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No end in sight? Where the Ethiopian crisis stands today

In April of 2018, Abiy Ahmed Ali was appointed prime minister of Ethiopia following the peaceful stepping-down of Hailemariam Desalegn a couple months prior. Ahmen Ali’s commissioning brought hope to a country divided by severe societal turmoil, and the new government strove to advance democratisation, expand political freedoms and liberalise the Ethiopian market. Ahmed Ali was even awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 and was praised as a regional peacemaker. However, only months later, the Ethiopian prime minister would preside over a relentless civil war that would eventually displace millions of people, trigger a severe and widespread famine, and leave thousands of Ethiopians dead. The ongoing violent conflict in Ethiopia has received relatively little media coverage globally, although it has escalated into one of the most urgent catastrophes in the world. The aim of this article is to deconstruct the causes behind this sudden and major crisis, and explain why there is no end in sight. Below, we will retrace the history of the Ethiopian conflict and explain how it has evolved to become a global crisis.

History of the Conflict: The Tigray, a region of perpetual instability

In order to understand why fighting broke out between different groups in the Tigray region in November of 2020, it is crucial to go back and study Ethiopian politics from recent decades. When Meles Zenawi came to power in the 1990s, he was a rebel who fought against the Derg State in Ethiopia, a Marxist-Leninist one party government ruling from the 1970s to the 1980s. The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), made up of a coalition of militias (such as the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the Amhara Democratic Party, and Oromo Democratic Party, among others), finally managed to topple the Derg State in February of 1987 and formally took over the Ethiopian government in the months that followed. The downfall of the Derg State also caused Eritrea’s secession from the country, transforming Ethiopia into a landlocked country. Due to the EPRDF’s diverse composition of sometimes politically-clashing militias, the following decades where it was in power were marked by a tense atmosphere characterised by constant power struggles and rampant mistrust. Ultimately, the EPRDF fragmented, and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front triumphed over the others, ruling Ethiopia for the next two decades.

Meles Zenawi confined the country’s political power to a very small circle that represented only a fraction of the Ethiopian population, and progressively caused a de jure multicultural, federal democracy to regress to the margins of a de facto centralised, authoritarian rule. Under Zenawi’s dictatorship, the country was able to establish a functioning federal system that rested flimsily upon ethnic characteristics. For example, since Zenawi belonged to the Tigray minority, during his rule Tigrayans often benefited from certain advantages such as being appointed to top government positions simply because the country’s power rested in the hands of one of their own. The ethnic-based privilege system that ensued angered non-Tigrayans, and eventually these ethnic cleavages became unmanageable. In 2014, conflict erupted when the Oromo youth took to the streets in protest against their government, and reached a peak in early October of 2016 when security forces fired into peaceful civilian crowds participating in the Oromo festival in Debre Zeit.

A state of emergency was declared on 9 October 2016, after the Oromo conflict had caused ethnic violence to erupt in other parts of the country. The EPRDF attempted to regain control of the country by strengthening its authoritarian repression and imprisonment of regime opponents. This only caused the country to further spiral into crisis, and a combination of factors such as economic instability, unaddressed grievances and ethnic polarisation ultimately led to Hailemariam’s resignation as Ethiopia’s prime minister and the ERPDF’s chairman. An unprecedented event for Ethiopian politics, Hailemariam’s secession of power led to a peaceful change of government against a backdrop of ethnic turmoil. In March of 2018, Abiy Ahmed Ali was elected chairman of the EPRDF, and in April of the same year, he was appointed prime minister of Ethiopia.

Abiy Ahmed Ali’s Government: What Went Wrong?

Ahmed Ali was appointed to government by the ruling class with the intentions of palliating ethnic tensions and bringing about social change, all while upholding the old Ethiopian political order. In order to do so, Abiy aimed to rearrange the ruling EPRDF coalition (founded by the People’s Liberation Front and composed of four parties), into a new single party. This new party, the Prosperity Party, would not only exclude the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, but also sparked fears in some regions that Ethiopia’s federal system (that has historically guaranteed a certain level of autonomy to ethnically-delineated states) would be threatened. As such, Tigrayan leaders decided to withdraw to the mountainous region of northern Ethiopia, and continue to rule with their own regional government. Political tensions reached a peak in September of 2020, when the Tigray People’s Liberation Front held regional parliamentary elections, and, in doing so, defied Abiy Ali Ahmed’s edict that such action would be illegal and punishable. In November of 2020, the federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front entered into violent conflict at the government’s northern command after Abiy accused the latter of attacking a federal army base near Tigray’s capital, Mekelle. Since then, a number of actors such as the national military and diverse militias have been propagating violence and conflict in the region.

