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Is Ethiopia’s disintegration an inevitable and necessary evil?

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Potential harms of disintegration must be weighed against consequences of holding Ethiopia together by force.

Ethiopia is a failing state rapidly rushing toward disintegration.

Whether violently or through a carefully managed breakaway, the disintegration of Ethiopia appears to be inevitable. The real question is not if Ethiopia will disintegrate, but when and how.

This reality traps Ethiopia between a rock and a hard place. There is a real possibility of either the status quo or disintegration leading to all-out civil war with unimaginably devastating consequences for Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa.

Viewed more optimistically, nations within Ethiopia may avert the violent bloodshed by opting for an orderly, negotiated breakaway to form independent nation-states. If done properly, it might lead to a better outcome than what has transpired in Ethiopia over the last century and a half.

So far, the international community has operated under the assumption that Ethiopia is too big to fail. The focus should instead be on ensuring the country’s inevitable disintegration transpires in a manner that averts the looming volcano of violence in favor of a smooth and orderly birthing of new democratic states.

Such a move would require Western powers to abandon their commitment to holding states together in places like Ethiopia, no matter the cost. A better approach would be to support and broker an all-inclusive dialogue to avert undue bloodshed and bring about an orderly coming apart of the empire.

Existing Obstacles

The challenges of breaking apart a country must nonetheless be recognized and include the potential to trigger mass migration across the newly drawn borders, the eruption of conflict within and between the divided states, and quarrels over the division of land and assets between the leaders of these states.

Also, because no ethnic group lives in homogenous and contiguous territory, any state that emerges from the rubble of the Abyssinian empire would need to ensure that minority rights are protected.

However, such challenges pale in comparison to a violent process of disintegration that resembles Yugoslavia during the 1990s. There, after much bloodshed, promising new nation states have at least emerged.

The barriers to ensuring this disintegration happens peacefully, though, include Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who would stop at nothing to try and hold Ethiopia together, and quarrelsome ethnic elites, such as the Amhara who lay claim to territories that rightfully belong to Tigray, Oromia, and Benishangul-Gumuz.

The status of Addis Ababa, known as Finfinnee in Afaan Oromoo, is another particularly intractable sticking point. Oromo nationalists claim it as the center of their traditional Gadaa institutions and envision it as the capital of a federated, confederated, or independent Oromia state.

Amhara nationalists also make claims to ownership of the capital. The reality is that no colonizer willingly gives up its claim on the colonized unless they are forced to.

Another reality is that, although Oromo nationalists claim Finfinnee as the center of their indigenous homeland, it has since become a multiethnic capital that is the political, administrative, diplomatic, social, and economic hub of Ethiopia, and so convincing any central government to relinquish power over it would be a tall order.

Cycle of war

The main argument in favor of striving for an orderly disintegration relates to the cycle of war created by constant efforts to hold Ethiopia together.

Ethiopia was created as a dependent colonial empire with the assistance of European imperial powers in multipronged wars of conquest waged by Emperor Menelik II in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

During the wars of conquest, the fragmented Abyssinian states were centralized, came to wield state power, and settled their people in the territories of Oromia, Somali, Wolaita, Sidama, and other southern nations.

The settlers were given land taken from the colonized nations, while the religion, language, culture, political systems, and way of life of the settlers were promoted and those of the colonized nations were suppressed.

The colonization of southern nations also involved creating a system of quasi-serfdom where the land of the conquered peoples was converted into the property of the settler colonialists.

The aftereffects of these wars of conquest remain simmering, sometimes in the dark, hidden from plain view, and other times in the open for anyone to see.

The conflicts never end, nor are their ills addressed. The grievances remain active, continuous, and uninterrupted. In this system of shifting alliances, friends become enemies as quickly as enemies become friends, and one community’s legitimate grievances are often used to justify inflicting harm on others.

Ethiopia’s leaders, from Menelik II, to Haile Selassie I, Mengistu Hailemariam, Meles Zenawi, Hailemariam Desalegn, and Abiy Ahmed, have all confronted the seeming impossibility of holding Ethiopia together without resorting to brute force.

