Is Ethiopia coming together or falling apart?

Source: Ethiopia Insight

January 18, 2021

Abiy and his Amhara supporters are in the ascendancy—but Ethiopia’s future is by no means assured.

Nominally in an effort to restore law and order, the federal government led by Ethiopia’s peace prize-winning premier is engaged in a brutal conflict with the defiant erstwhile leaders of Tigray region.

Tens of thousands of refugees have fled, militias have hacked civilians to death, and an unknown number of lives have been lost.

Despite Abiy Ahmed’s quick-win claims, he has plunged the country into what is likely to be a prolonged civil war that may exacerbate others and even tear the country apart.

Late on 3 November, with the world glued to the U.S.’s electoral theatrics, Abiy said Tigray’s forces attacked the military, and he adapted the Powell Doctrine for limited war. He informed Ethiopians that he sent federal forces in with clear, limited, and achievable objectives to restore the rule of law and constitutional order.

While sudden, the outbreak of full-blown conflict did not surprise observers of Ethiopian politics.

The long-simmering tensions between the premier and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) were there for all to see. The parties had openly prepared their forces for armed confrontation.

The question is, why has Ethiopia returned to war to settle political disagreements?

Mismanaged transition

Two years ago, a popular uprising, mainly in Oromia and Amhara regions, brought the country to the brink of collapse. To avoid the Ethiopian state’s disintegration, the reform architects agreed for the transition-to-democracy to be led by the ruling party itself, with new faces taking the helm.

Hence, from the outset, it was apparent that the change would be nothing but ‘old wine in a new bottle’.

“Reform from within” was preferred to “revolution” to avoid a state collapse since TPLF controlled the national intelligence, military, and various state apparatus. Hence, if “revolution” was chosen, the architects, such as Jawar Mohammed, believed, it would have proved to be bloody, tearing apart Ethiopia.

The 2018 (s)election of Abiy as coalition leader and prime minister initially engendered hope. Impressive steps were taken to open the political space, suggesting the country was finally on the road to democracy.

However, the premier failed to reconcile and reintegrate the Tigrayan political, security, and economic elites into the ruling structure, and thus they felt disenfranchised and targeted.

Hence, the trust deficit between the federal government and Tigrayan elites complicated the fragile relationship, embroiling the country in armed conflict.

Is that all? No. Reasons abound.

The trust deficit between the federal government and TPLF boils down to two crucial factors: power and ideology.

Both Abiy and TPLF want to shape Ethiopia’s future but they have clashing visions—hence, the power struggle.

Although the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) was a coalition of four parties, the TPLF, representing under 10 percent of the Ethiopian population, had been in the driving seat since 1991. Unwilling to accept its new junior status in Ethiopian politics, the party embarked on an attempt to discredit Abiy.

According to the government, TPLF undermined Abiy’s rule, incited conflict and peddled hatred, conducted regional elections (for right or wrong), and, more importantly, showed interest in reclaiming the power they lost in the name of championing a federalism they had trampled upon.

Abiy, perhaps convinced by his mother’s prophesy, was also in pursuit of power at all costs.

Naturally, they clashed.

The following Amharic adage captures the situation:

ሊሆን የማይችል ነው ሁለት ጌታ ከቤት፤

አንዱ ተሸንፎ ካላለ አቤት አቤት!”

“No possibility, under the same roof,

 Housing dual powers, being led by masters

 Unless one defeated and a subject he becomes.”

The second contradiction stems from the type of government system. Again, there exist two irreconcilable camps.

MEGA Camp—the right wing

The right-wing group, primarily drawn from the Amhara and urban elites, wants to bring back a centralist system. They consider the current system as the mother of all political problems and the cause of its instability. Abiy, especially after losing his Oromo nationalist credentials, subscribes to this camp, and both are associated with the “Make Ethiopia Great Again” “የኢትዮጵያ ከፍታ” slogan.

MEGA is for Abiy a means to an end: his self-aggrandizement. For other elites, MEGA is a return to yester-year, to Ethiopia’s cultural and political monopolization by Amhara. Ethiopia`s continuity, unity, and stability depend on cleansing it from TPLF and its political legacies, meaning the ethno-federal system.

Make Ethiopia a Real Federal State Camp—the federalists

The federalist group, favored by nine out of the ten regional states, firmly supports the current federal arrangement that gives regional governments autonomous power.

When Amhara elites shout the MEGA slogan, federalist forces hear “Make Ethiopia Amhara Again.”

