It’s Not Too Late to Stop the Ethiopian Civil War From Becoming a Broader Ethnic Conflict

Western and regional powers are more divided than they were during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, but they can still exert influence to prevent the fragmentation of Ethiopia’s federal system.

Youth from the Sidama ethnic group, the largest in southern Ethiopia, ride in the back of a truck during celebrations over plans by local elders to declare the establishment of a breakaway region for the Sidama later this week, in Awasa, Ethiopia on July 15, 2019.
Youth from the Sidama ethnic group, the largest in southern Ethiopia, ride in the back of a truck during celebrations over plans by local elders to declare the establishment of a breakaway region for the Sidama later this week, in Awasa, Ethiopia on July 15, 2019. MICHAEL TEWELDE/AFP via Getty Images

Over the past two years, Ethiopia seemed like Africa’s greatest success story. After Abiy Ahmed became prime minister, the country opened up to the opposition, allowed exiled politicians to return, and ended the long-standing war with Eritrea. The rapid transformation earned Abiy a Nobel Peace Prize. However, this image has become tarnished in recent weeks by the escalating conflict with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which had long disproportionately dominated the federal government and the erstwhile ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front—and has a reputation for iron-fisted rule and fomenting interethnic violence as its principal source of power. The current military confrontation also threatens to undo the progress made in recent years.

Many commentators have noted that there is a long history of violent repression of ethnic groups and regions in Ethiopia. It might thus not be surprising to many that Abiy is also resorting to violence to confront the rebellious TPLF—a party that, due to its decades of domination of the federal government, has many enemies. However, it would be simple to reduce the brewing conflict to a simple desire to assert centralized power. As we argued last year in Foreign Policy, Yugoslavia holds some important lessons for Ethiopia.

The combination of an ethnic federation and democratization, coupled with dormant or unresolved ethnic grievances, provides for a volatile mix. Already during the early phase of Ethiopia’s transformation, there were some ominous signs, such as ethnic cleansing in parts of the country and fragmentation of political competition along ethnic lines. Because Ethiopia has a longer tradition of statehood than Yugoslavia did at the time of its breakup—and with ethnically defined regions seeking greater autonomy, rather than independence—the preconditions were better in Ethiopia than in Yugoslavia for managing the shift toward a multiparty system. The violent confrontation between the federal government and the TPLF bodes ill for the country, however.

Once violence becomes a means to address disputes, it is hard to stop, and demands for autonomy quickly escalate toward claims for independence. In Yugoslavia, only Slovenia and Croatia initially sought independence. However, once violence escalated and others feared being stuck in a much-reduced state with a changing balance of power, other republics also opted to leave the federation. With some 110 million inhabitants and potential conflicts that could draw in several of its neighbors, the dangers in Ethiopia are too great to ignore.

With the exception of the TPLF—which appears to have lost hope of retaining power at the federal level—almost all political parties (apart from a few radical groups) have been supportive of the transition and its principal architect, the prime minister. Abiy and his administration were widely popular, and the government’s early steps were encouraging, such as the inclusion of women in government and the opening up toward critical public debates. All signs were that a successful transformation might be possible. Today, the picture is much less encouraging. A mixture of greed and incompetence at the local and regional levels, coupled with increasing tensions and belligerence, has thrown doubt on the successful transformation.

There are several challenges Abiy’s government has encountered, all associated with difficulties of the country’s ethnic federalism, both in terms of its design and its reality.

To understand those design flaws, some historical background is necessary. When a coalition of different rebel armies led by Meles Zenawi and the TPLF overthrew the communist Derg government in 1991, the rebels established a federal state, with its units corresponding to the largest ethnic groups in the country and governed by a coalition of ethnic-based parties. The TPLF dominated the state, despite the Tigrayans accounting for only around 6 percent of Ethiopia’s population.

The ethnic federal system was largely modeled on the communist design of ethnic federalism, similar to Yugoslavia. By imperfectly aligning ethnicity to territory, it sought to address competing ethnic group interests but also controlled them through an authoritarian system. Once authoritarian rule lost its grip, the main units and actors emerging into a liberalized political arena were based along ethnic lines, and there was little space for political competition over ideas rather than ethnicity.

In Yugoslavia, the nationalist politicians became vessels for extremist nationalist messaging, mutually reinforcing each other. The rise of Croatian nationalist President Franjo Tudjman was a direct response to Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic’s claims to greater Serb dominance. As each side made more nationalist claims, the middle ground, as well as parties that focused on economic and social problems, were increasingly pushed aside. The danger is similar in Ethiopia, where regional structures are defined along ethnic lines; all political competition will therefore be ethnic.

There are four primary risks to a federalist Ethiopian state at the moment: ethnic identity as the sole political agenda; ethnically motivated attacks (and silence and inaction by regional and local authorities, which should take the leading role in containing them); the issue of self-determination to regional statehood (which has caused tension in the country’s south); and the conflict between the TPLF and the federal government. While the latter has gathered the most international attention in recent weeks, it is not the only challenge Ethiopia is facing.

The greatest damage to the Ethiopian state that the TPLF did during its years in power was to entrench the dominance of ethnicity in almost all public and private affairs. Facts depend on ethnicity; prosecutions depend on ethnicity; ethnicity has become the greatest unwritten defense of criminal prosecutions; and political and public offices are sought and granted on the basis of ethnicity. This has not just undermined meritocracy but also rendered the emergence of meaningful cross-ethnic political competition difficult. Worst of all, the ethnic political parties dominating the political space, with few exceptions, appear to stake their potential gain of political power on ethnicity, invoking past and present ethnic resentments, with little effort to explain the economic and sociopolitical benefits that they would bring if they rose to power.

