By Hambiisa Belina, July 13, 2021
Two weeks after triumphant Tigray Defense Forces (TDF) captured Mekelle, the capital of Tigray State, peace remains elusive. Addis Ababa’s proclaimed humanitarian ceasefire had been complicated by mixed messaging and a lack of clear operational guidelines.
The government has cut essential public services such as telecommunications, internet, banking, and power to the Tigray region. According to the United Nations, the retreating Ethiopian soldiers “dismantled the satellite communications system.” All major roads leading to Tigray are blocked, and all flights to Tigray are curtailed. A couple of bridges over the Tekeze river were destroyed, cutting off the contested Western Tigray from the rest of the state. These steps were meant to create a siege and suffocate the people of Tigray.
Despite the temporary lull, war preparations appear afoot on both sides. After routing two of Africa’s largest armies and allied Amhara militia, the TDF has set its sights on reclaiming West and Southern Tigray. The Amhara regional state, backed by the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF), has vowed to defend these areas, seized from Tigray last November. The Amhara leadership is actively mobilizing fighters and resources, including from the diaspora, in anticipation of a major offensive.
Tigray borders Eritrea to the north, the Amhara state to the south, and the Afar state to the east. ENDF is reportedly fortifying those borders and reorganizing to deter future Tigrayan advances.
The costly Tigray war was fought over competing visions of Ethiopia’s future. TDF has managed to push out the Ethiopian and Eritrean military, but the political problems that led to the war remain untouched. Notably, both the conflict and divergence of vision are not limited to Tigray. Ethiopia needs a comprehensive political solution. At the minimum, possible soft landing techniques need to be sought and implemented before the impending dismemberment of Ethiopia ensues.
How did we get here?
The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a coalition of four national organizations, ruled Ethiopia from 1991-2018. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) was the dominant partner in the coalition. EPRDF agreed to reform and elected Abiy Ahmed as its chairman after relentless Qeerroo protests from 2015 to 2018. EPRDF wanted a second chance and promised to redeem itself for its authoritarian rule of nearly three decades.
Source: Awash Post
Shortly after ascending to and consolidating power, Abiy systematically alienated the TPLF. He did not distance the TPLF for its past, for all the members of the EPRDF shared the history and were responsible for all the ills committed during EPRDF’s long tenure. TPLF was isolated for its vision of Ethiopia’s future, which diverted radically from the vision put forward by Abiy.
The incompatibility of visions for the future of Ethiopia divided EPRDF into two camps as it had the entire Ethiopian political landscape. The two incompatible ideals espouse to enshrine two mutually exclusive systems based on varying viewpoints: (1) pluralist view championing multinational federal system, or (2) unitarist view promoting unitarist system.
On the one hand, the proponents of a multinational federation argue that Ethiopia is not one nation but a collection of different nations, nationalities, and peoples. Since the creation of Ethiopia, these nations were disenfranchised and repressed under the hegemony of the Amhara. Proponents of federalism want to eliminate marginalization and build an equitable system that respects the group rights of Ethiopia’s nations, nationalities, and peoples. These rights include demands to govern themselves through a representative democracy, develop their respective culture, language, way of life, and respect of minority rights.
By contrast, proponents of the unitary system, including Abiy, are nostalgic for and espouse reinstating the one language and one religion imperial system that existed before the 1974 revolution. They envision a centralized and unitary state whereby the center dominates and determines the periphery’s political, economic, and cultural policies.
Why Incompatible Visions
It is essential to note that the views that led to a chasm in the Ethiopian political space are engrained in the political debates since the students’ movement of the 1960s. In his infamous article, “On the Question of Nationalities,” published in 1969, Wallelign Makonnen argued that Ethiopia was not one nation; he called for eliminating the marginalization of different nations and nationalities and supporting their struggle for self-determination.
Three fundamental issues were central to the 1960s student movement: (1) land to the tiller, (2) equality and autonomy for nations and nationalities in Ethiopia, and (3) the creation of a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.
Notwithstanding its repressive rule and half-hearted implementation of the federal arrangement, TPLF sought autonomy for Tigray and is a staunch supporter of multinational federation. Almost all independent and free national organizations of the historically marginalized nations in the greater South who struggle for freedom, equality, justice, and democracy are proponents of the multinational federal system. The 1995 constitution addresses the three fundamental issues: (1) rural and urban land are state property that “shall not be subject to sale or other means of exchange”; (2) every nation has an “unconditional right to self-determination, including the right to secession”; and (3) that every individual has the right to vote and to be elected.
