Existential crisis in Ethiopia

Haitham Nouri , Tuesday 9 Nov 2021

Tigray People’s Liberation Front forces have declared they will march on the Ethiopian capital in a war that is becoming an existential crisis for the country, writes Haitham Nouri

Existential crisis in Ethiopia
Exiled Tigray community and their supporters march to mark a year since Abiy Ahmed s administration started fighting against the Tigray at the US Capitol (photo: AP)

The advance of the rebel Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) towards the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa is “pushing the country to its demise” warned Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in a Facebook post last week.

Facebook, which has rebranded itself as Meta, removed the post for “violating its policies against inciting and supporting violence,” it said in a widely reported statement.

In the deleted post, Ahmed, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, called on Ethiopian citizens “to organise and march in [any] legal manner using every weapon and power... to prevent, reverse and bury the terrorist TPLF.”

As the war in the country entered its second year on 3 November, TPLF forces moved onto the offensive, pushing into territory controlled by federal forces and declaring they would march on the capital.

The scenario is reminiscent of the overthrow of the communist regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam in the country in 1991, something which has also raised the alarm in Addis Ababa. The federal government called on citizens to rise up to defend the capital and “to bury the enemy with our blood and bones and make the glory of Ethiopia high again,” as Ahmed put it in a speech on 3 November.

Two days later, Ethiopian opposition forces meeting in Washington announced the creation of a coalition of militias from various regions included Oromia, Benishangul and the Somali Region, as well as the Tigray Region in the north.

The coalition is another reminder of the 1991 experience in which an alliance of forces from Ethiopia’s different ethnic groups formed the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) that overthrew Haile Mariam. The EPRDF, controlled by Tigray, held power for nearly three decades until Ahmed, Ethiopia’s first Oromo prime minister, came to power in April 2018.

The ethnic factor is another reason why the current situation in Addis is tense. Most of the inhabitants of the federal capital are Amhara who dominate the country’s political elites and middle class and therefore fear revenge from the Tigray and other groups.

Under Ahmed, the Amhara have been working to turn history back to the era when they dominated Ethiopia not just politically but also militarily, economically and perhaps most importantly, culturally.

The Amhara were the founders of modern Ethiopia, which began with the unification of the country in 1855 under Tewodros II. He was succeeded by emperors Yohannes IV (1872–1889), Menelik II (1889–1913) and Haile Selassie (1913-1974).

“The Amhara imposed their language on the other components of Ethiopian society, which had been sultanates and princedoms controlled by Muslim sheikhs or African tribes that followed traditional Africa religions,” said Ahmed Abdel-Halim, a professor of Amharic at the Institute for African Studies in Cairo.

“When the Tigray came to power, they allowed the other Ethiopian ethnic groups to use their own languages in their regions which had become autonomous. Then, Ahmed replaced the EPRDF with a single party as a means to reassert Amhara control over Ethiopia.”

Abdel-Halim said that Western and regional analysts believe that Ethiopia might have disintegrated had Haile Selassie died a natural death while in power and that this had been a main reason why Amhara officers overthrew him and founded a “communist republic” in the 1970s.

This was a means to prolong Amhara control over the country, they said, although the founders of the new republic also felt that the new system would be a better means to develop the awareness of the population as a whole.

The communist regime in Ethiopia only lasted two decades and was swept away by the dual forces of the famines of the 1980s and the civil war led by the Tigray. However, the ethnic tensions that are resurfacing in Ethiopia today are not just between the Amhara and the other ethnic components of the country. According to Abdel-Halim, “the other ethnic groups do not trust the Tigray after experiencing their rule for three decades, but nor do they want to return to the era of Amhara control.”

According to Hassan Ali, a professor of African Political Studies at the University of Khartoum in Sudan, the coalition of opposition militia groups announced in Washington “is essentially a political pact against Abiy Ahmed intended to weaken his hold on power.”

“No ethnic group in Ethiopia wants to be ruled by another. Most of the militia groups have secessionist agendas.”

At the same time, the countries around Ethiopia also have designs on the country. “Sudan is the only friendly neighbour,” Ali said. Somalia, which waged several wars against Ethiopia in the 1960s and 1970s, is “the main enemy.”

