Analysis

ANALYSIS - Reasons for zero-sum 'war' in Ethiopia

Will premier Abiy Ahmed, at crossroads of his country's future, deliver relief or conflict in East Africa?

Tufan Aktas   | 20.11.2020
ANALYSIS - Reasons for zero-sum 'war' in Ethiopia

ISTANBUL

On Nov. 4, when the world’s attention was locked on the results of the US elections, a new conflict broke out that could affect the stability of East Africa for many years. Everyone had to acquaint themselves to Ethiopia's oldest and most influential political actor: the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF). The federal government led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed accused the TPLF, which governs the northern Regional State of Tigray, of attacking members of the national army and announced a military offensive had been launched until the TPLF is destroyed. Although the ongoing operation is considered part of destabilizing efforts by foreign countries due to the Hidase Dam (Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam), all Ethiopian people know that the war is the last round of the domestic tensions and political fighting.

Even if it takes a short time or lasts for months, the current military operation, forecast to destabilize the entire north of the country over the coming years, has turned into a regional war as the TPLF hit Eritrea and other northern cities with missiles. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed thinks he can deliver peace and prosperity to the nation by annihilating the TPLF, which he considers the cause of the ethnic conflict and security problems that have dominated the country for the last two years. Meanwhile, the TPLF claims that Abiy Ahmed has established a “dictatorship,” accusing him of not holding elections and even initiating war. However, having been the dominant power in domestic politics until 2018, the TPLF had not allowed for fair elections to be held in Ethiopia and people now are not buying into the “democracy” discourse used by the TPLF to plead their case.

As the Ethiopian people are quickly becoming the losing side of the conflict with tens of thousands having already migrated to neighboring Sudan, the fact that this war will disintegrate the country or drag it into more chaos is against the interests of almost all foreign powers, with event Egypt set to suffer on some accounts.

Both the TPLF and the Addis Ababa government accuse each other of treason and making secret deals with Egypt to delay the ongoing construction of the Hidase Dam. If the military operation is prolonged, Sudan and Egypt may take steps (like providing the TPLF with military and financial assistance) that could lead the entire region into war, though this is by no means the most likely possibility.

Turkey and China are clearly the countries most adversely affected by the turmoil in Ethiopia’s territory due to their companies’ years of investment. It is certain that the status quo will shift in the Horn of Africa, where Turkey has focused the most energy following its Africa opening.

Some questions about the operation, now in its second week, are still puzzling. Couldn’t have Nobel Peace laureate Abiy Ahmed, who had the open support of the Western and Gulf countries, completely purge the TPLF from the country’s politics? Despite the group’s well-known military strength, why did the government hastily resort to this operation that threatens to destabilize the entire north? Why didn’t the TPLF, which is less likely to regain the upper hand in domestic politics, use its constitutional right to peacefully declare independence via consensus and legitimize themselves in the eyes of international public opinion?

What does TPLF mean for Ethiopia?

Established in 1975, the TPLF was the most important actor of the resistance launched in the country against the communist Derg regime. It led the establishment of a new country through a series of blows against the regime together with the Eritrean People's Liberation Front, the Ethiopian People's Democratic Movement (EPDM), the Afar Liberation Front, the Western Somali Liberation Front and the Oromo Liberation Front.

In the Ethiopian Civil War that lasted until 1991, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front had been fighting from the very beginning on its own account and for independence. The TPLF -- a close ally at the time -- did not oppose this demand and Eritrea gained its independence with a referendum. The Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), which had a similar motivation, was unable to achieve its goal due to the heavy-handed military and political pressure of the TPLF. Though the TPLF had for years struggled for Ethiopia to develop and open up to the world, the Oromo and Amhara people, which constitute more than 60% of the population, were never satisfied with the domination of the 6% Tigrayan minority.

In Ethiopia, which has seldom seen a fair and democratic election, the TPLF’s Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition, formed with parties from the Oromo, Amhara, and Southern regions, managed to stay in power and win all elections. While a different political group and armed organization emerged after each election, dissidents had to choose between torture and exile. Over the years, rage against the TPLF grew so much that the other three parties in the EPRDF coalition formed a tight alliance, pushing the TPLF out of the game in 2018. Undoubtedly, this situation, which shocked the TPLF, could not have occurred without the direct intervention of some countries that have influence in Ethiopian domestic politics, such as the US and Germany.

After the death of former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, his deputy and successor Hailemariam Desalegn was accused of being a TPLF puppet and announced that he would leave office in early 2018. Amid rising ethnic polarization and debate on who would take the EPRDF’s helm, a late-comer in politics with a military background, a Christian mother, a Muslim father, and himself a Protestant Oromo, was nominated for the premiership: Abiy Ahmed. Despite the discontent in the EPRDF towards Abiy Ahmed, the resigned Desalegn insisted on him becoming prime minister due to opposition demonstrations in the country. Though the TPLF has weakened under Abiy, today it dreams of reviving the EPRDF coalition and regaining power across Ethiopia, rather than declaring independence or opting for separation.

Abiy Ahmed’s aims

The only group that Abiy Ahmed avoided to approach from the very beginning was the TPLF, even as he embraced all opposition political groups -- even terrorist organizations -- and issued amnesty orders for them when he took office. Abiy negotiated with Ginbot-7, the Oromo Liberation Front and Ogaden National Liberation Front, convincing these groups into peaceful political struggle. Even though the Oromo Liberation Front has recently once again turned against Abiy, the remaining opposition groups are currently standing with him against the TPLF.

During his term in office, Premier Abiy brought a Spring breeze to the country with the reforms he enacted, hoping to complete the transition to liberal democracy and free-market economy and limit local governments’ scope of action by consolidating the central government’s authority at the expense of strong regional states. Abiy, who abolished the EPRDF and founded the Prosperity Party, has already managed to gather many local parties under his own movement. He weakened the TPLF by eliminating influential figures from whom it derived strength from the state. He also blames the TPLF's mercenaries for attacks targeting civilians and security forces in different parts of the country.

Grasping the risk of entering an election without overcoming the security problem in the country, Abiy’s most recent move to postpone the general elections should not be surprising. He opted instead for elections to be held in the absence of separatist elements such as the TPLF, instead of a time in which there were growing concerns about the future of the country. Abiy, who wants to go to the polls after emerging victorious from this war, can play an important role in reshaping East Africa by staying in power for many years or, after an unending operation that lasts many months, he may lose public trust and have to leave his seat the “hard way” or the “easy way” to someone else.

*Translated by Abdullah Enes Gungordu in Ankara

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