A Fractured Giant: Ethiopia’s struggle to build a nation
Author: Martin Plaut
Civil war has pushed millions of Ethiopians to the brink. History shows how deep the country’s divides run.
An Emperor murdered. Famine used as a weapon. Tanks storming a dictator’s palace. And today, a civil war that threatens to tear the country of 109 million people apart. For the past half century, the history of Ethiopia has been punctuated by episodes of such drama and tragedy that each chapter is an epic in its own right. But there’s a deeper story unfolding behind the headlines that helps explain why the present-day crisis is proving so hard to resolve.
Ever since the formation of modern Ethiopia in the late 19th century, successive governments have grappled with the same basic question: How best to weld the country’s mosaic of more than 90 ethnicities and nationalities into a cohesive whole? The pendulum swings back and forth between attempts to build a strong central state, and moves to devolve power to the regions – with fundamentally different political visions and readings of Ethiopian history co-mingling with raw struggles for power.
In November, 2020, the latest installment erupted in the Tigray region, where a conflict between rebels and government forces has claimed thousands of civilian lives and triggered a humanitarian crisis. Some 400,000 people have been plunged into famine and 9.4 million are in critical need of food aid across northern Ethiopia, according to the United Nations. Beyond the enormous human suffering, the fate of the country has implications for the stability of the wider Horn of Africa, and Western, Chinese, Egyptian and Middle Eastern interests jockeying in the strategically important region.
Based on historical accounts and independent reports as well as Reuters archives and other material, this timeline situates the latest crisis in the context of the long-running struggle for the soul of Africa’s fractured giant.
“Today is the day on which we defeated our enemy.”
EMPEROR HAILE SELASSIE, ON HIS RETURN TO ADDIS ABABA
1941 | Lion of Judah
By the Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Elect of God. When he ascends the throne in 1930, Emperor Haile Selassie’s official title evokes the mystique of a royal family that traces its ancestry back 3,000 years to the Biblical King Solomon and Queen of Sheba. In more recent memory, the new emperor’s forebear, Menelik II, had waged brutal wars of slave-raiding and conquest at the close of the 19th century, carving out the borders of modern Ethiopia, and imposing ethnic Amhara culture and language on assimilated groups. Conflicting perceptions of nation-building as “unification” and “colonisation” dating from this period remain major political faultlines to this day.
In 1935, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini invades Ethiopia from Eritrea, a territory under Italian colonial rule. Haile Selassie flees into exile in the English city of Bath after Addis Ababa falls the following year. The Italians deploy chemical weapons, bomb Red Cross ambulances, and massacre many of the educated elite. Five years later, and true to his title, the emperor stages a triumphant return to Addis Ababa after Ethiopian partisans and British forces drive out the occupiers. In a country where peasants live in thrall to feudal landlords and slavery is endemic, Haile Selassie pledges to usher Ethiopia into a new era of modernity by creating a strong centralised state.
“By virtue of His Imperial Blood, as well as by anointing He has received, the person of the Emperor is sacred. His dignity is inviolable and His power indisputable.
”ARTICLE 4 OF THE REVISED CONSTITUTION OF ETHIOPIA (1955)
1941-1974 | An aging autocrat
While Haile Selassie is romanticised as an icon of African liberation on the global stage, and is considered a living Messiah by devotees of the Rastafarian faith in the Caribbean, discontent is building at home. Electrified by independence movements sweeping Africa, a younger generation of leftist student leaders begins agitating for land reform, greater democracy and more inclusive forms of Ethiopian identity. In 1960, Haile Selassie survives a coup attempt by conspirators including the commander of his palace bodyguard. In the northern territory of Eritrea – annexed by the emperor in 1962 – insurgents wage an armed struggle for independence. The government’s military response includes massacring civilians, burning villages, forced relocations, killing livestock, poisoning wells, and blockading food. Haile Selassie’s legitimacy erodes further in October, 1973, when a British television news report called The Unknown Famine exposes the deprivation gripping the northern Wollo region, where at least 40,000 people will die from hunger. The contrast between scenes of people starving and the emperor’s lavish 80th birthday celebrations catalyse fresh protests by striking students, taxi drivers, unions and some air force units.
“Let it be clear to everybody that I shall soon make these ignoramuses stoop and grind corn!”
