Ethiopia’s Chaos isn’t Postcolonial
The country seems on the verge of falling apart. Here’s why it won’t.
By Robert D. Kaplan, the Robert Strausz-Hupé chair in geopolitics at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
(Foreign Policy) — The recent defeat of Ethiopian government forces at the hands of rebels in Tigray in the country’s north has not ended the conflict that has threatened to tear Ethiopia apart. Rather, it has opened a veritable Pandora’s box of possibilities regarding where Ethiopia is headed next. Much will depend on whether a cease-fire can be negotiated and if food can get through to the hundreds of thousands of potential famine victims.
But much will also depend on how the outcome of the war in Tigray impacts the country’s wider politics. That’s because the embattled province of Tigray is a bellwether of Ethiopia’s very destiny. To understand why, it is necessary to explore Ethiopia as a geographical, cultural, and political concept, in all its considerable uniqueness.
Ethiopia is wondrously indefinable. It is an outpost of Middle Eastern and Semitic civilization, dislodged on the continent of Africa, as historically involved in the affairs of Yemen and Saudi Arabia as with those of its African neighbors, and with its languages of the northern highlands related to Hebrew and Arabic. Ethiopia’s Monophysite Christianity is redolent of both Indigenous cults and Greek Orthodoxy. Ethiopian Orthodoxy represents the second-oldest official Christian church in the world after Armenia’s, even as it has links with Judaism.
Ethiopia is more than a state, not less than one. It is not a vague and flimsy geographical expression like Libya or Iraq, whose identities for too long depended on inclusion within the Italian and Ottoman empires. There has never been anything artificial about Ethiopia. In fact, it has long been an empire in its own right, officially until the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974, and unofficially since, with around 80 ethnic groups within its domain.
Given its sprawling and unruly landscape of nationalities, Ethiopian politics and history can be compared with the politics and history of Yugoslavia and Russia. Comparisons with other places in Africa are almost never made. Except for an occupation of a few years by Mussolini’s Italy, Ethiopia was never formally colonized by Europeans. It is definitely not postcolonial.
If Ethiopia is Yugoslavia, its Josip Broz Tito was Meles Zenawi, who ruled Ethiopia from 1991 until his death in 2012 and was arguably the most adroit Ethiopian leader in modern history. He matured from a guerrilla leader into a statesman and had first politically emerged in the 1980s as the leader of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, whose social and political cohesion has borne similarities with the Viet Cong and the Israelis of the Palmach and Haganah era. The Tigrayan elite essentially ran Ethiopia for decades under Meles and his successor Hailemariam Desalegn prior to Abiy Ahmed’s emergence in 2018. “Meles was a minority Tigrayan just as Tito was a minority Croat and Slovene. The majority Serbs in Ethiopia’s case are the Amharas, who have wanted to use Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, an ethnic Oromo, to take back Ethiopia,” a top Ethiopia expert in a sensistive diplomatic position told me about the current situation. “Both the Orthodox Serbs and the Orthodox Amharas have felt themselves to be aggrieved parties, entitled to even more power. Yugoslavia descended into half-a-dozen or more pieces. Ethiopia could be much more of a mess.”
On a recent visit to Addis Ababa, I also kept hearing the current situation compared with Russia, from the late tsarist period through the Bolshevik Revolution to the present. In this model, the Shewa King Menelik II’s conquest of Ethiopia in the late 19th century and the subsequent expansion of royal territory throughout large parts of the Horn of Africa, in addition to Africanizing this hitherto Middle Eastern imperial kingdom, bore similarities with the tsarist conquests throughout far-flung parts of the ethnically varied Caucasus and Central Asia. The overthrow and murder of Ethiopia’s last emperor, Haile Selassie, by the Marxist military leader Mengistu Haile Mariam bore similarities to the overthrow and murder of the Russian royal family by the Bolsheviks. The famine of the mid-1980s, which was more a feature of the policies of Mengistu than of drought, bore similarities to the famine inflicted on Ukraine by Stalin.
Following the strong rules of Mengistu and Meles, Hailemariam’s tenure as leader of Ethiopia from 2012 to 2018 proved to be short-lived, weak, and chaotic in the mold of Russia’s Boris Yeltsin, while Abiy, the erstwhile darling of the West, has brought back strong rule, with his hands on an impressive imperial-like state, wielding information and disinformation coupled with the use of the security services as a means of postmodern control. To compare him with Russian President Vladimir Putin, even with the vast human rights abuses associated with the war in Tigray, is certainly a stretch, yet there were elements of Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika in Abiy’s first years.
Then there has been Ethiopia’s sheer economic growth over the past decade, approaching and occasionally reaching double digits annually, leaving much of the rest of Africa behind. The whole population has been in ferment as a quiet revolution of rising expectations has set in. This has been a backdrop to the current conflict. If economic growth simply led to peace and stability, World War I, which occurred at the climax of the industrial age in Europe, never would have happened.
As for the significance of the war in Tigray, it is not simply a military conflict in a northern province but a war over control of the political center in Addis Ababa itself. The question is, who will rule Ethiopia: the Tigrayans of the north, the historically dominant Amharas, or the demographically powerful Oromos, many of whom are Muslim in this Christian Orthodox country? The primary issue to be resolved in Ethiopia has to do with interethnic relations, of which the mere holding of elections is a secondary detail. And with that issue comes the heart of the matter: Ethiopia’s very identity. Is it an empire; a loose, multinational federation; or a centrally controlled state?
This very question is inseparable from the complicated nature of the now-reeling prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, who is an ethnic Oromo with a Muslim name, but who is also a Pentecostal, something increasingly common in a country where Protestant evangelism is spreading like a wildfire. Some in Addis Ababa labeled Abiy as, at root, a Christian idealist, one who thinks he was appointed by God to save Ethiopia. Like liberal internationalists in the West, he believes in human agency. As a consequence, he underestimates geography, culture, geopolitics, and all of the other deterministic forces of fate. In this sense, Abiy is a mirror of many global elites themselves. Like them, he is liable to not fully appreciate the intractable nature of many wars and conflicts—the reason why he has failed in Tigray. Abiy is a product of his time, just as Mengistu was a product of his. Some Ehtiopians suggested that just as the internationalist Davos mindset has helped produce Abiy, the Cold War helped produce Mengistu, a tyrant backed by the East bloc.
Abiy, believing he could defeat the Tigrayan guerrillas in a matter of weeks, as he predicted last November, sees Tigray as a barrier to his centralizing agenda. Abiy has rejected Ethiopia’s loose federal structure of different nationalities, in keeping with its diversity and imperial tradition, and instead has sought to impose a centrally controlled state that can develop into a democracy. In preparation for his struggle with Tigray, Abiy made an alliance with the Eritrean leader Isaias Afwerki. His pact with Isaias, which won Abiy a Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, was essentially a war pact. Few in Ethiopia believed otherwise even at the time, given Isaias’s political personality and reputation.
I have interviewed Isaias twice: in 1986 in a cave in Sheeb near the front lines during his guerrilla fighting days against Mengistu, and in 2002 in his presidential office in Asmara a decade after Eritrea achieved independence. Isaias has never stopped being a guerrilla fighter, a remote ascetic obsessed with only conflict and domination, who never grew into a statesman like his rival, Meles, in Tigray. The conventional wisdom in Addis Ababa is that Isaias, the Mao-like leader of a mini-garrison state, has been the dominant personality in his alliance with Abiy. Isaias has become a curse, the foreign Eritrean enemy whom Abiy brought into the conflict in Tigray, whose forces may have committed many of the war crimes there, and who consequently unified the Tigrayans against him.
With the defeat of Abiy’s government forces in Tigray, the fighting is not over. The war now threatens to move from the north of the country to the west and northwest, with Amhara militias taking on the Tigrayan rebels themselves. Will Abiy’s Prosperity Party, which has relatively little historical tradition or pedigree, begin to unravel as a consequence of this grave battlefield setback? Will Isaias, whose Eritrean forces have been rampaging in Tigray, accept defeat? To maintain a semblance of control in the north, will Abiy need to draw government forces away from their fight against an Oromo insurgency in the south and away from guarding the western frontier against Sudanese incursions? These are just some of the questions swirling around the Ethiopian capital.
My impressions of the Ethiopian capital after a 36-year absence were not negative. The very first-world efficiency of the airport and national airline, the well-functioning infrastructure, and the rigor of the bureaucracy in general constitute the accumulation of centuries and millennia of a state identity, built originally on a sturdy multiethnic foundation of feudalism. Ethiopia—as viewed from the grandeur of Menelik’s Palace; or as viewed from the institutions that keep Addis Ababa an efficiently running city, lacking the chaos of other parts of Africa; or as viewed from the Ethiopian diaspora in the West that has been pouring money into real estate into Addis Ababa—is simply too substantial to fall apart.