“If Tigray wins or mounts enough resistance to force Abiy into the negotiating table, this will give federalist forces and those who defend the 1995 constitutional settlement a fighting chance. But no war follows such a predictable and simple contour. The confrontation is highly likely to degenerate into a long and protracted war in which civilians and the country suffer the most while the elites push each other to the brink.”
Ethiopia’s Nobel Laureate Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali has launched a military operation and declared a state of emergency in the northern state of Tigray. The armed confrontation, now in its second day, marked a dangerous and dramatic escalation in a long-brewing feud between Abiy and the leaders of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) who control Tigray.
It was a crisis that many saw coming. After he was propelled to power by popular protests in 2018, Abiy positioned himself as a centrist liberal and began to exploit the anti-TPLF sentiment in the country. He blamed the TPLF, which dominated Ethiopian politics since 1991, for the chaos and the breakdown of law and order that has characterized his tenure.
This prompted TPLF to quickly reposition itself as a defender of the 1995 constitutional settlement and the multinational federation. The ensuing power struggle between Abiy and the TPLF took on an ideological form, with many in Abiy’s own Oromia region and the South contemplating a possible alignment with the TPLF—the very party that failed to honor the central principles of regional autonomy and self-rule when it was in power.
How did we get here?
One of the key drivers of the confrontation between Abiy and the TPLF is ideology. It is difficult to discern a coherent ideological position in Abiy’s politics, but he espouses a reactionary and backward-looking vision of the future. He speaks of Ethiopia’s glory days and sees himself as a Messiah sent with a mission to save Ethiopia from what he sees as an imminent danger presented by the multinational federal order. Abiy views the constitutional recognition of ethnicity and the proliferation of competing ethno-nationalism as a ticking time bomb waiting to explode. In particular, he loathes the Marxist-Leninist thoughts that underpinned the ideological foundations of the current constitutional arrangement and the various ethno-nationalist forces inspired by a Marxist analysis of the national question, including the TPLF.
TPLF, on the other hand, is a Marxist-Leninist political organization that evolved into an authoritarian and neo-patrimonial entity. Although its commitment to the teachings and central tenets of Marxism and the question of nationalities has largely been instrumental, TPLF was the architect of the political settlement reached in 1991 and institutionalized in 1995. It is also the ideological godfather of the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition that dominated the country’s politics for over a quarter of a century. It is the single most powerful force that has a legacy to defend and stands in the way of Abiy’s grandiose agenda of making Ethiopia great again.
Abiy assumed office after TPLF was forced to relinquish power under the relentless onslaught of the popular protest mainly by the Oromo ethnic group. He became prime minister as a result of an ethnic-based nationalist mobilization, and he was nominated for the post by the Oromo wing of the then-EPRDF, the Oromo Peoples Democratic Organization. He took office on 2 April 2018 with a very specific and limited mandate: to lead the country through a transition to democracy while building a national consensus and widening the political space.
Abiy initially opened up the political space but his disastrous mishandling of the transition is now pushing the country to the brink of explosion. With the benefit of hindsight, we can now see that even those progressive measures he instituted were merely tactical moves designed to varnish his image as progressive and reformist while also securing a much-needed political buy-in from the metropolitan elite.
At the root of the military conflict between Abiy and the TPLF is a long-running disagreement over the management of the political transition and competing visions of the future. It took a remarkably dangerous turn when the prime minister dissolved the EPRDF and rebranded it the Prosperity Party (PP), removing the few remaining TPLF members from his cabinet and other government agencies. The establishment of PP signaled a radical ideological and programmatic departure from the 1995 constitutional settlement, and Abiy’s determination to impose his vision by any means necessary.
The EPRDF was a coalition of four ethnic-based parties that represented the largest ethno-national regions in the country. EPRDF’s organizational structure mirrored the constitutional structure of the Ethiopian federation. Despite its authoritarian practices, EPRDF’s normative and institutional structures were largely accepted by the major ethnic groups in the country.