MENGISTU HAILE MARIAM, VOWING TO TAKE ON THE IMPERIAL ELITE
1974-1975 | A dynasty deposed
Seven centuries of monarchical rule are severed as a committee of army officers known as the Derg seizes power. In a coup that unfolds from February to September, 1974, the 120-strong junta effectively hijacks the push for reform spearheaded by student revolutionaries – then rapidly descends into bloody infighting. On Nov. 23, General Aman Andom, a larger-than-life war hero, who briefly serves as Ethiopia’s first post-imperial head of state, is killed in a shootout by supporters of Mengistu Haile Mariam, an ambitious colonel. In an early sign of the ruthless tenor of the new Mengistu regime, 60 of Haile Selassie’s top officials are summarily executed by firing squad.
Less than a year later, the toppled emperor is himself secretly murdered – said to have been suffocated with a pillow. His remains will later be found interred under a cement slab in his palace grounds. Adopting Marxist rhetoric and courting the Soviet Union, Mengistu bows to popular demands to redistribute land to the peasantry in one of the most sweeping land nationalisations in the world. Although the imperial era has ended, there is some continuity, with Mengistu equating nationhood with a strong central state.
“Henceforth we will tackle our enemies that come face to face with us and we will not be stabbed from behind by internal foes.”
MENGISTU HAILE MARIAM
1977-8 | “Red Terror”
Despite his pledges to liberate the country from its feudal yoke, Mengistu sets about crushing all opposition. In a speech in April 1977, he declares “Death to the Counter-Revolutionaries” and smashes three bottles of red liquid on the ground to symbolise the blood of his opponents. The gesture marks the start of a two-year campaign of mass arrests, torture and killings known as the “Red Terror.” Tens of thousands of young people are killed; mutilated bodies are routinely dumped in the streets of Addis Ababa. Families have to pay a symbolic fee for what the authorities describe as the “wasted bullet” used to kill their relative. Far from uniting the country, Mengistu’s Soviet-backed forces find themselves mired in conflict with a resurgent rebellion in Eritrea, then part of Ethiopia. Rebels also take up arms in neighbouring Tigray and what is now Oromiya in the south. The leaders of these various fronts will shape Ethiopia’s destiny in the decades ahead.
1983-1985 | Famine as a weapon
As the Derg military junta celebrates the 10th anniversary of the Marxist revolution, northern Ethiopia once again suffers a catastrophic famine. From 1983-1985, at least 400,000 lives are lost, according to an exhaustive report later compiled by Human Rights Watch. Although drought exacerbates the crisis, the scope, scale and severity of the starvation is a direct result of Mengistu’s embrace of famine as a weapon of war, the report finds. His government blocks food aid to rebel-held areas in Tigray, bombs markets and relief convoys, and embarks on a programme of forced relocation designed to cut off the insurgents from their rural supporters. Some 600,000 people are rounded up and moved from Tigray and other northern areas to Oromiya in the south; another three million are subjected to “villagisation” programmes that force scattered rural populations into villages with communal farmland. At least 100,000 people are estimated to have died in 1985 during these resettlement operations, according to Médecins sans Frontières.
May 1991 | Rebels at the gates
With Ethiopia ravaged by hunger and civil war, Mengistu’s repression enflames opposition to his rule. Soviet military aid dwindles after Mikhail Gorbachev takes over as leader of the Soviet Union in 1985 and winds down Cold War-era proxy wars in Africa. Rebels seize their opportunity to advance, and the 450,000-strong Ethiopian military begins to implode. Slumped in the back of a car, the man who once struck terror into a nation is seen making his way to the airport through near deserted streets soon after dawn on May 21, 1991. After the former dictator flies into exile in Zimbabwe, the New York Times reports that he arrives looking “close to tears.” Mengistu is granted safe haven by then President Robert Mugabe, who remains grateful for the support he provided to the country’s anti-colonial movement. Days later, Tigrayans, Eritreans and allied rebel factions under the umbrella of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) seize Addis Ababa in a dawn assault. The sound of sporadic artillery and machine-gun fire echoes through streets as fighters overwhelm remaining pockets of Mengistu loyalists within hours, and reach the inner sanctum of the presidential palace.
“If I failed, it was only because I was betrayed.”
MENGISTU HAILE MARIAM
1991 | Rising from the ashes
Mengistu’s attempts to centralise power in Ethiopia under a Marxist-style state have failed. The regime could not survive the impact of years of economic mismanagement, resentment unleashed by its political terror campaign and multiple regional rebellions. In exile, Mengistu insists he was betrayed. While he ruminates on his defeat, the EPRDF rapidly consolidates its grip on power. Meles Zenawi, the head of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the dominant faction, emerges as the country’s new leader. Although Tigrayans form a majority in their home region, they make up about 6% of Ethiopia’s total population. Despite their minority status, the rebel take-over will see Tigrayans take many key positions in the central government and security forces. Resentment grows among Oromos, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, and Amharas, who rank second in terms of size but who were pre-eminent during the imperial era that ended with Haile Selassie.
