“Where did it all go wrong, Abiy?” – The Ethiopian Crisis Worsens
Ethiopia is a country riven by tension and conflict. For many Western readers, this would fit the stereotype of an African state suffering the instability many countries on the continent have been subject to following independence. But Africa’s other areas of conflict, unlike Ethiopia, are not led by Nobel Peace Prize Laureates. Abiy Ahmed, Prime Minister of the country at the heart of the Horn of Africa is such a person. But as only the second anniversary of his award passed last month, many are left wondering what happened to unravel the energy and youth of the nation, replacing it with the spectre of civil war.
Ahmed has only been in power since 2018, but his party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), have governed the country for three decades. Initial enthusiasm and momentum following his appointment harked a period of political liberation as political prisoners gained their freedom, control of the press was weakened and exiled political opponents were able to return from abroad. The high point was the brokering of peace between Ethiopia and its northern neighbour Eritrea in July 2018. This had followed conflict since 1998 as the countries fought over the demarcation of the border which resulted from Eritrea’s independence from Ethiopia. Hailed as the man to have ended a 20-year war, Abiy Ahmed, fresh-faced in office, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October of 2018. Ahmed is the first Ethiopian to be awarded the prize and it did much to boost and consolidate his international reputation.
In a cruel irony, as Ethiopia escaped one crisis it was walking into another. One month after being awarded the Peace Prize Ahmed ordered troops into the northern Tigray region. The area is home to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the dominant political body for those of Tigrayan ethnicity and the power behind the EPRDF throne. That was until Ahmed, a member of the Oromo group (the largest ethnicity in the country) sought to reform the party. Fearing a decline in influence, the TPLF fell back to the Tigray region and took up arms. The Ethiopian army’s push against the area from November 2019 turned from what the government had referred to as "law-enforcement" into an undeniable conflict. The drive northwards was never completed and conflict with the TPLF has been ongoing.
Last month the balance shifted as the TPLF and allied anti-government militias began to overrun the Ethiopian army and advance on the capital Addis Ababa. Fighting has been bloody and has an extremely high civilian cost. The civil war has displaced millions and both sides have been accused of human rights violations including the starvation of enemy areas, rape and executions without trial. A TPLF counter-offensive has taken the war out of the Tigray region and the group have taken key cities on the road to the capital, where civilians find themselves torn between fighting for an unpopular federal government, a feared ethnic militia or fleeing their homes.
A level of panic has clearly consumed the government as it has encouraged citizens to register their firearms with local authorities in order to defend their neighbourhoods when required. Any fight for the capital will be hard-fought, with a school of thought proposing that the TPLF will simply surround Addis Ababa rather than risk an assault. Naturally, the most concerning aspect of that strategy would be the fate of civilians trapped in any such siege. Government resupplies of arms arriving in Addis Ababa and the prospect of a military alliance with Turkey bringing multi-million dollar armed drones into the conflict shows that there is little appetite for surrender from Ahmed’s government and any war could drag out for years.