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Could Ethiopia disintegrate? Thinking the unthinkable in the Horn of Africa

A one-time economic tiger and a linchpin of stability in a fragile region, Ethiopia now stands on the brink of disaster. What happened to Africa’s oldest independent country?

Republican March Band of Ethiopia stand on guard as a ceremony is held to support the Ethiopian military troops. Photo: Getty Images / Stringer.

Two years ago, Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed spoke movingly about the horrors of war as he accepted the Nobel peace prize for definitively ending conflict with neighbouring Eritrea.

“I was a young soldier when war broke out between Ethiopia and Eritrea,” he said in Oslo. “There are those who have never seen war but glorify and romanticize it … War is the epitome of hell for all involved. I know because I have been there and back.”

Now, he’s back again and this time he’s the one glorifying blood sacrifice. In November, Abiy left the capital Addis Ababa to direct the fight against rebels from the northern Tigray region in a year-long conflict that has claimed tens of thousands of lives and raised the twin spectres of famine and genocide in Africa’s second-most populous country.

The fatigue-clad Abiy filmed in the scrubland of the Afar region struck a very different tone to the leader who accepted the Nobel. “We won’t flinch backward till we bury the enemy and ensure Ethiopia’s freedom. What we need to see is an Ethiopia that stands by itself, and we will die for it,” he reportedly said.

The war began when Abiy sent troops into Tigray after fighters loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) allegedly attacked military bases after months of mounting political tensions. Although only a small minority of Ethiopia’s 110 million-strong population, Tigrayans dominated Ethiopia’s political life for decades until Abiy, whose parents are from the Oromo and Amhara groups, took office in 2018 and began to sideline TPLF officials.

Former UN emergency coordinator Sir Mark Lowcock says the potential for a total collapse of the Ethiopian state is very real. Negotiations are critical but despite the best efforts of mediators like UN secretary-general António Guterres, US special envoy Jeffrey Feltman, and Nigerian former president Olusegun Obasanjo, who is leading African Union efforts, the requisite trust between the parties is not there.

“The thing I fear most is the total collapse and fragmentation of the country, which would be disastrous and catastrophic for Ethiopia but also for the wider region,” Lowcock said.

Yohannes Woldemariam, an academic specialising in the Horn of Africa who was raised in Ethiopia and now lives in New York, agrees. “If there is an implosion, Ethiopia will not go down by itself. It will take the entire region down,” he said, predicting, for example, chaos in neighbouring Somalia where the Islamist militants of Al Shabaab are still fighting the authorities.

For years, Ethiopia has been a staunch Western ally in the Horn of Africa but it is not just western countries that have an interest here. China has lent billions of dollars to Ethiopia while Gulf countries, as well as Turkey, are also present, mainly in neighbouring Djibouti, the region’s main port. Al Jazeera has reported that the United Arab Emirates is providing military support to Abiy’s forces, and there have also been reports of the Chinese and Turks providing drones. Some analysts say Western governments held back on challenging Abiy on his tactics early in the war for fear of losing regional influence to China.

When they pushed into Tigray last year, Abiy’s troops were backed by militia from the Amhara region and by troops from Eritrea, whose repressive president, Isaias Afwerki, still bears a grudge against the Tigrayans for a brutal 1998-2000 war — the conflict Abiy was credited with definitively ending by the Nobel committee.

At first, Abiy’s forces had the upper hand but in June, amid reports of mass killings and gang rapes by federal forces and their allies, the TPLF turned the tide and began to push south towards Addis Ababa. Now, the TPLF and their Oromo allies have themselves been accused of atrocities and a conflict rooted in long-standing enmities and triggered by one man’s massive strategic miscalculation threatens to tear Ethiopia apart and destablise the tinderbox region.

“It’s a zero sum game. It doesn’t seem like there is any room for compromise,” said Yohannes. “If the government falls, then what I expect is warlord-type politics and warlord-type war by various sides.”

Thousands of people have already been killed and at least 400,000 are facing famine in Tigray. More than two million people have been displaced and around nine million need urgent food aid but nobody really knows the true scale of the suffering because Abiy’s government refuses to allow humanitarian workers or journalists free access to Tigray.

Lowcock, who was a young aid worker in Ethiopia during the devastating famine in the mid-eighties, says he is heartbroken by what is happening. People are definitely starving — it’s just a question of how many, he says, blaming Abiy’s government for denying the facts.

“As well as deliberately seeking to create a famine and starve the population either into subjugation or out of existence, they have also tried to cover up what was going on, and part of the cover-up was preventing a declaration of famine,” said Lowcock, who retired from the UN in July and is now a fellow at the Center for Global Development.

It’s a chilling statement bearing in mind that one million people died in the 1983-85 famine, which was also denied by Ethiopia’s then ruler, Marxist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, who came to power after ousting Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974 and ruled for 17 bloody years.

Abiy’s forces and allies have also been accused of murder, rape and other abuses against Tigrayans.

Writing in the Guardian, the former prime minister of New Zealand, Helen Clark, Fr Michael Lapsley head of Healing of Memories Global Network and independent crossbench life peer and campaigner on genocide David Alton said the warning signs for genocide were flashing red.

“All sides in Ethiopia’s conflict have committed violations,” they wrote. “But only one side has committed violations on a scale and nature that could credibly qualify as genocide – and that, we regret to say, is the coalition of the Ethiopian government, under the prime minister, Abiy Ahmed; the Amhara regional government; and the state of Eritrea.”

Lowcock says that between dialogue and collapse there is a possible third outcome for Ethiopia and it might look more like what happened in 1991, when guerrillas led by Meles Zenawi, a Tigrayan, ousted Mengistu. Meles took over as transitional president and steered the country through a period of strong growth and development, albeit under a repressive regime. Lowcock says a similar transition might still be possible but is by no means guaranteed.

When Abiy came to power after years of anti-government protest, he ended TPLF dominance, brought in political and economic reforms and restored ties with Eritrea. But his political honeymoon was short-lived. Yohannes says the world did not understand Abiy when they gave him the Nobel.

“It was more of a projection. They just assumed he would carry out their wishes. They didn’t understand the guy. He is a Pentecostal Christian, who has a sense of himself that is kind of surreal. He is stubborn and self-obsessed. He also contradicts himself a lot,” he said.

Lowcock says Abiy is guilty of a “terrible blunder”, noting that at first he described the incursion into Tigray as a “law enforcement” operation. Now that mistake has morphed into an existential issue of personal survival. “What people tend to do in those circumstances is back themselves into a corner …. Abiy has to watch his back,” he said.

For now, both sides seem to be betting on military victory. During November, the TPLF got to within a few hundred kilometres of the capital. Abiy urged citizens to take up arms to defend the city and foreign nationals were told to leave as human rights groups raised the alarm about round-ups of thousands of Tigrayans. Yohannes says people are scared and some are already leaving.

“A lot of Tigrayans are being taken into what are almost concentration camps. What are they going to do with these people? Especially when things become desperate and if they lose militarily?” he said. “It’s a very scary situation. I’ve heard that people are beginning to flee, even people who are supposedly allied with Abiy, a significant number of people.”

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