Abiy’s efforts to unify Ethiopia could lead to its disintegration

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s quest to bring all Ethiopians together through increased centralisation is tearing the country apart.

Tigrayans who fled the conflict in Ethiopia's Tigray region are seen at Umm Rakouba refugee camp in Qadarif, eastern Sudan, on November 27, 2020 [AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty]

Today, Ethiopia is once again in crisis. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s efforts to re-centralise all state powers in Addis Ababa and dismantle the multi-ethnic federation established in the 1995 constitution in the name of “national unity”, led to an armed conflict between the federal military and a regional government, ruined thousands of lives and livelihoods, and once again made Ethiopia a centre of instability and conflict in the Horn of Africa. It now seems Abiy’s push for “unity” could achieve the exact opposite – disintegration.

In 2018, Abiy ascended to power on a promise to bring unity, prosperity and peace to a polarised country engulfed in violent and seemingly endless unrest and chronic economic hardship. And as soon as he took office, with the support of an overwhelming majority of Ethiopians and the international community behind him, he embarked on an ambitious reform programme at breakneck speed.

Domestically, he oversaw the release of thousands of political prisoners, appointed Ethiopia’s first female president, filled half of his cabinet with women and nominated a once-jailed opposition leader as the new chairwoman of the electoral authority. In the international arena, he clinched a long-awaited peace deal with Eritrea, ending a bloody protracted war. He also mediated between Eritrea and Djibouti, Eritrea and Somalia, Somalia and Kenya, and pushed the various factions in South Sudan to give peace a chance.

In 2019, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize “for his efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation, and in particular for his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea.”

Last month, however, he embarked on a military offensive against the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF), the regional government of the northern Tigray region, risking to start a civil war in his country and destabilise the Horn of Africa.

According to Abiy, an alleged attack by forces loyal to the TPLF on the federal army base in Tigray on November 4 was the reason behind the military confrontation. However, that attack was not the cause but a symptom of growing unrest in Tigray and across the country.

Since Abiy took office, tensions have been simmering between his government and the TPLF due to their differing views about the way state power in Ethiopia should be structured. While Abiy openly campaigns for increased centralisation, not only the TPLF but also nine out of the 10 regional states in the country as well as most of the population want to preserve Ethiopia’s multi-ethnic federal arrangement.

The TPLF is not the only regional power in Ethiopia that faced attacks by federal security forces for resisting Abiy’s centralisation efforts. The prime minister had already deployed federal troops to the Oromia and Sidama regions to silence local activists and politicians who voiced their opposition to his plans for “uniting” the nation long before the start of the military operation in Tigray.

Federalism vs centralisation

Throughout its long history, Ethiopia has been ruled by countless emperors and dictators who refused to acknowledge the distinct ethnic and cultural identities of the country’s diverse peoples. Most recently, between 1974 and 1991, the people of Ethiopia have been at the mercy of a dictatorship who viewed them as a monolithic bloc, ignored the needs and desires of local communities, and centralised all state powers in Addis Ababa.

The formation and rise to power of the Ethiopia People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) – a four-part ethnic coalition structure made up of the TPLF, the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM, later Amhara Democratic Party), the Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organization (OPDO, later Oromo Democratic Party), and the Southern Ethiopian Peoples’ Democratic Movement (SEPDM) – changed that.

The EPRDF toppled the dictatorship in 1991, introduced ethnic federalism to the country, and gave all nations, nationalities and peoples that are part of the newly found Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia autonomy and the right to secede from the federation when they see fit.

While the EPRDF’s ethnic federation has undoubtedly been imperfect, largely due to the TPLF’s domination of the federal government and tendency to ignore the rights of less powerful ethnic groups, it still acted as a safety valve against ethnic tensions and managed to keep the more than 80 ethnic groups living in the country somewhat united for decades.

But after the tensions stemming from the TPLF’s abuse of power and oppression of dissenting voices came to a boil in the last few years, and led to Abiy’s election by Parliament, the new prime minister embarked on a mission to transform Ethiopia into a centralised, unitary state.

To achieve this goal, in December 2019, Abiy dissolved the EPDRF and launched the Prosperity Party (PP) in its place. The OPDO, ANDM, and SEPDM voted overwhelmingly to join the new national party, while the TPLF, which created these parties and the EPRDF coalition, rejected the idea as “illegal and reactionary”.

Centralisation and unity 

Abiy’s political slogan is “medemer” – or “coming together” – and the prime minister’s vision for a united Ethiopia is inspired by the country’s “glorious past”. In his Nobel acceptance speech, he mentioned “Medemer” 14 times and defined it as: “Using the best of our past to build a new society and a new civic culture that thrives on tolerance, understanding, and civility.”

This vision, however, has two fatal flaws.

One, Ethiopia’s past was not glorious for everyone. Some people and communities have not been allowed to take part in Ethiopia’s state structures for centuries due to powerful minorities ruling the country perceiving them and their cultures as inferior. They have been forced to accept a “national culture” that is alien to them and have been violently repressed any time they tried to voice their dissent. These communities suffered intergenerational trauma due to the ruling elites’ efforts to create a uniform nation, and understandably do not want a return to this violent and unjust past.

Two, the past Abiy is nostalgic for was not defined by “unity” as he claims, but “control”. In no point in history, were the peoples of Ethiopia fully and willingly united – they were just controlled by authorities that ignored their differences. So Abiy is not working to return his country to a “glorious past” where all its peoples were living in harmony. Instead, he is trying to make himself the new “emperor” of Ethiopia and once again wage a war against diversity, democracy and freedom under the name of national unity.

Today, Amharas are the most vocal supporters of Abiy’s vision for a united Ethiopia, while Tigrayans and Oromos stand in its way. The current stances of these ethnic groups have their roots in Ethiopia’s history. Throughout Ethiopia’s imperial history – or the so-called “glorious past” – the Amhara culture was accepted as “the national culture” at the expense of the cultures and traditions of other ethnic groups. They held all the levers of power in their hands. Today, Amharas seem to believe if Abiy is allowed to “unify Ethiopia” they can return to the privileged position they enjoyed during the imperial era. Tigrayans and Oromos, meanwhile, only have memories of oppression and cultural erasure from the imperial era and this is why they are resisting Abiy’s centralisation efforts.

During its three-decade rule, the TPLF committed numerous egregious human rights violations for which their leaders should be held accountable. But a military operation against the Tigray region is undoubtedly not the way to bring them to account.

So far, despite Abiy’s recent declaration of victory, the peaceful resolution of the conflict between the federal government and the TPLF does not appear to be on the horizon. While the TPLF declared its intention to continue fighting until it secures the region’s right to self-determination, Abiy refused an offer by the African Union to mediate negotiations between the two warring sides. But whichever way this conflict ends, it is going to define Abiy’s premiership and determine the fate of Ethiopia’s multi-ethnic federalism. If Abiy insists on refusing to listen to those who view the federal system as a guarantee against the oppression of marginalised communities and continues to push for increased centralisation, Tigray may opt for the nuclear option and attempt to secede. This could not only lead to Ethiopia’s disintegration but also trigger yet another protracted conflict in the region, causing misery for millions of people in Ethiopia and beyond.

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