In many parts of the world where ethnic balance has not been achieved, politics turn violent. Ethiopia is a classic example where a lack of ethnic balance leads to ethnic violence. The Ethiopian federal system was born out of internal power struggles between the government and ethnic forces that tried to gain control of territorial boundaries. Ethiopia’s political and cultural construction of ethnicity has been different from that of other African countries. Moreover, no Western power was ever able to penetrate and colonise Ethiopia so it has retained its independence. The country has however, experienced numerous incidences of political unrest over the last century, from the dissolution of the empire state to the establishment of a federalist system of governance.
A year into the crisis in Ethiopia pitting the federal troops against the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF), with periods of escalation in the relentless war in the Tigray region, ethnic conflicts, humanitarian tragedies, and centrifugal dynamics have considerably intensified, eviscerating one of the largest economies in the Horn of Africa. In as much as Ethiopia’s’ economic crisis had been deepening even before the start of the conflict, the current conflict has enflamed the situation.
This has prompted scholars, academics, pundits from the Horn, and outsiders to share their views on the current crisis in Ethiopia. Ethiopia is one of the largest multi-ethnic states on the continent, and the complex nature of the relationships between the different ethnic groups under different regimes makes the country even more complicated to analyse.
From the first Aksumite Empire, through Menelik 1 to the current federal government of Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia has metamorphosed from an almost failed state to a “development state”. The Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) regime has been different from previous regimes such as the Derg or the imperial period both of which greatly strengthened development programmes through the exploitation of politically marginalized regions, unlike the TPLF that tried to “rectify” this through the federal system. From silencing the voice of dissent to restricting freedom of speech and expression, the TPLF system of governance was noted for its iron-fisted rule that was similar to that of its predecessors until its takeover by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in 2018.
Unlike the imperial regime that was in place from 1941 to 1974, and Derg regime which collapsed after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front-led government was a multiparty entity that saw the introduction of universal suffrage. The TPLF/EPRDF-led government introduced 32 articles in the constitution regarding the protection and upholding of human rights. In contrast to the laws under the imperial period and Derg regime, the current constitution provides for the domestication of the provisions of international treaties into the country’s laws.
Over the last several decades, Tigrayans have participated in two popular uprisings. The first was the Woyane Rebellion of 1943 when Tigrayans resisted their forceful integration into Haile Selassie’s centralized government. Woyane is the consecrated term used by Tigrayans to epitomize the resistance of the Tigray people to oppression by the Amhara-Shoan elite.
The Tigrayan rebellion was sparked by their systematic political and economic ostracism after the death of Tigray’s Emperor Yohannes IV in 1889. The government responded to this first insurrection with punitive force, bombing Mekelle, Hintalo and Corbetta with air support from the United Kingdom Royal Air Force. To deter future revolts, Selassie’s government took land belonging to the Tigray people and gave it to gentry loyal to the emperor. The government also imposed heavy taxation on the people of Tigray and transferred Tigrayan hereditary regional powers to loyal Amhara-Shoan administrators.
The Amhara ruling elite purposefully and systematically enacted policies to sideline the Tigray people, forcing them to migrate to Eritrea and to the capital, Addis Ababa, in search of better economic conditions. One such retributory measure was the famine suffered in Tigray in 1972-1974 while the country had enough food supplies to feed its population; the government deliberately failed to provide food relief aid to the Tigrayans. This did not deter Tigrayan revolution ideologies, but fuelled the antagonism, leading to the Bale armed uprising of 1963-1968 and the Gojjam armed mutiny of 1967. Emperor Haile Selassie was ousted from power by a military junta, commonly known as the Derg, on 12 September 1974, and the military took control of the government.
Tigrayans hoped that the new government would look into their plight but such expectations were dashed as the Derg declared Ethiopia a monolithic society where calls for ethnonationalism and demands for self-governance and self-determination were against Ethiopian interests and the “constitution”.
To deter future revolts, Selassie’s government took land belonging to the Tigray people and gave it to gentry loyal to the emperor.
