Argument

Ethiopia’s Breakup Doesn’t Have to Be Violent

A confederation of states must choose whether to follow the bloody path of the former Yugoslavia or the prosperous model of the European Union.

An Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) soldier sits by a pile of weapons confiscated from Ethiopian army soldiers at the Addis Ababa racetrack on May 29, 1991.
An Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) soldier sits by a pile of weapons confiscated from Ethiopian army soldiers at the Addis Ababa racetrack on May 29, 1991.
An Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) soldier sits by a pile of weapons confiscated from Ethiopian army soldiers at the Addis Ababa racetrack on May 29, 1991. ALEXANDER JOE/AFP via Getty Images
By , an assistant professor of economics at the University of Waterloo in Canada, and , a postdoctoral fellow at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland.

Ethiopia—a multinational state of considerable contradictions—is once again in the news for tragic events. The outside world, which tends to hold a romantic view of the country, is only beginning to understand these divisions. The country is plagued by identity-based civil wars, currently between the central government, which is widely perceived to champion a unitary state, and many groups that are vying for different degrees of autonomy.

The Tigray Defense Forces (TDF) and the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) are the most prominent representatives of those fighting against the central government for the right to self-determination for their respective nations (Tigray and Oromia), with Amhara political groups rallying behind the government to defend Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s vision of a centralized state.

The 1994 Ethiopian Constitution was the first serious attempt to resolve the country’s many contradictions, by offering different groups some degree of cultural, linguistic, and economic autonomy. However, that experiment fell significantly short of its promises, primarily because the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) maintained a tight grip on the country economically and politically between 1991 and 2018, denying other groups substantive space to exercise their constitutionally guaranteed rights to run their affairs.

Ethiopia—a multinational state of considerable contradictions—is once again in the news for tragic events. The outside world, which tends to hold a romantic view of the country, is only beginning to understand these divisions. The country is plagued by identity-based civil wars, currently between the central government, which is widely perceived to champion a unitary state, and many groups that are vying for different degrees of autonomy.

The Tigray Defense Forces (TDF) and the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) are the most prominent representatives of those fighting against the central government for the right to self-determination for their respective nations (Tigray and Oromia), with Amhara political groups rallying behind the government to defend Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s vision of a centralized state.

The 1994 Ethiopian Constitution was the first serious attempt to resolve the country’s many contradictions, by offering different groups some degree of cultural, linguistic, and economic autonomy. However, that experiment fell significantly short of its promises, primarily because the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) maintained a tight grip on the country economically and politically between 1991 and 2018, denying other groups substantive space to exercise their constitutionally guaranteed rights to run their affairs.

It is therefore ironic that today the TPLF—which was displaced from the halls of power in Addis Ababa in 2018, mainly due to a grassroots movement led by Oromo youth activists—is now leading an effective insurgency against Abiy’s government to reassert the political, economic, and cultural rights of the Tigrayan people. Similarly, the OLA is waging a growing insurgency to allow the Oromo people to decide their political destiny through a referendum.

With the OLA and TDF now rapidly closing in on the capital, Ethiopia’s central government faces several unenviable choices: It can decide to continue to fight the insurgents and face the consequences, which could end with victory for the OLA and TDF, possibly inducing the diminished Amhara and unitarist political forces to pursue some combination of civil and armed resistance to protect their political interests. In the unlikely event that the depleted Ethiopian federal army manages to hold off the insurgents in the short run, the likely outcome is a bloody and chaotic disintegration of the country along the lines of the former Yugoslavia.


Members of Ethiopia's Republican March Band stand on guard during a ceremony to support Ethiopian military troops in Addis Ababa.

Members of Ethiopia’s Republican March Band stand on guard during a ceremony to support Ethiopian military troops in Addis Ababa on Nov. 7. Getty Images

The Abiy government can also negotiate with both formidable forces, satisfying most of their demands, and thus wind down the current conflicts—possibly averting a violent disintegration of the country. Alternatively, the central government may decide to negotiate with just one of the insurgent groups that have recently joined forces and formed an alliance aimed at toppling Abiy from power. This divide-and-rule scenario is the least likely option, since both the OLA and TDF have more to gain by staying the course together than negotiating with Abiy separately.

If the government manages to strike a deal with one of the insurgent groups, it is likely that this would intensify conflicts in the country—not lessen them—as the excluded group will simply redouble its war effort to extract concessions from the central government, as predicted by the reputational cost theory of civil conflicts, which holds that acceding to the political demands of an insurgent group in a multinational state like Ethiopia will cause other groups to demand and fight for the same rights.

Therefore, to the extent the government can pursue a separate peace with one of the active nationalist insurgencies—while continuing to fight the other—its reputational cost is only going to increase, complicating all future efforts to resolve the conflicts peacefully.

