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Notes from Africa 1: Ethiopia

Written by Joe Studwell

Power struggles in Ethiopia

Ethiopia is Africa’s most promising developmental state and second most populous country, but today it is facing arguably its most serious political crisis.

This escalated last November, when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed decided to take military action against the dominant Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). While on the surface this may appear to be an ethnic conflict, as Joe writes the reality is it has been driven by greed for land and power:

“The notion that this conflict is about racial, or religious, purity is palpable farce.”

Not your average empire

It is impossible to make sense of the political situation in Ethiopia today without looking back at how its empire was formed.

“Like Germany, Russia or China, Ethiopia developed as a contiguous empire that expanded at its periphery… [But] Unlike those empires, Ethiopia has been politically dominated by different ethnic groups.”

Indeed, since the end of the nineteenth century, four ethnic groups have been in power in Ethiopia.

First, Emperor Melenik (from the Amhara ethnic group) expanded the empire by seizing territory that today borders with Kenya, Sudan and South Sudan. He was the only African leader to defeat an entire European army, at Adwa in Tigray in 1896.

Menelik’s successor was Emperor Haile Selassie – who before his 1930 coronation in Addis Ababa was known as Ras Tafari, or Prince Tafari – around whom principles of Rastafarianism were built. Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935 with chemical weapons, killing hundreds of thousands and occupying the country for five years. But after the Italians were defeated by the Allied East Africa campaign, Haile Selassie continued to rule for another 30 years until he was killed by the Derg – a Maoist dictatorship that boasted the biggest army in Africa.

The Derg eventually lost power to an ethnic coalition of guerrilla warriors led by the Tigrayan Meles Zenawi – “perhaps the most erudite developmental leader the world has seen”. And since 2018, there has been Abiy – from a large ethnic group called the Oromo, which accounts for 35% of the Ethiopian population.

And in the background are the coastal Eritreans, who were the leading force in Ethiopia’s economy under Haile Selassie. They fought a devastating border war in 1998-2000 which left 100,000 dead.

“Today, each of these four ethnic groups wants its day in the political sun. And many underemployed young men, and wily older men who manipulate them, are ready to shed blood to get it.”

Abiy Ahmed’s secret and dangerous plan

Meles Zenawi’s death in 2012 triggered tensions that became increasingly violent. His chosen successor, Hailemariam Desalegn, from a small ethnic group called Wolayta, was manipulated in office by the Tigrayans. He stepped down in 2018 to make way for the Oromo former intelligence officer and cybersecurity chief, Abiy.

And as Joe writes, the new Prime Minister faced one major challenge in his efforts to confront the TPLF.

“Abiy’s most practical problem in taking on the TPLF was that Tigrayans were in possession of most of the army’s weaponry; many estimates suggest they control four-fifths of federal small arms and artillery… It appears he therefore determined to construct the largest possible coalition against the almost universally resented Tigrayans.”

Abiy had a risky plan in place to address this. Just four months into his term, he cut a surprising peace deal with Eritrea through negotiations with the country’s leader Isaias Afwerki – a move for which he was awarded the Novel Peace Prize in 2019. But his motives were not all what they seemed.

“In taking on the TPLF, Abiy wanted the use of Afwerki’s army, one raised on a diet of extremist, anti-Tigrayan indoctrination. In 1991, the TPLF had used Afwerki and a much larger Eritrean military force than their own to take Addis from the Derg.”

Abiy ended up with about 100,00 Eritrean troops, who were deployed inside Tigray. They clashed violently with federal forces and militia from other ethnic groups.

“The upshot has been an utterly brutal conflict in which atrocities have been committed on all sides. The butchery has continued for four months already, with satellite images showing that Eritrean troops have systematically burned fields and orchards, increasing the likelihood of famine."
"Superficially, what is happening in Tigray is ethnic conflict. In reality, it is a struggle for land and power among men who are defined by selfishness rather than ethnicity… The notion that this conflict is about racial, or religious, purity is palpable farce.”

What next – how the conflict must end

Despite calls from the US in March for Abiy to remove Eritrean forces from Tigray and reach a settlement, it remains to be seen whether the international community will keep up this pressure. War crimes must be investigated and those responsible must be held to account.

Joe emphasises urgent action is needed to prevent the conflict becoming protracted:

“The keys to ending the conflict are to get the Eritreans out, the Amhara militias out, to disarm all militia groups and civilians, and to seek political compromise with the more centrist, anti-independence elements of the TPLF.”
“US leadership, and US money for reconstruction, will be critical if Ethiopia is to escape the Tigrayan hex on its enormous developmental potential, which could and should be a beacon for the rest of the African continent.”

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is a symbol of the country’s huge economic potential.

The dam, which should have been complete in 2017 but is set to finally be operational later this year, will be the most potent hydropower project in Africa, producing more electricity than the entire current installed generating capacity of Ethiopia.

“The site is a hive of activity — Ethiopians working together in the interests of national development, without conversations about ethnicity.”

The economic impacts of civil war

But the civil war is undermining this vision and distracting Abiy from critical economic policy issues.

“More than anything, Ethiopia needs jobs for its restless youth and expanded exports that generate foreign exchange and pay for the capital equipment imports that development requires.”

There is a risk that investment zones already created will not fill up and foreign direct investment will stall. Joe highlights other economic pressures now facing the country:

“Equally concerning is the possibility that, under pressure from the multilateral institutions and bilateral aid partners, Abiy’s government may liberalise prematurely, handing to multinational corporations (MNCs) profit streams that should have remained in Ethiopian hands.”

Abiy’s administration could learn important lessons from Meles Zenwari, whose deep knowledge and research on a variety of sectors and topics – from agriculture and manufacturing to finance and international relations – made Ethiopia such an effective developmental state.

“What Abiy needs to recapture is a degree of Meles Zenawi’s cerebral seriousness… If not, the loss will not only be Ethiopia’s, but that of the entire African continent.”