As in the past, Abiy’s attempts to use state power to pummel recalcitrant nations into submission have produced disastrous conflicts, this time in Oromia, Tigray, and Amhara.

Nevertheless, international backers – notably the EU and U.S. – have worked with successive Ethiopian regimes, providing diplomatic credence along with massive amounts of bilateral, security, and humanitarian aid. This unholy alliance between national and international actors has enabled Ethiopia’s repressive system and undermined the just demands of the colonized nations.

One common refrain of both Ethiopian and Western leaders involves highlighting the ills associated with Ethiopia’s potential disintegration. These parties keep reminding us that the disintegration of Ethiopia is an evil that should be avoided, even if millions perish to avert it.

Status quo

Since Abiy came to power in 2018, multipronged wars have once again erupted between the Ethiopian state and its constituent nations, namely Tigray, Oromia, and Amhara, even with the help of a foreign, bloodthirsty antagonist, Eritrea, in Tigray.

The ongoing hidden war in Oromia was reenergized in 2018 within months of Abiy being named prime minister by the then-ruling party, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).

The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), as the senior party in the EPRDF coalition, was forced to accept a new prime minister from a junior member, the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO), due to the unrelenting struggle of the Oromo youth—known as Qeerroo/Qarree.

The new government quickly turned against the Oromo popular movement and denied the protesters’ demands. It adopted mass killing and imprisonment while systematically dismantling their peaceful struggle, effectively forcing many of them to join the armed resistance led by the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA).

When its attempts to obliterate the OLA failed, the Abiy regime turned to a state-sanctioned policy of “drying the pond to kill the fish.” It deployed the federal and regional security forces, Amhara and Oromo militias, and local settler Amhara groups in Oromia to loot, rape, and kill at will.

In the meantime, Abiy demolished the ruling party and formed a new party in 2019, the Prosperity Party, to promote his imperial ambition in the mold of emperors Menelik II and Haile Selassie I.

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TPLF, with 27 years of government experience, battle-hardened military leaders, and an expanding regional military, was seen as a formidable force that would frustrate his goal to centralize power. Thus, the regime had to wage war against Tigray and did so with the help of Eritrean and Amhara forces.

The guns were silenced in November 2022 after two years of intense warfare that saw the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives through massacres, starvation, and combat, the use of rape as a weapon of war, the displacement of millions, and purposeful economic devastation.

Various Amhara political and armed forces thought the government should not enter into a peace deal with their rivals, the Tigray forces. They feared being forced to return the lands unconstitutionally annexed from Tigray and turned their guns against the Abiy regime, which they had been helping against nations such as Oromia and Tigray.

Multiplying wars

On top of this, there are horizontal wars within many states.

For instance, Amhara has been at war with itself – as the embattled regional government is confronting Amhara militias – and with all its neighbors, including Sudan and three adjacent Ethiopian regions. Amhara militias have been implicated in atrocities in Benishangul-Gumuz, Oromia, and Tigray.

Most notably, at the beginning of the war between the TPLF and federal authorities, Amhara region forcibly annexed Western Tigray and engaged in a campaign of ethnic cleansing with the tacit or direct support of the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments.

Amhara leaders, mass media, and activists openly debate seizing and annexing Gumuz and Oromo ancestral lands in an effort to recapture their former imperial glory. These Amhara elites are working to erode the foundation for peaceful coexistence between the Oromo and Amhara communities.

One lamentable outcome of this inter-regional struggle has been a slew of massacres of Amhara civilians residing in Oromia. Oromo civilians have also been targeted in a series of cross-border massacres, especially in Eastern Wollega, Northern Shewa, and the Oromia Zone in the Amhara region.

Even more hidden from view is unrest in the south. Among these conflicts, the Wolaita nation’s demands to govern itself were met with brute force, including the killing of peaceful marchers in the public square and the removal of elected leaders from office.

Also, the Somali region has its share of political entanglements and thousands have fled the conflict in Benishangul-Gumuz, seeking refuge in war-torn South Sudan and Sudan.

