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Abiy Ahmed faces a divided Ethiopia and growing pressure

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Picture: via Peoples Dispatch – Prime minister Abiy Ahmed’s miscalculation that he can secure power by pitting his political rivals against each other in a destructive conflict has backfired, says former diplomat Mohamed Hassan

By Pavan Kulkarni

Ethiopia faces growing instability as the ruling party’s reckless gamble to consolidate power by drawing perceived rivals into a confrontation with each other has inflamed the ethnic fault lines, warned historian and former diplomat, Mohamed Hassan.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government has lost control over large parts of the country, including over 18 of the 21 zones in the largest regional state of Oromia, where the national capital Addis Ababa is located, Hassan told Peoples Dispatch.

The Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), which claims to fight for the right to self-determination of the largest ethnic group called the Oromo, has attacked and dismantled the government administration in these zones, where kidnapping for ransom has become commonplace.

Despite multiple drone strikes and several battles that continued into the last week of January, the Ethiopian National Defence Forces (ENDF) have not been able to secure the region. The OLA was able to enforce a transport strike declared on January 28, especially in western Oromia, with armed militants torching vehicles that defied the blockade.

“If Oromia remains ungovernable, the centre will collapse because Addis Ababa can be cut off from other regional states,” said Hassan.

To the north of Oromia, in the second-most populous regional state of Amhara, armed conflict between the ENDF and an ethnic Amhara militia known as the FANO has continued since mid-last year, killing hundreds, including in drone strikes by the government.

Earlier this month on February 2, the parliament’s House of Peoples’ Representatives extended the state of emergency in Amhara by four months. The emergency, which empowers the government to restrict movement, impose curfews, and ban public gatherings, was originally imposed for six months in August 2023. The government has since reportedly pushed the FANO militants out of the cities, but they have continued to wage an insurgency from towns and villages of the region.

Following an intense battle in the town of Merawi with FANO militants on the morning of January 29, the ENDF, aided by the local police and an allied militia, allegedly went door-to-door and killed about 100 residents, according to eyewitnesses who spoke to The Guardian. These killings are reported to be among the deadliest incidents of this war between the ENDF and the FANO.

Vast regions of Amhara are under the control of FANO, and the ENDF is losing ground, Hassan said, adding it is the federal government’s miscalculation that has hurled this state into a civil war, only months after another bloodier civil war ended in the Tigray state to its north.

The FANO had fought alongside the ENDF to defend the federal government from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which attacked an army base in Tigray and started a civil war in November 2020, two-and-a-half years after the end of its US-backed rule over the country.

The TPLF, which had ruled Ethiopia with a ban on opposition parties and free press for 27 years, was forced out of federal power in 2018 due to mass protests, especially in Oromia and Amhara. While Abiy assumed the prime ministership of the federal government, the TPLF was reduced to a regional party, in power only in the northernmost border state of Tigray.

Nevertheless, despite representing an ethnic minority of only about 6 percent of the population, the Tigrayans had a disproportionate representation in the Ethiopian army.

“About 80 percent of the generals, 60 percent of colonels and lieutenant colonels, and some 50 percent of the fighting force … were of Tigrayan origin, according to a parliamentary speech by Abiy,” Hassan said. After all, “it was the TPLF that had created the Ethiopian army” and led it into wars with neighbouring Eritrea and Somalia.

Confident that it could retake power by force, the TPLF went on a “strategic retreat” to Tigray, where they spent the next two years organising an armed force to launch an offensive to take Addis Ababa. “And they were quite correct in their assessment” that there were hardly any well-organised army contingents left to challenge their march to the national capital, added Hassan.

From one civil war to another

The best armed and organised troops in the ENDF at the time were the Northern Command, which was located in Mekele, the capital of Tigray state under TPLF’s rule. About 10,000 of the 32,000 soldiers in the Northern Command, who were of Tigrayan origin, switched sides when the TPLF surrounded the base and launched an attack on November 3 and 4, 2020, added Hassan. Thousands of the remaining 22,000 soldiers were killed or captured. About 8,000 of them, many wounded, managed to escape across the northern border to Eritrea, where they were fed and sheltered by Eritrean troops.

The TPLF escalated the conflict across the border by firing rockets toward Eritrea’s capital Asmara. Abiy Ahmed, a Nobel Laureate for the peace deal he had signed with Eritrea in 2018 soon after becoming the PM, asked his northern neighbour for help in defeating the TPLF.

“The TPLF thought it could fight on both fronts because not much of the Ethiopian national army was left anyway after they had taken over the Northern Command. But they had underestimated the strength and resolve of the Eritrean army. The entry of Eritrean troops turned the war decisively against the TPLF,” Hassan explained.

“The other main ally of the government in this war was the FANO militias of Amhara,” he added. The Amharas, who had been ethnically cleansed from the regions of Wolkait, Tsegede, and Humera that were annexed into western Tigray by the TPLF on taking power in 1991, already had a hostile relation to the TPLF.

When the TPLF marched southward from Tigray into the state of Amhara, committing atrocities including mass murder and rapes along their way, increasing numbers were willing to fight. “To raise a united front against the TPLF, Abiy’s government provided support for the FANO militias. They were given combat training by Eritrean instructors. They were crucial for the defeat of the TPLF,” Hassan observed.

