Regardless of the repercussions of the ongoing conflict between Ethiopia’s federal government and the Tigray region, this year has left critical marks on Ethiopia’s modern history, not only because it has been full of major events, but also because these will likely affect the country for years to come.
The domestic and foreign challenges Ethiopia has had to deal with throughout the year are also the result of the path it has adopted over the past decade.
Some observers say a new chapter in Ethiopia’s history started with the death of former president Meles Zenawi in 2012, while others point to the 2015 general elections, in which the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front garnered all the parliamentary seats.
Other observers argue that Ethiopia’s new chapter started with the ascent of present prime minister Abiy Ahmed to the helm.
Ethiopia’s foreign and domestic challenges are intertwining, with each affecting the other and sometimes causing sudden U-turns.
As Ethiopia has battled with rising domestic conflict owing to the desire of its ethnic groups to increase their local autonomy, there have also been multiple foreign challenges that have gone beyond the arduous negotiations over the filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).
Ethiopia has been struggling to re-engineer its relations with neighbouring countries with which it shares a complex history.
The year revealed that Ethiopia’s reports on the GERD, the cause of Addis Ababa’s dispute with Cairo and Khartoum, were not as accurate as claimed.
According to the reports, the construction of the dam will take three more years. It will actually be operated by 10 or 11 turbines — not 16 as Ethiopia had earlier said. This is a major loss for a poor country that had its hopes pinned on cheap energy to export via the Egyptian electrical grid and that it had regarded as its “alternative oil”.
The Ethiopian authorities have always known that the GERD will not provide drinking water to the country’s 105 million population. The majority of Ethiopians live on highlands more than 2,000 metres above sea level. Nonetheless, the Ethiopian government has celebrated “converting the River Nile into a lake”, to quote the words of the Ethiopian foreign minister in July.
As trilateral negotiations between Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan over the GERD with US and World Bank sponsorship continue, constituting the “conflict in the west”, the African country has also been striking “a peace deal in the east” with Eritrea.
The move earned Ahmed the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, but throughout 2020 trade relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia did not evolve and nor did Eritrea regain the land it has been claiming for two decades since the war that rendered hundreds of thousands of Eritreans and Ethiopians dead or injured.
When conflict erupted between Ahmed’s government and Tigray in the north some months ago, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) accused Asmara of siding with Addis Ababa against it. The Tigray leadership alleged that Eritrean forces were fighting alongside Ethiopian federal forces. Addis Ababa and Asmara refuted the claims.
The earlier Eritrean-Ethiopian war lasted between 1998 and 2000, during which time many thought it was a conflict between Zenawi and Tigray on one side and the Eritreans and their President Isaies Afwerki on the other.
On the domestic front, Ethiopia as a whole has been enduring conflicts between supporters and opponents of federalism, threatening its unity.
Ahmed’s disbanding of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front and creation of the Prosperity Party in November 2019 was a blow to the religious, ethnic, and racial diversity of the country.
Various ethnic groups reiterated their demands for self-rule. The Sidama region, comprising four per cent of the population, held a referendum to establish a republic within the federal Ethiopian state.
The Ethiopian authorities lost their grip following the murder of Oromo singer Hachalu Hundessa in June this year. Mass protests erupted in the Oromo region, rendering 150 dead and thousands arrested, including Jawar Muhammed, founder of the Oromia Media Network, who is facing terrorism charges, and veteran oppositionist Lidito Aylau, who was ordered released but remains behind bars.
Armed gangs calling themselves the Oromo Liberation Army killed more than 50 villagers in Amhara in early November.
Ethiopia’s general elections, slated for August 2020, were postponed, with the government citing the coronavirus pandemic as the reason. The majority of observers, however, believe the elections were put off to prevent further disintegration.
The country’s majority Oromo group, from which Ahmed hails, comprises 34 per cent of the population. The Amhara, representing 28 per cent, have for long been the country’s ruling elite. The Tigray and Somali groups each comprise six per cent of the population.
Tigray had been important since it was at the forefront of the Revolutionary Democratic Front that overthrew the rule of Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991. Throughout these decades, conflicts continued, but people’s conditions improved and food security increased. However, the country did not always adopt democratic principles.
Ahmed has described these decades as “27 years of darkness”, although the country’s economy was growing fast between 2002 and 2014. Ahmed and the Amhara are now working to consolidate their grip on power, whereas Ethiopia’s remaining ethnic groups believe the solution to the country’s woes is remaining true to the constitution.
Following the death of Zenawi, leader of the TFLP and prime minister for more than 20 years, other ethnicities protested against the Tigrayans’ control of the state. The calls led the ruling party to name a premier from a small ethnic group in the south.
But the other ethnic groups’ demands grew louder following the 2015 general elections, and protests erupted after the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front garnered all the parliamentary seats. For years, the Oromo Youth Movement had led the protests, urging the ruling party to topple Hailemariam Desalegn and bring Ahmed to the top of the government.
As the year draws to a close, Ethiopia is engaged in a civil conflict that is not likely to end soon. The Tigrayans have withdrawn to the mountains, from where they are adopting guerilla tactics against the central government.
The conflict may tempt neighbouring countries to intervene, and it gives more opportunities for other ethnic groups to make political gains. Whether Ethiopia comes out of its conundrums united or disintegrated, 2020 will remain etched in the country’s memory for a long time to come.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 December, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly