Reports have indicated widespread violations in the war the Ethiopian federal government is waging against its rivals from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.
The war has been raging since November 2020, with no accurate information about the number of casualties. However, UN estimates put the number of Tigrayans who fled to Sudan at over 50,000.
About a million displaced people have escaped to different parts of Ethiopia since Addis Ababa’s campaign against a region that had been the centre of power until 2018, the UN added. But the conflict between the federal government and the Tigray is the culmination of multiple historical disputes in which the various ethnic components of Ethiopia traded places at the helm and in the opposition.
Supported by the Amhara, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed may cancel federal rule and go back to a central, unitary state. That move would anger the majority of Ethiopians, however, including the Tigrayans. All ethnic groups in Ethiopia benefited from federalism in that they were allowed self-rule, at least in non-strategic fields such as education, healthcare and social housing.
Meanwhile, the Amhara, who had ruled Ethiopia for many centuries, rejected the federal constitution because they wanted to resume control of Ethiopia. For 150 years, since the expansion of the Ethiopian empire under emperor Tawadros II in 1955, Amharic became the official language, enabling the Amhara to rise to top positions in education, administration, in the judiciary and the army after its modernisation during the rule of emperor Menelik II in the early 19th and early 20th centuries.
The Amhara enjoyed relative luxury and were distinguished for following the Egyptian Orthodox Church. This gave them a sense of superiority over other Ethiopians who followed traditional African beliefs that lack a written theology in a country where Muslims have always been but a small minority. Moreover, the Amhara is the second largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, making up 28 per cent of the population, after the Oromos, who constitute 34 per cent of Ethiopians.
Unlike the Oromos, however, the Amhara are known for their unity. More than 95 per cent of the Amhara are Orthodox Christians, while the Oromos are divided between Muslims and Christians. Yet, despite all the advantages the Amhara enjoyed, the Tigrayans were able to stay at the helm for 27 years, until Ahmed rose to power in April 2018.
The Amhara have rejected the Tigray’s rise to power since day one, but thanks to the federal system the Tigrayans were able to form a series of political alliances with such ethnic groups as the Afar in the east as well as southern groups like the Somalis, and the Benishangul-Gumuz. In the federal system, all ethnic groups found was through the social and cultural marginalisation the Amhara practised against them.
Federalism gave each the right to use its own language in its region – with the Amharic language remaining the official state language. This development helped a large number of Ethiopians to climb into the middle class, which was no longer confined to the people who mastered the Amharic language.
Countless artists who produced works in both their local and official languages rose to fame, such as the late Oromo singer Hachalu Hundessa, who performed in both Amharic and Oromo before he was murdered. It is because of all the gains the middle class acquired thanks to the federal system that these groups will not easily let go of federalism.
In addition, federalism and the federal constitution gave Ethiopia’s ethnic groups the right to have their own armed forces, although none were not as strong as the large Ethiopian army. The era of the Tigrayans and their leader Meles Zenawi witnessed an economic boom.
According to World Bank estimates, in the first few years of the millennium, Ethiopia became the largest growing economy in the world, following in the footsteps of Myanmar and China. Growth rates increased by 10 per cent between 2003 and 2014. Famine vanished from Ethiopia as the country drew in industrial investments in the textiles and weaving, food production and leather sectors, which resulted in a hike in its GDP.
However, the Tigrayans exercised severe repression, no better than that experienced by Ethiopians during the reign of the last emperor Haile Selassie. They brutally marginalised the largest ethnic groups, the Oromo and Amhara.
The sudden death of Zenawi in 2012 confused the authorities. Since it was not possible to choose a new Tigrayan leader, Zenawi was replaced by a Tigrayan ally in the south, Hailemariam Desalegn, who became the first prime minister to hail from outside the Tigray or the Amhara.
Desalegn’s rise heralded the power of Protestants in a country that, for over 2,000 years, has remained predominantly Orthodox. The scene was repeated with the rise of Abiy Ahmed, a Protestant in his 50s. Desalegn crushed the protests that broke out against the results of the 2015 parliamentary elections, which forced him to resign in early 2018 due to escalating unrest.
Both the Amhara and the Oromo contributed to fuelling those protests. Later on, it was revealed that the Amhara regional government strongly supported the 2015 protests in the hope of weakening the Tigrayans’ rule and their alliances.
The Oromos have been fuelling nationwide protests until today and their young leaders contributed to Ahmed’s rise. The Oromos’ support for Ahmed didn’t last long, however. A few months into his rule, they turned against his “totalitarian” tendencies. Ahmed had taken steps the Tigray rejected, such as reconciling with their opponent, Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, a move which earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019.
Ahmed disbanded the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, a coalition of ethnic movements and political parties representing the Tigray, Amhara, Oroma and southern groups. Instead, he founded the Prosperity Party, which calls for abolishing federalism in favour of a unitary state.
The Tigrayans once again rejected the new party, refusing to join it. So did the youth of Oromia. As a result, Ahmed put off the general elections, citing “fears of the spread of the coronavirus”. Another bloody conflict erupted between the Oromo and the Somali in the south. A million Ethiopians, the majority Somali, left their homes fearing for their lives.
On the other hand, the people of Oromia fought with their neighbours from the Amhara. The armed clashes rendered hundreds of Ethiopians dead. In addition, repeated conflicts erupted between the Oromos and Tigrayans over lands claimed by the Amhara which Zenawi had added to the Tigray in the late 1990s. Benishangul-Gumuz remains turbulent after dozens of Ethiopians were killed following the prime minister’s visit to the region.
The area, near the border with Sudan, has acquired added significance recently, being where Ethiopia is constructing its largest-ever project, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, the cause of a dispute between Ethiopia on one hand and Egypt and Sudan on the other. Furthermore, the Amhara have endured an unexpected defeat from their neighbours in Sudan who retrieved their lands in Fashqa and expelled Amharic farmers, protected by Shafta gangs.
If the Amharic farmers don’t return to Fashqa, over which Zenawi claimed Ethiopian hegemony in 2008, the Amharic political elite and Ahmed will end up in an embarrassing position.
To top it all off, responding to US demands to withdraw Eritrean forces will pit the Ethiopian army in a street fight that could disintegrate Ethiopia, wholly undermining the fragile, ethnically diverse Horn of Africa.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 February , 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly