Ethiopia’s prime minister is becoming a leader without a solid political home.
Having come to power in 2018 on the back of the ‘Oromara’ alliance, Abiy Ahmed’s main constituency initially resided primarily within the Oromo and Amhara communities.
The prime minister’s popularity in Oromia was always divided and has declined amid a mass arrest campaign, a counterinsurgency, and inter-communal violence. Meanwhile, his administration’s ties with Tigray have been completely severed by the civil war.
Abiy nonetheless continued to enjoy a high level of support, as did his war effort. Now, ruptures have emerged within his wartime power base—which includes elites from the Amhara region and Eritrean dictator Isaias Afwerki.
The shifting alliances since 2018 are replicating a constant pattern in Ethiopian politics, one that is explained by the way the Ethiopian state was formed—by forcing together various nations—and the incomplete status of its nation-building project.
As a result, Ethiopia’s history has been marked by an unending cycle of state repression and armed conflict. Within this complex and dysfunctional political system, satisfying the demands of one constituency always risks alienating others.
The two main alliances that the federal government has been either cooperating or contending with are those between leaders in Eritrea and Amhara, on the one hand, and between armed movements in Tigray and Oromia, on the other.
Abiy may be forced to make concessions on what has become the core issue of the conflict, the disputed territories between Amhara and Tigray, to reach a peace deal with Tigray’s leaders. However, doing so would anger Isaias and inflame tensions in Amhara.
When he took office in 2018, Abiy enjoyed what appeared to be widespread support in Oromia. Over time, he has fallen out with much of his Oromo base.
Lemma Megersa, then chairman of the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO) and de facto leader of the reform within the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), selected Abiy to succeed him as OPDO chairman. Soon after, Abiy was elected chairman of the EPRDF and then became prime minister in April 2018.
Owing to his Oromo heritage and position within the Oromo wing of the EPRDF, there were high hopes among many Oromos that Abiy’s coming to power would bring about their final salvation after more than a century of subjugation, exploitation, and cultural denigration by the Ethiopian empire-state.
Others never trusted Abiy, given that he rose through the state’s repressive intelligence apparatus ranks and briefly chaired the OPDO, which they saw as a TPLF puppet organization used to control Oromia and weaken Oromo nationalism.
In 2019, Abiy fell out with Team Lemma over the formation of the Prosperity Party and his broader medemer vision. This was the first sign of disharmony. It signaled for many Oromo elites that Abiy was not on the side of Oromummaa (Oromo nationalism) but rather sought to implement a unitarist vision of Ethiopiawinet (Ethiopian nationalism).
The unrest and clashes that claimed over 200 civilian lives after influential musician Hachalu Hundessa was assassinated on 29 June 2020 and the government’s response, including arresting thousands of demonstrators and key Oromo leaders, drove a further wedge between Oromo nationalists and Oromos who support the Prosperity Party.
Jawar Mohammed, Bekele Gerba, and other members of the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) were arrested in July 2020 amid the ‘disturbances’ and only released from prison in January 2022. Similarly, Dawud Ibsa, chairman of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), was under house arrest for a year and was released recently.
As a result, the Prosperity Party ran practically unopposed in Oromia during the 2021 election. While some use the millions of votes Abiy received in Oromia to argue that the prime minister maintains broad-based support there, it seems clear that his level of support in Oromia and among Oromo leaders has greatly declined since its peak in 2018.
In Jawar’s first interview since being released, he sought to position himself as a “supreme mediator”, refrained from heavily criticizing any of the main belligerents in the northern war, and said he is willing to cooperate with each of them.
While Jawar’s recent shift in rhetoric has certainly alarmed and disappointed some, it could also be interpreted more positively as an indication of steps towards reconciliation.
The Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) has also been waging an insurgency in Oromia since 2018 that has elicited a government counterinsurgency and mass arrest campaign of Oromos, while deadly inter-communal violence between Oromos and Amharas is commonplace.
Although both sides dispute the facts surrounding each incident, what’s undeniable is that civilians have been caught in the crossfire and human rights violations are rampant.
Formerly the OLF’s armed wing, OLA went its own way after the OLF signed a peace deal with Abiy’s government in 2018, disarmed, and became a registered political party.
