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Abiy’s botched centralization fuels Ethiopia’s feuding centrifugal forces

13 mins read

The only way forward for Ethiopia is allowing greater autonomy.

The “indefinite humanitarian truce” declared by the federal government on 24 March was welcomed by Ethiopia’s international partners, but led to highly divergent predictions.

For some, it brought “a glimpse of hope“, “a cautious optimism”, and is a “first step towards a complicated peace”, indicating that the time for talks finally seems to be upon us.

For others, Addis Abeba’s covert goal is buying time to prepare for new military offensives. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed wanted a ‘humanitarian truce’ to “camouflage his military plans. He just recently rearmed. He wants blood,” claimed Rashid Abdi, a prominent analyst.

Let’s try to start with the facts.

First of all, for four months, the Tigrayans have not gone on the offensive again to try and break the blockade. Two explanations, which are not mutually exclusive, spring to mind: (1) They do not have the military strength to do so, and (2) The Tigrayan leadership continues to hope that the secret talks with Addis Abeba will eventually succeed.

According to credible diplomatic sources, these discussions expanded to involve Tigrayan and federal military commanders and then, despite denials by both sides, at least one extensive phone exchange between Abiy and Debretsion Gebremichael, Tigray’s president.

But only Addis Abeba and Mekelle were reportedly negotiating, without involving or even consulting, other Ethiopian parties—let alone Asmara.

The parties set out the terms of a 30-day cessation of hostilities, the specifics of lifting the blockade, the continuation of negotiations to achieve a permanent ceasefire, and, beyond that, an attempt to address Ethiopia’s fundamental political problems. It was agreed that it would be made public simultaneously in Addis Abeba and Mekelle, thus committing both to its terms.

Suddenly, however, the Ethiopian government unilaterally announced on 24 March the “indefinite humanitarian truce” with the purpose to “ensure the free flow of emergency humanitarian aid to all those in need of assistance.”

Once again, Abiy had reneged on his commitments.

A truce is a time-limited suspension of fighting, often for humanitarian reasons. A ceasefire is more formal, commits both sides, and normally opens the path to peace talks.

By declaring a truce—notably without specifying its geographical scope, the practicalities of its implementation, and any plans to advance the negotiations—Abiy distanced himself from the agreement with Mekelle and released himself from the obligations of a cessation of hostilities.

Conflicting imperatives

Yilkal Kefale, president of Amhara, which is governed by Abiy’s ruling party, reiterated bellicose statements against the TPLF last month. Two days before the truce, he said that the goal was to “conclude the war” and claimed “the plan to finish it has been concluded and the ENDF is working on it.”

In late February, Gedu Andargachew, former Amhara president and Abiy’s national security adviser, said that because TPLF’s threatening activity continued, “the war is not over yet.”

According to the website Tghat, Awol Arba, president of the Afar region and a staunch supporter of Abiy, stated strong opposition to aid getting into Tigray, due in part to the TDF occupation of parts of Afar.  Thus, it is likely that the Amhara and Afar leaders got wind of the Addis Abeba-Mekelle agreement, leading Abiy to change his plan.

The prime minister is caught between competing interests.

First, he faces Western pressures, particularly from the US, and the additional risks posed by SR.3199 in the Senate and H.R.6600 in the House of Representatives. Those bills threaten to cut off funds to Ethiopia, except for humanitarian purposes, and require the US government to defend this position in international financial institutions.

UK Minister recently said that across Ethiopia “almost 30 million are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance.” This proportion of vulnerable people is more than double that of a ‘normal’ year. In addition to the fighting, the drought is the worst since 1981. Those in need cannot be helped without massive donor support.

Despite Abiy’s pipe dreams, the economy is collapsing.

Annual food inflation is above 40 percent, creating a risk of hunger riots. No improvement in the economic situation is likely without sustained foreign assistance, both public and private, which Western governments typically provide.

Signs of mistrust between Abiy and the Amhara elite, a key pillar of his coalition, are multiplying, and so are gaps with Asmara.

Last but not least, one should not lose sight of other fronts that Abiy might for now consider even more threatening than Tigray.

The main one is Oromia and the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), now active around Ambo, about 100 kilometers from Addis Abeba. If Abiy wanted time to rearm, this is perhaps to intervene there more than in Tigray. The government has launched a campaign to eliminate the “terrorist” group, said the national broadcaster on 9 April.

 

Amid another major ongoing operation against OLA, it is clear that Tigray is no longer the only military front for Addis Abeba. But the destruction of the TPLF remains a top priority for the Asmara-Amhara axis, as is the removal of Isaias’ regime for the TPLF.

Abiy has no option but to try and manage these conflicting imperatives. In this case, if the current balance of power persists, he would modulate the situation daily, keeping Tigray on life-support—but not allowing it to recover.

In other words, he would allow enough humanitarian aid to resist pressure from the West, and make sufficient concessions to prevent the TPLF from resorting to a military option, but not concede too much to avoid cutting himself off even more from the Asmara-Amhara axis.

In practice, this involves making a few tactical concessions but otherwise continuing the strategy of strangling Tigray via the blockade. This approach is confirmed by the lack of any sign of actual unrestricted aid access to Tigray: less than 150 trucks have reached Mekelle more than a month after the “humanitarian truce”, despite TDF now withdrawing from Afar.

Economic leverage

There are some immediate lessons to be learned from Abiy’s retreat.

Roland Kobia, the EU ambassador in Ethiopia, tweeted after a meeting with Foreign Minister Demeke Mekonnen that in the face of the “current political situation… dialogue and engagement are key for better understanding and finding solutions.” In fact, the opposite is true: sanctions and the threat to increase them were probably decisive in bringing about this truce.

The economic and humanitarian hurdles have become key.

As the overall situation continues to worsen, more fiscal pressure on Abiy’s government should get additional concessions, especially on humanitarian aid. But, the prevailing tone from Western diplomats does not seem to be hardening, except perhaps from the US Congress or Samantha Power, USAID’s administrator.

During her meeting with Finance Minister Ahmed Shide, Power stressed that “much more can be done to facilitate significant and sustained humanitarian access to all Ethiopians in need,” without mentioning the need for a total withdrawal of TDF from Afar and Amhara.

The $300-million World Bank grant to the finance ministry, appraised by the European Commission as “premature” and possibly “counterproductive”, displays a lack of coordination among the Western powers.

The second lesson is that Abiy has had to postpone, at least for the time being, his plans to bring down the TPLF militarily. He has de facto recognized that the party will continue to rule Tigray and that he has no choice but to play the long game by continuing to blockade the region. His ambition to secure his authority over the whole of Ethiopia has been stymied.

The final lesson is that Abiy is not totally bound by the Amhara nationalists and their more or less autonomous armed groups. Rashid Abdi predicted that “Abiy cannot deliver on truce… war has already been hijacked by ethnic militias.” Yet, even the Amhara elite had to grudgingly accept the compromise inherent in the truce.

What did they get in return? Probably a freer hand over Western Tigray to satisfy their irredentist thirst.

It is doubtful that it was only by chance that Getachew Jember, Amhara’s vice-president, led a delegation of 600 people in early April from all over the region to visit Welkait-Tegede-Setit-Humera Zone. He said: “We will work to legalize the territorial and identity issue” of the area. It was the same day that the first aid convoy in three and a half months reached Mekelle.

One worthwhile hypothesis is that Amhara nationalists may also have received assurances of stronger engagement against OLA. Amhara elites are increasingly vocal in denouncing the rise of Oromo nationalism, of which they consider OLA the most threatening component.

Regarding conflicts in the Oromo Special Zone in Amhara, one Amhara security official recently said: “We have to speak up and fight before we die.”

Contradictory information   

Presently, the information coming out is so biased and contradictory that it has become nearly impossible to decipher the truth.

For instance, there is no reliable information on the status of military forces—ENDF, TDF, OLA, and so on—such as size, weaponry, and morale.

In what appeared to be a leaked audio, General Tsadkan Gebretensae, a member of TDF’s Central Command,  said that Abiy’s “military capability is under severe crisis.” According to him, Tigray’s army is now stronger as the youth fighters who reached Debre Sina during last year’s march to the capital “have become soldiers.”

