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We must end the civil war to save Ethiopia

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Structural tensions and ethnic polarization supercharged by conflict mean that time is running out to hold the federation together.

Reflecting upon the trajectory of contemporary Ethiopian politics is a daunting task, not least because our discourse is extremely polarized. That polarization itself is, of course, symptomatic of a divided society, of which Ethiopia is a textbook example. 

Indeed, I argued in May that Ethiopia is currently more divided than ever. Since, the situation has worsened, and we are deep in the mire of a devastating civil war with no end in sight. 

Ethiopia, therefore, stands at a crossroads, staring at a precarious future.

As I write, my heart aches, for we Ethiopians, to paraphrase the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, “have failed, in our capacity, to address the problems of our own diversity.” Our lack of foresight and fortitude may even result in the unraveling of the Ethiopian state—unless the current direction of travel is reversed.

To detoxify Ethiopian politics and begin instead charting a better future, we must start with ending the civil war and then taking stock of our perilous trajectory. But, first, we need to address the structural and proximate causes of the raging conflict, the dynamics and repercussions of a protracted war, and the foreboding road ahead. 

Essentially, why did we get here, and how can we escape?

A predictable war

For someone who has been closely observing the volatile Ethiopian political landscape over the last few years, it does not come as a surprise that Ethiopia find itself engulfed in a brutal civil war, as all the roads towards conflict were paved. That is to say, the outbreak of civil war in Tigray and northern Ethiopia was not a question of if; rather, it was a question of when and how

This implies that the conflict did not really start on 3 November 2020. Here is why.

From a structural point of view, many factors contributed to the fateful confrontation between the government of Abiy Ahmed and Tigray’s leaders that degenerated into war. The crisis has gone through three main stages.

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First, from July 2018 (when the peace agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea was formalized) to 8 September 2020 (when Tigray’s government held a regional election in defiance of the federal government), the deteriorating relationship was characterized by a political crisis. Then, from 3 November 2020 (the beginning of the conventional warfare) to 29 June 2021 (the date the Ethiopian government declared the so-called “unilateral ceasefire”), we have had a military confrontation mainly between professional armies. 

Finally, following the coordinated push-back from the federal government and the characterization of the war as “an existential threat to be defended by all means and through the participation of civilians” by the Amhara regional government, a full-scale civil war between popular forces—mainly Amhara and Tigray—started emerging.

To put the conflict into a broader context, there needs to be a focus on three major interlinked causes that all unfolded following the momentous shifts of 2018: a misguided approach to a delicate political transition, premature and mismanaged political liberalization, and the disruptive demise of the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).

Turbulent and tortuous

Arriving at power on the back of three years of anti-government protests, which took particular aim at the preeminent EPRDF member-party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), Abiy’s government engaged in a messy and unpredictable political process, with several blunders along the way contributing to the turbulence.  

To begin with, it should have been known that a transition without a transitional justice framework would lead us nowhere good. A transitional justice framework is one of the pillars of a political roadmap, designed to outline major issues such as who will do what, the schedule for forging and implementing fundamental changes, and the substantive issues that need to be agreed upon. 

The process would include, but not be limited to, national dialogue among all relevant stakeholders, elite bargaining—particularly between Amhara and Oromo political groups—accountability mechanisms and reparation for victims, truth-seeking, and national reconciliation. 

None of these steps has been followed nor have any of the grand issues been addressed. These include, inter alia, constitutional reform (including a possible referendum), the nature of any transitional government, and reconciliation of competing nationalist narratives. 

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The new leadership put the cart before the horse in order to consolidate its power.

If there were any, attempts to ensure accountability were marred by a witch-hunt guided by the myopic principle of victors’ justice. Eventually, EPRDF made concessions due to massive protests, mainly in Oromia and Amhara. The hope of the TPLF and some observers at home and abroad was that all the ‘big fishes’ would then be brought to justice based on fair prosecutions. So, when Kinfe et al were put on trial, expectations were high that other suspected criminals would follow. 

However, the plan turned out to be little more than purging some TPLF officials and their associates in the military engineering sector. The fact that TPLF shares the highest responsibility for past abuses meant that, for instance, the ‘Oro-Mara’ group—TPLF’s former coalition partners—was shielded from accountability and all blame was put on the dominant party, as had also occurred during the protests that received significant backing from the Oromia and Amhara EPRDF parties. 

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To this end, new rhetoric was crafted to insulate the incumbent from taking responsibility for the political ills bedeviling the country. Such terminology included, ‘የቀን ጅብ’ (ye’ken jib), literally, ‘daylight hyena’, the scavenger brazenly searching for leftovers. This came in handy for the Prime Minister to describe TPLF leaders and members, and then became common currency. This was a dangerous turning point.

In tandem with this trend of selective justice and toxic rhetoric came the Ethio-Eritrean peace process that side-lined two of the main stakeholders: the people of Tigray and the TPLF-run Tigray government. As much as any peace-making process is complex, no sane person would ever bet on success after excluding some of its main potential pillars. 

