Ethiopia in Turmoil

Abiy Ahmed with Le'ul Ras Mengesha Seyoum, member of the former royal family of Ethiopia and former governor of Tigray. Courtesy of Prime Minister of Ethiopia's Office

The northern region of Tigray is challenging Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s reform agenda. The prospects for peace are dim.

Distortions and misinformation have added further complexities to an already fraught confrontation between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the federal government of Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Two weeks after the clashes begun, a resolution to the current crisis is far from clear.

A Fraught Legacy

The challenge of pursuing transformative leadership and political change was always a tall order for Abiy. When he came to power in 2018, he inherited a model of federalism including nine ethnic-based regions spanning a population of approximately 110 million. His immediate focus was to open political space, pursue market-based reforms and make peace with neighbouring Eritrea.

Enhanced multi-ethnic representation across government dealt a blow to TPLF-heavy hierarchies. Abiy’s determination to depart from the socialist underpinnings of the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front’s (EPRDF) ethnic federalist doctrine amounted to a sudden and unsavoury change of direction for a party which had not only liberated the country from the Derg, an oppressive military junta, but which had poured years of efforts into the development and implementation of a model of revolutionary ‘democratic developmental statebuilding’.

But Abiy’s administration persevered, reversing many of the former policies, systems and narratives. This irritated those who considered themselves national defenders and ‘guardians’ of visionary thinking. In the absence of any immediate reconciliation and reintegration scheme for TPLF leaders, a backlash from a bruised and unappreciated TPLF became inevitable.

Security Sector Reform

Within the security sector more specifically, Abiy deconstructed past practices which had retained senior TPLF officers beyond compulsory retirement. He also introduced a policy which prevented more than one member of any ethnic group from being present in every level of the military’s command structure. The implication was that many Tigrayans at mid-senior levels would not become eligible for career enhancing roles which, together with the limit on staying in one military rank for no more than 10 years, would support a gradual exodus of many mid- and senior-level officers and soldiers. While jobs were offered to those who could stay, and short-term support provided to those who departed in the form of additional months’ pay as well as allowing senior officers to retain military vehicles, this was no consolation for what the TPLF felt it deserved. Abiy subsequently issued arrest warrants for a number of these commanders who stood accused of corruption and human rights abuses. This caused further alienation from the Abiy administration.

The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Abiy only intensified the TPLF’s indignation. Abiy’s view was that the significant military build-up in the country’s eastern and northern commands – the latter in Tigray – was expensive and required dismantling now that peace with Eritrea had been achieved. The TPLF perceived the situation with Eritrea differently, and resisted the removal of this equipment. When crowds blocked returning equipment convoys in protest, federal troops were instructed by Abiy to stand down to avoid violence.

The Looming Crisis

The loose thread holding the TPLF to Abiy’s government was finally broken in 2019 when the government rebranded the ruling coalition as the ‘Prosperity Party’ – a move which sought to involve representatives from all nine regional states, five of which had not been encompassed by the previous EPRDF coalition party. The TPLF severed all ties and gradually focused more on the region.

When the country’s electoral commission took a decision to postpone the federal elections because of the pandemic, the TPLF challenged Abiy’s legitimacy. But the electoral commission exercised an independent decision, which was supported by a unanimous vote in parliament, citing challenges of the country’s weak capacity to manage the pandemic while supporting, what was anticipated to be, an election with the highest voter turnout in the country’s history. Still, Tigray forged ahead with what the federal government deemed an illegal regional election which excluded the two main regional opposition parties and produced a landslide victory for the TPLF.

Refusing to accept the decision taken by parliament and the constitutional inquiry bodies to postpone the election, the TPLF called all its government employees, ministers and parliamentarians back to their region on 5 October – the date, prior to these decisions, of the end of Abiy’s first term in office. Added to the mix was the TPLF’s demand that any dialogue with the federal government be overseen by a caretaker administration which did not include Abiy.

The move of governance capacity back to Tigray’s capital, Mekelle, meant that prospects for a negotiated arrangement were fast disappearing. Refusing to afford any legal basis to Tigray’s newly elected regional assembly, the House of Federation (the upper house of the federal parliament) unanimously passed a bill calling for regional funding disbursements to be routed to more local Tigrayan authorities, bypassing the TPLF-controlled central regional government in Mekelle. The TPLF described this as a ‘declaration of war’ by the federal government.

The Breakdown

On 4 November, following a discussion between Abiy and the Tigray regional president Debretsion Gebremichael, a government cargo plane carrying monthly army rations, and billions of new birr currency to furnish regional banks and support the salaries of personnel in the northern command, landed in Mekelle. What followed were synchronised attacks on all levels of command posts under the federal northern command. Government reports indicate that insiders loyal to the TPLF cooperated with regional militia in killing non-Tigrayan officers and soldiers and demanding that others surrender their weapons. A senior associate of the TPLF leadership later claimed responsibility for the attack in a video which has since been withdrawn from the internet. Hours following the attack, Abiy deployed federal defence forces to ‘secure law and order in the region and to apprehend those implicated in mass corruption and gross human rights violations’.

Whereas one could ask whether or not the attack on the barracks constituted the crossing of a ‘red line’ – and whether there was scope to avoid confrontation – the federal government’s decision to deploy troops appeared to be based on what it felt had been the exhaustion of all other non-military instruments of power in efforts to appease the TPLF. Citing TPLF links to instability elsewhere in the country, conscious of the northern command’s heavy artillery and long-range weapons, and the scope for further casualties, it was clear that Abiy felt compelled to authorise the use of force. Hundreds of combatants and civilians have died, a flood of refugees has moved towards Sudan, political prisoners have been taken hostage and humanitarian corridors have become threatened.

An International Role?

The TPLF’s latest rocket attacks on the Eritrean capital of Asmara appear to be an attempt to internationalise the conflict and lay the ground for an international response. Calls for a ceasefire, mediation, dialogue and negotiations have all been made. The Ethiopian government has stated that it will not sit down to negotiations with what it describes as ‘criminals’. The situation leaves only two options for an international response: calls for a swift and peaceful resolution of differences, or external intervention. While the former would be in the context of Ethiopia’s internal mechanisms of conflict resolution, the latter would involve taking sides – which, at this stage, should be avoided at all costs.

Any option moving forward, including weapons decommissioning, would need to consider the country’s important traditional and cultural dialogue processes, deep inter-federal issues, trust deficiencies and linguistic differences. Above all, the voice of the Tigrayan people is key.

Still, inaction is not without its merits as well. For if it becomes clear that the TPLF will be afforded no standing by the international community, they may agree on an internal ceasefire arrangement, and possibly an independent truth and reconciliation commission, perhaps overseen by traditional and religious leaders.

However, with both sides now facing the inevitability of further civilian casualties, and as long as the TPLF believes that there is a way of forcing the hand of both the international community and the federal government, prospects for a peaceful solution remain bleak.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.


Professor Ann M. Fitz-Gerald

Senior Associate Fellow

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