Many scholars have tried to pinpoint the exact moment Abiy Ahmed Ali might have provoked the current Ethiopian crisis, but its roots are diverse and dissatisfaction with the government has been accumulating for decades. When Abiy delivered his speech at his inauguration ceremony in 2018, the Nobel committee was amazed by his call for a “complete break with the past forms of governance” which were inherently autocratic and deeply founded on ethnic politics. During the beginning of his rule, he adopted a number of measures to ease societal turmoil and instil an orderly form of government. However, many critics have called Ahmed Ali out for leaving power in the hands of extremist ethnic separatist groups that ruled over multiple regions of the country. Many also believe it is these same groups that have launched the recent violent military operation against the Tigray province (as seen in the map below). Many reports from human rights groups and journalists have found that at the beginning of the conflict, thousands of Tigrayan civilians were being harmed and soldiers from Eritrea had begun joining the fight.

Image source: The New York Times

Why is Ethiopia at War with Itself? by Declan Walsh and Abdi Latif Dahir

As Giovanni Faleg (2019) explains, the balance of power between the federal state and the regional states has yet to be resolved, and this has led to the creation of a power vacuum filled by inter-ethnic political violence. This enduring conflict has now evolved from violence by the government against the people to violence perpetrated by ethnic groups against each other, and the EPRDF coalition has only grown increasingly divided over political representation since the TPLF is no longer the dominating party. In the last two years, Ethiopians have been suffering from unprecedented war crimes and crimes against humanity such as ethnic-based killings, sexual violence, forced displacement, and the prevention of access to health care, food and water. Over 2 million people have been displaced within the country, and over 60 000 Ethiopians have fled to Sudan.

The ongoing conflict has left at least 400 000 Ethiopians in famine-like conditions, and nearly all essential medication is unavailable. In addition, the federal government has not only been accused of preventing aid from entering Tigray, but it has also been accused of commiting extrajudicial killings, torturing prisoners and civilians, and commiting sexual violence.

Consequences & Solutions: is there an end in sight?

As the second most populous country in the African continent, Ethiopia’s security concerns and political instability have important repercussions on the global scale. Not only could the ongoing conflict cause thousands more Ethiopians to flee to other countries, making it difficult for neighbouring nations to cope, but it could also lead to heightened violence and a potential split of the country among ethnic lines. Eritrean troops have already been drawn into the conflict, but there is a possibility that other neighbours may be pushed to participate as well. Over the last six months, the Ethiopian government has struck weapons deals with Turkey, China and Iran. Though Ethiopia remains a long-time ally of the United States (especially during the War on Terror), the US envoy to the region, Jeffrey Feltman, has openly criticised Abiy Ahmed Ali’s government for his policies and compared his rule to that of Bashar al-Assad’s in Syria. The US government has now urged the evacuation of all its citizens, and Abiy Ahmed Ali has declared a state of emergency in Ethiopia, urging residents to take military action and register weapons.

Today, many fear the Tigray People’s Liberation Front’s advances into the capital, yet the TPLF has claimed its priorities are getting aid and supplies through to the Tigray region. However, there is little evidence that proves any measures are being taken to do so, and, conflictingly, obstructions to aid distribution have reached an all-time high. In January of this year, the World Food Programme set out to distribute its final supplies of nutritionally fortified food, cereals and oil, but the ongoing conflict between TPLF and the federal government has made it impossible for WFP convoys to reach the capital of Tigray and distribute resources. Since December of 2021, the United Nations Humanitarian Assistance teams have sent over 70 trucks with food and medical supplies that have had to offload their supplies and return to warehouses for storage. In addition, many trucks sent to Tigray have not been returning, and over 900 trucks have been affected by the conflict, either being seized by military forces or having to return due to routes remaining blocked.

Violence has also escalated in the neighbouring regions of Amhara and Afar, and brought Ethiopians’ lives to a standstill; they have been cut off from all humanitarian aid, medical assistance and other basic amenities. Many aid agencies such as the WFP have reported that military forces have created barriers to block aid and resources from reaching the heart of the conflict, and the BBC has even claimed that supplies are stolen by militants and never reach their intended targets. The Tigray Region’s health facilities have also been severely affected by the conflict; many were looted and some even transformed into military camps and training sites. The UN has called these restrictions a “de facto aid blockade” that the Ethiopian government has inflicted on the Tigray region since June 2021. This blockade has not only led to an alarming deterioration of the overall health situation, but it has also included the outage of electricity and telecommunications services, both of which have exacerbated the crisis and further prevented aid services from reaching the region.

Peacebuilding efforts have become increasingly difficult to implement due to the recent inflation of violence, but there are still some glimpses of hope, and many politicians believe both sides need to sit down and come up with a compromise. One way of initiating diplomatic communications would be for countries such as the US, China and Turkey to exert pressure on the parties to end the conflict. If these three countries are able to push Abiy to withdraw his troops and withhold violence, they can then assist in providing humanitarian assistance and resolving the crisis and famine that has been affecting millions of citizens. It is only then that political options can be explored between the two parties.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are personal to the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organisation, or employer.



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