A durable peace could only be achieved through a people-to-people and do-no-harm approach, which entails making the process inclusive and its outcome sustainable. Let alone seeking broad public participation and having a comprehensive plan for normalization, the government has not revealed the content of the 2018 agreement to the general public. 

Taken together, the lack of a clear transitional roadmap and the dangerous rhetoric have contributed to alienating the people of Tigray and provided TPLF leaders the opportunity to mobilize the public to counter what they perceived as a looming danger. 

This, however, was just the start of the larger crisis to come. 

Flawed liberalization

One of the major lessons to be drawn from the abrupt breakup of the Soviet Union is that it should not be taken for granted that a transition towards democracy will lead to peace in a multicultural society marked by strong ethnic cleavages and an authoritarian system whose survival is based on a strong central government and systematic repression. 

Mikhail Gorbachev’s rapid liberalization of the political structures and economic system could not save the union, not because the reforms were undesirable, but because they were hasty and mismanaged. 

Ethiopia’s situation in 2018 was not fundamentally different from the case of the Soviet Union. The reform came at a time when the central government lost both legitimacy and monopoly over violence, as the state was presiding over boiling ethnic-hued political violence and the economy was sinking. 

During its heyday, the TPLF controlled almost all aspects of politics and governance in Ethiopia, from the ruling coalition to the security sector to regional governments and some key economic sectors. The rapid dethroning of the dominant power compromised the country’s security architecture. That contributed to the turmoil of the last three years—not because of TPLF destabilization, as alleged by Abiy and countless other, but because of the end of TPLF repression.

With the TPLF out of the central game, yet in possession of security know-how and capabilities, youthful ethnic militia-activists directed the fate of the nation. The government invited all the political groups hitherto designated as terrorist organizations to participate in the political affairs of the country without preconditions and formal arrangements. What is worse, all these contending forces have built media empires, such as Asrat Media and Oromia Media Network, that fanned ethnic violence and discredit a stumbling reform stillborn by the lack of a clear plan.

Even if liberalization was, in fact, timely, it was in actuality a façade that masked the Prime Minister consolidating power through his newly minted Prosperity Party. Due to the inherent tensions of the approach, premature liberalization could not last long. And indeed, the so-called ‘reformist government’ reverted to a familiar strategy from both the days of the EPRDF and its predecessor of crippling and eliminating opposition parties. 

Independent voices were muzzled and gave way to right-wing nationalistic demagoguery, shrouded in the discourse of ‘Make Ethiopia Great Again’. Suddenly, or maybe by design, those who raised legitimate concerns about the country’s future were cast as an enemy of Ethiopia.

While all this was happening, the TPLF leaders, as shrewd and pragmatic as they are, had been employing a three-phase strategy: retreat-regroup-regain. They manipulated the mismanaged liberalization. 

In phase one, they focused their power on their base in Mekelle—partly, in the case of Getachew Assefa at least, to avoid prosecution—and used the people as a shield against any political pressure. This is what Jawar Mohammed warned against in a 2016 interview with Ethio Tube—the fact that once TPLF shields itself with the Tigrayan people, it would be tricky to manage a delicate political transition.

In phase two, TPLF engaged in a massive regrouping strategy and improving its defenses, including ensuring all the mechanized military equipment in the Northern Command stayed in the region. 

This stage was mainly characterized by the feeling of facing an existential threat and triangular siege by the federal government, Eritrea, and actors in Amhara region, which had various manifestations. The successive visits of President Isayas Afwerki, bypassing Tigray; the media bravado; and a war of words between Tigray and Amhara regional governments are only a few of them. 

Indeed, the warning signs were so apparent for so long that the International Crisis Group warned in December 2019, following the latest round of chaos in Oromia, that “Amhara-Tigray tensions could be the country’s most dangerous.” Two years on, we are experiencing one of the most catastrophic civil wars imaginable, and, at this stage, it is hard to even theoretically conceive of a way of resolving the Amhara-Tigray land dispute and easing the accompanying passions that have been unleashed. 

The last phase of the TPLF regaining strategy encompassed delegitimization of the central government, holding regional elections, and preparing for the showdown. Public military parades, the blocking of a federal attempt to change the leadership of the Northern Command, and the warnings of war over any tampering with the federal budget transfers were all part of the ploy. 

Finally, as the tensions rose to boiling point, there was the coordinated operation involving regional special forces and Tigrayan officers to put as much as possible of the powerful Northern Command at the service of the regional government.

An untimely demise

After the 2018 change of leadership in Addis Abeba, the only house that could possibly shelter the new powerholders and TPLF under the same roof was the EPRDF. While the factious front needed either to be reformed or disbanded, the question lies in whether the divorce was timely or not.

In the absence of a better glue that holds the former friends together, and without genuine and adequate deliberation on the matter, the dissolution of the EPRDF was untenable. The political divorce was untimely and short-sighted; the straw that broke the camel’s back. 

