Catastrophe in the Horn of Africa
President Biden’s decision to put human rights at the center of his foreign policy agenda is facing its first major test: A U.S. ally, Ethiopia, stands credibly accused of carrying out atrocities in a war that could tear the Horn of Africa apart, and the administration is rushing to translate statements into actions.
Biden is reportedly considering assigning a special envoy to the region to aid in the resolution of the region’s multifarious conflicts, which include a spiraling four-month civil war that has killed thousands of people and threatens to destabilize the entire region. Now, the president has sent Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware to find a way to stop the bloodshed. In addition to its negative impact on trade and commerce, particularly in the Gulf of Aden, this war could also affect the fight against terrorism and create a massive humanitarian crisis. The result will tell us much about the prospects of success for the White House’s reorientation of U.S. foreign policy.
In November 2020, a military confrontation broke out in the Tigray Region of Ethiopia between the regional government, led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, and the Ethiopian army, with the help of the armed forces of neighboring Eritrea. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed called the army’s activities in Tigray a law-and-order operation designed to target domestic terrorists. However, the international press have noted that the operation did not only involve “large deployments of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces and aerial bombardments” but also resulted in the deaths of thousands of people, created a major humanitarian crisis, and has the potential to destabilize the entire region.
In late November, while the United States was in its presidential transition period and the global community was preoccupied with the COVID-19 pandemic, Abiy announced that the army had seized control of Mekelle, the Tigrayan regional capital. Tigrayan leader Debretsion Gebremichael declared that the brutality of the Ethiopian national army “can only add [to] our resolve to fight these invaders to the last.” One cannot take such a statement lightly, especially given the fact that the TPLF has significant experience in resistance fighting, having been a very important participant in the armed struggle that ousted the Marxist government of Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991. The region could be pushed into a prolonged, bloody, and protracted guerrilla war.
Ethiopia, like most countries in Africa, is both a “multination” and “polyethnic” state. It is an amalgamation of “ethnocultural nations” (e.g., Tigray, Amhara, Afar, Oromia, Somali, and others) into a single economic and political unit, though broken up into states with some measure of self-government within that system. Various groups have sought greater autonomy, especially over cultural and traditional values such as the right to use their own language. At the same time, the national government has been dominated by ethnic coalitions, which often have promoted policies that benefit their own regions and participating ethnic groups while marginalizing others. The Tigrayans were accused of pursuing such an opportunistic approach to governance between 1991 and 2019, when the TPLF dominated Ethiopia’s national government.
Since the 1990s, many of Africa’s multiethnic states have pursued federalism as a mechanism or tool to accommodate the competing claims of all groups. In July 1991, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, which had overthrown Mengistu, established a transitional government tasked with drafting a new federal constitution and paving the way for multiparty elections. The country’s first multiparty elections took place in May 1995, and the EPRDF emerged as the winner, with Meles Zenawi becoming the country’s first prime minister under the new constitution; the country became known as the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. The constitution was adopted on Dec. 8, 1994, and entered into force on Aug. 21, 1995. The constitution created a federal system of government in which each of the country’s major ethnic groups was granted the power to govern its own territorial region.
Ethiopia is made up of about 80 ethnolinguistic groups, with the four largest of them being Oromo, Amhara, Somali, and Tigrayan. According to the federal constitution, “every Nation, Nationality and People in Ethiopia has an unconditional right to self-determination, including the right to secession,” and “every Nation, Nationality and People in Ethiopia has the right to a full measure of self-government which includes the right to establish institutions of government in the territory that it inhabits and to equitable representation in state and Federal governments.”
Ethiopia’s federal constitution divided the country into nine regional states and two chartered cities (Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa). Only five of the country’s ethnic groups were granted their own region within the country: Tigray, Afar, Amhara, Oromia, and Somali. The country’s smaller ethnolinguistic groups either became minorities in the five bigger regions or were incorporated into multiethnic regions (e.g., Benishangul-Gumuz and Gambela).
How we got here
Between 1991 and 2019, Ethiopia was governed by a coalition of the TPLF (the Tigrayan group), Amhara Democratic Party, Oromo Democratic Party, and Southern Ethiopian People’s Liberation Front. The coalition was dominated by the TPLF, which sought to move away from the assimilationist approach to governing Ethiopia that was an integral part of Emperor Haile Selassie’s rule, which ended in 1974 . Haile Selassie planned to bring together all the country’s various subcultures to create a singular Ethiopian national identity.
Although the Derg, which replaced the Imperial State in 1974, acknowledged the country’s ethnolinguistic and religious diversity, it did not abandon assimilation. Seeking to create a strong Marxist-Leninist state, it reverted to repression, the banning of public protests, and the use of military force to crush political dissent. Using ethnicity as a mechanism for organizing, various “insurgent forces” rose to challenge the hegemony of the Derg. The most important of these were the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, the Oromo Liberation Front, and the TPLF. Only the EPLF successfully pursued secession, and on May 24, 1991, the independence of Eritrea was declared. The TPLF chose instead to seek to consolidate its power over the rest of Ethiopia.
The successes heralded by Ethiopia’s federalist constitution also revealed the limits of such a system. By assigning defined territories to five ethnic groups and marginalizing others, the constitution significantly elevated ethnic differences and incentivized competition for resources and territorial recognition.
The TPLF-led multiethnic coalition that governed the country from 1991 to 2019 achieved significant reductions in child mortality, improvements in food security, and the eradication of large-scale civil war. Political stability and peaceful coexistence, however, proved elusive.
In 2019, the EPRDF governing coalition, which was dominated by the TPLF, was dissolved and replaced by one called the Prosperity Party under the leadership of Abiy Ahmed — without the long-ruling Tigrayan party. The new coalition has been accused of trying to move Ethiopia away from ethnic federalism into a political future that seeks to promote a so-called uniquely Ethiopian national identity and create a unitary state. Such an approach is reminiscent of the assimilationist policies of the Imperial State (under Emperor Haile Selassie) and the Marxist-Leninist state (under the Derg).
Between 1991 and 2019, many young Ethiopians complained that they had been marginalized and pushed to the economic and political margins by the EPRDF government. That mass discontent swept Abiy, an ethnic Oromo, to power in 2018 as the coalition’s choice. Shortly after coming to power, Abiy dissolved the EPRDF, liberalized politics, and successfully negotiated a peace deal with Eritrea’s Isaias Afwerki, bringing an end to the state of war that had existed between the two neighbors for many years. The agreement won Abiy a Nobel Peace Prize. Abiy’s critics, however, argue that the peace agreement with Eritrea seems to have instead laid the groundwork for the current war.
The Eritrean angle
In a report published in February 2021, Amnesty International stated that “Eritrean troops fighting in Ethiopia’s Tigray state [had] systematically killed hundreds of unarmed civilians in the northern city of Axum on 28–29 November 2020, opening fire in the streets and conducting house-to-house raids in a massacre that may amount to a crime against humanity.” The report went on to note that “the evidence is compelling and points to a chilling conclusion. Ethiopian and Eritrean troops carried out multiple war crimes in their offensive to take control of Axum.”
Some observers have argued that Eritrean President Afwerki’s involvement in the conflict is related to the humiliation that he and his troops received at the hands of the Tigrayan-led government in Addis Ababa during the war of 1998–2000 over its taking control of the small village of Badme. After a U.N.-led international tribunal held that the town belonged to Eritrea, the TPFL refused to withdraw its occupation forces and maintained control of the town for 18 years. Last year, Afwerki warned: “We will not hold our hands and sit still concerning matters that develop in Ethiopia.”
Both the U.S. and the European Union have called for the removal of Eritrean troops from Tigray. Meanwhile, the Ethiopian Red Cross has said that as much as 80% of the Tigray region has been cut off from humanitarian aid, creating a “ very critical malnutrition situation” since “vast rural areas where many people [have fled to] during three months of fighting remain out of reach of aid.” According to the United Nations, many schools in the region are occupied by security forces or internally displaced Tigrayans, effectively depriving the young of the ability to attend school. In addition, most of the region’s hospitals are no longer functioning, a situation that could negatively affect the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. In March, the deputy chief of mission at the Ethiopian Embassy in Washington, D.C., quit his post, claiming “the Ethiopian government is intensifying its campaign of lies and deceit by denying the presence of foreign powers, denying atrocities being committed against the people of Tigray, denying all the crimes it is responsible for while the whole world bears witness.”