On the other hand, Birhanu Jula, ENDF’s Chief of Staff, retorts that the Tigray forces “suffered huge morale damage”; it is so weakened that it had to “hire a lot of mercenaries.”

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This, of course, is classic wartime propaganda.

When Tsadkan claims, in the audio, that there is “communication on a daily basis” between him, Tadesse Werede—TDF’s top commander—and Birhanu, the ENDF supremo denied it and played on the word “meet” by declaring that “I didn’t meet with a person called Tsadkan.”

Debretsion addressed a pressing appeal to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to end the siege and warned that “if peaceful options are no longer viable, we will be forced to resort to other means to break the devastating blockade.”

Tsadkan, on the other hand, said, “we don’t expect anything from others [international partners].” He further said that Addis is so weakened militarily, economically, and diplomatically that it would have no choice but to negotiate.

Fresh settlement

We must try to look beneath this froth at deeper currents.

Over the longer term, the question is whether this truce marks the first step towards at least an incremental pacification of Ethiopia. This would mean assessing the impact on the country’s fundamental problems and the heart of the crisis, namely, constructing a new way of living together between the country’s 80 or so “nations, nationalities, and peoples.”

The bigger picture behind this truce is increasingly bleak. Fragmentation is the major dynamic in Ethiopia today. That has led to, among others, the proliferation of local baronies with more or less autonomous control over fairly extensive territories.

Regional state and non-state armed groups are militarizing to assert themselves. According to credible sources, the total of all regional forces plus Fano and equivalents is now double the size of the ENDF, without even counting the kebele militias.

These centrifugal forces are inseparable from the rise of increasingly fanatical identity-based sentiments, at least among the main ‘nations’ of Ethiopia. They include a general feeling by multiple communities of being besieged and the victim of genocide.

It’s highly symptomatic and symbolic that one of the strongest unifying links in Ethiopian society, the religions, particularly the Orthodox and Catholic churches, has been tested due to ethnic rifts. More recently, there has also been sectarian violence against Muslims in Gonder.

These feelings are inseparable from an increasingly pronounced irredentism: almost all kilils have territorial claims on other kilils that border them. All this leads to a growing conflict in this centrifugal process, marked by the intensification and multiplication of deadly clashes, where armed forces of all kinds confront each other in an increasingly barbaric manner.

The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project assessed that “conflict events” increased by 161 percent in 2021. The federal government and almost all regional states have long since lost their monopoly on violence.

As this indicates, we are dangerously close to a confrontation of all against all.

According to Ezekiel Gebissa, an Oromo academic and activist, the main danger for Ethiopia is no longer balkanization, but what he calls “rwandization”.

Last but not least, Ethiopia has de facto lost large parts of its sovereignty. With the weakening of the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF), the Eritrean army is one of the strongest in the Horn, and it occupies parts of Tigray.

Asmara is rumored to have gained a strong position in Ethiopia’s security services. Meanwhile, it is bypassing Addis Abeba to forge increasingly close political and military links with parts of the Amhara elite.

Eritrea’s long-held strategy towards Ethiopia remains unchanged: to destroy the TPLF and make Tigray its hinterland, while at the same time weakening Ethiopia, whatever the cost, to the point where Isaias can play the puppet master, pulling the strings behind the scenes.

Centrifugal forces

This violent scattering is too far-reaching to expect that what remains of the central power could find the strength to put the country back together.

Whether we like it or not, the events of the last few years have answered the key conundrum: where can a possible answer to the existential question at the heart of the crisis in Ethiopia be found? It now appears that Ethiopia can only reach some order in a very loose ethnic federation. Fighting this reality would only intensify the centrifugal dynamics to the point of balkanization.

Tigray is a showcase in this regard. Getachew Reda, who was previously a strong supporter of keeping the region in the federation, had to admit that the main popular demand among the Tigrayan public now is independence or “statehood”, particularly among what he calls “the resistance.”

It is often said that the so-called Amhara ‘hegemonists’ or ‘expansionists’ would be united in their opposition to such a loose federation. But this is only partly true.

First, the gap is growing between the most radical Gonder Zone and the more moderate Gojjam, Shewa, and Wello zones.