The Prosperity Party, on the other hand, is a single unitary entity with no formal and institutionalized representation for ethnic groups.
PP is a politically anomalous construct that does not reflect existing political cleavages and the dominant modes of political organizing and mobilization. It represented a radical move away from the policies of national self-determination and the demands for ethnocultural recognition that is central to the current political settlement.
As complicated and complicating those arrangements may be, they were written into the constitution to correct the structural asymmetries of power that prevailed in Ethiopia and to give the country a chance to survive as a united sovereign state. This unscrupulous and strategically calamitous move to dissolve the EPRDF and create PP angered not only the TPLF but also Abiy’s own Oromo constituency and much of the people of the historically subjugated South.
Abiy wants to get rid of the multinational federal arrangement but he knows that the system is popular with several marginalized groups in the South, including the Oromo, who make about 40 percent of the country’s population. The creation of the Prosperity Party was driven not just by Abiy’s desire to create a new political entity totally subordinate to him but also motivated by the need for a new political organization with a new ideological foundation to drive that objective through. In order to achieve this goal, he needed to weaken two of the most powerful obstacles to his agenda: the TPLF and the Oromo opposition, in particular the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF).
To justify this reactionary ideological position and the creation of a totalizing party that is at odds with the existing constitutional structure and the dominant forms of political mobilization, Abiy began to use the TPLF and other defenders of the multinational order as a bogeyman. A critical part of this strategy involved the total rejection of TPLF’s legacy and the exploitation of the long-standing anti-TPLF and anti-OLF sentiment among Abiy’s supporters and the metropolitan elite.
The postponement of the election
One of the key issues that intensified the confrontation between Abiy’s government and the TPLF is the differing position held by the two parties on whether elections should be held as scheduled in August 2020. Abiy recognized that his Prosperity Party could not win a competitive election 8 months after its establishment in December 2019 and moved to postpone the election using the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse. TPLF and several opposition forces objected to Abiy’s move. Nevertheless, Abiy used a dubious constitutional mechanism to postpone the election indefinitely.
TPLF saw this as an opportunity to corner the federal government and decided to hold a regional election in Tigray, warning that it would not recognize the federal government of Abiy once its mandate had expired on 5 October 2020. Abiy and his administration objected to TPLF’s drive to hold elections, with the House of Federation, the upper chamber of parliament, declaring it unconstitutional.
However, TPLF went ahead with the election and won by a landslide. On 5 October, TPLF declared that it would not recognize the legitimacy of the Abiy government, infuriating him and his party. Abiy hit back by declaring the Tigray regional government illegitimate, demonetizing the banknotes, and withdrawing federal subsidies to the region, a decision seen by the TPLF as a declaration of war.
It is important to note here that TPLF deliberately escalated the tension after the 5 October because they recognized that Abiy and his government are at their most vulnerable after the expiry of their mandate. With the PM’s mandate expired and his legitimacy in question, TPLF hoped it can bring pressure to bear on Abiy or at least force him into the negotiating table. They wanted to pre-empt a situation in which Abiy would have a relatively easy ride to the elections and secure a five-year mandate in an election with a predetermined outcome. Failure to mount meaningful pressure on the PM during this period would have meant that they would have to face a vengeful Abiy that has shrugged off the cloud of legitimacy hanging over his head.
An epidemic of violence
Abiy’s two-and-half-year tenure has been defined by extraordinary levels of chaos and lawlessness. In his first six months in office, more than 1.4 million people have been internally displaced, with the United Nations putting Ethiopia at the top of the global list of countries with the highest number of IDPs in 2018. By the middle of 2019, this figure more than doubled to 2.9 million internally displaced persons.
The country also saw an unprecedented number of high-profile political assassinations and brutal massacres of defenseless civilians including women and children. Since Abiy came to power, violence became an inherent feature of the country’s political life. Gone are the days when violence was an abstraction for most Ethiopians, something they lamented over in private conversations and on social media as an episode unfolding in some distant place. Today, violence is everywhere.