Prosperity Party gave the impression it could displace the TPLF in Tigray, even opening a branch office. But how could a reasonable person, who knows the modus operandi of Ethiopian politics, think that a society that shares a collective memory like Tigray’s, and perceives an imminent existential threat, would abandon the symbolically vital TPLF and embrace one of its main antagonists? It is inexplicable, to say the least.

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To make things worse, the much-awaited election was postponed, arguably for tactical reasons, i.e., until such time that all formidable opposition parties, including the TPLF and the main Oromo parties, were effectively dealt with. New alliances were formed and opposition parties were either crippled through trumped-up charges or armed confrontation. The first tactic worked in Oromia whilst the latter sacrificed the very stability of the country. 

Therefore, seen within this broader context, the fierce opposition by the TPLF to the postponement of the 2020 election was more political than legal. Teleological interpretations of the constitution regarding the term limit of the governments would have been more legitimate had it been achieved through political consensus and popular participation. 

However, since political contention and polarization overshadowed the legal ruling, it emboldened the actions taken by Tigray’s leaders and reactions by the federal government. In other words, had it not been for the rivalry between the Prosperity Party and the TPLF, and the lack of inclusive deliberation on how to deal with the issues related to holding an election during the pandemic or extending the term of the government, we would have witnessed lesser opposition to interpretation of the constitution by the House of Federation.

Alas, those epic errors are now in the past, and the present is one of bloodshed. How can we stem the flow, and what does the future hold?

Dynamics and repercussions

Understanding the causes of the war in northern Ethiopia helps to fathom its complex dynamics.  Each structural factor contributed to the deterioration of relationships among the parties to the conflict. First, the alliance between Abiy and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, to the exclusion of the TPLF and Tigray, reinforced the latter’s existential fears. The perceived embattlement fed a vicious circle of militarization and belligerent rhetoric.

Second, an unbridled, fledging Amhara nationalism, dominated by an irredentist discourse, resulted in violence. Here, the issue is not so much whether the Amhara people have a legitimate claim over western Tigray or not. Instead, the problem is the decision of Amhara nationalists to annex the contested territory into the Amhara regional administration in the wake of the federal intervention. 

After considering legal procedures to have reached a dead-end, yet without apparently considering the potential consequences for the future relationship between the peoples, they convinced themselves that ‘might makes right’. This meant that the time was ripe to regain the lost territory, and past glory. For the stubborn TPLF leaders, whose approach has always been guided by zero-sum thinking and brute force, the move simply set up more confrontation; they were never likely to let this stand.

The war is therefore built on grievance, pride, and revenge, amid clashing nationalisms. The TPLF leadership, smarting from its loss of privileges; an Eritrean government that had been waiting long to settle its account with those leaders; the Abiy administration’s prioritization of eliminating contenders; and a reactionary Amhara nationalism tainted by past exceptionalism. 

That helps explain why we have witnessed such cruelty, gross violations of human rights, and blatant disregard of the norms of international human rights and humanitarian law.

The conflict will have a huge impact on the future of Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa. In essence, it has already torn apart Ethiopia’s social fabric. This can be easily deduced from the fact that many Tigrayan elites do not identify themselves with Ethiopia anymore. 

For example, Getachew Reda, a senior advisor to Tigray’s leader, has hinted at holding a referendum on Tigray’s independence, while some other parties in the conflict seem unconcerned about Tigray’s secession, and its implications for the territorial independence, sovereignty, peace, and security of Ethiopia and the region.

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So, where are we heading? 

The more the civil war is extended, the smaller the window of opportunity for reconciliation will get. The main stumbling blocks to bringing about peace are the extreme polarization and shredded social fabric, the belief from all parties that they will eventually triumph, the prospect of accountability for war and other crimes, the difficulties of power-sharing at the federal level, and ‘occupied’ western Tigray.

This is particularly so in view not just of the expanding civil war but also the growing Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) rebellion in Oromia. The group not only controls much of the vast Wollega zones in the west, but also recently allied with the TPLF in its war against the federal government. 

Still, in spite of all these complexities and challenges, I firmly believe that, if there is a will and political commitment from all parties, ceasing hostilities is still possible. The starting point is for external actors, such as the United Nations, the African Union, and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development to apply maximum pressure on all parties to alter their course of action through painful sticks and tempting carrots. 

To this end, one common mechanism is sanctions—smart sanctions. However, experience shows that ‘smart’ sanctions have not been that smart, often hitting the wrong target and allowing authoritarian and populist regimes to hide behind the flag. 

As things stand, a combination of careful diplomacy, political isolation, discreet mediation, carefully tailored and targeted sanctions (making them smart enough), and strong incentive mechanisms may gradually yield something tangible. 

For that external pressure to bear fruit, inclusive national dialogue should be prioritized by all Ethiopian political actors to start repairing the damage done. 

In short, if not properly handled, the northern conflict and other crises could lead to the unmaking of the modern Ethiopian state as we know it. To avoid that tragedy from occurring, we must end the civil war before it is too late.

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Main photo: Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed with Tigray’s leader Debretsion Gebremichael; June 11, 2018, Aksum; Prime Minister’s Office.

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