaffection or it can fuel hostilities. The astute handling of political differences and the appropriate pace of change are decisive factors in navigating the transition phase. During South Africa’s transition from the political system based on Apartheid to a multi-party democratic rule, Nelson Mandela stayed the course, did not respond to repeated provocations and managed the transition well. Ethiopia’s current national leadership could draw a leaf out of the Mandela playbook. However, this is not what has happened. In the last few days, the Ethiopian government led by Prime Minister (PM) Abiy Ahmed has launched military operations including airstrikes on the Tigrayan fighters. There are clear indications that, if the military operations from both sides are not contained, the country is likely to slide back to a civil war.
Since Abiy Ahmed assumed office in 2018 and launched his ambitious project of political reforms, the country has undergone major changes in its domestic politics as well as in foreign policy. Ahmed, a former army officer, ended the 20-year conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea and took steps to normalise relations between the two neighbours.[i] This process had the potential to transform the geopolitical landscape of this strategically important region in recognition of which Ahmed was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019. The Nobel Committee citation read: ‘for his efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation, and in particular for his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea’.[ii] Ahmed also played an active role in ending the conflicts in Sudan and South Sudan, normalising ties between Djibouti and Eritrea as well as seeking to mediate between Kenya and Somalia over their dispute regarding maritime boundary.[iii] Thus, Ahmed’s tenure in office is marked by his efforts to bring peace to the Horn of Africa.
However, his efforts to reform the domestic politics of the second largest African state (by population) have been controversial and have faced considerable resistance. Ahmed began with a promise to heal the nation and bring about much-needed political reforms. He is the first Prime Minister of Ethiopia from the Oromo community and at the age of 44, is the youngest leader in Africa. He has freed thousands of political prisoners, opened up political space, half his cabinet comprises of women, Ethiopia has its first female President and he has also brought in significant changes to the ruling coalition known as Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).[iv]
His swift changes were not however appreciated in many quarters of Ethiopia and the trouble was brewing. In fact, Ethiopia-watchers were taking note of worrying signals emanating from the country. For example, in June 2019, there was a coup attempt in the Amhara region in which the Ethiopian Army Chief as well as Governor of Amhara region were killed. Before that, in September 2018, Ahmed had survived a grenade attack.[v] Therefore, the latest round of hostilities and the unrest in the Tigray region has to be seen as a response to the political changes initiated by Ahmed. Some interest groups are clearly upset with the style and substance of political reforms heralded by the Prime Minister.
Ethiopia is a multi-ethnic nation and requires federal arrangements to sustain its fragile unity. Oromo is the largest ethnic group comprising 34% of the Ethiopian population, Amharas make up 27% and Somalis and Tigrayans each form about 6% of the population.[vi] This ethnic diversity is recognised in the Ethiopian model of federal governance. Major groups administer their own regions and, the constitution even allows each province a right to secede.[vii] Prime Minister Ahmed’s efforts at political changes are seen by some as an attempt to weaken the federal structure of the country and centralise power in Addis Ababa.
During the Cold War, in the 1970s, the military junta, known as The Derg, took over power by toppling the Emperor Haile Selassie. During their rule, the Derg turned to Marxism and received generous Soviet military and political support.[viii] Led by Colonel Mengistu Haile Marium (1977-1991) ruthlessly killed thousands of dissidents and regularly bombed the Northern Province of Tigray. In one of these air raids in 1988 it was reported that as many as 1800 people died.[ix] Thereafter in the 1980s, the Marxist-military regime of Ethiopia faced insurgencies on two fronts: Eritreans fighting to secede from Ethiopia whereas EPRDF, a coalition led by Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), was fighting to overthrow the regime of Col. Mengistu. In 1991, EPRDF succeeded in overthrowing the regime and Eritreans also succeeded in seceding from Ethiopia.[x] Thus, the post-Cold War era saw a new political dispensation in Ethiopia and the political geography of the region also changed.