Oromo constituencies are apparently split between those in rural areas where the fighting is happening, who are most focused on their livelihoods and safety, and those in urban areas and the diaspora, who are more vocally supportive of the OLA insurgency.
Those on the ground are forced to choose between two evils: the anarchy caused by the insurgency and counterinsurgency, whether they support OLA’s broader goals or not, and the relative ‘stability’ that would come from submitting to a repressive government.
The increased willingness on the part of the federal government to make concessions to Tigray’s leadership may simply be a tactical move to avoid fighting on two fronts, and also signal that the focus may now be on pacifying Oromia.
Abiy’s support base has never resided in Tigray, as he came to power with a mission to reduce the influence of Tigrayan political, economic, and military elites.
The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), once the dominant player in Ethiopia’s ruling EPRDF coalition, saw its power gradually decline owing to cabinet reshuffling in the early- to mid-2000s, party restructuring, and Meles Zenawi’s death in 2012.
Waves of protests in Oromia and Amhara that began in 2014 ultimately pushed Hailemariam Desalegn to step down as prime minister in 2018, caused the EPRDF to devise a reform agenda, and forced the TPLF to return to its regional stronghold.
Abiy’s emerging power base came to consist of various elements with a historical antipathy towards the TPLF and its outsized role in Ethiopian politics since 1991.
Many Tigrayans initially supported Abiy’s accession to power, but became suspicious of his true intentions after seeing this coalition of interests forming. They were equally alarmed by the perceived targeting of Tigrayan political and economic elites by the Abiy administration, along with its use of anti-Tigrayan rhetoric.
The deterioration of relations between the federal government and Tigray’s regional government, including after the TPLF refused to join Abiy’s newly created Prosperity Party in December 2019 and after Tigray defiantly held regional elections in September 2020, culminated in armed conflict in November 2020.
The first seven months of the conflict were marked by an onslaught of violence primarily committed by the invading forces against Tigrayans. After the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF) recaptured much of the region in June 2021, the federal government imposed a medieval siege on Tigray.
With Tigrayans having been subjected to unimaginable suffering at the hands of the federal government, Amhara forces, and Eritrean soldiers, the link between the Tigrayan people and the Abiy regime—and with Ethiopia itself—has been severed.
After June 2021, fighting spread to the Amhara and Afar regions with devastating consequences. Tigray forces captured key locations, including Lalibela, and were threatening to march on the capital. Last December, the TDF was forced to retreat from Amhara and occupied several districts in Afar, ostensibly to secure an aid corridor.
At least 300,000 people have been displaced by the fighting in Afar. While Tigray forces are accused of indiscriminate shelling, killings, and looting, reports also indicate that Tigrayans in Afar have been massacred, ethnically cleansed, and detained en masse by Afar militia, police, and security forces.
Public opinion in Afar appears to have turned decidedly against Tigray’s leaders since the TDF invasion in December, though it’s unclear how much support Abiy enjoys—particularly given that Afar forces have been mostly fighting on their own.
Over the last six months, fighting has been mostly limited to small-scale confrontations. Positive signs have emerged since Abiy declared a truce on 24 March that has led to a slight improvement in the humanitarian situation.
The TDF left large parts of Afar, including Abala, in late April and released 4,208 prisoners of war—though the federal government disputes whether most of those released were in fact POWs. These moves indicate that there have been talks between the TPLF and the federal government.
Abiy and TPLF leaders reportedly plan to begin negotiations in Tanzania by the end of June. Olusegun Obasanjo, the African Union’s Special Envoy, has been trying to mediate a ceasefire since September 2021 and met with both sides again recently.
Despite such positive developments, clashes between Tigrayan and Eritrean forces have raised fears of a return to full-scale hostilities. The federal government also has yet to restore services in Tigray, including electricity, communications, and banking.
Any concessions made by the federal government to Tigray’s leaders, particularly regarding Western Tigray, would certainly weaken Abiy’s power base, which during the war has resided most prominently in Amhara and Eritrea.