1991 | A new era
Known for his sharp intellect and political acumen, Meles leads Ethiopia’s nation-building project in a radically new direction. With a plethora of regionally-based rebel groups clamouring for greater autonomy, Meles places an explicit recognition of the central importance of ethnic identity at the heart of his political vision.
Reversing the Mengistu regime’s push for greater centralisation, a constitution adopted in 1995 divides Ethiopia into nine ethnically-based federal regions. Their governance structures are modelled on Tigray, which the TPLF had been running as an autonomous region since 1989. Uniquely in Africa, the new constitution enshrines the rights of each of the country’s regions and recognised ethnic groups to hold a referendum on self-determination. Supporters present the constitution as a vital counterweight to historical attempts by the country’s Amhara imperial-era elite to assimilate other communities by forcing them to adopt Amharic culture and language, and expropriating their land.
But Meles’ privileging of ethnicity represents a contrarian bet on a continent where conflicts playing out along ethnic lines represent one of the greatest impediments to the formation of stable post-independence states. Advocates of a more unitary approach to governing Ethiopia fear ethnic federalism will further polarise the country and lead to its eventual dismemberment.
1993 | A nation is born
Mengistu’s fall marks victory for Eritrea in its 30-year armed struggle for independence. Former rebel leader Isaias Afwerki, who fought Mengistu alongside Meles, pursues international recognition for the Eritrean government. In April 1993, Africa’s youngest country formalises its new-found status by staging a referendum in which more than 99% of votes are cast in favour of independence. Hopes are high that Isaias and Meles will build on their shared struggle to cement peaceful relations. In the spring of 1998, during a 10-day trip to Africa, then U.S. President Bill Clinton extols an “African Renaissance” led by a new generation of progressive leaders – his aides name Meles and Isaias as prime examples. But the marriage of convenience forged while fighting Mengistu is not to last.
1998 | Friends turn foe
Against a background of economic tensions and growing personal enmity between Isaias and TPLF leaders over who should be the pre-eminent regional power, fighting breaks out – ostensibly over who can claim the town of Badme on the disputed border between Eritrea and Ethiopia’s Tigray region. Tit-for-tat air raids at the onset of hostilities cost civilian lives.
The war revives Meles’ credibility among Ethiopian nationalists, who had previously criticized him for allowing Eritrea to assert its independence.
1998-2000 | Fighting yard-by-yard
The war grinds on, with withering casualties in fighting over barren plains in World War One-style trench warfare. An estimated 70,000 combatants are killed. Ethiopia forcibly expels as many as 75,000 people of Eritrean origin, most of whom were born in Ethiopia and have lived there their entire lives. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Ethiopians are expelled or repatriated voluntarily from Eritrea. The conflict sets the stage for years of continuing enmity between Eritrea and the TPLF after Ethiopia keeps Badme for itself.
May-April 2005 | Elections, then crackdown
In a near revolutionary atmosphere, elections in May, 2005 are a lightning rod for growing discontent with the Tigrayan-dominated federal government. Fractious opposition parties backed by energetic crowds of Oromo and Amhara youth unite to confront Meles with the first concerted challenge since he took power. After an initial strong showing by the opposition, the government declares a state of emergency. Allegations of massive rigging by the ruling coalition mar the polls. Security forces open fire into crowds of protesters in Addis Ababa, killing almost 200 people; 20,000 to 30,000 more are swept up in mass arrests. Meles’ reputation is increasingly tarnished at home – but he remains a key partner of both the West and China.
2010 | Increasing repression
Meles’ government becomes increasingly authoritarian. Ethiopia’s federal system of government – formalised by the 1995 constitution that divided Ethiopia into nine ethnically-based regions – is under increasing strain. Armed Oromo and Somali factions fighting guerilla campaigns in rural areas say Meles has failed to live up to his promises to devolve political power. Meanwhile, many urban, educated Ethiopians see the system’s basis in ethnic identity as a retrograde impediment to building a modern, cohesive state.
2012 | Era of uncertainty
Ethiopia enters uncharted waters following Meles’ death in August 2012. After the chaos of the Mengistu years, Ethiopia has earned a reputation as a bastion of stability in the volatile Horn of Africa, with Meles presiding over a period of rapid economic growth that opened opportunities for many. But critics say that Meles’ embrace of ethnic federalism may have served to mask the country’s tensions, rather than resolve them. Southerner Hailemariam Desalegn, a technocrat, takes over as prime minister and pursues continuity. But pressure for reform grows as youth from the Oromo and other communities hold three years of protests against inequality, economic mismanagement and repression. Hundreds of demonstrators are killed and around 30,000 are arrested. Detainees include opposition leaders, journalists and bloggers.
