In 2019, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed stood proudly on the stage in Oslo, Norway to accept the Nobel Peace Prize for forging a peace deal with Eritrea. Yet, after ending the 20 year-long stalemate with Eritrea, he now oversees one of Ethiopia’s most brutal civil wars—this time in the Tigray region.
Prime Minister Abiy vehemently insists that Ethiopia’s involvement is to bring Tigrayans, who are widely perceived as “the perpetrators of Ethiopia’s instability and corruption” to justice. He also calls the engagement a case of “the weed being removed from our country.” The large-scale suffering is apparent to everyone on the Ethiopian-Sudanese border, as over 50,000 Tigrayan civilians have been killed and more than 2.5 million refugees have been displaced.
More importantly, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s genocidal language characterizes the rapid escalation of Ethiopia’s ethnic tensions, which have been exacerbated by ethnicization of state institutions where different groups are forced to fight for their own representation. While Ethiopia has established a federal system to combat such challenges of dynamic intrastate conflict, the region has been a site of profound duality and political strife, reflecting a broader, global phenomenon of unresolved ethnic tensions where regional self-governing rights are being tested. The challenge confronting Ethiopia of finding proper governance conducive to its countless ethnic groups brings into question if third-party intervention from the United Nations will be effective in calming Ethiopia’s ethnic tensions.
Unfortunately, the UN has sidelined discussions on the conflict for months and just acknowledged the severity of the unfolding situation this past July. They issued unilateral and multilateral sanctions, yet none of which have ensured any sustained attention to Ethiopia and the Tigray region. Ethiopia had distinguished itself as one of the world’s largest UN peacekeeping contributors for over two decades, and it would be a costly loss for the international community if the UN left Ethiopia’s persistent descent into horrific, unprincipled violence unresolved.
A Self-Defeating System
Even though ethnic federalism appeals to African countries for reconciling unity and managing the complex ethno-linguistic diversity under a single political system, in actuality, it accentuates issues related to secession, border disputes, and resource competition. This was effectively shown by the disintegration of the former USSR and Yugoslavia federations. Yet, Ethiopia ignored all warnings of adopting such a system and wholeheartedly embraced ethnic federalism twenty-seven years ago.
In doing so, the country divided itself into nine regions, each given the status of self-ruling states with the power to determine their own rights to self-administration in both regional and federal levels of government. The development was a significant improvement to previous regimes, though it is concerning considering that there are, in fact, more than 80 ethnic groups officially listed in Ethiopia’s census list. Likewise, the increasing brutality in Tigray has underscored two prominent issues of ethnic federalism.
First, not one of the nine groups constitute the majority of Ethiopia’s population, inevitably pitting the three largest ones against each other. Ethiopia is roughly 35 percent Oromo, 27 percent Amhara, and only 6 percent Tigrayan. The lack of a prominent ethnic group created entitlement among each other, which allowed them easier access to resources and constitutional rights. Unsurprisingly then, Ethiopians not ethnically-affiliated with one of the nine regional assemblies are not granted the same rights and protection under the law as those that are. This reveals a critical misunderstanding of Ethiopia’s diverse ethnic make-up because many ethnic groups are not confined to a homogenous “homeland” territory – they are dispersed across every ethnic region.
Although minorities not granted their own homeland are provided special districts and rights of self-administration, the totality of the discrimination and persecution they face from Ethiopia’s nine primary ethnic groups is hardly acknowledged. Their unfair treatment directly ties to the faults of the ethnic federalist system, in which the exclusivity of local citizenship to the level of specific ethnicity frequently motivates conflict between titular and non-titular groups. These groups are thus undermined and overridden, forced to compete against their native counterparts for food and natural resources with no hope of federal developmental assistance of any type in sight.
The second point deals with the role of ethnic federalism as an insignificant way to enforce checks and balances. The 1994 Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) constitution, the backbone of ethnic federalism, is largely responsible for the existing weak institutions among Ethiopia’s regional groups. Ruling political leaders, known as The Tigray People’s Liberation between 1991 and 2018, hoped for the other regional entities to recognize unconditional freedom to self-determination when their constitutional rights have been violated. However, the disproportionate power of the TPLF prevented opposition parties from controlling decisions that negatively impacted their ethnic group. Ethiopia’s plight for self-determination goes as far as not allowing veto power for minority representatives within parties. With so much power vested in the hands of executive powers, it is no wonder that all of the groups spiraled into a trap of protracted ethnic conflicts. These internal deficiencies provided favorable conditions for the TPLF to act above the constitution and suppress democratic principles, thus causing the discrimination and underdevelopment of certain communities.
Though the TPLF was condemned as highly repressive, curtailing free speech, and establishing a network of citizen-spies to impede political dissent, ethnic federalism itself restricted the TPLF from operating with disregard for the Omoro and Amhara minority groups’ interests. As the TPLF pursued policies of high economic growth, which boosted economic growth to 10.8% per annum, it inevitably displaced the other predominantly pastoral minority groups. This fostered decades-old targeted criticisms and feelings of resentment toward the Tigrayans and sparked a series of protests that ousted the TPLF in 2018. More importantly, political discourse emphasizing the party’s misdeeds combined with Prime Minister Abiy’s pan-Ethiopianism has led to the justification of the current atrocities committed against innocent Tigrayan civilians, and now neither side views the other as legitimate.