As for Tigray’s leadership, it remains unclear what consequences striking a deal with Abiy would have on the TPLF’s strategic alliance with the OLA. There is a history, most notably after 1991, of Tigrayan forces allying with Oromos, only to clash once the alliance is no longer politically expedient.
Within the Ethiopian body politic, Abiy’s closest and most important strategic allies in his war-making effort have been Amhara elites, militias, and special forces.
By all accounts, Abiy has also enjoyed a high level of support, at least until recently, among the Amhara people and the broader pan-Ethiopian public.
In a plan to eliminate his biggest internal threat, the TPLF, Abiy made a tactical decision before the war to ally with various Amhara armed forces. The goal was to use tensions between Amhara and Tigray in service of his mission to consolidate and centralize power.
This alliance was solidified in the first months of the war, when Abiy’s regime facilitated the violent and extra-constitutional annexation of Welkait, Tsegede, Tselemti, Humera, Raya, and other areas in Tigray by Amhara forces, which subsequently led to a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Tigrayans.
The perception that Abiy had sided with Amhara elites disappointed many Oromos as well and raised further concerns about Abiy’s vision for Ethiopia. Oromara brought Abiy to power, but many came to see him as more Amhara or Ethiopianist than Oromo.
It must be noted that there are differences within each group, such as the divide between Amhara nationalists and Ethiopianists, among Amharas from different geographic centers such as Shewa and Wello, and along the region’s urban-rural divide.
Despite these intergroup differences, Abiy appeared to enjoy broad-based support among Amharas of all stripes for much of the war. More recently, evidence has been mounting of tensions between Abiy and Amhara elites that threaten this strategic alliance.
The Abiy-Amhara alliance saw its first setback in December 2021, when the prime minister halted military operations and decided not to re-invade Tigray after its forces retreated from Amhara. Amhara hardliners and diaspora groups opposed this decision and demanded that TPLF be eliminated militarily.
This schism was further revealed by the outrage among government supporters when Abiy decided to release several high-profile political prisoners in January, including OFC’s leaders and Sebhat Nega, among other TPLF stalwarts.
In a recent development, the Amhara regional government initiated “law enforcement operations” targeting the leaders of Fano, an Amhara militia group, pro-Fano media outlets, and members of the National Movement of Amhara (NaMA).
Amhara’s government began taking measures against groups it considers to be extremists in late May and has made at least 4,000 arrests to date. Those arrested include prominent Amhara journalists, politicians, and military personnel.
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During this time, there were deadly clashes between federal troops and local armed groups in Amhara. Violence reportedly erupted after government forces attempted to forcibly disarm Fano.
The crackdown in Amhara may improve Abiy’s image slightly among Oromo nationalists and build some confidence with Tigray’s leaders, but has caused his support to decline within his Amhara constituency.
The move also feeds into a popular narrative that Abiy is in fact a secret Oromo agent who was sent to undermine Amhara nationalism and Ethiopian unity.
Some Amhara Prosperity Party leaders, NaMA, and Eskinder Nega’s Balderas Party have opposed such actions against Fano. The Amhara Association of America has gone so far as to begin supporting HR 6600, a US bill that, if passed, would authorize Washington to punish federal officials and anyone else standing in the way of peace.
While there are signs that the federal government and TPLF desire peace, practical issues remain, such as how to resolve the Western Tigray dispute without further igniting inter-communal warfare. This zero-sum issue is the biggest obstacle to peace.
Having realized that it won’t be possible to eliminate the TPLF militarily, Abiy’s administration seems more open than ever to enter into formal negotiations. This has caused discontent in Amhara, given that negotiations may result in Abiy not fully backing Amharas on their land claims.
Any concessions Abiy could make to the TPLF, specifically on the disputed territories between the two regions, risk igniting a political powder keg in Amhara. The reverse is also true if Tigray’s land claims are denied.
The dominant sentiment among Amhara elites now is that Abiy has betrayed them. Attempts to build trust with the TPLF, though necessary to achieve lasting peace, would only exacerbate this sense of insecurity in Amhara.
The mutual exhaustion due to the war, the stumbling economy, and diplomatic pressure may entice the parties to negotiate sooner rather than later. Viewed more cynically, any push for peace in the north may reflect Abiy’s desire to focus on pacifying Oromia.