Scholars have argued that the key issue that explains the persistence of conflicts—both within and between states—is the commitment problem. According to the political scientist Robert Powell, conflicts result from “shifts in the distribution of power between [combatants] that cannot commit to distributions of the domestic pie.”

The disbanding of the OLA in 1992 and 1993—which was followed by a harsh crackdown—is widely considered a source of national indignity among the Oromo.

At the root of inefficient civil conflicts—such as the one in Ethiopia that has so far destroyed many lives and devastated the country’s economy and national army—is a failure to commit to agreements that could be brokered through negotiations. These wars are characterized by asymmetric and changing power distributions, and weaker sides do not trust stronger sides that hold power.

Ethiopia’s recent political history suggests that the commitment problem is going to complicate efforts aimed at achieving sustainable peace in the country. Eritreans chose the path of armed struggle in 1961, after the imperial regime of Haile Selassie reneged on the terms of Eritrea’s federation with Ethiopia and disbanded Eritrea’s parliament to bring the region and its people under centralized rule from Addis Ababa, culminating in the country’s declaration of independence in 1993.

Similarly, the unilateral disarmament and encampment of the OLA in the early 1990s offers further evidence for why the commitment problem continues to frustrate peacemaking in Ethiopia. Although they worked together to draw a transitional charter that led to the establishment of the Transitional Government of Ethiopia upon the defeat of the Marxist regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF)—which was mainly made up of the TPLF and its satellite organizations—and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) had fighters under separate commands.

This was considered problematic for holding free and fair elections that would establish legitimate local governments in the country, and both the EPRDF and OLF agreed to encamp their fighters, after the 87-member Council of Representatives decreed the encampment of all armed groups, “designating them … to serve as an interim national army and to provide police services.”

While the OLA implemented the decree and the agreement, the EPRDF fighters not only failed to do so but proceeded to encircle the encamped OLA soldiers, prompting the latter to break out of their camps only to run into the traps set for them by the EPRDF soldiers. The disbanding of the OLA in 1992 and 1993—which was followed by a harsh crackdown against the members and supporters of the OLF by the EPRDF regime—is widely considered a source of national indignity among the Oromo.

To complicate matters, the Abiy government—which owes its ascension to power in 2018 to the grassroots movement and sacrifices of the Oromo youth—didn’t waste any time turning against the youth and the Oromo political opposition with unrivaled intensity, putting organized Oromo political organizations (the OLF and the Oromo Federalist Congress) out of commission and filling Ethiopia’s prisons with Oromo political prisoners.

Having lost faith in the Abiy government, Oromo youth have been flocking to the OLA by the thousands and appear determined to defend their political interests militarily. All indications are that Oromo leaders will not let the indignities of 1992 and 2018 be repeated and any peacemaking effort in Ethiopia today that fails to guarantee the Oromo people their right to self-determination that is anchored on self-defense does not seem to have a realistic chance of succeeding.


Captive Ethiopian soldiers arrive at the Mekele Rehabilitation Center in the capital of Tigray region.

Captive Ethiopian soldiers arrive at the Mekele Rehabilitation Center in the capital of Tigray region on July 2. YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP via Getty Images

The TPLF’s effort to neutralize the northern command of the Ethiopian federal army just before the Tigray war broke out last year can also be viewed from a similar perspective. While some consider these steps treasonous, Tigray’s leaders were deeply concerned about the measures Abiy had begun taking soon after he assumed power—which notably included the gradual purging of Tigrayans from the Ethiopian security and defense establishments, the unlawful disbanding and replacement of the EPRDF by the Prosperity Party, and the opacity of the Ethiopian-Eritrean rapprochement—long before evidence emerged that Addis Ababa was preparing for the eventual military showdown in Tigray.

TPLF leaders were indeed much more attuned to Abiy’s maneuvers on the ground than his carefully cultivated public image as a man of peace; alarmingly, the moves included massing Ethiopian soldiers and units of Amhara special forces near the southern borders of Tigray and Abiy’s efforts to reconstitute the leadership of the powerful northern command—which were rebuffed by Tigray’s seasoned politicians, who refused to place the destiny of their people in the hands of the powerful groups and individuals who were congregating around Abiy and who deeply resented the trajectory of the country under the TPLF.

The deplorable conduct of Eritrea in the Tigray war provides another justification for the TPLF’s drive to build its own defense force.

Tigray’s military and political leaders are confident that they have pushed the Ethiopian military out of their territory permanently and are now signaling that Tigray will never disarm, whether or not the region chooses to stay in some form of political union with Ethiopia. Considering the intensity of the military campaigns they faced in the last year, it is not entirely surprising that the leaders appear determined to build an army that could guarantee the safety and security of Tigray for the foreseeable future.