Abiy’s government repeatedly blamed the TPLF and the OLF—two forces that vehemently opposed Abiy’s vision of the future and represented a real political threat to his power—for the violence and instability. Indeed, when the latest massacre of civilians took place in Wallaga, federal and regional PP officials pointed their fingers at the OLF and the TPLF. The Amhara regional government warned that there can be no peace and security in Ethiopia unless TPLF is annihilated for once and all. The Oromia regional government accused the Oromo Liberation Army, a breakaway faction of the OLF, and the TPLF of conspiring to unleash the violence. TPLF denied the accusations.
While one cannot rule out that the insurgency in Western Oromia may be responsible for some violence, and that TPLF may have an interest in sabotaging Abiy, the government has not provided any evidence to substantiate these claims. Indeed, there is a substantial gap in the government’s narrative of who is behind the series of tragic incidents of violence wrought on the country during Abiy’s tenure.
The government’s behavior and handling of episodes of violence are extremely suspicious. When we look at the assassination attempt on the life of the PM in June 2018; the murder of the GERD engineer Simegnew Bekele; the killings of the Amhara regional president and other top leaders of the region; the assassination of the Chief of the Army in Addis Ababa; and the assassination of Haacaaluu Hundeessaa, as well as the endless incidents of ethnically targeted violence, we see not only a government that failed in its fundamental duty of care but also one that is complicit.
The politicization of violence
Shortly after Haacaaluu’s killing, Abiy and other PP officials blamed the OLF, TPLF, Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) leaders such as Jawar Mohammed and Bekele Gerba, Oromia Media Network (OMN), and Egypt for the assassination. It argued that Oromo opposition parties, in concert with the TPLF and Egypt, assassinated Haacaaluu to stoke violence and undermine the government’s reform agenda. Without any plausible explanation as to how forces as distinct as Egypt, TPLF, OLF, and OFC could engage in a joint criminal conspiracy to murder an iconic Oromo artist, Abiy’s government and his supporters framed the violence in a manner that is productive to their central ideological claim.
When violence erupted in Oromia following the assassination of Haacaaluu, security forces failed in their primary duty of care to protect civilians and their property. When begged by the victims to intervene, they refused to do so, claiming that they have not been instructed.
As civilians were massacred and their property burned to the ground, law enforcement stood in silence and watched. In Shashamane, one of the scenes of violence, the regional government ignored calls by local authorities to deploy security forces to maintain law and order. If the government wanted to control the situation, to fulfill its primary duty of protecting lives, they could have done so as the Southern Command of the Army is stationed about 10 miles from the city.
In Dheera (Dera), another scene of violence, there were reportedly around 100 Oromia special forces during the night of the violence. They too watched the violence unfold before their eyes, refusing to intervene. In a country where the law and order culture runs deep and law enforcement officers feel entitled to enforce the law even when off duty, police and security forces refused to intervene to protect civilian life and their property in the face of remarkably brutal violence. This is deeply suspicious.
The morning after Haacaaluu’s assassination, the government arrested several opposition politicians, including Jawar Mohammed, Bekele Gerba, Eskinder Nega, and Lidetu Ayalew, and many OLF and OFC officials and supporters. They were all accused of stoking the violence that began the night Haacaaluu was killed. Many, including the defendants, believe that the government was using the violence as an opportunity to eliminate its political adversaries, particularly those who represent a significant threat to Abiy’s electoral chances. The government also sought to conjure up an image of political opponents working in tandem with foreign adversaries—the so-called banda—to destabilize Ethiopia.
Among the wildly implausible accusations concocted by the government was the criminal charge against Jawar Mohammed in which he was accused of recruiting former OLF soldiers for training in Egypt. If the government could politicize these incidents and the justice system in this manner, there is no reason why one should not suspect that the violence in the country may have been instigated by a state-actor with the view to justifying a new political settlement.
On 1 November, at least 34 civilians were massacred in Guliso district, West Wallaga, after the Ethiopian Defence Forces withdrew from the area abruptly and unexpectedly. In a statement, Abiy blamed the ‘enemies of Ethiopia’ and promised a swift response. Oromia and Amhara regional governments alleged that TPLF masterminded the ghastly violence using OLA rebels. The Prosperity Party’s propaganda machine moved into high gear, and parliament proposed designating TPLF and OLF as terrorist organizations. The Addis Ababa city mayor held prayers with city residents in a public display of mourning. In less than 24 hours, the government declared war alleging that the Tigray government attacked the defense forces stationed in the Tigray region.
While it is possible that the violence in West Wallaga may have been perpetrated by non-state actors, there are reasonable grounds to suspect that security forces may have played a part in the violence, either by being tacitly complicit or by actively orchestrating or participating in the violence. Why did the Ethiopian Defence Forces leave the area when they know that the population in the area is at risk? There are reports that some residents begged them not to.
Because these narratives have been framed to align with Abiy’s own stated political and ideological goals, many simply accepted the narratives and the framing of the government without any scrutiny.
Instead of asking the question of why violence has become a central feature of Abiy’s premiership, most supporters of the prime minister blamed the ethnic-based federal arrangement as the cause of the problem and suggested that the only way to end this form of targeted violence is by dismantling the multinational political settlement.
In fact, it is possible that much of the violence that we have seen may have been perpetrated by a state-actor determined to paint an apocalyptic and violent image of constitutional order.
By framing these violent episodes and ghastly massacres as the inevitable consequences of the political settlement of 1995 and the institutionalization of ethnic politics, they hope to build a public consensus that would support a new more centralized, and unitary settlement.
Federalism hangs in the balance
Abiy Ahmed’s supporters and the metropolitan elite who historically benefited from the asymmetric structure of privilege argue that ethnic federalism and its underlying assumptions are bad and must be dismantled and replaced by a new system. They argue that the violence targeting various ethnic groups, particularly the Amhara, was systemic, and could only be addressed if the system is radically altered.
Federalist forces, on the other hand, argue that the current arrangement does address the country’s long-standing political questions at the structural level but needs to be democratized and consolidated. They further argue that multinational federalism did not make a democratic country undemocratic. It did not usurp Ethiopians of the human rights and fundamental freedoms they had before the advent of federalism. Multinational federalism helped keep the Ethiopian state together. It offered the best chance of democratizing the Ethiopian state and making its institutions accountable.
Dismantling the constitutional structure, they argue, does not change the ethnic nature of Ethiopia’s politics. Ethiopia is a nation of ethnic groups and its politics will remain ethnic as long as the underlying relationship of inequality and injustice remains indexed to ethnicity.
The current war with TPLF not only represents a significant threat to the integrity and cohesion of the Ethiopian state and its people, it is also a mortal blow to Abiy’s own vision. The war with TPLF could drag on for years, with no clear winner. Abiy knows this as it is still struggling to win the low-level insurgency in West and Southern Oromia, let alone a regional government with significant resources, a battle-hardened society, and a state government that controls large swathes of territory from which it can organize and launch a concerted military attack. The war could also encourage other groups elsewhere in the country, particularly in areas where there is significant opposition to Abiy’s vision, to rebel and resort to armed rebellion.
Finally, whichever way the war ends, the confrontation between Abiy and TPLF will have profound ramifications that would reverberate across Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa for decades to come. It is likely to define the very structure, character, and identity of the Ethiopian state for years. If Abiy succeeds in defeating the TPLF, Abiy’s vision of imposing a centralized, unitary, and reactionary political and constitutional settlement will get a significant boost.
If Tigray wins or mounts enough resistance to force Abiy into the negotiating table, this will give federalist forces and those who defend the 1995 constitutional settlement a fighting chance. But no war follows such a predictable and simple contour. The confrontation is highly likely to degenerate into a long and protracted war in which civilians and the country suffer the most while the elites push each other to the brink.