Members of this camp trace Ethiopia’s political quagmire to its imperial roots and see the constitution and federal system as right for establishing Ethiopia as a democratic state since most Ethiopians never attained full citizenry status under past systems due to formal discrimination. They see a call to past “greatness” by the right-wing camp as an invitation to renewed servitude and dispossession.

For them, Ethiopia’s stability, unity, and continuity depend on the full implementation of the constitution and the federal system.

Abiy tacks right

Abiy went through two phases since coming to power.

In the first, he was the champion of Oromo nationalism. “Oromo not only knows how to lead a nation but also how to build it. Together, we can build East Africa and the entire Africa. No force on earth can stop us (from doing this),” said Abiy, speaking to his Oromo comrades in Jimma on  18 March 2019.

Hence, Oromo elites started to think of themselves as the saviors of not only Ethiopia but also the Horn. The troubled Horn of Africa will heal by “Kushitic” panacea, the Oromo elites asserted.

But alas, their hopes were dashed quickly following the killing of the famous singer Hachalu Hundessa and Jawar Mohammed’s arrest, a heavyweight politician who challenged Abiy’s leadership of the transition.

Oromo elites are now among Abiy’s fiercest critics, costing some their lives and others their freedom.

Displaced from the Oromo camp by politicians with better nationalist credentials such as Lemma Megersa and Jawar, Abiy pitched up in the right-wing camp. He embraced the pan-Ethiopian agenda and tipped the balance of power in favor of the anti-multinational federalists, starting his second phase.

To this end, Abiy established the Prosperity Party (PP)  in 2019 by dissolving three ex-EPRDF parties and five allied parties ruling the so-called “developing” states. The death of EPRDF, established by TPLF largely to do its bidding, sealed the end of TPLF hegemony.

One might also argue that Abiy has not joined any of the camps but has his own agenda.

For instance, as the Amhara inherited the Tigrayan thesis of Ethiopianism and wrote their antithesis; similarly, the Oromos synthesize the modern-day Ethiopia of the Menelik II mold. Maybe Abiy is infusing new Oromo energy into the synthesis again, so that what Oromos lost could be reclaimed, mutating Ethiopia into a new Oromo-tinged kaleidoscope.

Why crush TPLF?

Unsatisfied with prominent Oromo politicians’ jailing, the right-wing camp eyed their most significant prize—to crush the TPLF, a force behind the federalist camp.

Three motivations stand out.

  1. Control of contested lands

The Amhara thought it was an opportune time to re-control contested areas they lost to TPLF in the last three decades: Raya and Welkait. This Amharic expression aptly describes their intent “ተከዜ አፋፍ ላይ ካልሰራኹኝ ቤቴን

እኔም አልተወለድኩ መሀን ናት እናቴ”  (Equivalent poetic translation could be as follows)

Until built by all means,

My house towering on Tekezze hills,

Higher up, till standing on its cliffs,

Consider I, never been born,

Appraise my mother arid and barren.

  1. Erasing TPLF and its legacies

The Ethiopian ethno-federal constitution is the key target of Amhara elites. For them, TPLF introduced it to undo the nation-building project of their ancestors, pit Amhara against other nationalities, and sow the seeds for the undoing of the country.

  1. Return to glory

The Amhara elites are determined to avenge the humiliation they suffered at the hands of the TPLF and its cronies for the last three decades and take their ‘rightful’ position in Ethiopia`s politics.

A replay of 1979?

Who thought Abiy would survive after imprisoning Jawar? And after taking on his biggest threat, the TPLF?

Now, it seems a rerun of 1979 with Abiy taking Colonel Mengistu Hailemariam’s role. Colonel Mengistu emerged victorious from both internal and external threats against his rule. However, the initial victory did not save Mengistu from his final defeat; and it prolonged Ethiopians’ misery.

Similarly, Abiy and Ethiopia’s future has not been sealed by the federal control of Mekelle, nor by the capture and killing of TPLF leaders. Instead, it all depends on how Abiy plays the emerging multi-dimensional chess game, taking into consideration:

  • the interests of the West that does not want a failed state in Ethiopia
  • forging an alliance with Eritrea, thus amalgamating the military and intelligence machinations of both countries
  • decimating the pro-TPLF forces, and;
  • building it on empowering the Oromo alliance under the Shewa Oromo mould. This approach will either prolong his reign or hasten his demise—with the possibility of both Ethiopia’s integration or disintegration.

Potential Scenarios 

Ethiopia’s ideal case would be to bravely look the facts and for the warring political tribes to reach a consensus before the 5 June election. That is, however, unlikely given the current context.