This stance prompted a group of Tigrayan ethnic-nationalists to seek to secure their right to autonomy within and outside Ethiopian polity by dethroning the Derg military junta through armed resistance and the Second Woyane Rebellion of 1974-1991 started to take shape. It is this second insurgence that prepared the ground for the formation of the Tigray force that would decide their destiny and future. On 14 September 1974, seven university students formed the Tigray National Organization (TNO), a group comprising teachers, civil servants, and students that laid the foundation for the formation of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which led to its materialization on 18 February 1975.
After close to 17 years in power, the Derg was overthrown on 28 May 1991 by the TPLF in alliance with other ethnic rebel fronts. The conflict led to the killing of 250,000 civilians and the displacement of one million people to neighbouring countries. Together with other ethnic coalitions in Ethiopia, the TPLF formed the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which set about abolishing the economic marginalization of minority groups by establishing a federal system of governance.
The conflict led to the killing of 250,000 civilians and the displacement of one million people to neighbouring countries.
Much has been said and written about the excesses and abuses of power by the TPLF ruling class. Although the EPRDF party was successful in setting the country’s economic growth in the right direction, it failed to entrench the principles of democratic governance by suppressing the freedom of the press and human freedom, quashing nonconformist views, and opposition groups. Some have argued that the EPRDF maintained state tyranny under the federal system, and the culture of economic marginalization and political suppression.
Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front
Despite the fact that the EPRDF comprised different ethnic factions, the TPLF was at the centre of the control of the party and policy responses. After deposing the Derg military junta, the TPLF disbanded the old Ethiopian military and ensured that top generals and senior military personnel in the new forces were drawn from the TPLF’s ranks, the majority being Tigrayans. This military supremacy and political power gave the TPLF the economic dominance it required to exercise complete control over Ethiopia’s economy and critical natural resources like land and aid flows.
Before the rise of Abiy Ahmed to power, the TPLF-led government took loans from external private creditors and, principally, from China, which in 2018 accounted for 60 per cent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The United States, one of Ethiopia’s closest allies and its largest single donor, pumped US$2.2 billion through the latest Productivity Safety Net Program (PSNP) in 2021.
The TPLF-dominated government party arm-twisted the EPRDF party operations with their intention of self-determination. The intention was to use military force to misappropriate public resources, enlarge Tigray’s borders, and disaffiliate from greater Ethiopia. The TPLF’s response was to use military force based on the ousted Derg’s militarization of all facets of society, from economic, to social to political. This was made clear in the TPLF manifesto of 1976, that called for the creation of The Republic of Greater Tigray and presented an elaborate framework for the liberation of the Tigray region from Ethiopian rule, starting with the re-demarcation of the borders with “historical Amhara lands”, the annexation of coastal land within Eritrea and the formation of an autonomous state.
One significant development for the people of Tigray under the TPLF/EPDRF rule was the establishment of the Endowment Fund for the Rehabilitation of Tigray (EFFORT), which directed a considerable amount of Ethiopia’s national budget and international aid to the region. As a result, the region experienced radical changes in infrastructure development and economic growth, while development in the other regions stagnated.
What is often ignored in political and scholarly discourse and in most of the articles and analytical texts on Ethiopia is that the majority of the Tigrayans, although associated with the TPLF regime, live under the same economic conditions as Ethiopians of different ethnic origins. The key beneficiaries of the regime are the Tigrayan political elites, the business class, and well-connected non-Tigrayan personalities. The TPLF-led government has created deep antipathy within the Oromo and Amhara ethnic groups. These two groups combined account for over half the Ethiopian population of 119 million that has been threatening the TPLF government.
Currently, Prime Minister Abiy, whom Tigrayans consider to be unelected and view as centralizing power through a hegemonic political agenda, is fighting the country’s oldest revanchist regime. The TPLF intends to oust the current prime minister through guerrilla warfare and to recapture economic and political influence. The Ethiopian conflict has escalated over the last year, with reports of civilian casualties, loss of life and property, and massive displacement. The escalation of the conflict is bound to have a ripple effect and political and economic repercussions in the Horn region.