April 2018 | Watershed moment
A marked change occurs in April 2018 when the ruling coalition installs Abiy Ahmed as prime minister. A member of the coalition’s Oromo faction, the then 41-year-old Pentecostal Christian is hailed by supporters at home and in the Ethiopian diaspora with almost messianic fervour – a phenomenon dubbed “Abiy Mania” in the media. A former cyber security chief, who joined the armed struggle against Mengistu as a teenager, Abiy styles himself as a unity candidate who can hold Ethiopia together through reform – not repression. Political prisoners are released; exiles return; and dissidents are appointed to important posts. Abiy characterizes his approach to government as medemer, or “coming together.” To advocates of greater regional autonomy, the emphasis on unity evokes traumatic collective memories of the centralising campaigns waged by both Mengistu’s dictatorship and the Amhara conquerors of the imperial past.
July 2018 | Rapprochement
While consolidating his position at home, Abiy pursues rapprochement with Eritrea, whose repression and isolation has earned the country a reputation as “the North Korea of Africa.” The neighbours have been frozen in a state of “no war, no peace” since their 1998-2000 border war. Abiy breaks the deadlock by accepting the findings of a U.N.-backed boundary commission that awarded Badme to Eritrea.
“Forgiveness frees the consciousness,” Abiy tells a huge crowd in Addis Ababa in July 2018, hugging visiting Eritrean president Isaias to celebrate their newly-forged peace. The pact gives Abiy an important ally against the once-dominant TPLF.
This new alliance raises hopes in the West of broader regional collaboration to stabilise the Horn of Africa. But Ethiopia’s underlying tensions are intensifying as Abiy’s moves to open up political space allow suppressed ethnic rivalries to boil over. Communal strife intensifies as ethnic strongmen seek to build powerbases by demanding more land and resources.
Late 2019 | Balance of power shifts
Politics undergo a tectonic shift as three of the four ethnic-based parties that make up the ruling EPRDF coalition that has governed Ethiopia for almost 30 years vote to merge into a new ruling Prosperity Party. After intense negotiations, the TPLF – formerly the dominant faction – declines to join the new party but remains in power in Tigray. With the TPLF no longer in a national ruling coalition, Tigray becomes the first region to be run by government opponents since the federal constitution was adopted following Mengistu’s fall. Senior Tigrayans are removed from important posts in the military and central government – and some face charges of corruption or human rights abuses – as the balance of power in Addis Ababa tilts towards Oromos and Amharas. Abiy says he is distributing posts more fairly. Opponents fear that his focus on national unity heralds another swing of the pendulum towards greater centralisation.
“War is the epitome of hell – I know because I have been there and back.”
ETHIOPIAN PRIME MINISTER ABIY AHMED IN HIS NOBEL PRIZE ACCEPTANCE SPEECH
2019-2020 | Peace Prize and unrest
In October 2019, Abiy is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his reconciliation with Eritrea, catapulting him into darling status on the international stage. But tensions continue to fester at home. In June 2020, the murder of popular Oromo singer Haacaaluu Hundeessaa by unknown assailants sparks deadly riots that claim more than 150 lives; 9,000 people are arrested.
In Tigray, many feel excluded by Abiy’s peace agreement with Eritrea – which they fear he will use to forge an alliance against them with Isaias, who has regarded the TPLF as an arch-enemy since the 1998-2000 border war. Tensions escalate sharply when Abiy’s government postpones general elections due in August, citing the COVID-19 pandemic. Tigrayan leaders recall their representatives from Addis Ababa and hold their own elections in Tigray in September in defiance of federal authorities. Abiy likens the polls to the construction of a “shanty” by squatters; Tigray media cast his government as a “dictatorship.”
November 2020 | Conflict erupts
In the early hours of Nov. 4, 2020, Tigrayan forces seize military bases across Tigray – later saying they had no choice but to launch pre-emptive strikes in response to a build-up of government forces in the region. Abiy orders his troops to retake control. The conflict widens as Eritrean forces enter Tigray to support the Ethiopian military. This cross-border incursion prompts accusations from Abiy’s opponents that he struck the peace deal to unite with Isaias to crush their shared foes.
Forces from the neighbouring Amhara region also enter Tigray from the south. Within days of the conflict starting, reports emerge of communal killings in a farming town called Mai Kadra in western Tigray, a fertile swathe of land claimed by both Tigray and Amhara.
