Ethiopia’s Problems Will Not End with a Military Victory

This report comes following the timely warning from senior American African experts as this crisis was erupting that the conflict might result in the collapse of Ethiopia itself. As they pointed out this could result in a “fragmentation of Ethiopia” which “would be the largest state collapse in modern history,” with consequences for the entire region.

How they have issued this warning.

Source: US Institute of Peace

Ethiopian voters in Addis Ababa, the capital city, wait in line to vote during 2010 general elections. (Uduak Amimo)
Ethiopian voters in Addis Ababa, the capital city, wait in line to vote during 2010 general elections. (Uduak Amimo)

The Conflict in Tigray

War sometimes starts like clockwork but predicting the date on which a conflict will end often leads to disappointment. Yet from the start of armed hostilities with the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed promised the conflict would be swift and decisive. On November 6, Abiy wrote that “operations by federal defense forces underway in Northern Ethiopia have clear, limited and achievable objectives.” On November 9, the prime minister saPM Abiy tweet 9 Novid the military operation “will wrap up soon,” and the next day, that “our law enforcement operations in Tigray are proceeding as planned: operations will cease as soon as the criminal junta is disarmed, legitimate administration in the region restored, and fugitives apprehended and brought to justice—all of them rapidly coming within reach.” Claims that the conflict will be short-lived have also been echoed by senior American officials: U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia Michael Raynor told journalists on November 19 that “another aspect of this is the Ethiopian government continues to articulate a vision of the military conflict coming to an end fairly soon, a week or two from now.”

Despite limitations on independent reporting and the severing of most communications, the federal government has announced significant military advances, capturing a number of important towns and cities in Tigray, including Shire on November 17, Axum and Adwa on November 20, and Adigrat on November 21. The TPLF has made counterclaims: that it inflicted significant casualties on federal forces in Raya and to have repulsed federal forces in Mehoni and Zalambessa. For the federal government, taking control of the state capital of Tigray, and its largest city, Mekelle, is now the principal remaining tactical military objective.

However, even if Abiy’s military objectives are quickly achieved, experiences of warfare in northern Ethiopia dating back a century suggest that it is much easier to capture territory than it is to hold it. It is unclear what a successful strategy for the federal government will be if it is able to capture Tigray’s urban centers but cannot command the widespread acceptance of Tigray’s people. While the fighting of the last few weeks may have significantly degraded the TPLF’s military capacity, it is unlikely that the federal government can entirely subdue the TPLF as a political entity, which retains the support of a substantial number of Tigrayans. Further, the TPLF’s historic capacity to wage guerrilla warfare from the rural mountains of Tigray may not be definitively eroded by its losses in conventional warfare.

While some in the federal government have indicated that they would accept a refashioned TPLF led by moderates, external efforts to re-engineer the party may well be counterproductive and only risk further alienating some Tigrayan constituencies. Therefore, as focused on their immediate objectives and consequently as reluctant to seek dialogue and compromise as they may be, the parties in conflict may find that a negotiated settlement may ultimately be the only realistic choice, if not imminently, then in the months ahead. Moreover, the federal government must soon confront an even bigger problem in 2021: how to conduct peaceful and credible elections.

The Prospects and Difficulties of Elections

National elections are overdue and are now expected to be held next year. While in February 2020, the National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) announced that elections would be held in August 2020, by the end of March, the Board had decided to indefinitely delay the elections because of the COVID-19 pandemic. As NEBE explained, several important preparatory tasks were unable to be completed in March, meaning that the crucial voter registration exercise, which was expected to register tens of millions of prospective voters, was unable to commence in April.

Beyond the national polls, each regional state of Ethiopia is also due to hold elections for their state legislatures. It was the Tigray region’s decision to proceed with organizing its own elections in September, in defiance of the federal government and without the oversight and participation of the NEBE, that contributed to a deterioration of relations between Tigray and Addis Ababa, and which was a further step toward the violence now occurring.

Even without the impact of COVID-19 and the situation in Tigray, Ethiopia’s next national elections are fraught with difficulty. The polls are expected to be the first competitive elections since 2005 and raise fundamental questions about the future order of the Ethiopian state. Abiy’s new political vehicle, the Ethiopian Prosperity Party, is the national frontrunner, constructed from the former Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front ruling coalition, which was once led by the TPLF. Apart from the TPLF, a number of new opposition political parties are expected to contest the polls.

The challenges faced in administering elections are significant. The first problem is one of election administration, operations and reform: a rush to organize elections in early 2021, as some have suggested, may easily worsen the political situation across the country, as in such a limited time, elections are unlikely to be effectively administered. In May, the NEBE proposed two scenarios on which to base a prospective electoral calendar: the first required 224 days to prepare for and conduct elections, and the second required 276 days. However, at the end of October, NEBE proposed that the elections be held in late May or June 2021, contingent on beginning poll worker training in December and voter registration in January.

As early as December 2018, a USAID pre-elections assessment found that “there is a lack of consensus about specific solutions and timing of reforms in relation to the election cycle, and that information about and support for the reforms is inconsistent. The reform process has been largely elite-driven and concentrated in Addis Ababa, and there is a lack of clarity on a specific road map to achieving the goals set out by the prime minister.” While there has been some important progress since that assessment was made, conducting elections in Ethiopia will be the largest democratic exercise in the country’s history; the technical challenges should not be underestimated and cannot easily be expedited. More recently, NEBE has noted that the possibility of constitutional and electoral reform could also complicate the electoral calendar and has warned, “Preparations for electoral process based on [an] unstable timeline are not advisable. Only once these processes [of constitutional and electoral reform] are completed should an electoral timeline be consulted and announced, and preparations begin in earnest.”