With Abiy’s ascendance to power in 2018, the divergence of visions with the TPLF and the resulting power struggle initially led to a war of words, open hostility, and eventually a civil war that erupted on 4 November 2020. The conduct of the war in Tigray and the ethnic profiling of Tigrayans across the country have worsened the mutual distrust and alienated the people of Tigray.
ENDF, Amhara forces, and Eritrean troops have inflicted untold atrocities on the people of Tigray. The people of Tigray have suffered physically, emotionally, spiritually, psychologically, and physiologically. Many have lost their lives. Millions have lost their livelihoods and are traumatized.
The people of Tigray need immediate access to life-saving resources such as food and medicine. U.S. Secretary of State Blinken has urged the Ethiopian authorities to “ensure full, safe, and unhindered humanitarian access to all populations in need.” These words need to translate into visible actions on the ground. It should be followed by a return to the pre-war status quo to pave the way for a negotiated political solution.
Still, those steps won’t be sufficient. There exist deep-rooted hostilities between Amhara and Tigray and between Tigray and the regime in Eritrea. Unfortunately, the Abiy government is co-opted to further the Amhara imperial project. It has invited a hostile foreign nation to wreak havoc in Tigray. Both Amhara and Eritrea see a TDF revival as an existential threat.
What is Next?
There won’t be an immediate end to the fighting or civilian suffering. Thus, the U.S. and E.U. must mobilize the international community, including AU and UN, with the view to deploying an observer mission along Tigray-Amhara and Tigray-Eritrea borders. The peacekeeping force should control the contested areas and guarantee the safety and security of the population near the borders. The presence of a UN or AU mission will ensure peace and normalcy to return to the Tigray region. It would also create a space for dialogue and negotiations.
Even if TDF and the government of Ethiopia come to a negotiated path forward, peace, stability, economic advancement, and democracy will not be possible unless a comprehensive solution that incorporates the demands of all the nations of Ethiopia is adopted.
The incompatible visions are the impetus for the war in Oromia, Benishangul-Gumuz, and Tigray. Since 2018, a war hidden from the world’s view has raged in the Oromia and Benishangul-Gumuz regions. With the government’s denial of peaceful means to solve political differences, young people who ushered Abiy into power have lost hope and are taking up arms. The ruling Prosperity Party has chosen to go to war to quell the quest for freedom, equality, justice, and democracy. For example, authorities forcibly squashed the Sidama and Wolaita demand for self-administration and democratic rights. The Tigray war was planned and prosecuted in the same manner.
Abiy’s unwillingness to seek compromise and resolve political stalemate through dialogue is tearing at Ethiopia’s social fabric. The consequences of a violent and chaotic disintegration would be catastrophic in terms of lives that could be lost, the destruction of scarce resources, the resultant migration to neighboring African nations, the Middle East, and Europe, the imminent security crisis, and disruption.
Thus, ending the civil war in Ethiopia requires a fundamental and comprehensive antidote.
Finding a comprehensive antidote
The conquest of Ethiopia’s marginalized nations and nationalities created a chasm between the north and the south. The conquered people were denied rights, including the right to use and develop their language, use and prosper from their land, practice and create their culture, and above all, the right to govern themselves through their elected leaders.
Through protracted struggle, these nations have made several gains even though many unfulfilled ambitions remain. Attempts to reverse the progress achieved and reinstate the unitary imperial system will make the dismemberment of Ethiopia probable. Currently, Amhara and Amharanized urban elites are fueling and driving Abiy’s centralizing vision. It is not an accident that the Amhara state is in conflict with Sudan on al-Fashaga, with Eritrea over Assab, in West and Southern Tigray, Metekel, and Oromia. Ethiopia’s breakup can be avoided if the expansionist imperial project is put aside once and for all.
However, it should also be clear that any move to save Ethiopia in its current form requires a comprehensive and all-encompassing solution. An all-inclusive dialogue brokered by an independent, neutral, and credible body is long overdue. To pave the way for dialogue, the Abiy administration must nullify the results of its sham election, cease all hostilities, release all political prisoners, and lift restrictions on political parties, including the terrorist designations leveled against the Oromo Liberation Army and TPLF.