How Abiy Ahmed’s Ethiopia-first nationalism led to civil war

Tigray is the last frontier in a battle over the character of the Ethiopian state.

A member of the Amhara Special Forces watches on at the border crossing with Eritrea while where an Imperial Ethiopian flag waves, in Humera, Ethiopia, on November 22, 2020. [Eduardo Soteras/AFP]

Earlier this month, a simmering political and ideological conflict between Ethiopia’s federal government and the northern region of Tigray escalated into a deadly civil war that is threatening to destabilise an already fragile and volatile region.

On November 4, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced military attacks against the Tigray region, which borders Eritrea and Sudan, and its governing party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The prime minister, who positioned himself as a reformer and peacemaker since taking office in 2018, and won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for clinching a long-awaited peace deal between his country and Eritrea, declared an all-out war on a regional government as a means to settle an ideological and political difference.

The war in Tigray is a continuation of the violent and widespread repression Abiy began in Oromia, Walaita and Sidama against those who resisted his vision of the future. After silencing dissent and opposition elsewhere in the country, Abiy and his camp are turning to Tigray, the last frontier in the battle over the character of the Ethiopian state.

Tigray presents a significant challenge to the prime minister’s grandiose vision of “Making Ethiopia Great Again” (MEGA). In addition to being an autonomous region with effective control over its territories, it is a battle-hardened region with highly trained troops and access to much of Ethiopia’s military arsenal.

Although Abiy’s government is scrambling to convince the world that this is a law enforcement operation with limited and achievable objectives, the fierce battles fought over the last few weeks involving fighter jets, tanks, and armoured personnel carriers make it evident that the country is in the midst of what is likely to be an intractable military deadlock that would result in a large number of casualties.

This is likely to be a protracted and destructive war with significant ramifications for Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa. There are already fears that the war could lead to the fragmentation of the Ethiopian state, an event that would constitute a great geopolitical nightmare for the region and beyond.

But what are the causes, drivers, and dynamics of this war?

The genesis of the conflict

At the heart of the current civil war and the political upheavals that rocked the country since Abiy’s rise to power are two radically contrasting and seemingly irreconcilable visions of the future. On the one hand is Abiy’s vision of a centralised and unitary state in which the centre determines the political, economic, and cultural policies of the periphery. On the other hand is a vision represented by the TPLF, the Oromo opposition camp and other nations and nationalities in the south of the country, of an Ethiopia in which political authority is constitutionally divided between the central government and autonomous regional governments responsible for determining policies central to their political, economic, and cultural futures.

It is these inherently ideological differences about the nature and character of the Ethiopian state that escalated into a full-blown military confrontation between the TPLF and the Abiy regime in Addis Ababa.

Central to these contrasting ideological visions is competing historical narratives about the nature of the Ethiopian state. Federalist forces, including the TPLF, view Ethiopia as an empire built through the exclusion and assimilation of many of the region’s diverse peoples.

This is a point of view shared by many Ethiopian and Western historians. For example, Professor Christopher Clapham writes: “Although Ethiopia has continuously formed a multi-ethnic political system, participation in national political life normally required assimilation to the cultural value of the Amhara core: the Amharic language, orthodox Christianity and a capacity to operate within the structure and assumptions of a court administration.”

Federalist forces claim that the current ethnonational federal arrangement, which provides nations and nationalities the right to determine their political and cultural destiny, including the right to become an independent state, is an attempt to right historical wrongs and correct the structural asymmetries of power and privilege that persisted into the present.

Abiy and his supporters, on the other hand, see Ethiopia as a glorious political project, a “land of origins” with a long and uninterrupted history of greatness, and mobilise mythologised understandings of the past to undermine the narratives of the federalist front.

Since coming to power, Abiy frequently spoke of Ethiopia’s past glory and magnified the perceived greatness of its controversial emperors and princes. In his first official statement as prime minister, he described Emperor Menelik II, the controversial founder of the modern Ethiopian state whose southward territorial expansion was accompanied by widespread atrocities, as a “great leader”. During a support rally organised by his supporters, he told the audience, “I have no doubt Ethiopia will return to its former national glory” in an apparent derision for the current constitutional settlement.

His vision of the future feeds off of a disturbing infatuation with chauvinist imperial nationalism and a romanticisation of a deeply problematic past that left intergenerational trauma for those who historically existed on the periphery of political life. In Abiy’s promise of renewed greatness, one hears the derision and disdain with which he holds the current constitutional settlement and its guiding ideologies.

Although Abiy started his political life as a member of the Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation (OPDO), his attitudes, views, actions and visions are currently at odds with mainstream Oromo views. Abiy’s main support base is now in the Amhara region, and mostly among the Amhara elite in Addis Ababa, who want to dismantle the federal system and bring back the unitary system in the name of national unity.

For Amharas and the Amhara elite, this war is about recapturing territories they claim were unlawfully taken by Tigray, such as Wolkait, and moving closer to their dream of reinstalling national unity by eliminating the TPLF. For many in the historically marginalised south, however, their ideas of national unity represent nothing but an attempt to reimpose the assimilationist system that excluded non-Amhara cultures, languages, and ways of being from Ethiopia’s national life.

Instead of settling these competing visions of the future through dialogue and democratic processes, Abiy used the first two years in office to consolidate power and ultimately impose his vision on all peoples of Ethiopia by any means necessary. Since coming to power, Abiy used security forces and the military to subdue opposition and dissent against his vision. In Oromia regional state, he has effectively eliminated the most formidable political forces such as Jawar Mohammed, Bekele Gerba, and Lemma Megersa, who represented a threat to his electoral chances, and therefore his vision. With the arrest and detention of Jawar Mohammed and Bekele Gerba, the house arrest of former Defence Minister Lemma Megersa, and the increasing militarisation of Oromia, Abiy effectively subdued Oromia, and rendered this politically vital region leaderless.