Beyond his support within Ethiopia, Abiy’s regime is propped up by foreign powers.
Abiy’s efforts to balance the often competing and incompatible interests of constituents in Tigray, Oromia, Amhara, Somali, Afar, Benishangul-Gumuz, and other regions are complicated by the looming presence of Isaias, among other foreign actors.
The ‘peace’ deal signed between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 2018 was in fact a war pact against the TPLF. Since being invited by Addis Abeba to attack Tigray, Eritrean troops have been responsible for some of the worst atrocities committed there.
Many observers have depicted Isaias as a Machiavellian puppet-master who is pulling the strings behind Abiy, and whose ultimate goal is not only to eliminate the TPLF but also to undermine Ethiopia’s stability and assert his control over the Horn of Africa.
The Abiy-Isaias relationship is conducted in the shadows, so gauging its status is always difficult. Increasingly, there is talk that things may no longer be well between Abiy and Isaias, as Eritrea’s autocrat builds closer ties to Amhara politicians and business interests.
It’s widely believed that Isaias is not happy that Abiy is apparently in conversation with TPLF leaders, and wants to take a more hardline approach. Isaias previously disagreed with Abiy’s decision to pull his troops out of Tigray.
Eritrean and Amhara elites, much like the federal government, see the potential for TPLF to secure a land corridor to Sudan by retaking Welkait as a strategic threat.
After Isaias accused Tigray’s leaders of planning to move on Western Tigray or against Eritrea, UN documents were released on 31 May accusing Eritrean forces of shelling Shiraro, a town in North-Western Tigray. Getachew Reda, a senior TPLF official, accused Eritrea of escalating tensions to generate a response, including by launching an offensive at near Adi Awalla on 24 May.
Some Tigrayans believe this supposed fracture, much like the humanitarian truce, is part of a strategy to placate international actors by making it look as if Abiy desires peace while still using starvation as a weapon of war and leaving Eritrea and Amhara to fight the TDF.
Regardless of where Isaias’ relationship with Abiy actually stands, the one certainty is that he will continue to play a destructive role in Ethiopian politics because, while his arch-nemesis is the TPLF, he also views a strong Ethiopia as a security threat to Eritrea.
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Another element of Abiy’s wartime power base has been Somalia under Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed (aka Farmajo). Somali troops embedded with the Eritrean army reportedly committed massacres in Tigray in the early days of the war.
Farmajo’s electoral loss in mid-May to Hassan Sheikh Mohamud raises questions about the future of the relationship between the two governments. Upon losing power, partly owing to controversy involving Ethiopia, Farmajo admitted for the first time to sending 5,000 troops to Eritrea that were reportedly used in Tigray and are yet to return.
In Somalia and Somali region, the extent to which Abiy is supported relates to the EPRDF-TPLF’s history of repression, intervention, and human rights abuses. Given that Somali opposition parties pulled out of the 2021 election, citing irregularities, it’s difficult to ascertain exactly how much support the Prosperity Party enjoys there.
Most Ethiopians, even those who revile Meles and the repressive state he built, nonetheless recognize his intellect and skill in managing Ethiopian politics, along with his commitment to poverty reduction, economic growth, and human development.
Abiy’s attempts to centralize power by pitting one group against the other are in many ways reminiscent of the EPRDF years. However, his regime has proven to be less capable of managing competing interests, maintaining stability, and providing social goods.
In a recent example, he plans to build a national palace—where the head of government will reside—at an estimated cost of 49 billion birr, rather than focusing on resuscitating the economy and enacting a national development plan.
In this context, such white elephant projects by Abiy are reminiscent of Haile Selassie’s lavish birthday celebration that the Marxist student movement of the 1960-70s juxtaposed with images of the Wello famine to help turn public opinion against the Emperor.
Although violence in Ethiopia often manifests most visibly along ethnic lines, there is always a material or class basis to grievances as well. Beyond his mismanagement of Ethiopia’s elite-level power politics, if Abiy fails to address such economic concerns, his support base among elites and the general public will erode completely.
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Editor’s note: Article amended on 15 June to remove erroneous reference to Merera Gudina’s arrest.
Main photo: Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.
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