The second, more profound problem in conducting elections concerns broader needs for security, trust, reconciliation, and the ability of Ethiopians to freely engage in open political discourse, debate, and campaigning. Even before the conflict with Tigray, there were more than 1.8 million internally displaced persons in Ethiopia. In May, Amnesty International reported that at least 10,000 people had been “arbitrarily arrested and detained last year as part of the government’s crackdown on armed attacks and violence in Oromia Region,” and in July, that another 5,000 had been arrested following protests the previous month. A number of prominent political figures and journalists were jailed before the Tigray conflict began, and more arrests of journalists have followed this month.

For their part, American officials have asserted that the conflict in Tigray has served to unite Ethiopians. Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Tibor Nagy told journalists on November 19 that “it seems like [the conflict in Tigray] has brought the Ethiopian nation together, at least for the time being, in support of the prime minister …” Ambassador Raynor added that “the rest of the country actually remains quite calm at present, no indications of anyone taking up comparable actions elsewhere, and in fact the opposite. Seemingly both regional governments, federal governments, and large swaths of the people galvanizing around the [federal] government.”

Unfortunately, violence has continued elsewhere in Ethiopia. In a recent tragic incident, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission reported that at least 34 people were killed in a November 14 attack on a bus in Benishangul. Further, as the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs pointed out on November 20, “Humanitarian partners in Ethiopia are further concerned about the increasing report of violence in Oromia and Southern Nations Nationalities and Peoples (SNNP) regions. Violent incidents involving unidentified armed groups have been reported on an almost daily basis, mainly in the Western Oromia region, while several thousand people were reportedly displaced by inter-communal violence in Konso zone, SNNPR on 16 November.” Alas, any short-term increase in perceived or real Ethiopian national unity resulting from the current Tigray confrontation does little to address the problems of arbitrary detention or intercommunal violence elsewhere in the country.

For successful elections to be held, credibly and non-coercively addressing both insecurity and the underlying grievances behind the violence will be essential. An adequate response necessitates efforts at reconciliation, justice, and inclusive dialogue. While wider questions of reconciliation, reform, and elections cannot be the first point on the agenda in any eventual negotiations between the federal government and the TPLF, discussing them cannot be indefinitely avoided, either. More importantly, discussions on such issues must include many more political and civil actors beyond those now in conflict if at least a degree of national consensus is to be achieved. Squaring the electoral preparations and timetable with a plan for reconciliation and national dialogue may thus be imperative for a peaceful future in Ethiopia.

9 comments

  1. ETHIOPIA IS THE OLDEST COUNTRY IN THE WORLD. WHEN IT COLLAPSES THE BLACK RACE DIES. AND THAT WILL NEVER HAPPEN.

  2. I would say suggestions like those given above are evil and do not spring from healthy minds. It is not clear why they talk about collapse and fragmentation of Ethiopia. Fortunately Ethiopia will never collapse and fragmented. Rather will continue united blowing any form of offensive. The secrete is Ethiopia has never and will never bow down for any force.

  3. 28, 2020 at 8:55 pm
    This is what we are expecting. The Ethiopian national force has shown who it is. An empty boast of TPLF is blasted like a baloon. What lesson is obtained from this? All those talks and shootings are left with no results. The world itself has to learn from this operation that Ethiopians are not emotion driven, but do not appear to compromise their country’s sovereignty. Many media outlets and groups were disseminating I’ll news of instability, to the opposite Ethiopia with eliminated TPLF terrorists will start the way of prosperity and peace with united arms of its. peoples

  4. Ethiopia will have peace and prosperity after the fall of the 45 year old trigger and blood sucker TPLF. You will see this in your own eyes. Your political analysis does not support the heading, rather biased

  5. You do not know the chemistry of Ethiopians existence . Ethiopia exists before the establishment of most states in Europe and North America . You as a civilized person, better to give us positive ideas or otherwise leave our business to us. We know at least how to live together .

  6. The enemy of Ethiopia never stops their evil doing! People how a healthy person wishes another opportunity to be given to the evil TPLF? Who the hell your bad wishers wish about Ethiopias demise. They stand in the Wrongside of history. Ethiopia will prevails and grow stronger. Shame with evil mouthpiece of thugs. Shut up. I am tired of your lies and misinformation. Never turn your filthy pages any more Hubs…Idiotic nonesense.

  7. This dirty profecy will never come true. It is the dream of TPLF concubines and servants who shared the plundered resources from Ethiopia. Those who are dreaming with such a nightmare are the hopeless and who are angry with real bright future of Ethiopia and its beloved people.

  8. You shall never live to see the falling down of Ethiopia. Moreover you and your feeders can’t stop Ethiopia from rising to prominence. Ethiopia have now rooted out the deadly cancer. Ethiopia’s brightest days are yet to come. You and your feeders will be like the fox who was following an ox the whole day hoping that the ox’s testicles may fall.

  9. People don’t be fulled by this eritreahub
    they write all kinds of nonsense to pleath their sugar Daddy TPLF. Know they are almost underground the sugar will stop flowing to eritreahub.
    What next???

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