Abiy went to an all-out war with Tigray because he could not subdue the region and the TPLF in the same way he annihilated opposition in Oromia and other places. The region is politically autonomous and retains effective control over its territory. It also has significant military capacity in terms of troops and weaponry.

After it was removed from power at the centre and sidelined by Abiy on key national policy issues, TPLF emerged as an outspoken and powerful defender of the multinational federal arrangement which restructured the unitary state into a federation of nine self-governing ethnolinguistic states with considerable political and cultural autonomy. Along with other federalist forces, it argued that the solution to Ethiopia’s explosive national and subnational politics is not a return to the assimilationist past, but to strengthen and democratise the existing constitutional settlement.

Federalist forces want to preserve their constitutional status as distinct self-governing subnational entities while at the same time building a common Ethiopian culture and consolidating a new Ethiopia that reflects the cultures and identities of the diverse peoples who belong to it. They want a political order which celebrates autonomy, self-rule, pluralism, difference, and the coexistence of multiple identities alongside one another, instead of one that imposes a single culture and identity on Ethiopia’s diverse inhabitants in the name of national unity.

National implications

Abiy used an alleged attack on a federal military base in Mekelle, the regional capital of Tigray, by forces loyal to the TPLF as justification for his government’s military offensive against the region. However, federal forces were massed on the border between Tigray and Amhara days before the alleged attack on November 4, indicating that the central government was preparing for war long before the incident.

Abiy is trying to frame the continuing war as a rule of law operation aimed at defending the constitution, but his declaration of war against a regional state itself lacks a constitutional basis. Abiy declared war against Tigray only because the region refused to bow to his unitarian vision. Ethiopia’s constitution does not grant prime ministers the authority to go to war with regional states that do not support their ideology or policies.

And the war Abiy is waging in the name of national unity is actually damaging the fragile interstate and intercommunity dynamics in the country, with significant ramifications for ethnic harmony and coexistence.

The anti-TPLF rhetoric supported by the central government has morphed into anti-Tigray propaganda since the beginning of the conflict. As a result, Tigrayans who live outside the Tigray region, particularly in Addis Ababa, are now being discriminated against and targeted. There have been widespread reports that the federal police are trying to form lists of ethnic Tigrayans working in government agencies and even in international NGOs.

Beyond putting a target on all ethnic Tigrayans’ backs, the war is also likely to heighten the long-standing ideological and territorial dispute between ethnic Amharas and Tigrayans. Amhara activists and elites view the war not just as an opportunity to regain territories they claim are unlawfully taken by Tigray but also as an opportunity to dismantle the current federal system and reassert the pre-eminence of Amhara culture and language in the name of national unity.

Although Abiy and his supporters are pushing the narrative that the government is engaged in a law enforcement operation with a clear and achievable objective, the conflict is escalating and there is a real risk of a protracted, bloody impasse that could lead to the collapse of the Ethiopian state and a broader regional conflagration.

Regional conflagration

The war against Tigray is coordinated from three centres – Addis Ababa, Mekelle, and Eritrea. The Eritrean government, which fought a bloody war with Ethiopia from 1998 to 2000 when the TPLF was in power in Addis Ababa, emerged as an ally of Prime Minister Abiy.

Abiy and Eritrean President Isaias Afeworki see TPLF as a significant obstacle to their respective agendas. Abiy sees TPLF as the only remaining obstacle to his MEGA vision, and the war against Tigray as the last frontier in the realisation of his vision. Isaias, meanwhile, wants to see the end of TPLF as a political movement. He sees this as an opportunity for a more favourable settlement in the Ethiopia-Eritrea rapprochement and as payback time for the defeat TPLF leaders inflicted on him in the battlefield and diplomatically.

The war is also likely to draw in other regional actors. Sudan, itself a highly volatile and unstable state, has already moved soldiers to the border and more than 40,000 refugees have entered its territory since the fighting began. The country is expecting to receive at least 200,000 refugees because of this conflict. It is highly likely that the various actors in Sudan will intervene on one side or another as the war inevitably gets protracted and bloody.

Somalia, another highly volatile country, is already feeling the consequences of the war as Ethiopia withdraws its non-AMISOM forces from Somalia, weakening the support available to Somali forces in their fight against al-Shabab.

In short, the war between Ethiopia’s federal government and the Tigray regional government will be protracted and is likely to become the greatest geopolitical nightmare in the Horn of Africa.

Abiy’s attempt to solve political and ideological differences through military means is dangerous and misguided. The Tigray region has militias and special forces numbering in hundreds of thousands and controls much of Ethiopia’s military hardware. The TPLF controls a vast and strategic territory bordering Eritrea and Sudan from which it can plan and launch a concerted military operation against the federal government.

Abiy’s attempt to solve political and ideological differences through military means is dangerous and misguided. As a Nobel laureate, Abiy had the moral and political obligation to rule out war as a means of settling a political dispute.

There can be no military solution to the ideological differences between Abiy and the TPLF. And a protracted war and continued bloodshed would make the amicable resolution of these differences difficult, if not impossible. The only solution to the continuing war and the broader political upheaval grinding Ethiopia is a genuine commitment to an all-inclusive national dialogue that would chart an agreed pathway to a democratic future.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.