The Abiy regime has also been beating war drums against neighboring countries, including Sudan in the past and now Eritrea, in the most recent example of one-time friends becoming adversaries.

Imperial ambition

Successive Ethiopian governments have failed to transform Ethiopia into a harmonious multinational country.

Being short-sighted, they failed to imagine a country where all its nations and individual rights are respected. As a result, armed and peaceful resistance by the colonized nations has flourished.

In my lifetime, Ethiopia had squandered three chances to transform itself: in 1974, 1991, and 2018. Had it not wasted these opportunities, and instead forged a democratic order, peaceful coexistence of Ethiopia’s constituent nations could have been achieved.

The 1974 revolution that overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie I was thwarted by the Derg regime from ushering in a country where the rights of nations and individuals were respected. Colonel Mengistu’s ‘Ethiopia Tikdem’ ideology was opposed to ethno-nationalism, and the military leader slaughtered anyone who opposed him.

In 1991, after rebels from Eritrea, Tigray, and Oromia overthrew the Derg, another opportunity was squandered, this time by the imperial ambition of the TPLF. Despite ushering in a multinational federal system, TPLF leaders ruled the EPRDF coalition through subservient political parties in Oromia, Amhara, and elsewhere.

Most recently, since 2018, Abiy and his opportunist followers’ aspiration to recapture Ethiopia’s so-called ‘glorious’ past thwarted any hope for progress and genuine peace.

Political deadlock

There is a political deadlock caused by the ruling elite’s refusal to transform Ethiopia into a political arrangement that accommodates the country’s diverse nations, languages, cultures, political systems, religions, and worldviews.

Time and again, Ethiopia has demonstrated its inability to change by accommodating democracy and the rights of national self-determination. Successive Ethiopian regimes have instead chosen to imprison and kill their opponents.

Though now at war, the central government and Amhara nationalists share an imperial ambition. Their wars against other nations arguably represent the continuation of the wars of conquest at the end of the nineteenth century.

Amhara elites insist on dismantling the multinational federal arrangement, which is embraced by the colonized nations—who support the existing constitution despite being frustrated by its non-implementation since being adopted in 1994.

The ambition of Amhara elites to break Oromia, Tigray, and Benishangul-Gumuz into pieces, deny the rights of other nations, and return Ethiopia to its supposed past glory has put any possibility of saving Ethiopia in jeopardy.

Peaceful disintegration?

Ethiopia is at a crossroads and the roads all lead to disintegration. The only real unknown is whether this results from multiple future bloody civil wars or is done through a negotiated orderly breaking apart supported by international actors.

A map of the regions and zones of Ethiopia; 29 November 2023; NordNordWest

Since the 1980s, the world has seen the birth of new nations. The breakup of the former Yugoslavia was an extraordinarily violent affair that dragged on throughout the 1990s, while Eritrea and South Sudan only became independent following decades of civil war.

The consequences of how these countries were created include simmering tensions in the former Yugoslavia, political instability, intercommunal conflict, and civil wars in Sudan and South Sudan, the Ethio-Eritrean war from 1998-2000, and Eritrea’s devastating participation in Ethiopia’s most recent civil war.

On the other hand, the splitting apart of Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union was accomplished through a negotiated and peaceful breakaway. Regions like Quebec in Canada have also peacefully held referendums on the question of secession.

The question is whether the Ethiopian regime and its Western allies are willing to avoid a violent disintegration that costs millions of lives, destroys the meager regional economy, destabilizes the region, and leads to chaotic mass migration.

Opting for a peaceful, orderly breaking apart requires that Western powers and others give up their policy of maintaining the political and territorial status quo in Ethiopia. This would necessitate moving away from the policy of supporting this autocratic Ethiopian regime regardless of its epic failures and egregious crimes.

Although the immense obstacles to achieving a peaceful disintegration must be recognized, they are not insurmountable if external actors support such a process.

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Main Image: Regions of Ethiopia; 8 September 2020; Jfblanc

This is the author’s viewpoint. However, Ethiopia Insight will correct clear factual errors.

Published under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. You may not use the material for commercial purposes.

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