Instead, below are the three most likely scenarios for Ethiopia’s future under Abiy:

  1. PP and new party-state

Abiy’s government will manage internal rivalries and mitigate external pressure.

The election will take place amid high security and some turmoil, especially in Oromia, Tigray, and Southern Nations. Opposition parties will likely share around a quarter of federal seats to make the election plausible and enhance the government’s legitimacy.

However, there is also now the likely non-participation of the main Oromo opposition parties. If this happens, the legitimacy of the state suffers a big dent.

Regardless, with any kind of majority, Prosperity Party would probably attempt to negotiate a new federal arrangement not based on ethnicity so that the empire state of Ethiopia shall continue with the ‘right’ amount of change and continuity.

  1. Expansion of civil war

The second scenario would emerge alongside genuine regional state power. The shift of power from the north to south Ethiopia would contribute to the early retirement of the Abyssinian empire

Another factor pushing this scenario is the Amhara reaction to incidents. The Amhara, the self-proclaimed custodians of Ethiopia’s empire state, are nervous, for instance, about the existence of paramilitary security forces that they think empower regions to defy the central government. But if there is federal over-reach in this area, it could well cause a violent and destabilizing backlash.

More so, Amharas, unlike other major ethnic groups, live in all parts of Ethiopia. Emotions stemming from the targeting killings of Amharas in other regions, if not tamed, would re-energize other groups’ grievances, pushing the country closer to widespread civil war.  We can see this playing out in Benishangul-Gumuz already. Further instability may also be prompted by the sorry state of the Ethiopian economy, with youth unemployment rising even pre-pandemic.

  1. State of Emergency

An internal power struggle coupled with external pressures from Sudan and Egypt may develop into a wider regional war that urges the country to proclaim another national State of Emergency (SoE), leading to the incumbent’s continuation for an unspecified time.

The risk here is unbearably high. However, the war would be an excellent chance for Abiy to stay in power and crush remaining opponents

The result of this would be unpredictable but has comparable opportunities for disintegration and unity. For instance, what if the army takes control to ‘save’ the country from collapse, as happened in Egypt in 2013?


  1. If the intention is to prognosticate the future of Ethiopia, the article does a poor job. If it is to inform a reader about the current Ethiopian situation, it also fails since it is extremely one-sided and relies on the writer’s bias instead of reality of Ethiopian politics.

    The only saving grace is that it’s written for those who think like the writer and those who don’t know much or check other sources.

    I wish the writer spends his/her time doing the required research. Opinions based on far-fetched innuendos and ‘what-ifs’ only go so far.

    The writer seems to have typed unfiltered and unexamined thoughts and posted them. If he/she spends this much time to type, he/she could’ve taken additional time to check facts and make the essay better.

    These days, everyone who writes on Ethiopia acts as if they are experts and pontificate at will since their readers don’t challenge them and the writers don’t respect themselves or their readers to focus on quality.

    Good luck


  2. I don’t know why Martin Plaut associate what ever happen in Ethiopia politics with Amhara and Amharization? Ethiopia is country with more than 80 Ethinicity. I think he miscalculating that by humiliating and frustrating Amharas Ethiopia will end. Actually this is the theory of his for fathers attempt when they fail to do it by aggression “the divide and rule approach”. He continue steering Ethiopia internal issue, very noisily and disturbing pupate. Please leave us.

    1. I don’t agree with you. #amhara is the driving force behind the war. #abiy is their puppet and they are moving earth and sky to return ethiopia to the imperial era. That is not a secret. Their so called Proffesors broadcast every where that federalisim is evil and unitary system must be re-installed. In other word #amhara supermacy must be returned! That is evident as the sun is. No sugar-coating what so ever will not hide it;and we-the marginalized for so long – see this naked agenda clearly ; We will never accept. We got our first glimpse of equality under the #tplf led gov’t. It is not any where like perfect; we are struggling for that. Any one supporting us on this struggle is our brother. The rest is our enemy like the #amhara is currently. We will never let go this glimpse of freedom willingly. We are fully aware we are the next #tigre in the near future agenda of the #amhara and this so called PM puppet of their’s.

      Mr.Plaut and millions of like him are doing their journalistic duties – bringing to light any hidden injustice any where in the world. As far as #amhara are the perperators of this on-going injustice in #ethiopia they will be mentioned repeatdly. Have you ever heard ethio-somalis mentioned in this on going tragdy? They are #ethiopians too but you never hear them mentioned, becouse they were the trodden like the oromo for ions and now all they want is to be equal partner in a UNITED FEDERAL ETHIOPIA! On the other side #amhara were the trodders for hundereds of years. No one is asking for an indeminity for their past crimes-but unfortunatly they want to carry on the same crimes. They were supposed to be the best educated through having been the common wealth userpers for so long. They should have understood the modern world better than any of us. What is going on with them? Let us stop pretending. You are #amhara and I am #somali-ethiopian. I want us to be equal #ethiopians ? What do you want ?