Although the Ethiopian-Somali wars were proxy wars in the framework of the Cold War, they were also manifestations of longstanding animosity between Addis Ababa and Mogadishu.

As Somali journalist Abdel-Rashid Abduh told Al-Ahram Weekly, “our five-pointed star symbolises that the Somali people are spread among five countries: French Somalia, which is now Djibouti, the former Italian and British Somalias, which make up the Republic of Somalia, Ethiopian Somalia in the Ogaden Region and lastly Kenyan Somalia in north-eastern Kenya.”

Somali resentment of Ethiopia runs deep. “Ethiopia occupies a religious centre that is very dear to Somalis: Harar, the city of mosques, holy men and Quranic schools. Ethiopia’s dams in the Juba and Shabelle River Basins have increased droughts in southern Somalia. The Ethiopian army has also made incursions into Somalia ostensibly to fight the terrorist Al-Shabaab Al-Mujahideen group,” Abduh said.

“Somalia today is not in the best condition. It is a divided, failed state that has lost control over its own territory. However, this might be the best condition for reunifying Somalis behind the cause of regaining our land from the Ethiopian occupation.”

The Somali nation in Ethiopia has fought a bitter war against Tigrayan rule, followed by an ethnic war against the Oromo, the largest Ethiopian ethnic group accounting for around 34 per cent of the population. The fighting claimed thousands of lives and displaced over a million people.

The Somali Region in Ethiopia also suffered severe food shortages as a result of locust infestations in 2019 and 2020, which aggravated an already volatile situation. The Somali People’s Liberation Front is among the militias that signed up to the anti-Ahmed alliance unveiled in Washington on 5 November.

The Gambella People’s Liberation Army is another group that joined the alliance. Commenting on the Gambella Region, Ali said it was adjacent to South Sudan and inhabited primarily by Nilotic groups such as the Nuer and Anywaa.

“During the Sudanese Civil War, the Sudanese People’s Liberation Front had camps in Gambella that they used in the fight against the Sudanese army,” he said, adding that the region is still largely outside the control of the federal government in Addis Ababa.

Some believe the war to liberate Gambella might be politically useful for South Sudan, which has been plunged into civil war between the Dinka and Nuer since its independence in July 2011. The war has claimed around 400,000 lives and exposed millions to one of the worst manmade humanitarian disasters after those in Tigray and Yemen.

Others believe that if liberated, Gambella could become as much of a burden on South Sudan as a liberated Ogaden would for Somalia.

Kenya also has longstanding grievances against Ethiopia, and it has officially lodged complaints with the UN Security Council against the Gilgel Gibe III Dam that Ethiopia is building on the Omo River that flows into Lake Turkana in northern Kenya.

Thousands of fishermen, pastoralists and farmers depend on the Lake for subsistence. Due to the construction of the dam, the water level in the lake has decreased by nearly a metre since 2016, forcing hundreds of people in the area to migrate to urban centres.

The environment-related migration has raised the spectre of a recurrence of the fighting that erupted in the Kenyan capital in 2009-2010 due to an influx of migrant pastoralists due to drought in the northeast.

Although the crisis was resolved through a power-sharing agreement, the wounds are still tender and cannot sustain further tensions due to environmental deterioration caused by the dams that Ethiopia is building for its own benefit. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta has put Kenyan forces on the alert along the border with Ethiopia.

Kenya and Somalia are in a dispute over the demarcation of their maritime borders, and although the International Court of Justice (ICJ) has ruled in favour of Mogadishu, Nairobi has rejected the ruling. Both sides are monitoring the situation in Ethiopia closely out of fears that developments there might upset the delicate balance between them.

There is a long history of hostility between Eritrea and Ethiopia and between Eritrea and the Tigray. Asmara entered the war in Tigray on the side of the Ethiopian federal government almost at the outset. Although it has withdrawn from the fighting under international pressure due to war crimes perpetrated by its forces, it is unlikely to sit back quietly if its Tigrayan enemy regains power in Addis Ababa.

It was Ahmed who put an end to the over 20-year state of war between the two countries, and it was precisely for this that he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize after coming to power.

Renewed warfare between Ethiopia and Eritrea would plunge the Horn of Africa into anarchy and “open the doors to hell for everyone,” as former Ethiopian leader Meles Zenawi once put it.

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