Ethiopia recently made headlines as the homeland of World Health Organization (WHO) Director General Tedros Adhanom, and prior to that as the country from which the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner hails. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed received this prestigious award for his role in resolving the bloody two-decade-long dispute with neighboring Eritrea. He was also lauded by many at the time for his ambitious political reforms in attempting to transition the country towards a more substantively democratic model. Apart from that, most of the world doesn’t know all that much about Ethiopia and probably doesn’t even care, but that’s a problem since Africa’s second most populous country is struggling to resolve several internal contradictions that might spell its collapse in the worst-case scenario. Greater awareness of these issues and the dark trajectory that the country is headed along might hopefully inspire creative solutions that could stave off this worrying possibility.
The Pre-Abiy Years
The topic is admittedly complex and even intimidating for neophytes to grasp, hence why this analysis will attempt to simplify these interconnected issues. To sum up nearly the past three decades of Ethiopian history, the country was run by the Tigrayan-led Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) following the end of its civil war which also coincided with the conclusion of the Old Cold War. The Tigrayans occupy one of a handful of regional states and account for roughly 5% of Ethiopia’s total population. Due to internal rivalries over the country’s direction and in response to an uprising of the centrally located Oromo people of their titular state (who are the largest plurality with approximately one-third of the country’s total population), former army intelligence officer Abiy Ahmed –an ethnic Oromo — was selected by the party to lead Ethiopia in an historic post-civil war first.
From High Hopes To Deadly Disappointment
At the time, there were high hopes that he’d seriously consider decentralizing the country like it’s formally supposed to be but which in practice always remained a highly centralized state formerly run by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), hitherto the most powerful member of the EPRDF coalition. Abiy removed the terrorist classification of several prominent ethnic organizations (both political and militant), including the influential Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). Well-known Oromo activist Jawar Mohammed, who founded the popular Oromo Media Network (OMN), had prior charges against him dropped and returned to his homeland in 2018 after a decade living in the US. It was Jawar’s arrest this summer after deadly protests following the killing of Oromo singer Hachalu Hundessa and subsequent terrorism charges against the former last month which dramatically highlighted the split between Abiy and what used to be his most ardent supporters.
What Went Wrong
What went wrong over the past two years is that Abiy began promoting the collective identity of “Ethiopianess”
in order to maintain the centralized state that he inherited instead of advocating for more profound ethno-regional rights like many — especially among the Oromos — believed that he would. This was considered a betrayal of the Oromo protest movement that initially led to his rapid ascent to power. To be sure, he did promote some aspects of decentralization such as tolerating the Sidama Zone’s referendum to separate from the cosmopolitan Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s Region (SNNPR) and become its own regional state in accordance with the constitution. This, however, emboldened some Oromos and others to agitate for a more comprehensive reform of the country’s existing regional borders in order to account for the concentrated presence of titular minorities in adjacent regions. This led to summer 2019’s failed coup attempt in Amhara.
The TPLF’s Tiff With The “Ethiopian Gorbachev”
The TPLF also broke with the ruling coalition after Abiy founded the Prosperity Party in December 2019, though this wasn’t just in reaction to that move but the culmination of nearly two years of sharp disagreements with the direction that the Prime Minister was taking the country. The so-called “Ethiopian Gorbachev’s” reforms, while aiming to “modernize” the country’s socio-political framework, were considered highly irresponsible and even dangerous by the TPLF, which ironically went from supporting the same centralized state that it bequeathed to Abiy to agitating for more ethno-regional rights. It even held a regional election in September against the central government’s orders to postpone such polls until next year once the coronavirus crisis is more under control. Since Abiy will continue to serve beyond his term after lawmakers voted to extend it, some among the TPLF and others said they’d regard him as illegitimate upon its expiry at the beginning of this month.
Bearing all this background information in mind, one can conclude that Ethiopia’s most significant internal contradiction is the division between those who support centralization and all that it entails (including a collective identity) and those who advocate in favor of decentralization and its resultant collection of strongly assertive separate identities. From there, Ethiopia is now at risk of splitting along regional fault lines, not just in terms of the Oromo and Tigrayan dislike of the central authorities, but also regarding the potential for uncontrollable “Balkanization” along the lines of the Sidama scenario. If left unchecked, not only could a host of new regional “microstates” emerge, but the borders of existing ones between the Oromo Region and its Amhara and Somali neighbors for example could possibly be redrawn, which isn’t likely to be completed peacefully.
The Self-Sustaining Cycle Of Destabilization
All of this should be of serious concern for the international community since there’s a real risk of ethnic cleansing and even genocide in the worst-case scenario. If the state loses control, then there’s nothing stopping one ethnic group from carrying out such acts against another for political, religious, and/or territorial reasons. Furthermore, even if the central government imposes martial law (whether formally or informally, and be it nationwide or only in one or some regions or parts thereof), then it’s prone to do so heavy-handedly and might even react with disproportionate force to peaceful and/or rowdy protests (riots). That could in turn worsen the already incipient self-sustaining cycle of destabilization that’s once again rearing its head in the country. Since each ideological and ethno-regional side has maximalist aims, no compromise seems possible at the moment.
Can A Creative Solution Avert The Coming Collapse?
So as not to come off as “fatalistic”, it should be said that a creative solution for peacefully resolving these multifaceted disputes shouldn’t be discounted no matter how improbable it might seem at this time. The collapse of Ethiopia isn’t inevitable, but it’ll require a fair compromise between all parties, which will probably be imperfectly executed in all likelihood but hopefully shouldn’t be too mismanaged if it’s to stand any realistic prospect of success. In practice, considering the “Pandora’s Box” that the “Ethiopian Gorbachev” opened (presumably with the best intentions), Abiy will have to concede some ground (not just symbolically but in terms of substance) on his centralization campaign and try to exert some reasonable control over these many decentralization processes, while his opponents should moderate their demands and be more patient.
It’s easy to propose a generic solution to Ethiopia’s dangerous internal contradictions and obviously much more difficult to determine the details, get all relevant parties to agree upon them, then properly implement a comprehensive peace plan, but suggesting as much is simply meant to reinforce what others have said about the direction that the country should move towards in order to avoid the worst-case scenario of an all-out collapse. The stakes are immensely high since they involve the lives of over 100 million people, many of whom have very different identities and accumulated a lot of resentment towards one another while some of them are equally antagonistic towards the central government, thus creating several layers of destabilization. The situation is real tense right now after recent events, and it’ll probably remain serious for at least the next year.