Ethiopia’s vicious deadlock
By René Lefort, 28 April 2021
The much-hyped democratic transition is not only dead but buried deep. It would need a miracle to exhume it in the near future.
(Ethiopia Insight) — Last year, Tigray’s leaders underestimated their weaknesses. The region’s security forces were swept away in the conventional conflict and largely unprepared to shift to guerrilla warfare after Mekelle was captured on 28 November.
Even the grassroots party-state apparatus has vanished. In a 27 March phone discussion with Alex de Waal, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) veteran Mulugeta Gebrehiwot, who has joined the armed struggle, said: “the former administration of the TPLF has collapsed… The administrators just ran away.”
He added that four and half months after the war started, “there is a zonal army that is organized in several places,” which means this is not the case everywhere in Tigray.
The Tigray Defence Forces (TDF) and TPLF leadership have since avoided being wiped out, thanks to the resistance against the “invasion” which has been spontaneously and autonomously built from both the civilian and militia grassroots and among scattered TDF units. The Tigrayans then came back to their age-old structuration: the villages’ self-organization.
“The farmers in each locality asked [the administrators] not to return back; they said ‘we don’t need you, we will choose our own,’” said Mulugeta. “So, at the village level, they have a committee of seven, sometimes without any former cadre.”
In Tigray, the power pyramid was top-heavy. That top has been broken and is under reconstruction. At this stage, the most solid part of the pyramid lies at its bottom.
The main Tigrayan war force now is the village-level popular resistance and the TDF military apparatus, which has been progressively regrouped from the remnants of the regional security forces and defected Tigrayan federal soldiers. This resistance will not be crushed even if the top leaders of the “junta” are killed or captured.
Sadly, it took Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed five months to realize that this war will be “difficult and tiresome,” something that was entirely foreseeable. The question now for his government is: the “law enforcement operation” aimed at eliminating the TPLF leadership; if the war will continue even after this objective is achieved, what are the war’s other aims?
On the other side, the Tigrayans will have to choose between three endgames.
They will never accept less than full self-rule inside the federation, as stated in the constitution. But they could also decide for independence, “probably the most viable option,” according to Getachew Reda, or for the “Agazi project,” pushed by the radical opposition parties in Tigray, to build a trans-border Tigrayan nation-state, like the European nation-state building in the middle of 19th century.
Many Tigrayans remember that TPLF won the war against Derg not because of military might but as a result of the Derg’s exhaustion-induced unraveling of its army. They could expect the same will happen this time as they are reinforcing their armed forces and because time is on their side as a result of their higher resilience
It is also apparent that the scorched-earth policy of the intervening forces has made many Tigrayans thirsty for revenge. In this context, how uncompromising might they be if they are presented with a ceasefire deal? Also, assuming they stay in the war zone, who will negotiate on their behalf?
Time is needed for the emergence of a new representative Tigrayan leadership. Potentially, this will include young, fresh local frontrunners, well-known civilians, and representatives of the Tigray Defence Forces.
Time will also be needed for the popular endorsement of the strategy this leadership will devise because the Tigrayan civilian population is in a position to demand a strong say. The referendum Getachew Reda implied cannot be organized overnight.
Ethiopia’s civil war in Tigray is but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to conflicts ravaging the country.
It has put in the shadows another dirty conflict in Oromia. Given that the region ranks well above Tigray when it comes to population, size, and wealth, the intensifying insurgency/counter-insurgency occurring there is more critical.
The Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) has waged a blitzkrieg over the last few months. Starting in Wollega and expanding quickly into Arsi and Bale, “OLF/Shane rebels are now present in Amhara region,” stated Agegnehu Teshager, president of Amhara regional state.
Agegnehu probably wanted to exaggerate the threat so as to make his appeal for federal government intervention more pressing. Be that as it may, the OLA has now reached the Shewan part of Oromia, near Addis Ababa. If it continues to expand as fast as it did during the last few months, it could become strong enough to temporarily blockade the capital, if it decides to do so. Leader ‘Jaal Marro’ has said the OLA will prevent elections taking place in Oromia.
The OLA’s final goal is known: complete self-rule of Oromia, at the very least. But its strategy to achieve this is uncertain, and so is its willingness and conditions to come to the negotiation table.
More local confrontations, categorized usually as “ethnic” or “communal violence”, are spreading and escalating across the country.
The last one occurred in the eastern part of the Amhara region (South Wollo, Oromo Special Zone, and North Shewa), which resulted in more than 300 deaths until now, tens of thousands of refugees, and mass destruction.
