Ethiopia conflict: Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's problem from hell

Ethiopian Army soldiers

Ethiopian Army soldiers stand as a child stand next to them at Mai Aini Refugee camp, in Ethiopia, on January 30, 2021

Photo credit: Eduardo Soteras | AFP

What you need to know:

  • What broke the camel`s back between Abiy and TPLF leaders was his decision to disband the EPRDF almost after 30 years of its existence and merge it into one national party.

In one of his recent messages on Twitter, Ethiopia`s Prime Minister posted a 23-second clip depicting domesticated animals cooperating to feed themselves. A hen on the back of a dog pecking grain and a cat on a hen`s back delighting itself with what appears to be a diced meat ready for cooking.

Viewed by over 150,000 people on the day he tweeted it, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali wanted to convey a symbolic message: “Let`s rely on each other to confront and overcome our challenges.”

The reaction to such an “unstatesmanly” message was brisk.

Very few of the over 2,000 followers responded took him at heart. Many felt this clip and Abiy`s tweet as a testament to how far the Prime Minister is detached from reality and lives in an alternative world. Many see it as evidence of how much Abiy becomes oblivious to the carnage they see their country is in three years after he came to the helm of political power, promising personal security and national prosperity.

In his reign, there would be “no one chasing, nor to be chased,” he declared before parliament during his address after he was sworn in as a prime minister in April 2018.

This month marks the third year in office for Prime Minister Abiy, who many had thought beacon hope and promise for Ethiopia`s path to a liberal democratic order. The scorecard is far from what many had in mind when they crowded the squares in Addis Abeba and large venues in Europe and the United States. No predecessor of his had ever enjoyed such near-complete support by groups crossing many divides and historical fault lines.

Today, it is tasking to find Ethiopians mid-way in their views of a leader the world crowned in 2019 as a man deserving the Nobel Peace Prize, for bringing to an end the two-decade stalemate with Eritrea, and “the promise he held for the future.” Abiy invokes strong passion either way; his foes despise him in as much as he is adulated by his supporters. Once thought by his compatriots inside and well-wishers outside as a consensus leader, a figure of unity and a man reconciliation, Prime Minister Abiy is now a highly polarizing political figure.

It could not have been otherwise, for the Prime Minister`s rhetoric and actions have far-fetching consequences than they were anticipated. Abiy Ahmed is a consequential leader not only to Ethiopia but to the entire East Africa. Entering into a new alliance with Eritrea`s Isaias Afwerki and Somalia`s Mohamed A. Mohamed (Farmaajo), Abiy wants to rewrite history in the region as he wants to force himself through a new political project at home.

Abiy Ahmed and Isaias Afwerki

In this file photo taken on November 09, 2018 Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (C) welcomes Eritrea's President Isaias Afwerki upon his arrival at the airport in Gondar, for a visit in Ethiopia, on November 9, 2018. 

Photo credit: Eduardo Soteras | AFP

Electoral authoritarianism

Abiy came to the throne at the back of a near three decades electoral authoritarianism of the EPRDF, to serve a purpose far distant from what he appears to be doing now.

A three-year popular protest, particularly in Oromia Regional State where he hailed from, was raging in the country. His predecessor, Hailemariam Desalegn, was unable to respond quickly and sufficiently to a dissatisfied youth demanding the bridging of the gap between what was promised in the constitution and the reality as practiced by the EPRDF regime. It was a call later echoed by the youth in Amhara Regional State, the second largest state in the federation next to the Oromia region.

An unprecedented and ahistorical economic growth in nearly two decades created a restless generation demanding the authorities to walk their talk.

The generous west poured money into humanitarian and development assistance. Ethiopia`s impressive GDP growth, fueled by infrastructure financing through mounting debts from China, also brought inflation and debt trapping. Hence, the economy comes to its limits.

Highly centralized party machinery with a strong grip over regional states' affairs frustrated their respective elites who sought broader autonomy granted by the constitution; an increasingly perceived favoritism by the TPLF and its cronies in the ruling coalition drove a bourgeoning private sector to resentment. Unabated official corruption fueled the anger of many in the populace; and, growing violations of human rights and the absence of accountability to the perpetrators made several give up hope on the regime`s ability to reform.

Ethiopians rallied and protested and were brutalized by security forces, demanding political reform and economic liberalization. Despite a series of closed-door meetings and pledges for reform made by the ruling EPRDF, nothing much was changed in the years since 2015. It was a time when the EPRDF declared victory in the electoral front, controlling, with its allies, 100 per cent of the legislative houses at the federal and regional states.

Things had reached a breaking point, forcing Prime Minister Hailemariam to resign in early 2018. An inter-party selection system installed Abiy as the EPRDF chairperson, succeeding Hailemariam. It was apparent he would be confirmed as the third prime minister since the current federal system was instituted in the mid-1990s.

Ethiopia Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed

Ethiopia Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed waves to the crowd during a rally on Meskel Square in Addis Ababa on June 23, 2018.