From 1991 till 2018, the EPRDF ruled Ethiopia. EPRDF was a vehicle of national unity as well as a party of governance. The EPRDF leader Meles Zenawi, a Tigrayan, ruled the country for 21 years. During his time (1991-2012), Ethiopia made remarkable progress on the social and economic front. A country known for devastating famines managed to banish famines and also reduce child mortality rates from about one in five to one in twenty[xi]. He was succeeded by Hailemariam Desalegn. During his time (2012-18), Ethiopia’s march towards economic growth continued and the country emerged as one of the fastest growing African economies. However, EPRDF’s rule of 27 years did not bring democracy to Ethiopia. Therefore, Prime Minister Ahmed, who rose through the ranks of EPRDF, and his followers consider these 27 years of EPRDF rule as ‘darkness’.[xii]Critics argue that during the EPRDF’s rule, Tigrayans enjoyed disproportionate share in the power and Ahmed wants to do away with that. Upon taking power in 2018, Ahmed set about to reform politics in the country. He dissolved the EPRDF and formed a new political party, Prosperity Party.[xiii]It was however also seen as a move to further centralise power and in response, fissiparous ethnic nationalism began to resurface.
The Latest Crisis
In September this year, the TPLF held regional elections in Tigray and won it by a landslide. 98.2% people voted for TPLF and all (152) seats of the regional parliament went to TPLF. However, these elections were not authorised by the Central government and hence, tensions were running high. TPLF counters the claims of the Central government by saying that national elections were scheduled earlier this year and were postponed due to Covid-19.[xiv] Therefore, the TPLF argues that it is the only party that enjoys a renewed mandate of the people.[xv]Meanwhile, in November, reportedly, Ethiopian defence forces were attacked in Tigray and as per PM Ahmed, a red line was crossed[xvi]. Since then, both sides are engaged in military operations. Calls for peace and mediation have not been responded to so far. Tigrayans fear, if a course correction does not take place, they will be relegated to the sideline and would lose levers of power enjoyed by them for the last three decades.
The region of Tigray is located at the confluence of Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia. Building on the newly established relationship with Eritrea, Ethiopian forces are launching attacks against TPLF in coordination with Eritrean forces. Many elements in the erstwhile EPRDF, especially the TPLF, were opposed to the rapprochement between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Hence, Eritrea also has no qualms in supporting the military operations launched against the TPLF. In retaliation, TPLF had fired missiles in Eritrea.[xvii] However, as the crisis has escalated in the last few days, refugees are pouring into neighbouring Sudan.[xviii] There were reports of civilian massacres taking place in Tigray while the whole region is under a communication blackout. [xix]
It is clear that even if a ceasefire comes about in the next few days or weeks, Ethiopia will continue to face serious political challenges on the domestic front. Some analysts are even calling it the end of Ethiopian nation-state as we know it. Moving further, Ahmed will have to consider rising disaffection in the certain sections of the country and ensure that the tinderbox of ethnic nationalism is contained. Otherwise, in the quest for democracy and political reforms, Ethiopia’s politics would endanger the larger unity of the country. Ethiopia is already facing significant challenges in the form of Covid-19 and locust invasion. It can ill-afford to tear apart the fragile fabric of domestic peace and security.
Besides, Ethiopia is facing challenges on the external front as well. The Grand Renaissance Ethiopia Dam, the largest dam in Africa, has created diplomatic challenges for Ethiopia as the lower riparian states, Egypt and Sudan, are concerned about the dam and its impact on Nile water sharing. Egypt has used threatening language to warn Ethiopia and the two countries have not been able to sort out their differences so far.[xx] Moreover, neighbouring Sudan itself is in the grip of a difficult and painful political transition from an Army-dominated authoritarian rule to a civilian-military hybrid regime spread over a 39-month period.[xxi] This unstable regional environment and the crisis in neighbouring Ethiopia also have adverse implications for the Sudanese transition. In this context of political volatility and refugee movements, the Sudanese Army may find it easier and opportune to assert control over the politics of the country. Turmoil in these two major states of the Horn of Africa is likely to further spill over into other neighbouring states like Somalia, South Sudan and Libya. All these states lack cohesive, well-functioning central authority and their problems could be exacerbated due to the regional instability.