Reuters reporting establishes that the first killings in the town were committed by Tigrayans against Amharas; the TPLF says its regular troops had withdrawn by then and were not involved. Then come revenge killings of Tigrayans by Amharas. All over western Tigray, tens of thousands of Tigrayan residents are driven out; many have their homes burned and land seized. Amhara claims western Tigray as its own territory, stations its security forces there and begins to administer it.
The killings trigger a cycle of widening bloodshed – watched anxiously by other ethnic federal regions amid fears of further eruptions of communal violence. All sides deny committing abuses.
Meanwhile, Reuters reporting finds that the government is sweeping up thousands of Tigrayans in mass arrests, including prominent businessmen, diplomats, generals and even opponents of the TPLF. The government says the arrests are solely for security purposes – but Tigrayans see them as a witch hunt.
March-June 2021 | “Sexual slavery”
As the conflict intensifies, the United Nations speaks of possible war crimes by all sides in Tigray’s war. U.N. aid chief Mark Lowcock tells the Security Council, “There is no doubt that sexual violence is being used in this conflict as a weapon of war.” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken says there have been acts of ethnic cleansing and calls on Amhara forces to withdraw. In April, Reuters details accounts of women tortured and raped in central Tigray by Ethiopian and Eritrean troops; a regional official says some women are being kept in “sexual slavery.”
The humanitarian crisis in Tigray continues to worsen as Ethiopia’s government and its allies impose a de facto blockade on food aid, according to the United Nations. All the warring parties deny blocking aid.
By now, more than 350,000 of Tigray’s nearly 6 million people are living in famine conditions, U.N. agencies and aid groups say. Another 2 million are on the brink of such dire deprivation.
June-July 2021 | Rebels rebound
TPLF forces stage a comeback, recapturing Tigray’s regional capital Mekelle in June and taking thousands of troops prisoner. Government forces withdraw from most of the region. Pushing south and east into the neighbouring Amhara and Afar regions in the ensuing weeks, the Tigrayan forces trigger a fresh wave of mass displacement and edge nearer to Addis Ababa. TPLF leaders say they aim to break what they describe as an aid blockade on Tigray and free contested western Tigray from Amhara control. The TPLF also raises the prospect of a referendum to determine Tigray’s future. The conflict is increasingly framed in ethnic terms, and hate speech proliferates on social media. In July, Abiy describes the TPLF as “weeds” and “cancer.”
“Famine looms. It is not a crisis; it is a catastrophe.”
USAID CHIEF SAMANTHA POWER TWEETS IN JUNE
July-August 2021 | Hunger intensifies
The U.N. World Food Programme warns that aid deliveries to more than a million people in the northwest of the country and parts of southern Tigray have only reached half of those it planned to help – including communities on the edge of famine. Meanwhile, in August, Tigrayan forces publicly align with the Oromo Liberation Army, a rebel group fighting in rural areas to the west of Addis Ababa – raising the risk the conflict will further fracture the country. International concern grows. Former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, serving as African Union envoy to the Horn of Africa, and his U.S. counterpart Jeffrey Feltman make little headway in bringing the warring parties to the negotiating table.
August-November 2021 | Fighting spreads
Lalibela, home of the iconic rock churches sacred to the Ethiopian Orthodox church and a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, is among towns that repeatedly change hands as government and rebel forces wrestle for control of strategic locations. In November, a joint investigation by the United Nations and Ethiopia’s human rights commission concludes that “all parties to the Tigray conflict have committed violations of international human rights, humanitarian and refugee law. Some of these may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.” The U.N. Human Rights Council votes in December to establish an independent investigation.
The report accuses all sides of abuses ranging from the torture and killing of civilians, to gang-rapes and arrests on the basis of ethnicity. Prime Minister Abiy says he accepts the report despite some “serious reservations.” Eritrea calls it “utterly false.” The TPLF accuses Ethiopian investigators of bias.
November-December 2021 | State of emergency
The unthinkable suddenly beckons for Abiy as the rebels push towards Addis Ababa. Advancing south through Afar and Amhara, Tigrayan forces clash with government troops near a town just 190 kilometres (118 miles) from the capital. Jolted by the pace of the rebel gains, the government declares a state of emergency on Nov. 2. Abiy appeals to Ethiopians to mobilise in defence of the nation, then dons fatigues and travels to the front to personally command the counter-offensive.
By December, government troops have pushed the rebels back hundreds of kilometres. Under mounting military pressure, the TPLF says on Dec. 20 that it has withdrawn its forces from the northern regions neighbouring Tigray. The move is seen as a possible step towards a ceasefire.
After the decades of struggle to forge a united Ethiopia, the country is once more searching for a viable formula to reconcile tensions between centre and regions, assimilation and autonomy.