Photo credit: Yonas Tadese | AFP

Credible elections

Prime Minister Abiy`s mandate of finishing his predecessor`s term was to ensure credible national elections were held in time, initially scheduled for May 2020. He was given the task of reforming a series of laws that constrained the political space paving the way for fair and credible elections, such as rules governing the works of electoral, civil society, media, and political parties. Rewriting the infamous anti-terrorism law was top on the agenda, for it was viewed as a tool employed to victimize political opponents to the ruling EPRDF.

Some of the measures signaling the softening of the powerful grip of the EPRDF had already begun under Hailemariam. Dissident politicians and human rights activists were released and political groups in the Diaspora and insurgents sheltered by Eritrea - including the OLF and Ginbot 7 - were allowed to return.

But Abiy`s charm and aggressive drive were evident in pushing highly prized state enterprises like the Ethio telecom and sugar estates for liberalization and privatization. He reinforced calls for unconditional normalization with Eritrea, an arch-enemy for two decades.

In the eyes of many in the international community, Ethiopia found in Abiy a young reformer, stirring the country and its people away from its dogmatic and leftist legacy. Domestically, hundreds of thousands rallied at the centre of the capital showing their enthusiasm and support for his messages of “unity, togetherness, and forgiveness.”

He escaped an assassination attempt after a grenade was thrown at him at the rally held three months after he came to power, killing and injuring a number of his supporters. Addressing the country in a few hours after the incident, Abiy blamed a “coordinated plot with professional hand meant to intimidate and derail the reform” he had just begun. It was an earlier sign that not everyone had embraced his call for synergy and renewal.

But his first visit to the town of Meqelle, the seat of the Tigray Regional State, was overwhelming. A conference hall packed with the audience gave him a standing ovation, interrupting his address in Tigrigna, the local dialect, in every few minutes. The TPLF remained to have a strong grip in the region, although rescinding from its influential position in federal affairs.

Long a senior partner in the EPRDF coalition, the TPLF was viewed (and blamed) for playing a dominant role in the party and the national politics, despite the size of the population it hails from. In the earlier days of Abiy`s ascendance to power, many Tigrayan political and business elites were relieved of his election. They had hoped they could focus on rebuilding their region without taking the singular blame for what goes wrong in the country.

'Terrified' survivors recount attacks on civilians in Tigray

The Tigray conflict

However, the relationship their leaders had with the Prime Minister was clouded with mutual suspicion and shared insecurities of each other. TPLF leaders felt sidelined in the agreements Abiy signed with Eritrea`s strongman Isaias Afwerki in Abu Dhabi and Jeddah to normalize the relationship between the two countries. The Tigray region is one of the three states but sharing the longest border with Eritrea. Much remains n secrecy in the details of these agreements, although in hindsight, many believe it was a pact the two leaders entered to decimate the TPLF.

What struck the camel`s back between Abiy and TPLF leaders was his decision to disband the EPRDF almost after 30 years of its existence and merge it into one national party. Although not new to the EPRDF`s leaders, the tenacity and speed with which Abiy moved with the merger disgruntled not only the TPLF leaders. The closest ally in his path to power, Lemma Megerssa, was opted out as the TPLF decided to go solo.

Solo, they did with the regional elections in September last year, even after parliament postponed national elections by one year, attributing to the outbreak of COVID-19. The House of Federation (the Senate) passed a resolution outlawing unilateral conduct of elections as illegitimate, for it was only the national electoral board, headquartered in Addis Ababa, with the mandate to conduct elections.

Abiy had warned, failure to comply would have consequences.

TPLF leaders believed there was no constitutional base for the two federal legislative houses and regional states to continue as legitimate after their terms ended in October 2020. The constitution does not grant any of them the ability to stay beyond the five-year they were elected for. While pursuing elections at the regional level, TPLF leaders declared their intention not to recognize the federal government, parliament, the House of Federation and other regional states as legitimate bodies to conduct the country's affairs.

The House of Federation retorted, declaring the outcome of the elections in Tigray “null and void.” The Tigray State hastily formed an electoral body that had declared the TPLF winning 99% of the 2.7 million votes cast in an election no regional state ever held over the past two-decade.

Both sides had entered into a slippery slope, depriving each other of recognition; they went on the road of mutual delegitimization. It was a matter of not “if” but “when” war breaks out between forces loyal to the Tigray Regional State and the Federal government. The TPLF showed its defiance when its leaders denied entry to a commanding general who was assigned to the Northern Command, stationed in Tigray.

Ethiopian soldiers discover TPLF weapons depot in Tigray capital

Situation escalates

Prior to the outbreak of the war, Abiy was honored as the only foreign leader to have visited Sawa, a training facility for Eritrea`s national military service. The reciprocity was Afwerki`s visit to the air force headquarters and base in Bishoftu, east of Addis Ababa.

What was most dreaded and the foretold war broke out on November 4, 2020, when the world`s attention was fixated on the United States' presidential elections.

Forces loyal to the Tigray Regional State run over military garrisons in the region. They said it was a “preemptive” act to defend themselves from imminent aggression by not only Addis Ababa. Debrestion Gebremichael, the regional president, claimed Addis Ababa was encircling Tigray with deployment of forces by Ethiopia`s defenses forces and militias from the Amhara Regional State. Eritrea was edging to join. Debretsion pleaded with a letter to the African Union (AU), which was ignored.

Abiy declared the goals of the military engagement in Tigray were to disarm the TPLF; bring its leaders to justice; and, install a provisional administration until the election is held in the region. He characterized the military engagement as a “law enforcement operation” that would be over in weeks. But he deployed the national military assets in their entirety, and allowed the Eritrean army to join the fight against the Tigrayan forces.

In three weeks, Abiy declared victory immediately after federal forces took control of Meqelle city. He claimed not a “single civilian” was killed in this operation, although later on, it became evident the toll of this war on civilians was too horrific to contemplate.

Over 60,000 people fled to neighboring Sudan; thousands of civilians continue to die; hundreds of women were raped; millions are displaced from their homes and sheltered in schools and makeshifts; and over 90% of the population depends on humanitarian handouts. Hospitals and clinics have been ransacked. So were factories and manufacturing plants vandalized. The region of Tigray was rampaged and looted in what one analyst described as a “total war” waged in the region.

Suffering debilitating setbacks, the TPLF forces went to the mountains determined to stage protracted guerrilla warfare. For them, it was like going back in a time when they had waged the same tactic and succeeded in ousting the military government in 1991. They continue to fight with an existential mindset.

Neither Abiy`s narrative on the nature of the military engagement in Tigray nor its conclusion turned out to be the case. They only created a current political dispensation where the government`s claim on the decimation of the TPLF as a politico-military force has put Abiy`s political capital and credibility on the line.

Fleeing Ethiopians describe horror of Tigray fighting

Grand political project

Prime Minister Abiy has a grand political project of undoing what he sees is a federal system based on linguistic-cultural fault lines but fragmenting Ethiopia. He simplifies the multicultural federal system to no more than a stage for village contention, a view that appeals to a particular group in the Ethiopian society while dejects others.

He took sides in the fight for the soul of Ethiopia`s state with conflicting dreams. Is Ethiopia a nation-state or a state for many nations?

Abiy`s response is simplistic in analysis and reductionist in his argument. He asks Ethiopians to let him solve the country`s problems but feels misunderstood when challenged. Little does he seem to realize that his political outfit, Prosperity Party (PP), exercises “ethnic politics” in a more brutal, blunt and incoherent manner than its predecessor. Abiy appears to be convinced that he is dealing with inherited problems of the leftist social and political legacy and find it difficult to see choices he has made to exacerbate them.

His problems are not, however, confined to Tigray.

There is a growing insurgency in Western Wellega of the Oromia Regional State, with rebels under the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) making military gains. Militias loyal to regional states have their leaders` tug of words spilling over to open military conflicts. Recently, hundreds of militias were killed on both sides of the Afar and Somali regional states whose forces were battling in the towns and highways of areas claimed by each.

Scores were killed in towns under special zones designated for Oromo communities in Amhara Regional State, leading to open recrimination flying back and forth between Amhara and Oromia regional states' leaders.

Tigray conflict

In this file photo taken on March 1, 2021, a woman leans on the wall of a damaged house which was shelled as federal-aligned forces entered the city, in Wukro, north of Mekele.

Photo credit: Eduardo Soteras | AFP

Increasing violence

Massacres of civilians in states such as Benishangul Gumuz Regional State have become regular, showing a 974 per cent increase in instances of violence in the three years since Abiy is in office, according to data by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), a nonprofit platform collecting and analyzing data on conflicts across the world.

Crucifying a civilian in broad daylight; dragging wounded individuals in route to hospitals from an ambulance and mutilate their bodies; and, pulling a man out of a tricycle to stone him to death were all gruesome scenes that numb the country. All these were committed in towns and the presence of large crowds cheering for mob justice.

Brutal violence has gone mainstream in post-Abiy Ethiopia.

Fatalities due to political violence have gone up at the national level by 33 per cent in the three years since 2018, compared to the baseline two years prior, disclosed the findings by ACLED. Otherwise most peaceful and calm region, Tigray has seen the most dramatic jump in violence at 1,690 per cent, followed by Benishangul-Gumuz and the Southern Regional State (176 per cent).

Paraded as a global capital destination and a model for state-driven economic growth miracle, Ethiopia is trailing behind Nigeria and DR Congo in Africa for the number of fatalities recorded this year.

Yet, Abiy is a believer, certain of his destinies to a great cause. His divine certainty can be fatalistic, leaving no room for self-doubt and compromise. He feels in possession of the Godly truth, such as when he proclaims that Ethiopia will be one of the two world superpowers in a few decades. But the perfect storm he faces from unpacking an imperial state is only a problem from hell.