It involved local Amhara and Oromo population and militia, the Amhara Special Forces, and the federal army. OLA stated that those who fought, the Oromo farmers, only carried “AK-47s as part of their tradition” and denies it was involved in these fights. But several Amhara witnesses said Oromo forces used “heavy artillery.”
While more than half of the country is under a de facto state of emergency managed by martial law (“Command Post”), basic order is still far from prevailing in these zones. Barely a week passes without a massacre, or pogrom, with dozens of victims.
At the heart of many clashes are border conflicts, which hit all regions with no exception. The borders have historically always fluctuated, and are still under negotiation in many places. The last one has been between Afar and Somali region, which led to “at least hundred deaths.”
To prepare for such territorial disputes, the regional states have pursued militarization since late 2017, when rifts inside the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) moved the country into the unknown.
In addition to their regional police and militia, they bolstered their “Special Forces,” paramilitaries. A foreign military expert estimates they consist of around 30,000 men in Oromia and little bit less in Amhara. To put into context, the total number of special force members in these two regions is perhaps around half the total number of Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF) members before the beginning of the Tigray war.
The Pandora’s Box was opened when Amhara region annexed, without any legal basis, large territories in western and south-eastern Tigray. This set the distressing precedent that it is possible to take contested land with brute force.
Additionally, the arbitrary hegemony of the executive branch expands constantly, at least where it holds sway. The law is more and more flouted. The freedoms gained in the months after Abiy came to power are vanishing. The right to demonstrate is respected highly selectively, freedom of expression is regressing, journalists have been jailed, and self-censorship prevails for all.
If the situation remains the same, the elections planned for June will be at best meaningless, and, at worst, increase tensions to the point that they could be canceled.
Birtukan Mideksa, chair of the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE), stated that “only a week before the end of the voter registration period, out of the 50,000 polling stations planned to be established as per the electoral map, only 25,151 are currently registering voters.” As a result of such concerns, the board has just extended voter registration for two weeks.
These elections are largely perceived as being so artificial or useless that the population and the local authorities are apathetic. In particular, they don’t coerce people to register, or aren’t as effective at doing so, as in the past.
The main representatives and structures of one of the two major political currents— the proponents of true ‘multinational federalism’—such as the Oromo Liberation Front, Oromo Federalist Congress, and TPLF have been side-lined one way or another.
The main competitor to the Prosperity Party in Amhara, the National Movement of Amhara (NaMA), stated recently “the massive genocide perpetrated to terrorize our people (Amhara) is directly supported and led by the government structure.” Its election participation looks increasingly doubtful. Different wings of the anti-ethnic federalism camp would therefore be the only ones really competing, though not in some areas, such as parts of Oromia.
It’s unlikely that the NEBE will help. In an interview with The Reporter, Birtukan stated she is satisfied with what the board is doing as the electorate have alternatives to choose from. Her goal is “to hold a different, participatory and representative election”. She hasn’t mentioned the phrase “free and fair elections.”
Most probably, the elections, if held, will not give Abiy the domestic legitimacy he runs after but reduce once more his credibility—and they will polarize Ethiopians even more for sure.
The ruling machinery in place for years has shifted from the EPRDF umbrella to Prosperity Party (PP) aegis. The latter was supposed to be a national, non-ethnic party. However, while the former consisted of a coalition of four established regional parties, PP reproduces the same structuration disguised in “regional branches.”
But unlike EPRDF, PP hasn’t been able to expand its effective authority below the wereda level in many regions. While EPRDF was a cohesive and disciplined party-state entity, by will and rather by force, it is common for PP leaders at the wereda and zonal level to turn a blind eye to, or even assist, fights against the federal and regional governments and get embroiled in inter-communal violence. The last meeting of the army and security leadership pointed the finger at “those who are embedded inside the government’s structure…conspiring to dismantle the country”.
Furthermore, PP is deeply divided, especially between its Oromo and Amhara branches, but also within other chapters. The two hurled public abuse at each other about the fights in the Oromo Special Zone in Amhara. The Oromo branch accused Bahir Dar of the attacks, using OLF-Shane as a pretext.
Agegnehu, the Amhara president, issued a stern warning to the federal government to seek an “immediate solution” to stop the killings of Amhara, while one of the leaders of Amhara-PP, Demeke Mekonnen, is the Deputy Prime Minister.
The most worrying aspect of the situation is that the cornerstone of Ethiopian politics remains unchanged: Any power center aims to become hegemonic, and then to increasingly assert its hegemony. In both cases, the use of raw force is still the highway to reach these goals. Armed conflict is therefore unavoidable.
What is happening now could be the premise of the nth remake of a common Ethiopian historical episode: after the death of a ‘Big Man,’ different armed contenders fight until one clear winner emerges. Before, this confrontation was a raw power struggle. Today, the confrontation is also a path the contenders embark upon to ultimately decide between opposing political visions.
The most revealing display of this continuity has been the conflict between the Tigray and federal governments. By putting preconditions for dialogue that the other side obviously would not accept, they essentially chose war, and indeed prepared for it.
Now, Abiy offers little other than his intention to crush the “criminal clique.” The TPLF requests that Tigray’s government is restored and say they will fight until “the invaders will surrender”, which implies the departure of ENDF along with Eritrean and Amhara forces— in other words, Abiy’s capitulation.
The expectations for a “democratic transition” during the mid-2010s were sadly irrational. The Qeerroo and Fano didn’t shout “freedom!” or “democracy!”, but “down down Woyane!”. The former have disappeared or have been co-opted, including into the Oromia Special Force. The latter won fame for their inhumanity in the Tigray war.
The urban middle class was considered as the spearhead of democratization. At best, they remain silent or deliberately passive, but the great majority supports the war. Indeed, it seems like many consider that the atrocities committed against Tigrayan civilians are justified by the supposed privileges Tigrayans benefited from during TPLF’s time and the party’s unproven alleged involvement in recent ‘ethnic’ conflicts across Ethiopia.
Very lonesome and rare are those who are ashamed that “so many Ethiopians are not disquieted by the abhorrent, war-crimes riddled campaign prosecuted in their name”.
Even the damage to Al-Nejashi mosque and Debre Damo monastery “could not pique the conscience of the religious leaders. Not even a beep… They could not pass the political moral test in the Tigray region civil war”, writes a “theologian by training”. Addis Fortune adds: “Leaders of the main religious denomination were complicit in the war… They have lost the courage of their faith to speak out against the atrocities.”
The precarious religious modus vivendi is also shaken. As if it wanted to increase the religious tensions even more, the government maneuvers to gain control over the Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council. This revives the tensions between authorities and Muslims in 2010’. Growing ‘ethnic clashes’ foretell growing religious antagonisms.
Of course, fear of the ruling power prevails and contributes to this absence of disquiet. But the Orwellian regime propaganda would not achieve its goal of stirring up hysterical resentment if its audience was not so receptive.
In light of the civil war in Tigray and growing conflicts in Oromia and elsewhere, it’s hard to see which force could become strong enough to block, or even to restrain, nationally or regionally, the gruesome ongoing armed dynamics, whether from the political parties, the civil society, or the diaspora.
Wherever you look, if the possible gates to exit from the crisis exist, they are not realistically within reach.
Power is now multipolar, dispersed between four main forces: (1) TPLF/TDF; (2) OLA; (3) the Amhara leadership with its growing presence in the military command and the security services, but outflanked by more radical groups such as NaMA and Fano; (4) the Oromia-PP leadership, whose members’ position varies depending on the degree of ethnic federalism they advocate—the last two are supposed to be Abiy’s political base.
The first two don’t seem to coordinate even if their political objectives are very close. The last pair are linked by a tactical alliance that cannot last given that Amhara-PP struggles for a pan-Ethiopianism while Oromia-PP aims for a strong ethnofederalism. Also, they both desire a preeminent role in Addis Ababa. This constrains Abiy who has to divide himself—and thus diminish himself—to try and please them.
The signs of mounting antagonism are evident all around. And it does not seem like this escalation will stop. Instead, it could potentially bring Ethiopia into the eye of the cyclone—a full-fledged civil war.
In addition, Isaias Afeworki stepped into Ethiopian affairs again. His main goal is the same since the end of the 1970s: to become the godfather of the Horn. Given Eritrea’s smallness, he could succeed only by weakening Ethiopia, the historical pillar of this region, or by having a strong say in Ethiopia’s affairs through close cooperation.
The conflicts in Ethiopia are therefore a godsend for him. At this stage, it seems like the ENDF and its Amhara allies will not be able to contain the Tigrayan guerrilla movement, or engage successfully in fights on other fronts, without the Eritrean army’s involvement.
The Western powers and some intergovernmental organizations call for the withdrawal of Eritrean troops. But when Abiy promised they will leave, he put his credibility at stake: the last word belongs to Isaias. In addition, Eritrea’s autocrat does not want to face a second military defeat after his 2000 debacle by withdrawing his troops from Tigray before they reach their objective: to annihilate the TPLF and its armed wing.