With more than 80 percent of its forces killed or captured and the rest surrounded by the end of 2022, “the Americans, who were supporting the TPLF in this war, came in with a plane and flew out its leadership to South Africa. Abiy was effectively summoned for negotiation by the US to South Africa”.

What came out of this negotiation was the Pretoria agreement signed in early November 2022. This brought the civil war to an end after it had claimed hundreds of thousands of lives in the two years of fighting.

However, the agreement, which left the TPLF in charge of ruling Tigray, provoked much anxiety in Amhara, especially because it did not clarify the status of Wolkait, Tsegede, and Humera which the FANO had wrested back from the TPLF during this war.

A further source of contention in Amhara was that the disarmament of the TPLF, which was required by the agreement, was not completed. Instead, Abiy’s government turned on the FANO, trying to disarm them, which was perceived as an attempt to undermine the security of Amhara and leave it incapable of holding on to the contested region of Wolkait, Tsegede, and Humera.

The widespread perception in Amhara that Abiy Ahmed is hand in glove with Oromo ethnic nationalists who have reportedly stated intentions to subordinate other ethnic groups and dominate the country, also left Amaharas fearing aggression from its south.

In areas in western Oromia controlled by the OLA, the ethnic Amharas who settled in the region in the aftermath of the drought in Amhara in the 1970s have been the victims of several reported massacres carried out with impunity over the last few years. Most of them are attributed to OLA, which, however, denies the accusations and blames the security forces for committing these atrocities with the help of surrendered OLA fighters to provoke clashes with Amhara militias. The FANO has also been accused of crossing into western Oromia and killing ethnic Oromo civilians, torching villages, etc.

“Abiy thought these were clever acrobats”

“This is what Abiy wants. He wants to draw all his potential rivals into a confrontation with each other,” Hassan maintains. Abiy signed an agreement that permitted the TPLF to remain in power, and then, in violation of the agreement, let them stay armed, hoping to draw the TPLF into a war with Eritrea on the one hand, and the FANO militias on the other, Hassan accused. The PM, he said, has also been provoking the OLA and the FANO to fight each other.

“Abiy thought these were clever acrobats – getting his rivals to destroy each other, so he could consolidate all power. But it was foolish and reckless. It was a miscalculation. The federal government has now lost control over most of the country and plunged Ethiopia into ethnic strife,” Hassan maintains.

The TPLF had already disarticulated Ethiopia into a loose federation of ethnically divided states in the early 90s. Following its removal from federal power, Abiy won widespread support by espousing an inclusive Ethiopian nationalism that transcends the ethnic faultlines.

However, it remained only a rhetoric, Hassan stated. No corresponding changes were made to the nature of the present-day Ethiopian state, whose ethnic foundations laid in the constitution by the TPLF were left undisturbed. Even Abiy’s ruling Prosperity Party, Hassan argued, is only a rearrangement of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).

“The TPLF needed a coalition to rule, so they created the EPRDF. It included the Oromo democratic organisation [Oromo Democratic Party] and the Amhara democratic organisation [Amhara Democratic Party],” as the supposed representatives of the two largest ethnicities, he explained.

“But they represented no one. They were the corrupt elite from the two most populous states. Their role in the coalition was to do nothing and say nothing but to simply legitimise the TPLF’s rule. When faced with mass protests, they dropped the TPLF from the helm and the Oromo democratic organisation took over. But the vehicle Abiy is driving is still the EPRDF. It was only given a new coat of paint and called the Prosperity Party.”

Unwilling to risk a radical change in the nature of Ethiopian politics, Hassan alleges, Abiy eventually fell back on the trusted “divide-and-rule” to secure his grip on power, especially in the ethnically charged aftermath of the war the TPLF had waged with the US-backing.

“But his calculation on how to divide and rule went wrong. It backfired. Now Abiy has set off a chain of volcanoes that have begun going off one after another,” Hassan said, expressing fear that armed conflicts on ethnic lines can spread to “balkanise” Ethiopia and disintegrate its state.

Fear and doubt have replaced the confidence and hope that was displayed by the civil society that had grown in the political and social space opened up by the reforms in the early months of Abiy’s prime ministership.

When the TPLF started the war on his government, this civil society rallied to its defence, not only in Addis Ababa but also in several cities of North America and Europe to protest what was seen as a Western proxy war against the prospect of peace and unity in the Horn of Africa. “Now, the Ethiopian diaspora around the world is holding meetings to discuss how to save Ethiopia. ‘Save Ethiopia’ has become a theme,” Hassan said.

20 million people, amounting to a sixth of the country’s population, need food aid. Ethiopia’s Ombudsman revealed on January 31 that 351 people had died of hunger over the past six months in the Tigray region, which is yet to recover from the aftermath of the war. Another 44 have died of hunger in Amhara, where the ENDF and FANO are fighting. More deaths may also have occurred in other states that have not been investigated, the ombudsman opined.

“There are no people dying due to hunger in Ethiopia,” PM Abiy, told the parliament last week, only to add, however, that people “may have died” of diseases related to malnutrition. Meanwhile, Ahmed is building a US$ 15 billion palace as the Ethiopian state teeters on the brink.

Pavan Kulkarni is a journalist and an author at Peoples Dispatch

This article was first published on Peoples Dispatch