Except for a brief period under the Derg in the 1970s and 1980s, Ethiopia has traditionally been close to the United States (US) and over the years, the US has played an active role in peacemaking in the Horn of Africa. However, the US, in the midst of political uncertainty and Presidential transition, will find it difficult to push Ethiopia towards peace and stability. The role of regional organizations like African Union (AU) and Inter-Governmental Authority for Development (IGAD) will be crucial in the peacemaking. However, there is no certainty whether Ethiopia will be willing to accept the mediation by AU and/or IGAD. Therefore, unless the TPLF and Ethiopian leaderships take a step back, make efforts to end the violence, and reconsider their positions, the country is likely to face significant challenges in maintaining national unity and territorial integrity.
*Dr. Sankalp Gurjar is a Research Fellow at Indian Council of World Affairs.
Discliamer : The views expressed are personal
[i] Alexia Underwood, “The sudden end of Ethiopia-Eritrea war, explained”, Vox, July 31, 2020 at: https://www.vox.com/2018/7/31/17595988/ethiopia-eritrea-peace-abiy-ahmed (Accessed November 19, 2020)
[ii]The Nobel Prize, “The Nobel Peace Prize for 2019”, October 11, 2019, at: https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/2019/press-release/ (Accessed November 19, 2020)
[vi]Reuters, “Factbox: Ethiopia’s main ethnic groups”, February 16, 2018, at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-ethiopia-politics-factbox-idUSKCN1G01HZ (Accessed November 19, 2020)
[viii]Global Security, “The Derg/Dergue”, November 23, 2015, at: https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/ethiopia/history-dergue.htm (Accessed November 19, 2020)
[x] Terrence Lyons, “The Ethiopia-Eritrea Conflict and the Search for Peace in the Horn of Africa”, Review of African Political Economy, 36 (120), 2009, pp. 167-180
[xi] De Waal, no. 8
[xii] De Waal, no. 8
[xiii]Yohannes Gedamu, “Why Abiy Ahmed’s Prosperity Party is good news for Ethiopia”, Al Jazeera, December 18, 2019, at: https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2019/12/18/why-abiy-ahmeds-prosperity-party-is-good-news-for-ethiopia/ (Accessed November 19, 2020)
[xiv] Martina Schwkowski, “Crisis looms in Ethiopia as elections are postponed”, Deutsch Welle, June 16, 2020 at: https://www.dw.com/en/crisis-looms-in-ethiopia-as-elections-are-postponed/a-53829389 (Accessed November 19, 2020)
[xv] De Waal, no.8
[xvi] Giulia Paravicini and Dawit Endeshaw, “Ethiopia sends army into Tigray region, heavy fighting reported”, Reuters, November 4, 2020, at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-ethiopia-conflict-idUSKBN27K0ZS (Accessed November 19, 2020)
[xvii]Al Jazeera, “Ethiopia: Tigray leader confirms bombing Eritrean capital”, November 15, 2020, at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/11/15/rockets-fired-from-ethiopias-tigray-region-hit-eritrean-capital (Accessed November 19, 2020)
[xviii]Samy Magdy, “Over 25,300 fleeing Ethiopia fighting have reached Sudan”, Associated Press, November 17, 2020, at: https://apnews.com/article/sudan-abiy-ahmed-africa-ethiopia-united-nations-0a37839e6b61e523fcaf9345a1a48583 (Accessed November 19, 2020)
[xix] Jason Burke and Zeinab Mohammed Salih, “Both sides in Ethiopian conflict are killing civilians, refuges say”, The Guardian, November 13, 2020, at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/nov/13/civilians-knife-massacre-ethiopia-say-reports (Accessed November 19, 2020)
[xxi] United Institute of Peace, “Sudan, One Year after Bashir”, May 1, 2020, at: https://www.usip.org/publications/2020/05/sudan-one-year-after-bashir (Accessed November 19, 2020)