HomeOpinionSapien Sapien: Dangers of ethnicity politics manifest in Ethiopia conflict

Sapien Sapien: Dangers of ethnicity politics manifest in Ethiopia conflict

War studies expert                                                                                                   THE conflict in Ethiopia shows just how dangerous ethnic politics are and as a corollary how a relatively stable country can quickly spin out of control and destroy long periods of development if ethnic politics are not managed properly.

Northern Ethiopia has been racked by conflict since November 2020 when Abiy Ahmed sent troops into the Tigray region to topple the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) after months of tensions with the region’s governing party.

The TPLF had controlled national politics for three decades until Abiy came to power in 2018.

On Tuesday this week official reports said Ahmed had gone to lead from the front as the rebels threatened to walk into the capital Addis Ababa.

“The time has come to lead the country with sacrifice,” Abiy had said in a Twitter post late on Monday. “Those who want to be among the Ethiopian children who will be hailed by history, rise up for your country today. Let’s meet at the battlefront.”

Ethiopia is a complex country with numerous ethnic issues. From what I noticed, it has similar politics to what we have/had in Syria which led to the current predicament in the Middle Eastern state.

It is significant to highlight that Ethiopia survived colonial manipulation but did not escape the ramifications of Cold War political schisms.

The country under the shrewd leadership of Mengistu Haile Mariam (1977-1991) witnessed some of the world’s worst known tribal conflicts post-WWII that led to the deaths of over one million people, so it is alleged.

Before seeking exile, Mengistu stood accused of waging a genocide against persons and personalities along regional lines in Ethiopia till he was overthrown by forces from the Tigrayan region and Eritrea led by Meles Zenawi.

Immediately after removing Mengistu from power, Eritrea became an independent state while Tigrayan politicians, from an ethnic group that consists of 5% of the population and 18% of the military (officer ranks) dominated Ethiopian politics.

During the rule of Mengistu, Ethiopia was allied to the Soviet Union and it must be remembered that spheres of influence and proxy wars defined the ideological conundrum between the Eastern and Western ideological protagonists.

Meles Zenawi of the TNLF gathered together a coalition of tribal parties and led Ethiopia with an iron fist. He consolidated power through sophisticated schemes of chicanery and subterfuge, ensuring that he kept two major tribal ethnic groups, the Ahmaric and Oromo from smelling power.

As if not enough, Zenawi turned on his former ally Eritrea and waged a brutal war along the Ethiopia/Eritrea border, an enclave that included the Tigray region.

The bloody war did not stop with the death of Zenawi in 2012 and his Tigray political party holding sway in Addis Ababa was removed from power in 2018 by a coalition of ethnic parties led by the previously marginalised Oromo and Amharic tribal sects.

Abiy Ahmed, a then 43-year-old charismatic former army lieutenant colonel was elected Prime Minister and the first thing he did was to call for a ceasefire with Eritrea.

We all know that on the same day we had a bomb blast in White City Stadium in Bulawayo, Abiy survived an assassination attempt at a rally, which attempt was blamed on tribal politics in Ethiopia. The Ethiopian PM comes from Oromo, one of the marginalised tribes.

Abiy was awarded a Nobel Prize for his call to peace with Eritrea. That call came with political-tribal costs in Ethiopia. Immediately after that, the Tigrayans who had dominated Ethiopian politics, despite being the minority under Zenawi and who had led the fight to remove Mengistu, felt betrayed and viewed the former army lieutenant colonel and now PM with a hostile eye.

A political tussle ensued and this escalation saw the Tigrayans retreating to their Tigray fortress. Elections were scheduled in Ethiopia in the fall of 2020 but due to “Covid-19-induced reasons”, PM Abiy Ahmed cancelled them. This cancellation was construed by the Tigrayans to mean an evisceration of the ideals of constitutionalism and democracy.

The Tigrayans retreated into their Tigray enclave, proceeded to have their own elections which were deemed illegitimate by the Abiy government and in so doing, set the ball rolling for what we are witnessing at this juncture.

The Tigrayans countered by seizing a regional military base located in Tigray which deed was countered by Abiy with an avalanche of military force. Through the usage of guerrilla warfare, the Tigrayans have been able to neutralise the once feared Ethiopian military and are now believed to be marching on Addis Ababa in scenes reminiscent of the ouster of Mengistu by Tigray led rebels.

Amidst all this, Abiy is receiving support from Eritrea in his fight with Tigray rebels. The same Eritreans were under siege from Tigray-led Ethiopia under the leadership of the late Meles Zenawi.

This context proves that tribal politics is dangerous and separatist centred insurgencies are always a thorn in the flesh. These insurgents, from what I have so far managed to observe, have got short term obligations of forcing for talks and recognition of the Tigray region as an autonomous state.

If no such recognition comes, I am anticipating an all-out war to break out leading to a replication of the situation that led to the ouster of Mengistu — tribal politics at play. Whoever is backing these Tigrayans (from the rhetoric and what I am observing, the West), is definitely not going to relent and submissions by Ahmed that he is going to be leading from the front, and likely get slain Idriss-Deby-style, shows that the reality on the ground is no longer tenable and that recruitment into the army is low or troops are dissatisfied.

Déby was killed in April this year while commanding forces fighting on the front against rebels from the Front for Change and Concord in Chad (FACT).

According to an army spokesperson, Déby succumbed to injuries resulting from gunshots on April 20, 2021 while commanding his army against rebels in the north of Chad.

It is not looking good for Abiy and I think his only way out, in the interim, probably before the lapse of 18 months, is to have dialogue with the rebels or else an all-out conflict will break out whose chances are not in his favour.

  • Sapien Sapien is a security and trade specialist.

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