The more the conflicts and the disunity of the leadership amplify, the more room Isaias has to intervene.
The three groups that support Abiy—Asmara, the Amhara/urban elite, and sections of the Oromo elite—do so as long as he helps them achieve their respective agenda. It now seems he is being pushed more and more to the first two, increasingly driving his Oromo allies away, which strengthens those who oppose him, including armed groups.
For years, the call for a “national inclusive dialogue” to tackle Ethiopia’s age-old structural problems has been presented as the panacea to overcoming the crisis. This was unrealistic, illegitimate, and damaging.
Unrealistic, because if this dialogue was possible, it would have been put in place during the euphoric 2018 spring. The visions at stake are too antagonistic to reach a middle way. In any case, this would need compromises. But who would make the unavoidable concessions when each participant could claim its vision is predominant without any objective measurement?
Illegitimate, because this “dialogue” would be essentially in the hands of the political leaderships and frontrunners of the civil society. But the fate of the country cannot be fixed by a small circle through a “grand elite bargain.”
Damaging, because there is a significant opportunity cost to the international community misallocating its energies by pursuing this unrealistic objective.
In line with Ethiopian history, a victory of one of the armed camps could temporarily stabilize Ethiopia under an authoritarian regime, but any sustainable and in-depth solution requires negotiations. National negotiations should start very modestly with how to proceed, a “process-focused dialogue”. Step-by-step, the ultimate goal of the first main phase should be to organize credible elections, which is not the case with the upcoming polls.
A credible vote is compulsory for an objective—and democratic—assessment of the weight of the diverging visions, and then to layout an indisputable basis for tackling the “structural problems” through a “grand elected elite bargain”.
Recently, the international community doesn’t focus on the “national inclusive dialogue” as strongly as before. It opts for vaguer—and more realistic—recommendations. The G7, for example, asked for “the establishment of a clear inclusive political process that is acceptable to all Ethiopians… which leads to credible elections and a wider national reconciliation process”.
The dynamics of the crisis are first and foremost endogenous. Its strength renders it very difficult for the international community, meaning mainly the Western powers, to reorient it in a more positive direction.
They should aim for a two-phased objective. At this stage, their goal should be to be prepared to limit damage mainly by scaling up their humanitarian aid as an intensification of the fights is probable and a sincere dialogue does not seem to be within sight.
For a more distant one, to get to the start of a dialogue, for which they should always push and could position themselves as credible mediators, hoping that the realization will eventually prevail that the current struggle leads only to mutual destruction. Their main tool should be increasingly making it clear that biting sanctions are a threat that will be made if necessary.
Contrary to common belief, the Asmara regime would also be in extreme difficulty if it was brought back to its previous seclusion and “self-reliance.” Isaias’ view may be that it helps him sustain dictatorship—but it would also cause such turmoil in his entourage and the public that his position would be endangered.
Back in Ethiopia, a combination of a growing militarization of the internal situation and of the growing impact of the international sanctions could become unbearable for the conflicting parties and so lead them to a U-turn to escape a mortal deadlock.
In this regard, the Gulf countries could be a key actor. It is not by chance that EU envoy Pekka Haavisto stopped in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi before landing in Addis Abeba. Indeed, the risk that Ethiopia becomes a fighting field for foreign countries, as in Libya or Syria, shouldn’t be taken lightly.
Abiy recently implicitly condemned “counter-productive interference” by the US and the EU. After having praised the supportive role of Russia in Africa, he added, “we must revisit our traditions and certify our friendship and renew our time-tested solidarity.”
Finally, Abiy’s leadership record, three years after he took office, is disastrous.
He promised unity, togetherness, and forgiveness, but Ethiopia has never been so divided. He also said in the speech about solidarity with Russia that “identity-based politics” is one of Ethiopia’s “enemies within.” This pits him even more against a political current whose proponents are convinced it is dominant in the country.
It is well past the time for external actors to turn over a new leaf and cease to see Abiy as almost the only Ethiopian leader to deal with. The multipolarity appeals for multidirectional dialogues. Abiy’s premiership owes more to appearance than to his actual power. His allies could make him pay a high price for the vicious deadlock he has led the country into.
But these are at best medium-term objectives. The most pressing ones are to tackle the humanitarian crisis mainly in Tigray, try to reach ceasefires in Tigray and in Oromia, and break up the government information blockade so as to reveal the true magnitude of the horror taking place in Ethiopia.