After weeks of speculation about the fast-eroding ties between the federal government of Ethiopia and Tigray regional authorities, the nightmare scenario that many analysts and regional watchers had been warning about finally materialised when the Ethiopian Prime Minister – a Noble Peace laureate – declared war on the Tigray region on November 4. Although the so-called ‘internal law enforcement operation’ has now come to an end, the top leadership of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) is still at large, and thus the likelihood of a prolonged conflict remains a strong possibility. This is so because Addis Ababa has set their arrest as its ultimate objective while the TPLF leadership has vowed to resist.
On the face of it, sending troops to Tigray might appear to be natural course of action. The TPLF’s seizure of a military base in response to federal authorities’ efforts to change the leadership of the military’s Northern Command – home to the most powerful military unit in the country – was a nail in the coffin of Abiy’s patience and desire for a negotiated solution to the current disagreements between Addis and Mek’ele. However, a declaration of war is also a clear sign that hardliners within Mr. Abiy’s close circle, who have been calling for a tough military response for some time now, have obtained the upper hand in setting government policies. This is bad news because it could further ignite ethnic tensions, destabilise neighbouring countries, and lead to increased calls for separatism amongst Tigray and other ethnic groups.
In pursuing Tigrayans leadership, Abiy can take comfort in the TPLF’s isolation and lack of options. For one, he can bank on Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki’s deep animosity towards the TPLF and thus enlist Asmara’s assistance in his search for the Tigrayan leadership. Should the TPLF seek to declare independence and use Sudan’s eastern territories as a launching pad and a safe harbour, moreover, it will open itself to attacks from both Ethiopian and Sudanese forces. Angry at illegal border crossings and fearful of the prospect of enhanced intelligence and security ties between the TPLF and local actors in its eastern region, the Sudanese government has already called for the creation of a joint force to patrol the border.
The TPLF’s only option therefore is to put up a resistance fight and, perhaps, take the conflict to Addis Ababa by carrying out attacks against federal targets. Having war veterans in its rank and file and being home, until recently, to a well-equipped and large paramilitary force would certainly allow it to execute such tactics. It might also be able to call for assistance on Cairo, which might have its own reasons for stirring up domestic instability in Ethiopia or internationalising the conflict, thereby distorting Addis’s image. Still, its lack of partners and landlocked geography make resistance a short-term option whereas conducting guerrilla warfare and/or seeking assistance from Egypt would greatly damage its image; that is, it will turn public opinion in the rest of the country against it.
Unfortunately for Abiy, however, his heavy-handed approach will do next to nothing to address the root causes of Ethiopia’s current struggle with rising ethnic tensions. Put otherwise, defeating the TPLF will not calm nerves amongst ethnic groups. In fact, it could simply aggravate their fears of an encroaching federal force that is bent on bringing about their subversion.
Putting aside the rift between central authorities and the Tigrayans, there are also tensions in other parts of the country. In June, the murder of a popular folk singer – Hachalu Hundessa – brought thousands of Oromos to the streets of the capital in order to voice their anger at, and disappointment with, the government. Given the long history of their mistreatment at the hands of federal authorities and notwithstanding the fact that Abiy himself is an Oromo, they, similar to Tigrayans, seek more autonomy and are suspicious of any conciliatory move that Mr. Abiy might make towards Tigray in an attempt to defuse tensions with them.
And to make matters worse, the Oromos’ suspicion is even more strongly echoed by the members of the Amhara community who, due to their ethnic affinities with Eritrea, were subjected to horrendous hardship and barbaric treatment under the previous Tigray-dominated regime.
As it stands, the underlying problem Mr. Abiy is faced with is that his entire political narrative of strength via unity and his subsequent political agenda of centralising power are simply out of sync with the historical and constitutional reality of Ethiopia. As an empire nation, Ethiopia’s ethnic groups do not only enjoy unprecedented constitutional rights to self-rule, autonomy, and indeed secession; they religiously cherish and protect these rights in order to preserve their cultural identities. In an important sense, the ‘idea’ of Ethiopia is rooted in, and arises from, its diverse and multi-ethnic composition because Ethiopian citizenship is too “incomplete and contested” to allow for and/or enable a centralised system of governance.
By drumbeating his unity call, therefore, the Prime Minister is shooting himself in the foot. As both the architect of the current federal system and a recently marginalised group, Tigrayan leadership will not buy into Mr. Abiy’s political agenda of unity. If anything, they consider such calls part of a broader plot to further sideline them into irrelevance and submission. Nor will the Amhara and Oromo communities succumb to calls for the centralisation of political power.
Henry Ford is said to have commented once that “when everything seems to be going against you, remember that the airplane takes off against the wind”. By stubbornly insisting on his unity agenda, Prime Minster Abiy Ahmed seems to be drawing inspiration from Mr. Ford. Doing so in an ethnically sensitised socio-political context like contemporary Ethiopia, however, is bound for a loud and consequential crash; one that could very well lead to the ‘Balkanisation’ of Ethiopia and set its entire neighbourhood on fire.
As the undisputed regional hegemon in the Horn of Africa, the second most populous country in Africa, and one of the poorest countries in the world, Ethiopia is simply too important to fail. Put simply, instability in Ethiopia means instability in the wider Horn and therefore a renewed influx of migration into the EU. While Mr. Abiy must be supported in his effort to disarm the Tigray regional government, this support must be limited and measured; that is, it has to be made clear to him that he cannot seek to annihilate the TPLF. Outside actors must press both the federal government and the TPLF to bury their maximalist agendas and instead work towards a deal based on the South African model. In doing so, the would-be mediators are best advised to adopt what is referred to as the Systems Approach in management studies. Find an issue on which all parties agree, such as Ethiopia’s territorial integrity, and start negations from there. Only in this way can a collective will for the attainment of a common goal be developed.