As they did during the First and Second Woyane Revolutions, Tigrayans across the globe from America to Europe have been calling for secession through social media and non-state platforms, terming the Ethiopian political marriage as cruel and demanding an end to the acts of “genocide” and other atrocities committed against the Tigrayan people. However, the fundamental underlying causes of the conflict are often misconstrued.
Abiy vis-a-vis the TPLF
External observers and pundits view the crisis in Ethiopia as differences between Tigray regional leaders and the Prime Minister Abiy regarding the parliament’s unconstitutional postponement of the national and regional elections due to the current COVID-19 pandemic that has ravaged the globe. On the other hand, some scholars view the crisis as having been sparked by the ideological differences between the prime minister and the TPLF political elites. These arguments do not, however, explain why such minor differences have resulted in military hostilities.
The TPLF intends to oust the current prime minister through guerrilla warfare and to recapture economic and political influence.
Contrary to the views expressed by external observers, the conflict is the ultimate battle for control of the economy, natural resources, and billion-dollar aid from international financiers and donors. All these resources were at the disposal of the TPLF political elites, which they controlled for nearly three decades before Abiy took power in 2018. The call for self-determination is just the face of the war; it’s not about who gets to rule the Tigray region. Rather, it is a fight over who should occupy the commanding heights of the country’s economy. It is a fight over control and access to the country’s national cake that was previously enjoyed solely by the TPLF regime, and which they are now determined to recapture at all costs; control of the economy has to get back into the hands of the TPLF insurgents, even if it is by means of the gun. However, this is easier said than done.
The Tigray Democratic Front (TDF), a faction of TPLF, is fighting alongside the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), an offshoot of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), and eight other opposition groups united under the United Front of Ethiopian Federalist and Confederalist Forces with the sole objective of removing Abiy.
All these formations have two sides. Firstly, if the alliance could advance and enter Addis Ababa, the capital city, there is the likelihood of bloody in-fighting within the alliance, particularly between the Tigray-affiliated and Oromo-allied groups. The current factions are politically motivated but based on historical narratives and historical resentment against the 27-year-long darkness of the TPLF; repressive rule is unquestionably likely to be met with resistance. Furthermore, the OLA does not necessarily represent the interests of the larger Oromia region, and this may lead the Oromo people to take up arms against “one of their own” movements.
The largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, the Oromo, considers the heart of the capital, commonly known to them as Finfinne, as their ancestral land. This is supported by the OLA spokesperson Oda Tarbii, who has said that once the operation enters Addis Ababa, the OLA will be spearheading it, as it is within their dominion. Since the capital city is the hub of business, technology, industrial and infrastructure development, the Oromo-affiliated factions might fight TDF insurgents to protect their land and “people”. The Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO), the party of the Oromo ruling elite, was subservient to, and a puppet of, the TPLF rule for 27 years, hence they failed to secure the rights of the greater Oromo and Oromia region. The party was serving the interests of the TPLF/EPRDF-led government under the guise of opposition and standing up for the welfare and interests of Oromia.
The largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, the Oromo, considers the heart of the capital, commonly known to them as Finfinne, as their ancestral land.
Additionally, the capital has been the focus of resistance to the TPLF’s 30-year rule since the EPRDF party masterminded the suppression of Oromo opposition groups and active citizens. Close to 200 people were killed, 800 wounded and 30,000 arrested in a disputed election in 2005. Strong anti-Tigrayan sentiment seems to reverberate in many parts of the capital and its adjacent cities.
The second side of the argument is that Amhara might erupt in outright insurrection with the alliances fighting the federal government. When the federal government waged war with the TPLF rebels, Amhara youths took up arms and fought alongside the area’s federal forces. Amhara, which borders Tigray to the South, has experienced a decade-long dispute over land taken from Tigray during 100-year Amhara rule that has become exacerbated in the current war with the TPLF. Consequently, given the support of youths and armed groups within Amhara, and years of brutal leadership under the TPLF government, a bloody insurgency is inevitable if entry into the capital occurs.