How does this end?
What is the way forward for Ethiopia? The government in Addis Ababa and its supporters must recognize the fact that a military solution is not likely to be sustainable, if it is even temporarily achieved. Militarizing Tigray will only create prolonged economic and political instability and endanger the lives of millions of people. The first step toward resolving this quagmire is to secure peace in Tigray, possibly with the help of the U.N. Security Council. As part of that effort, all federal and Eritrean troops must be removed from Tigray. If necessary, U.N. or African Union troops can be brought into Tigray to maintain the peace and prevent the deterioration of conditions.
Once the peace has been secured, the second step must involve dealing with the humanitarian situation, returning those who fled Tigray back to their homes, providing necessary aid for people to rebuild their lives (including the rebuilding of homes and businesses that were destroyed by the conflict), opening up schools, and dealing with other threats to the people’s welfare (e.g., COVID-19). As part of the effort to restore essential services, any infrastructure that was destroyed by the war (e.g., buildings, bridges, roads, power lines, etc.) should be rebuilt and made functional.
The third step is to engage in a truth and reconciliation process, which should include bringing to justice any individuals determined to have committed war crimes in Tigray, regardless of their citizenship.
Then comes the thorny question of governance. How can the governance system be strengthened to withstand the pressures that resulted in the recent bloodshed?
If Ethiopians decide to retain a federal system, which I believe they should, they must deal with two important issues. First, since government in most of the country’s subregional units is dominated by ethnic political parties — for example, Oromia is governed by the Oromo Democratic Party, and Tigray has, until the recent war, been governed by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front — the issue of minority rights must be addressed. Every citizen, regardless of his or her ethnolinguistic origin, must be guaranteed the right of internal exit. That is, the individual must be able to migrate freely to any part of the country, establish residency there, and participate fully and effectively in the political and economic life of his or her new community.
Another important issue that Ethiopians must deal with is majoritarian tyranny. Since the early 1990s, the politicization of ethnicity has become a major challenge to political economy in Ethiopia. As a consequence, government, especially at the federal level, has been dominated by ethnolinguistic coalitions. For example, the EPRDF, which ruled Ethiopia from 1991 to 2019, was a coalition of four ethnic political parties dominated by the TPLF. The Prosperity Party, which replaced the EPRDF as the ruling party in December 2019, is also a coalition of several ethnic political parties.
The politicization of ethnicity in Ethiopia and the formation of ethnic political parties make it extremely difficult for prospective candidates for public office, including the office of prime minister, to develop a well-integrated platform, particularly one that appeals to voters from all ethnolinguistic communities. As criticisms of the TPLF-dominated government that ruled Ethiopia during a period of 27 years have shown, political elites and the parties that support them are not likely to develop and implement policies that serve the nation as a whole, but limit themselves to policy platforms that “meet the needs and reflect the interests and values of their ethnic kinfolks” and those of their fellow coalition members. In the process, these majority ethnic coalitions tyrannize and marginalize other groups, particularly those that are not members of the coalition. It is no wonder that critics of the EPRDF regime have referred to its time in power as “ 27 years of darkness.”
One can argue that Ethiopians recognized the problem of domestic faction and adopted, in the tradition of James Madison, federalism and a separation of powers regime through the 1995 constitution. However, as Madison surely would have told them, “parchment barriers” alone cannot prevent majoritarian tyranny. Ethiopia’s bicameral legislature and its judiciary must be independent and insulated from arbitrary interference by the executive branch of government, and its civil society and media must be free, serving as a check on the exercise of government power, as well as providing civil society with the information that it needs to make certain the government is accountable to both the constitution and the people.
Ethiopians must abandon ethnicity as an organizing principle for participating in the political life of their country. Party elites must develop and promote political platforms that appeal to a broad spectrum of citizens and must de-emphasize ethnicity as a major or determining factor in public policy.
In the Federalist Papers, Madison noted the “great importance in a republic not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers, but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part.” The survival of Ethiopia and its people, and the security of the region, may depend on just such a guard.
– John Mukum Mbaku