The war in Tigray is being complicated by the ideological ambitions of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed; Eritrean President Isayas Afeworki’s thirst for vengeance; and the irredentist territorial claims of the Amhara branch of Prosperity Party
Hundreds killed and many more wounded in the raging fight between the Ethiopian military and regional forces in the northern state of Tigray. Tigray leaders on Monday appealed to the African Union to intervene and mediate between the warring parties as Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed vowed to “wrap up” the operation “soon.” The United Nations is warning that the conflict could displace tens of thousands of people, including refugees and one million people who already rely on safety-net assistance.
The conflict is already spilling into Ethiopia’s neighbors. Thousands of Ethiopians, including army soldiers, are fleeing to neighboring Sudan. Sudan has massed troops on its eastern border while Tigray leaders allege that Eritrean forces have joined the fight from Humera and Badme fronts.
The immediate causes of the deepening conflict are complex and not straightforward. There are four major factors at play: power centralization, territorial irredentism, ideological and historical factors.
A quest for total control
Prime Minister Abiy used the #OromoProtests to usurp power from the Tigrayan-dominated Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) in April 2018. He then ignored all the demands of the protesters and has been busy consolidating personal power. He did this by dissolving the ruling parties of all regional states, except the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which governs the Tigray State. TPLF was the dominant party in the EPRDF. Abiy’s Prosperity Party (PP) now administers eight regional states and two federally managed cities.
Abiy Ahmed’s centralizing tendencies and undemocratic practices had already cost him his Oromo base. He has either detained, co-opted, or systematically silenced major leaders of Oromo political parties, including key allies who facilitated his rise to power. As a result, the Abiy administration is now facing both non-violent and armed resistance in the Oromia state. As authorities ramp-up the war effort in Tigray, the internet, and telecom services have – once again – been cut in western Oromia, where the federal army has fought a low-level insurgency for more than a year.
Abiy’s ultimate goal is to assert total control over the Tigray state. Toward that end, PP leaders and its social media troll army are calling for the total annihilation of TPLF once and for all. In the past two years, TPLF leaders have challenged Abiy’s efforts to monopolize power. Thwarted at every turn, Abiy is now trying to extend his hegemonic ambitions to Tigray through the use of force, including airstrikes. The House of Federation has already established a transitional government, accountable to central authorities, in the restive state.
Tensions between TPLF and Abiy escalated in September after Tigrayan leaders held a regional election in defiance of the federal government’s decision to indefinitely postpone elections scheduled for August. Federal authorities dismissed the Tigray poll and its government as illegitimate, severing ties with it and suspending federal grants. Tigray leaders countered by refusing to cooperate with the Abiy government and recalling its members for the national parliament. Since then, both sides have been busy preparing for war.
At the heart of the ongoing clash is also unresolved territorial claims. The Amhara nationalists have been projecting claims over territories drawn into the Tigray state in the 1990s. These disputed pockets include Welkait-Tegede and parts of Raya. Amhara nationalists have formed several committees (አስመላሽ ኮሚቴ) to facilitate the return of these “lost territories” to the Amhara state.
Tigrayan nationalists refute these claims as an extension of what is commonly known as Neftegna imperialism. Neftegna is an imperial rule by Amharic speaking gun-holders, and a feudal political economy, in which no group is recognized to possess its own language, identity, land, and subnational administration in Ethiopia.
Neftegna literally means bearers of the ‘neft’ or the gun. In our contemporary context, Neftegna refers to a repressive system that uses the barrel of the gun to impose its totalizing and homogenizing ideology on the local population.
It is clear that Amhara nationalists, especially leaders and members of the National Movement of Amhara (NaMA) and the Amhara branch of PP are backing “the war on Tigray” because of these irredentist claims. It is also no accident that an active war is being waged between Amhara (supported by the army) and Tigray special forces and militia along with the Welkait-Tegede districts.
The territorial dispute also highlights the divergent goals of the ongoing military campaign. For the Amhara elite and dominant ruling class, it is all about regaining “lost territories” and subduing a formidable foe across its northern border. Amhara activists are gleefully reporting that parts of Welkait is now under their region’s control. For Abiy, the immediate goal is to reassert control and eliminate the last remaining challenge to his budding dictatorship. For now, the two sides are aligned around their mutual detest for the multinational federal arrangement.
Ideological dimensions of the war
The idea of creating “one-indivisible-Ethiopian-nation” out of many nations using the Amharic language and Orthodox Christianity as common signifies started during the reign of Menelik II. It was intensified by the homogenization policy of Emperor Haile Selassie and the “Ethiopia First” project of the Derg. This assimilationist policy ended in 1991 with the victory of TPLF and other nationalist liberation fronts. With the introduction of multinational federalism, national groups attained constitutional rights to self-government in 1995.