On the Brink of Genocide
Despite the Ethiopian National Defense Force enforcing a communications blackout, refugee testimonies secretly trickled out and revealed indiscriminate artillery fire, massive looting, and summary executions targeting civilians.
An alarming number of women and children are falling victim to the subordinating practices of sexual violence as a weapon of war. Tigrayan women are gang-raped, drugged, and held hostage by federal soldiers of Ethiopian National Defense Force, with these disturbing occurrences of sexual violence closely linked to genocide. In addition, federal forces are also using hunger as a weapon of war by obstructing international humanitarian aid trucks from reaching villages in Tigray. The World Food Programme (WFP) warns that at least 5.2 million of the 7.2 million people in the region are in need of emergency food assistance, plunging Tigrayans even further into food insecurity and extreme poverty.
It is clear today that Prime Minister Abiy’s promise to address long-standing grievances paradoxically reignited tensions between communities about identities and political representation. The Prime Minister may have promised to free Ethiopians from the TPLF’s prior regime that had rigidly locked communities into ethnically defined regions, but Prime Minister Abiy has been revealed to be as intolerant as his predecessors. Now, the current developments in Tigray are risking losing decades of economic progress and, once again, Ethiopia’s unity.
A Dismal Future Trajectory for African Peace and Security
Nowhere are these threats of instability more acute than for neighboring Sudan. Approximately 50,000 Tigrayan refugees who managed to escape the mass of encircling militiamen fled across the border into Sudan before the Ethiopian army promptly sealed it off. This has caused an alarming spillover conflict across the entire Horn of Africa and adds to the pressure of conventional war possibly breaking out between Sudan and Ethiopia and their many allied proxies.
In 1991, Sudan backed the Tigrayan forces that toppled Ethiopia’s Marxist Derg rulers, and Tigrayans hope the Sudanese military will play a similar role against Prime Minister Abiy’s government. Sudan, however, has no interest in helping the Tigrayans, as it also struggles from decades of its own internal conflicts, such as a deep economic crisis that propelled inflation upwards of 250 percent. Furthermore, the strain that refugee arrivals are placing on Sudan could unleash even more nuanced tensions that Sudan’s transitional government has already been proven ill-equipped to handle.
Sudan must operate with the utmost transparency and communication with Ethiopia and its Tigrayan region so as to not take sides. Some civil society initiatives may have advocated that Sudan take a proactive stance on the Tigray War, but a significant influx of weapons, fighters, and refugees to the Sudanese border, coupled with tribal and civilian violence in recent months, make such a decision all too perilous. If Sudan has its own powder keg, it is here—they cannot afford to be hosting opposition leaders and armed groups.
Tigray’s rebel leaders have also debated seeking independence from Ethiopia, but this decision would most likely backfire because Tigray is now sandwiched between a hostile Eritrea that backs Prime Minister Abiy’s assault on the Tigrayans. In theory, Tigray could make peace with Eritrea, whose rulers are also ethnically Tigrayan. In reality, however, Tigrayans now blame Eritrean soldiers for engaging in widespread war crimes against civilians. Peace is unlikely anytime soon as Ethiopia’s structural problems reveal that it is nowhere near equipped to rely on itself.
Moving away from the Soviet-inspired federation and Ethiopia’s complex constitution is the ideal yet unlikely solution to occur in the foreseeable future. The UN and other international actors must act quickly to foster political discussion and implement accountability measures against the worsening developments in the Tigray region.
If the international community wishes to prevent further atrocities and salvage Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s initial vision of an inclusive Ethiopia, the UN especially cannot remain tepid. The European Union and African Union have also yet to speak in one voice and have ignored some overarching challenges, including the conflict’s threat to Ethiopia’s growing democracy. Encouraging Prime Minister Abiy to reopen dialogue with the country’s regional administration, political parties, and disparate ethnic communities is of utmost importance to fostering an inclusive and tolerant Ethiopia.
It is imperative that Ethiopia’s federal government lifts all restrictions that were imposed out of discrimination and hatred, chiefly the communications blackout and hijacking of humanitarian aid trucks trying to enter Tigray. International humanitarian activists offer vastly different versions of events, and permitting journalists to report from the inside would be exceedingly valuable. Further, insisting that humanitarian agencies gain full access to all of Tigray would allow food and medical resources to quickly reach millions of starving Tigrayans. Prime Minister Abiy must separate himself from the wave of resentment against Tigray and recognize that Tigray is an essential part of Ethiopia, historically, religiously, and culturally.
The crisis in Tigray requires urgent attention. The root of the problem runs deep, and a mere a two-sided conversation between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government and the TPLF will be insufficient. This discussion must be facilitated by international actors who have, frankly, sat on the sidelines regarding human rights violations and mass atrocities for far too long.