      Thanks to Mr.Plaut and all his likes for their unwavering effort of unveiling the truth.

      We beleive democratic based dialog is the only solution to a UNITED FEDERAL ETHIOPIA

      A for so long marginalized somali

  3. Tigray is likely to face the fate of Libya or Afghanistan. Neither the resistance would be wiped out,nor it could garner full power to retake the region. The new administration has zero chance of commanding the loyalty of Tigray people. If not branded as Vichy or Quisling.
    Gumuz region would be site of heavy identity based massacre. As both parties are determined to go on the present road.
    Oromia would face institutional collapse. Ad OLA is spreading in everywhere.
    Somalia await clash between ONLF and Fed backed Mustefa administration.

  4. An eritrean website “Eritreanhub” wand a british writer , Martin Plaut, which only his job is to preach hate speech against Ethiopia specially against amahra.

    1. Woldeyonnes: I think you don’t want to be killed by no means illegally by anyone. Whoever violates international humanitarian laws on whoever, it should be opposed. But you are saying that it is right when Amara natives killing, abuses and looting innocents lives and properties; that is the biggest problem of Amara elites. Only they are right when it is done by themselves but wrong whoever done! whatever he/she knows unless it supports them. Ethiopia is the country for all nations and nationalities not only for Amara nations and nationalities. So please try to understand the others feelings and problems to become one nation.

  5. Is this a dooms day conspiracy? Mr. Ahmed,
    Though I don’t agree with your views, I Thank you for sharing us your “insight” about the political situation of Ethiopia. I discern that your desktop research doen’t reflect the reality and sentiment of most of the people of Ethiopia. As I read your article on the subject, It tells more about your overbearing and biased attitude towards Ethiopia. Your article is meticulously prepared but found to be mendacious, insincere, misleading and spurious. I found your view, except a beautifully translated poem from Amharic into English, is skin-deep but subtly designed and stashed with hypocritical statements that could only serve a futile propaganda of the enemies of Ethiopia.

  6. Happy we have the likes of Mr. Hassan. This is a historical document that should be learned by the coming generations. A possible title then would look like ( in the future ) ” Once this and this happened in our country”. This is really a master piece.
    Truth will win and every thing will be alright soon. We, Ethiopians, are all brothers and sisters. We should live united as equals. I believe federalism is the only way. But right now this statement is doing the cart before the horse. Right now our blood is spilling from both sides. First of all this war should stop. Then we come together at a round table and discuss what is best for our country. I don’t believe any sane human being will find some thing wrong with what I just said – peace and dialog. The guy at the helm is not alright at all. He is demonized by a soothsayer mother- struggling to get his kingdom by any means. Those #amhara elites with him dreaming of reversing history time line – getting us back to the imperial era – I don’t know how to explain them. May I say they are nuts! Can’t they understand the simple fact that if they are proud of those monarch heister days I and majority of Ethiopians were the colonized and remembering those and the later days of derg feels us with rage – we remember the shame we endured for so long. When I say , as a federalist , let us forget the past and live harmoniously as equals their answer is perpetrate this #genocide. History will judge them soon!
    Pardon me, I got carried away. Coming back to the point of how I feel about this article, let me repeat – it is a master- piece historical document that will admonish coming generations for what not to do – like the #genocide doers of today.
    I see above guys not agreeing with the author. That is normal. People differ on lots of things , but please finish the job and tell us what you don’t agree to and your version of the on-going dilema . Just write your alternative of the truth right here. Other blah, blah is cheap mans-pen-ship.

  7. This tragedy originated from an innocuous doting mother when she used ‘King’ figuratively to mean that her son was the king of her heart as she was devoted to him. Yet Abiye Ahmed took the word literally and too seriously and has been obsessed with the becoming a king since that fateful day. His mother would have never dreamt that her country bumpkin son would ever be a king. The Amharas were quick to exploit his delusion and obsession and are using him to help them restore the ‘glory’ of unitary Ethiopia where Ethiopia is synonymous with Amhara. Abiye Ahmed thinks nothing will stand on his way of becoming ‘ the seventh King’ and he is determined to do anything, however criminal and monstrous his actions might be, confident that he has the support and trust of the elite Amharas.

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