The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) held in power in Ethiopia for nearly 30 years since it led the overthrow of the military dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991. After TPLF leader Meles Zenawi assumed the premiership, he and his fellow TPLF leaders ousted all political, military and intelligence leaders and began to establish a new order.
Towards this end, they dismantled the former Ethiopian army and turned the TPLF’s military wing into the core of a restructured army with TPLF commanders at the top of the military hierarchy while other TPLF figures assumed key civilian posts. Tigrayan leaders continued to perpetuate their control over government.
One of the best-known examples of this situation is Tedros Adhanom, the current director of the World Health Organisation and long-serving minister of health under Zenawi. Before that he was a member of the TPLF leadership, which has fed the current Abiy Ahmed government’s attacks against him for allegedly working to support the recent TPLF insurrection.
The Tigray people represent less than 10 per cent of Ethiopia’s population of 110 million. The TPLF’s attempts to sustain their hegemony over the public sphere were numerous and diverse, but perhaps the most important realm of control — apart from the military and intelligence services — is the economy.
The leverage this sector offered Tigrayan government leaders and their front came under three main headings: natural resources, agricultural land and foreign aid and loans. The revenues received under these same headings opened the gates to corruption among the Tigrayan elites while access to such revenues was long denied to Ethiopia’s other ethnic groups.
For many years, Addis Ababa received an average of $3.5 billion a year in aid and facilitated loans. The amount came to half the entire annual national budget in the Zenawi era and in subsequent years in which the Tigray elites monopolised decisions over how this money was spent and how it was distributed among federal states.
China alone was the source of more than 60 per cent of the loan grants obtained by successive governments. While the loans may have infringed on Ethiopian sovereignty, this did not prevent the taint of corruption from spreading among government elites throughout the long period of Tigrayan rule. The same Tigray elites also reaped billions from long term contracts leasing extensive swathes of prime agricultural land in the south (about four million hectares) to foreign investors.
Such ubiquitous forms of economic hegemony precipitated mounting anger and uprisings among Ethiopia’s other ethnic groups and regions, some waves of which engulfed the capital as well. With Zenawi’s sudden death in 2012 and the rise of Hailemariam Desalegn to the premiership, this power was partially broken.
Desalegn, a member of the Wolayita ethnic group and born in the south, was the first non-Amhara and non-Tigrayan to occupy that post. He was subsequently forced to step down against the backdrop of violent demonstrations initially spurred by ethnic grievances and that broadened to include a range of other economic and political demands. Abiy Ahmed took over after having succeeded Desalegn as chairman of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).
As Ahmed stepped into his new post against that backdrop of upheaval, it was only natural that he would initiate some political reforms. These began with some high-profile dismissals and replacements in key government offices that were cautiously welcomed at home while celebrated abroad by world powers that turned a blind eye to what would soon reveal itself as a process of political/ethnic score-settling.
It quickly became clear that the Tigray had been singled out by the new government and that the Tigray leadership was not going to put up with the new equations. Indeed, Tigray militants went so far as to attempt to assassinate Abiy Ahmed. The government accused the former TPLF security chief of masterminding the assassination attempt, but he had already fled to the Tigray region before the federal government could serve an arrest warrant for him. The Tigrayan regional government refused to hand him over to federal authorities, of course, but his former deputy was arrested while trying to flee from the police in Addis Ababa.
The conflict between Addis Ababa and the Tigrayan regional government quickly spiralled, especially after Ahmed moved to dismantle Tigrayan networks of economic domination. The major step towards this end was to privatise the major public sector companies that had monopolised communications, the sugar trade and foodstuffs industries. Control over all these erstwhile Tigrayan fiefs shifted to the new ruling elites to which the prime minister, a member of the Oromo ethnic group, belonged.
However, this economic move was among the developments that shifted the Ethiopian crisis to a new plane, opening the floodgates to long seething economic resentments and political/ethnic rivalries. Before long civil unrest and ethnic strife had spread through most of Ethiopia’s regions, leading to the internal displacement of millions of people in the past two years alone. Some observers have described the crisis as a series of regional ethnic cleansing drives. Such a characterisation may be facile, but there is no denying the levels of widespread violence and killing, and the resultant social animosities and rifts that will be difficult to mend.
This unfolding nightmare now raises the spectre of the even more dangerous dimension of sectarian strife. It has already struck Orthodox Christians, hundreds of whom have been killed in various parts of the country. Muslims have also been targeted by similar hate campaigns. So far there appears no way to break the cycle which is on the verge of a fully-fledged civil war.
*The writer is the general manager of the Egyptian Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly