Ethiopia’s reputation as an African country not colonised by a European power is belied by the fact that ethnic chauvinists politically dominated its multicultural landscape for almost 200 years. Today’s needless war has its roots in that cursed history.
Mythical Ethiopia was the land of serfdom and the rulers’ brutality produced rebellions over the ages. A progressive student movement challenged the feudal monarchy in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but the military hijacked the resistance and installed a violent government precipitating open rebellions across the country.
The combination of the victory of the Eritrean liberation movement in 1990 and the tenacity of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) led to the regime’s collapse and Eritrea’s independence. The TPLF took over Ethiopia and divided it into a centralised ethnic federation. Many Ethiopians momentarily celebrated the demise of the military.
Changing of the Chauvinist Guard
When Meles Zenawi’s TPLF junta took control in 1991, it invited some of the opposition to a consultative conference, but quickly disqualified any political group that challenged its agenda. Their first victim was the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), representing the largest ethnic group in the country. OLF was immediately designated as a terrorist organisation.
Zenawi’s TPLF created an umbrella party called EPRDF (Ethiopian People’s Revolution Democratic Front) which consisted of various supplicant ethnic parties from the provinces. The promise of a democratic Ethiopia morphed into another ethnic dictatorship.
Zenawi’s regime felt so confident in 2005 to hold national elections that they were moderately open. Contrary to their expectations, the opposition parties won significant victories, including Addis Ababa’s municipality.
Dazed by this outcome, the regime acted ruthlessly and closed off all avenues of free expression. For the next decade, the regime shamelessly “won” 95 percent of the vote in every election. Public anger escalated, while the overseas opposition mobilised the youth in the country through social media.
A new prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, from a “minority” community was appointed by the party after Zenawi died in 2012, but the TPLF cadre controlled all the levers of power, including security forces.
Most Ethiopians recognised the sham this was and continued their resistance to the regime. Desalegn finally resigned as prime minister and was succeeded by Abiy Ahmed. Ahmed’s rise to power was a political earthquake as he became the first Oromo leader in modern Ethiopia. Elements in EPRDF mistakenly assumed that Ahmed’s appointment would appease the Oromo rebellion and sustain the old Tigray dominated order, but that was not to be.
The dominant ethnic chauvinists were shocked when the new government declared its five-point agenda. First, Ahmed and his team opened the gates of political prisons. Second, the PM doggedly pursued peaceful reconciliation with Eritrea. Third, he invited the overseas political opposition to return home. Fourth, he appointed a new independent election commission chaired by a woman who was a thorn in the side of the old order. Finally, all the armed groups were allowed to return home and become politically active inside the country. The Nobel Peace Committee honoured Ahmed with the 2019 Peace Prize.
These were awe-inspiring developments, but some political actors from the old regime were exceptionally unhappy about the turn of events. First, the TPLF leadership lost their hold over national security as Ahmed’s team consolidated their grip on key institutions to preempt a coup.
Apprehensive of these changes, former leaders of the TPLF and most senior security officials left for Tigray and consolidated their authority there while Ahmed’s was busy with reforms. TPLF leadership in Tigray continued to encourage its former clients in other regions of Ethiopia to resist the change and subvert it. Ahmed and his team recognised this strategy but had hoped that the TPLF will wisen up and realise the futility of attempting to restore the old order.
Once the TPLF realised the impossibility of their return to power in Addis Ababa, they openly defied the writ of the federal government. One of the first major points of contention was the postponement of the national election.
Ethiopia’s Election Commission delayed the federal election originally set for August 2020 to 2021 due to Covid-19. TPLF went ahead with the election in the province in August 2020 without the supervision of the National Election Commission and won all the seats.
Ahmed’s government declared the vote null and void but did not take any military action against TPLF. Despite such restraint, the federal government had a nagging concern that tolerating such illegal acts could encourage lawlessness and intensify conflicts within the country, but hoped that cooler heads would prevail.
Unfortunately hotter heads prevailed and the trigger of this needless war was a TPLF attack on a federal military base in the province. Ahmed’s government considered the attack as the last straw. He reshuffled his top military brass and instructed federal forces to move against what he dubbed as renegades.
The war has already cost hundreds of lives, mainly civilians caught in the cross-fire, and forced over 25,000 to flee. It mimics the callous war between Eritrea and Ethiopia two decades ago that wasted as many as 100,000 lives.
But the real cause of the war is much deeper than a disagreement over the timing of the election or these other issues. For too long, Ethiopian political history has been dominated by the elites of two minority groups, the Amhara and the Tigray. These elites considered people of Oromo origin and others as subjects incapable of governing Ethiopia. The latest incarnation of such arrogance was the TPLF’s scheme that they could govern the country with the acquiescence of ethnic clients from other regions.
The gulf between the rhetoric of democracy and the reality of ethnic domination under TPLF was not lost on many. Ahmed and his team moved swiftly and opened a novel democratic experiment that quickly overwhelmed TPLF and forced its withdrawal to Tigray.
The road to peace
TPLF’s recent shelling of Asmara airport escalated the war. Those in the know think this act may be TPLF’s desperate attempt to attract the international community to intervene. Others consider that the Eritrean regime sees the war as an opportunity to take revenge for TPLF’s aggression twenty years ago.
Whatever the merits of these explanations are, it is vital to contain the conflict and short-circuit a catastrophe in the making.
First, the Ethiopian government must recommit itself to genuinely democratic order and ensure that the election reflects the people’s will. Second, TPLF must agree to take part in the election like other regions under the supervision of the Federal Election Commission. Third, all sides must silence the guns to safeguards lives as well as prepare the ground for an African-led fact-finding mission. Fourth, all must agree to the supremacy of the Federal constitution and government and the need for regional self-government.
Finally, adopting such a program will ensure the death of ethnic chauvinism and pseudo-democracy, and the rise of a democratic Ethiopia at peace with itself and its neighbours.
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Author: Abdi Ismail Samatar
Abdi Ismail Samatar is Professor of Geography at the University of Minnesota & Research Fellow at the University of Pretoria. His latest book is “Africa’s First Democrats’.
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