For proponents of the old nation-building approach, the 1995 constitution was a “divide and rule” policy of the TPLF. They oppose language and cultural rights, as well as the restructuring of the Ethiopian state based on language. For example, the Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice (EZEMA) and PP both advocate for the usage of Amharic as a means of “strengthening” national unity.
These anti-federalist forces condemn multinational federalism as “anti-unity” and have nicknamed it “ethnic-federalism.” They contend that TPLF is “the mother of all problems” facing Ethiopia. In particular, the fault TPLF for mobilizing national and linguistic groups against “Ethiopianism.”
For them, Ethiopia’s unity can only be achieved on the graves of TPLF. Abiy’s supporters mistakenly believe that the demise of the TPLF would weaken ethno-national identities and group rights (ethno-nationalism) in Ethiopia, thereby widening spaces for “Ethiopianism.” They profess that once TPLF is destroyed, the remaining ethno-national forces can be easily squashed.
It should be crystal clear that the war in Tigray is an extension of Abiy’s ongoing ideological battle in Oromia, Sidama, Wolaita, and other areas in the South. He has already jailed or sidelined every formidable opponent in the Oromia state, where support for multinational federalism is near-unanimous. For now, Somali leaders are backing Abiy with the hope of increasing Somali’s influence and visibility in national politics. The Sidama are focused on setting up their new state. The Wolaita and the rest of statehood campaigners in the South are disfranchised and subjected to arrest and intimidation.
The other significant aspect of the military campaign in Tigray is the Eritrea factor. Eritrean and Tigrayan forces cooperated to overthrow the Derg regime in 1991. However, both forces emerged deadly rivals, leading to a costly border war between 1998 and 2000, which left nearly 100,000 dead on both sides. Though the real reason for the war was different, it was officially framed as a territorial dispute over Badme and Shiraro, which are now under the Tigray administration. After the active war ended, the Ethio-Eritrean conflict remained frozen for two decades with little prospect for peace.
Abiy made a surprise visit to Eritrea just three months after assuming power. Since then, President Isayas Afeworki and Abiy have had several exchanges of visits. As a soldier, Abiy was part of the Ethio-Eritrean war. Now close allies, the relationship between the two leaders and their deals remain a mystery. Fundamentally, it is impossible to bring peace between the two countries by excluding Tigrayans, who share a long border with Eritrea. This is also why no progress has been registered after the historic peace deal, much less the institutionalization of the agreement for which Abiy won the Nobel Prize. Isayas sees the TPLF leaders as mortal enemies and a threat to his one-man regime.
Tigray leaders allege that Ethiopian troops have defected to Eritrea and that Eritrean forces have joined the fight from the Humera front. It was only three weeks ago that Isayas visited the Ethiopian Air Force base in Bishoftu and was presumably briefed on the preparations for war.
The Abiy-Isayas rapprochement has been criticized as a short-sighted personal relationship forged against a common enemy, TPLF. Isayas is eager to see TPLF’s downfall to fulfill his vengeance. There are also those who suspect Isayas might be conspiring toward the disintegration of Ethiopia to emerge as the sole powerful man in the Horn of Africa. Isayas fought for 30 years to get independence from what he calls the Amhara-dominated Ethiopian state. He did not consider a federal option with Ethiopia and created an Eritrean state. This same man, who then preferred secession to the federation, is now hypocritically denouncing federalism in Ethiopia. Isayas now sees federalism both in Ethiopia and Somalia as an indirect threat to his own rule in Eritrea.
The factors I have outlined above are complicating this unnecessary war. At the root of the current conflict is ideological and political differences over the future of the country. These issues cannot be settled through the use of force. No war has ever solved Ethiopia’s problem.
To be clear, all criminals within the TPLF should be brought to justice for corruption and gross human rights violations over the past 27 years. But it should also be clear that TPLF was not alone in committing those crimes. PP leaders cannot absolve themselves of the abuses of EPRDF by simply changing their hat. Most importantly, this is not a law enforcement operation to bring about justice or accountability.
Ethiopia needs an all-inclusive national dialogue and a unity government along with a roadmap for national elections. Any dialogue about the future of Ethiopia must be preceded by the release of all political prisoners. Criminals inside TPLF and PP should be dealt with through a transitional justice mechanism within the framework of that transition.
In the meantime, Abiy should be advised to stop the wars he is fighting in Tigray, Oromia and other parts of the country against insurgents and peaceful protesters. The international community should scale up mediation efforts to avert an all-out civil war with consequences far beyond Ethiopia’s borders.