Ethnically motivated attacks and atrocities have increased, with the attackers claiming innocence while demonizing and accusing others of all sorts of past and present atrocities. Recent ethnically motivated attacks in the South, western Oromia, and Benishangul-Gumuz—resulting in civilian deaths, destruction of their belongings, displacement, and insecurity—have made this clear. Most worrying, there are few constitutional and neutral means to prevent and prosecute such attacks by the federal government; sometimes, citizens are hopelessly relying on those local authorities that are complicit in most of the criminal activities.

One of the daunting challenges facing Abiy’s administration has been the increasing number of requests for regional statehood, which the Ethiopian Constitution allows with no regard to socioeconomic, political, or any other benefits. The claims by more than a dozen zonal administrations (which operate at a lower level than regional statehood) in the South to become regional states are worrying, because there are no efforts to show that statehood would meaningfully benefit ordinary citizens. Indeed, those groups are exercising self-administration at zonal level; a change in status giving them statehood would have few tangible benefits.

Local administrators do not seem to care about this risk of fragmentation or the multiple territorial conflicts that might arise from claims of territorial self-administration in this precarious time of transition. For them, due to the perceived weakness of the federal government, this is an opportune time to make claims for new regional statehood. A very generous offer of self-determination enshrined in the constitution used to be held in check through the cartel of dominant parties, controlled by the TPLF. What was once a tool to accommodate competing demands and empower marginalized groups has ballooned out of control with demands for self-rule often posing a threat to regional minorities.

The Tigray regional administrators’ hostility to the central government is a unique case and has different drivers. Since the TPLF lost power, it has literally retreated to the regional state of Tigray, refusing federal law enforcement, issuing incessant condemnation of Abiy and his administration, and totally rejecting his government as illegal. It was the only party in the ruling coalition of ethnic parties that refused to join Abiy’s newly created Prosperity Party. Instead, it organized regional elections despite objections by the federal government and in breach of Ethiopian laws. If governmental reports are accurate, the TPLF has brazenly sought a military confrontation with the federal government, which the TPLF claims to be a preemptive strike.

The TPLF’s attempt to go to war at this moment might be a grand miscalculation. The TPLF has been administering the region with no rivals, before or since the elections. While it withdrew from the federal government, it remains fully in control in its region while losing little at the federal level since the ascent of Abiy had already shifted the balance of power in Addis Ababa away from the TPLF. Indeed, considering the ethnic system of governance it established, the TPLF must know it will never again be able to hold a dominant position at the federal level in a democratic environment.

Increasing its power at the federal level has not been an option, as it lacks the resources and circumstances that brought it to power nearly three decades ago. Secession is also not a realistic option, being squeezed between Ethiopia and hostile Eritrea and with no prospects of recognition. The escalation in recent months and weeks appears to have been aimed at achieving de facto independence, namely securing undisturbed self-rule in Tigray and ignoring the federal government.

It is difficult to predict what comes next. As many observers had argued, the risks of an all out war are great for both the TPLF and the government. The TPLF might be militarily well equipped and motivated to defend its base, but the small size of Tigray and considerable resentment toward the party elsewhere in the country make it vulnerable. The government risks becoming bogged down in a protracted conflict it cannot win easily.

A military escalation has revealed less democratic and more military instincts on both sides, and the war risks undoing much of the opening up the country experienced in recent years.

Arguably, a constitutional revision will be necessary to find a new balance between the federal government and regions, including removing the right to secession, introducing reasonable grounds for territorial autonomy, and ensuring the enforcement of constitutional rights of ordinary citizens in all regions and places, including through the use of federal law enforcement organs, but pushing through such amendments are difficult in the current context.

No less important is addressing the legitimacy crisis the federal government is encountering owing to human rights violations with impunity all across the country. Serious violations, including ethnically motivated killings and displacement, are going unchecked and unpunished. The Abiy administration appears to place all the blame on the TPLF and its accomplices, but this does not address the full scope of Ethiopia’s problems. Regional, zonal, and local authorities—often far from Tigray—in some cases have shown utter incompetence and complicity, and the central government must take responsibility and address these problems by listening to the grievances of victimized groups.

To accomplish this, building institutional trust will be crucial—trust in governmental institutions, trust in the media, and trust among communities—instead of relying on extremely vocal groups that currently appear to be living in alternative realities. There has been little help from the outside in de-escalating the current conflict and ensuring that Ethiopia remains a success story rather than following in the bloody footsteps of Yugoslavia.

There are limited options for the international community. It is weaker and more divided than in the 1990s, when it failed to end the Yugoslav wars for years before intervening. Sending a clear message that reported massacres and war crimes against civilians will not be ignored and should be investigated would be a start. And while the military response of the Ethiopian federal government is understandable and necessary to keep the country from falling apart, foreign powers must pressure Abiy to act with restraint to avoid transforming the confrontation with the TPLF into a wider and more drawn-out ethnic conflict.

Florian Bieber is a professor of Southeast European history and politics and Jean Monnet chair for the Europeanization of Southeastern Europe at the University of Graz, Austria. He is the author of Debating Nationalism: The Global Spread of Nations. Twitter: @fbieber

Wondemagegn Tadesse Goshu is an assistant professor at Addis Ababa University’s College of Law and Governance Studies.