3 QUESTIONS - What's happening in Ethiopia?

3 QUESTIONS - What's happening in Ethiopia?

The conflicts in Ethiopia are primarily ethnic in nature as the main dividing line in Ethiopian politics is between Ethiopian nationalists and ethno-nationalists

By Patrick Wight

- The author is a researcher and journalist focusing on conflict and geopolitics in the Horn of Africa, primarily related to Ethiopia.

ISTANBUL (AA) - In three questions, Patrick Wight explains the situation in Ethiopia.

  • What happened in the recent history that led to the ongoing situation in Ethiopia?

Ethiopia’s civil war emerged from a power struggle between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who came to power in 2018, and leaders of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the dominant partner of the country’s ruling coalition from 1991 to 2018. After the TPLF was deposed by protest movements in Oromia and Amhara Regions, it returned to control Tigray Region.

Tensions between the old and new guard boiled over when Tigray held elections in September 2020 despite federal authorities postponing the polls, citing Covid-19. Civil war erupted on November 3 when forces loyal to the TPLF attacked military bases in Tigray to pre-empt an imminent federal intervention to arrest their leaders. Aiming to bring a recalcitrant region to heel, federal authorities teamed up with neighboring Eritrea and Amhara region to invade Tigray.

Eritrea’s despot, Isaias Afwerki, sees the TPLF as his mortal enemy. During the 1980s, Tigrayan and Eritrean rebels were allied against Mengistu Hailemariam’s brutal regime in Addis Ababa. Upon their victory, the TPLF formed the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) ruling coalition in Addis Ababa and Eritreans voted in favor of independence.

Relations soured over economic and political disputes, leading to a devastating border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea from 1998 to 2000. The two countries then engaged in two decades of no war-no peace during which relations progressively deteriorated. Abiy came to power in 2018 and signed a peace deal with Eritrea that led to him winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, but now this appears to have in fact been a war pact against their mutual enemy, the TPLF.

Meanwhile, Amhara nationalists are primarily motivated by territorial expansion. At the war’s outset, authorities and militias from Amhara region unconstitutionally seized areas in Western Tigray by force they claim were unjustly included in the region when the TPLF-led government established an ethnoterritorial federal system in 1995. Amid the war, these lands were ethnically cleansed of hundreds of thousands of Tigrayans.

  • What is the current situation?

The first eight months of the war were marked by an onslaught on Tigray. Reports of widespread atrocities fueled resistance that coalesced into the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF). After a TDF offensive toppled the federally established regional administration in late June 2021, Abiy’s government turned to draconian siege warfare, imposing a blockade on humanitarian assistance, and shutting down banking services, telecommunications, and electricity.

Tigray’s authorities responded by invading neighboring Amhara and Afar regions, where they also committed atrocities, and marched towards the capital, which prompted federal authorities to initiate a mass arrest campaign of Tigrayans. After the TDF was forced to mostly retreat to Tigray, a stalemate set in during which the siege continued but fighting was greatly reduced. Fighting resumed on August 24, 2022, leading to the most devastating round of combat.

Encircled by hostile forces without access to supplies like fuel, the TDF decided to sign onto what many saw as unfavorable peace terms in Pretoria, South Africa, on November 2, 2022. Since then, the federal government has tightened relations with the TPLF, much to the dismay of leaders in Eritrea and Amhara. A crackdown on Amhara militias, known as Fano, journalists, and opposition figures caused them to turn against it and shore up ties with Eritrea.

In line with the peace deal, Tigray’s authorities handed over their heavy weapons and formed an interim regional administration in March, while federal authorities gradually restored services in Tigray and eased restrictions on humanitarian access. However, on March 30, United Nations (UN) and United States (US) aid agencies halted distribution in Tigray, and in June to Ethiopia as a whole, owing to federal and regional authorities and militaries diverting food aid.

A key issue left unresolved by Pretoria is the territorial dispute between Tigray and Amhara, along with the full withdrawal of Eritrean and Amhara troops from Tigray. Amhara nationalists fear that federal authorities will hand this region back to Tigray, something they cite as a red line.

After signing the Pretoria Agreement, war in the southern Oromia region ramped up. There has been a more low-level conflict there since 2019, marked by an insurgency led by the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), which is accused of a slew of atrocities against Amharas living in Oromia, attacks on Oromos by Amhara militiamen, and the government’s counterinsurgency involving mass arrest campaigns, extrajudicial killings, and drone strikes targeting civilians.

The federal government and OLA finally entered into peace talks from March 24 to May 3 in Zanzibar, Tanzania. These talks did not lead to a resolution. Less than two weeks later, the OLA accused federal forces of launching attacks on it and intensified its recruitment campaigns.

  • Is the conflict turning into a religious conflict from an ethnic conflict?

The conflicts in Ethiopia are primarily ethnic in nature as the main dividing line in Ethiopian politics is between Ethiopian nationalists and ethno-nationalists.

Southern peoples argue that Ethiopia was formed through a violent and assimilationist territorial expansion in the late nineteenth century by the northern highlanders – mostly Amharas but also Tigrayans – that led to their cultural, economic, and political subjugation.

After the TPLF seized power in 1991, all levels of the state were dominated mostly by Tigrayans, who make up only 6 percent of the population, while Oromos are 35 percent, and Amharas 27 percent. Growing resentment was suppressed by the centralized state, despite the EPRDF adopting a form of ethnofederalism that nominally granted regional autonomy.

Amhara nationalists see the ethnofederal constitution as the root of the country’s problems. Oromo nationalists support what they call multinational federalism but say the EPRDF, and now Prosperity Party, never implemented it properly, and claim Amharas simply want to retake the benefits they enjoyed during imperial times prior to 1974 and, to some extent, thereafter.

Abiy rose to power in 2018 from within the EPRDF’s Oromia party with the mission to decrease the TPLF’s power, and by extension that of Tigrayans. His siding with Amhara elites caused most Oromos and Tigrayans to turn against him. More recently, Abiy has cracked down on his former allies in Amhara and tried to shore up his fledgling Oromo power base.

Fissures did recently emerge within Ethiopia’s religious institutions, but these were articulated along ethnic lines. A synod from Oromia broke away from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in February, claiming the clergy is dominated by Amharas. Federal authorities violently suppressed protests, but Abiy eventually reunified the church. Amhara nationalists accuse Abiy of increasingly siding with Oromos and cite this saga as proof. Both sides of this fissure supported the Tigray war which caused the Orthodox Church’s Tigray branch to separate from the Holy Synod, despite its Tigrayan head calling the war on Tigray genocidal.

A further religious dimension, Abiy is a Pentecostal leader in a country dominated by Orthodox Christians and Muslims. His evangelism is a driving force of his politics, and Abiy’s government has also recently been violently suppressing dissent from Muslim communities.


*Opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu.

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