Second, one must also consider the meteoric rise of Amhara nationalism, the refocusing of the Amhara pan-Ethiopian vision on ‘Amharawinet’, and its gradual impact.

Informants in Amhara Shewa, when recently asked about what people around them were thinking, reported more or less the following: “We thought and acted more like Ethiopian citizens than Amhara. Because of this, we have not been able to come together and organize ourselves, be strong as Amhara, and resist the invasion of the Woyane. Our priority now must be to build a strong Amhara nation.”

They added: “Let the Tigrayans do what they want to do at home, trying to go as far as Mekelle is absurd, all we want is to take back our territories that they are occupying.”

Desalegn Chane, former president of the National Movement of Amhara, an Amhara nationalist party, was asked: “If you had to choose, who would you stand for, Ethiopia or Amhara?” His answer was convoluted: “Amhara can serve as a center and can advocate for the rights of other nationalities while fighting for its own rights as well.”

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This is a far cry from the original goal of de-ethnicizing the federal system.

Finally, the fact that Gonder mainly seeks and finds more support in Asmara than in Addis Abeba says a lot about the identity-based withdrawal of parts of the Amhara elite and therefore the strength of the trend towards seeking more autonomy.

Abiy has always fought that trend—probably not for any ideological reason, however, but due to opportunism. This trend is the main obstacle to his personal ambition of becoming a true nationwide ruler. His personal position weakens with each passing day, so he maneuvers on a day-to-day basis to try to survive, but with no consistent direction.

His struggle, paradoxically, accelerates the autonomist trend.

The foreseeable failure of the farcical so-called “national dialogue” and the mass offensive against OLA confirm once more Abiy’s military adventurism. For him, “there is a military solution to political problems,” despite the disasters that his military adventures led to, said Ezekiel.

Oromo first

If we assess Abiy’s record and compare the state of the country today to what it was in April 2018, there is no area of sustained positive development.

His Prosperity Party is undermined by divisions, within or between its regional branches. The PP’s general assembly had already demonstrated these fractures.

Unable to map a way out of the crisis, it could only agree on formulations that could be read as everything and its opposite: nation-building must be based on “a strong foundation of Ethiopiawinet on multinational fraternity” or “national unity based on multinational federalism.”

The ‘Oromara’ alliance is well and truly dead, as evidenced again by the recent surge of fighting on the Amhara-Oromia border, mainly in the Oromia Zone of the Amhara Region and West Wellega. The war of words between the two sides is also raging.

Oromia Broadcasting Network, Oromia region’s media, interviewed a West Wellega official who said: “Amhara extremists have taken Oromo land by force, to settle on it, and cultivate it.”

When a Fano chief said that “the main war is yet to start,” he must have this confrontation in mind.

Finally, there is general disenchantment.

Probably the majority of the population no longer supports the war with TPLF. Even the main wing in the diaspora, the “conservatives” who idolized Abiy, turned their back on him, mainly after they were shocked by the release of Sebhat Nega, a TPLF co-founder.

Some even believe that the war in the north has been launched to weaken the Amhara and bring the Oromo closer to hegemony.

If Abiy is still in power, it is mainly thanks to the weakness of his opponents. They are too divided to achieve the weight that their numbers should give them. With no signs that a credible roadmap or a strong opposition leadership will emerge, it is hard to see how Ethiopia can recover.

In the interim, as long as these opponents consider Abiy useful during this reshaping, they will not really threaten his position.

It appears that only the Oromos can be the driving force behind Ethiopia’s recovery, because of their numbers and Oromia’s relatively valuable natural endowment. They are also, above all, the main proponents of the ethnic federalist vision.

What appears to be a must is a two-stage construction of a common front that would implement this ethnic federalist project. First, between the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), and OLA. Then, this intra-Oromo coalition would need to form a strong alliance with like-minded ethno-nationalist forces from other regions.

However, this is a responsibility that the Oromo have historically never managed to assume—and that Abiy will do everything in his power to prevent.

Query or correction? Email us

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This is the author’s viewpoint. However, Ethiopia Insight will correct clear factual errors.

Main photo: Main photo: Armed Fano members in Mota, East Gojjam Zone; December 2021; Mota City Communication Bureau.

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