Conflict in Ethiopia: Ethnic Politics, Regional Alliance and Premature Nobel Peace Prize Award

While the international community may have been caught by surprise by the erupting conflict in Ethiopia in early November, those who have been closely following political developments in Ethiopia over the last decade were not. On 4 November 2020, Ethiopian Prime Minister Dr Abiy Ahmed gave the Ethiopian Defence Forces (EDF) the green light to attack the country’s northern region of Tigray and its leadership, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Prime Minister Ahmed has justified military force – or what he describes as a “law enforcement operation” – as a response to the on-going attacks by TPLF militia on its powerful Northern Command base in northern Tigray.

The TPLF, which had ruled Ethiopia with an iron fist from 1991 until 2018, came to power after overthrowing the Derg regime, the communist junta. During their rule, the TPLF had established an ethnic federalism and was in total control of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which was a coalition of four ethnic-based parties that dominated Ethiopian politics during the time. The TPLF-dominated EPRDF coalition party had been credited with achieving growth and development between 1991 and 2018, contributing to efforts that made Ethiopia one of the fastest growing economies in Africa. As the darling of the international community, Ethiopia, alongside Rwanda, became the poster child of successful development assistance to Africa.

Yet within Ethiopia, the TPLF-dominated government was seen as representing the interest of the minority Tigrayans, accounting for only 6% of the population. As a country of over 100 million people, Ethiopia is home to over 80 ethnic groups. Together the Oromo (35% of the population) and Amhara (28% of the population) comprise the majority of Ethiopia’s total population.

Prior to 1991, the Amharas had been the ruling elites for several decades and perceived the TPLF leadership as pushing an agenda geared to develop the Tigray region to the detriment of all other regions. Amongst the many grievances of both the Oromos and Amaharas were accusations that the TPLF had grabbed and sold land to foreign investors. The TPLF’s decision to incorporate land that had traditionally been owned by Amhara communities into the Tigray region, and separating the capital city, Addis Ababa, from the Oromo region only exacerbated the situation.

What the TPLF had skilfully hidden and remained largely ignored by the international community, was the ethnic division brewing throughout the country and evident in ethnic-based violence and skirmishes, as well as calls for regional independence, in particular by the Oromos, as well as smaller groups such as the Afars, and the Somalis. Typically, the TPLF had swiftly and brutally suppressed any opposition to their rule through unlawful imprisonment of opposition groups, as well persecution of journalists and leading opposition leaders. However, in 2018, mass protests in the Oromo and Amhara regions led to the sudden and unexpected resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn.

On 2 April 2018, Dr Abiy Ahmed, an ethnic Oromo and former army intelligence officer, became Prime Minister of Ethiopia. The new prime minister accused the TPLF of widespread corruption and one of his first official actions was to immediately remove TPLF leaders from key government positions. Dr. Abiy Ahmed was celebrated for implementing economic and political reforms as well as appointing women to key cabinet positions. Shortly after taking power, the Prime Minister also arranged a summit with Eritrea and on 9 July 2018 the two countries signed a joint peace declaration ending the almost twenty-year conflict that had resulted from a 1998-2000 border war. The declaration restored diplomatic relations and re-opened Ethiopian-Eritrean borders. The international community applauded Dr. Abiy Ahmed by awarding him the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2019.

But was the Nobel Prize premature?

Since coming to power the Prime Minister has taken often conflicting and contradictory actions. While Prime Minister Ahmed was forging a strong alliance with the authoritarian regime in Eritrea, he was alienating the TPLF leadership at home by dismantling the EPRDF party and replacing it with the Prosperity Party coalition, which the TPLF refused to join. Although he initially freed political prisoners and opposition leaders who were unlawfully detained for opposing the TPLF rule, many critics and journalists have been jailed in the last few months. Opponents fault the Prime Minister for not addressing Oromos’s grievances and for failing to stop ethnic-based violence in the Oromo region. Many Ethiopians believe that efforts should have been made sooner to deal with ethnic divisions and the TPLF threat.

Issues between the federal government and the TPLF leadership have been on-going but escalated into the current military confrontation when the TPLF set up their stronghold in the Tigray region and proceeded to hold regional elections in September 2020. The election, which was viewed as a blatant disregard of the central authority, defied the federal government’s decision to postpone elections due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This combined with accusations by the Abiy Ahmed government that the TPLF had been attacking EDF’s military bases since September led to heavy fighting between the EDF and TPLF militiamen over the past five weeks. The Ethiopian government has denied claims by TPLF that the Eritrean defence forces are also participating in the military engagement.

Since fighting erupted, there has been a total communication black out by the Ethiopian government, making monitoring and verification of news reports from the Tigray region difficult. The UN and Amnesty International have confirmed that thousands of people have fled Tigray for refugee camps in Sudan. There are reports that major cities in Tigray have been under heavy attack with hundreds of deaths on both sides. News alleging the killings of Amhara civilians in the Tigray town of Mai Kadra by forces loyal to TPLF, has contributed to rising tensions and increased resentment along ethnic lines.

The TPLF is said to have launched rockets at the Amhara cities of Bahr Dar and Gondar, and, on at least two occasions, against Eritrea by attacking Asmara and other small surrounding towns. While the Eritrean government has not made any comments about the attacks, Asmara has downplayed the significance of the attacks, dismissing them as inconsequential with no resulting damage. Although the international community readily condemned the TPLF for its attempts to internationalize the conflict by launching the attacks targeting Asmara, those familiar with the region and the long, acrimonious history between the Eritrean leaderships and the TPLF did not find reports of attacks surprising.

On 28 November, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced that his forces had successfully captured Mekelle, the major city of the Tigray region, and declared that the last phase of the conflict had been reached. Despite the celebratory mood that accompanied the Prime Minister’s announcement, the military confrontation continues in different parts of the region and experts warn of the risk of a prolonged struggle and return to civil war in Ethiopia.

Notwithstanding the current conflict, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has pushed ahead with items on his agenda and launched a request for proposal (RFP) to issue full telecommunication licenses to two international operators, and to make Fintech and mobile payment services available to the large segment of Ethiopians who do not hold bank accounts. The message to the international community and to the many investors is clear: business as usual.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed seems to be steamrolling forward in a manner much like his predecessors, presenting an outward image of a homogenous Ethiopia in utter disregard of internal challenges characterized by regional, ethnical, and religious differences. While past efforts by the Derg and the TPLF to perpetrate the myth of a peaceful and unified nation have been fairly successful, the recent conflict and ethnic-based violence may spark other separatist groups to follow the TPLF’s suit. Even if the TPLF appears to be readily defeated, its highly experienced militia with over 40 years of combat experience, is bound to pose a security challenge to the Abiy government for some time to come.

Those considering investments and business dealings in the region are advised to equip themselves with up-do-date and unbiased information from professionals familiar with the region and in close contact with trusted, on-the-ground collaborators able to report on current developments. Specht & Partner’s network of cooperating partners is able to do just that. Contact us for more information.

This article was written by Million Berhe (December 2020)