Heavy fighting broke out in the northern region of Tigray after Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s prime minister, announced that he would be sending troops into the troubled area. Mr. Abiy alleged that Tigrayan troops attacked a Bundeswehr base located there. The prime minister, who won the Nobel Peace Prize last year, said a “red line” had been crossed and said confrontation was the only option.
Why is that important?
With 110 million inhabitants, Ethiopia is the second most populous country in Africa. It is by far the most important power in the Horn of Africa. This can lead to instability in the entire region. It would also destabilize one of Africa’s most promising economic development histories.
Despite its famine in the 1980s, Ethiopia has become a source of hope on the continent. Under the previous coalition government, which ruled the country for 27 years until 2018, the economy grew nearly 10 percent a year for about two decades. Although Ethiopia is still poor, these years of growth have changed its outlook, improved infrastructure, improved health and education levels, and considered the possibility of the country reaching middle income status.
So why the tension when the economy is doing so well?
The Revolutionary Popular Democratic Front of Ethiopia (EPRDF), which ruled the country after the fall of a Marxist regime in 1991, transferred power to regions whose histories, languages and cultures make them more likely to be nations. Unusual in Africa, Ethiopia was never colonized by European powers. Its borders expanded greatly, however, particularly in the 19th century after successive emperors conquered other regions resentful of centralized power and what they viewed as the “Ethiopian Empire.”
A 1995 constitution allowed autonomous regions – now number 10 – to speak their own language and practice their own customs. In theory they could withdraw, but in practice their authority was restricted. To complicate matters, the EPRDF has been dominated by Tigrayans, who make up only 6 percent of the Ethiopian population.
As resentment increased, protesters took to the streets in large numbers from 2015, particularly in Oromia and Amhara, which make up around 35 percent and 27 percent of the national population, respectively. Thousands were killed and tens of thousands arrested. To help resolve the crisis, the coalition government selected Abiy Ahmed, an Oromo, as prime minister in 2018, who dealt a blow to the Tigrayans.
Who is Abiy Ahmed and why couldn’t he calm the situation down?
The prime minister said the Tigrayans had crossed a “red line”. © Ethiopia Broadcasting Corporation / Reuters
Mr. Abiy is a former security chief committed to a liberal political and economic agenda. When he became Prime Minister, he released thousands of political prisoners, lifted a ban on political parties and made peace offers for Eritrea, which had become an independent country in the early 1990s but fought against Ethiopia from 1998 to 2000. To formalize peace with Eritrea, Mr Abiy said he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year.
At home, his compatriots in Oromia expected him to advance a pro-Oromo agenda, but they were disappointed with his policies in Ethiopia. Critics, including in Tigray, say its emphasis on national unity threatens their autonomy. The easing of restrictions on the media has sparked a wave of ethnically focused hate speech that fueled the flames. When Mr. Abiy’s early popularity waned, his administration postponed the elections, which were due to be held this August, allegedly for reasons of Covid-19. Prominent members of the opposition, including Jawar Mohammed, an Oromo leader who became a national figure, were arrested.
Does Tigray have a special meaning?
Yes. The Tigrayans led the revolution that overthrew the Marxist Derg regime in 1991. You played an oversized role in the four-party coalition that ruled the country until Mr Abiy was appointed two years ago. Despite the presidency of a strong economy and a largely competent administration, the dominance of the Tigrayans led to resentment and allegations of corruption. Mr. Abiy cleared his leadership of many Tigrayans and made enemies in the process. Tigray opposed postponing the national presidential election by holding elections in September. The region has a relatively strong armed force.
What could happen next
It’s difficult to get a clear picture of what is happening because communication has been broken. But if Tigray resists, serious fighting could ensue as the TPLF has a tradition of resistance. Other regions, where some people also reject Mr. Abiy’s emphasis on national unity, could also become unstable. In Oromia and Amhara in particular, there was frequent friction that led to murders. Several regions in the south are pushing for more autonomy.
Could this have regional implications?
Certainly. Ethiopia dominates the Horn of Africa and what happens there often impacts events in Somalia, South Sudan, and Eritrea, which borders Tigray. Ethiopia also argues with Egypt over Addis Ababa’s construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a large hydroelectric power plant that Cairo claims poses an existential threat as it can alter the Nile River on which Egypt depends.
Are Ethiopia’s Economic Profits Endangered?
Yes. Mr Abiy’s government has proposed optimizing the successful state-led development model by opening it up to private capital. As part of this, the privatization of the telecommunications sector, the world’s largest telecommunications monopoly, has appeared to be delayed. In view of the high ethnic tensions and the stalled elections, foreign investors should wait and see.