The deplorable conduct of Eritrea (Tigray’s northern neighbor) in the Tigray war provides another justification for the TPLF’s drive to build its own defense force.

Some observers argue that Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki has been on a score-settling mission against the TPLF since his forces were defeated by the Ethiopian army in a border war in the late 1990s; others contend that he wants to help Abiy dismantle the prevailing ethnic-based political dispensation in the country. Whatever the motivations of the Eritrean regime, its meddling in Ethiopian conflicts is not a secret anymore, and it has had severe repercussions (Eritrean forces have reportedly committed atrocities amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity) and will likely continue to dog any attempt to resolve the wars.


Demonstrators with Tigray flags and posters march on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Demonstrators with Tigray flags and posters march on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 4, marking the one-year anniversary of the Ethiopian government’s decision to deploy troops into the country’s northernmost Tigray region. OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images

The international community’s peace efforts must focus on the following immediate objectives: They must tackle the commitment problem underlying the conflicts—while avoiding the temptation to engage in narrowly focused negotiation efforts—and also dissuade the Eritrean regime (and other external actors) from playing destructive roles.

Policymakers in Washington and the other capitals of the G-7 member nations must accept that there is no longer a partial solution to Ethiopia’s conflicts; at this point, nudging one of the parties to negotiate with the central government won’t work. They must put their financial and diplomatic weight—substantively, not just rhetorically—behind a comprehensive solution to the problems afflicting the country. It is difficult to imagine a sustainable solution that fails to consider the demands and legitimate interests of the allied insurgent groups and democratic Amhara political forces that are anticipated to emerge after the conclusion of the current wars.

The solutions necessitate the formation of an all-inclusive transitional government headed by the allied insurgents, who will jointly design and implement policies in a mutually agreeable and enforceable manner, with a view toward overcoming the commitment problem at the root of Ethiopia’s conflicts.

The transitional government’s key mandate will be to set up referendums in various regions of the country in accordance with the prevailing Ethiopian Constitution while conducting the routine functions of the government—including facilitating the rapid delivery of food aid and other essential services to the war-torn regions, continuing to provide other public goods and services to the public, and the joint administration of the national assets built by all Ethiopians.

For the duration of the transitional period, the TDF, OLA, and other allied forces are expected to maintain peace and stability in their respective regions. In the Amhara region, where special forces and political figures have been accused of heinous crimes in the Tigray war, the transitional government should consider requesting the presence of African Union and United Nations peacekeepers in the region, until the Amhara people regain their political footing through robust participation in the anticipated transitional government.

The referendums will have to ultimately empower the colonized and oppressed nations of Ethiopia to decide their political destiny according to Article 39 of the Ethiopian Constitution, which permits unilateral secession. Notwithstanding the magnitude and severity of injustices perpetrated by the Ethiopian state against the colonized nations within it, it is still worthwhile to encourage the allied forces to work toward a confederation of loosely united independent states in the mold of the European Union.

At this point, a confederation of different states is the optimal solution that could permanently resolve the costly contradictions of the Ethiopian state. While the confederated states establish their own defense forces and conduct their own external affairs to overcome the commitment problem troubling the country, they must be encouraged to keep and further develop the already existing Ethiopian Common Market (the country has reasonably well-integrated goods, services, labor, and capital markets) through creative political and economic institutional arrangements and adjustments, including a common currency—which is already in place.

With help from the United States and its Western allies, the transitional government will also need to tackle issues that could be sources of future conflicts in the country, mainly disputes emerging from contestations over geographic boundaries and territories.

The nations of today’s Ethiopia could either follow the path of the former Yugoslav republics or learn from the European nations that joined in 1951 to form a precursor to the EU.

As witnessed in destructive conflicts from Ireland to Kosovo and Kashmir, the actors must avoid bargaining strategies that fail to recognize the legitimacy of each other’s claims over geographic territories. For instance, Oromo political forces demand that their capital, Addis Ababa (a city they call Finfinnee), be brought under the legal jurisdiction of Oromia—but that does not mean the city can’t continue to serve as the capital of the future confederated states of Ethiopia.

The nations that constitute today’s Ethiopia face stark choices as they take steps into the uncertain future: They could either travel the road taken by the former republics of Yugoslavia in the 1990s or learn from the European nations that came together in 1951 in Paris to form the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC)—a precursor to the EU.

Prior to the establishment of ECSC, European nations fought endless brutal wars, including two world wars; today, they are enjoying the benefits of shared prosperity partly made possible through the increased integration of their economies.

One can only hope that Ethiopians will choose the latter path and turn a new page for the sake of future generations.

Teferi Mergo is an assistant professor of economics at the University of Waterloo in Canada and director of the Baro Tumsa Institute.

Kebene Kejela is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland and a research fellow at the Baro Tumsa Institute.

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