Dangerous trends in Ethiopia: Time for Washington’s tough love

Dangerous trends in Ethiopia: Time for Washington’s tough love

(Brookings)–month after a seeming breakthrough toward conflict de-escalation in the grinding war in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region and the associated humanitarian catastrophe, conflict and centrifugal dynamics have significantly escalated, eviscerating the country’s stability well beyond Tigray. After eight months of fighting and an increasingly effective insurgency, the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF) routed the federal Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) backed by neighboring Eritrea in Tigray. Facing a defeat, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared a unilateral ceasefire and ordered the government’s forces out of Tigray.

However, the windows for badly needed humanitarian access and negotiations between the Tigrayan leadership and the national government rapidly closed. The emboldened TDF has seized parts of the Afar and Amhara regions. In response to the ENDF meltdown, the prime minister intensified efforts to stand up regional ethnic-based militias. Yet Addis Ababa has severely limited capacity to control these paramilitary forces: Over time, they will pose a graver threat to Ethiopia’s stability, territorial integrity, and ethnic coexistence than the Tigray situation. Although reductions of U.S. aid to Ethiopia seemed to have been on the table during USAID Administrator Samantha Power’s trip last week to Addis Ababa, Washington has limited levers to roll back the ongoing dangerous dynamics.


Since 2018, ethnic tensions and competition over state resources and power have grown in Ethiopia, as the country has sought to transition away from three decades of authoritarian rule by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). Though EPRDF rule, dominated by leaders from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), delivered economic growth for years, it became increasingly heavy-handed. In the face of mass public protests, the EPRDF sought a soft transition, choosing as its new leader an Oromo politician, Abiy Ahmed, whom the Ethiopian parliament elected prime minister in April 2018.

Ethnic tensions emerged across the country, including in regions receiving less international attention, such as the Southern Nations and Somali region, and particularly among the Tigray, Amhara, and Oromo. The tensions soon led to incidents of violence, assassinations, massacres, and large internal displacement.

Struggling to control the unrest and stave off demands for faster political liberalization and economic redistribution despite increasingly repressive measures, Abiy took a confrontational attitude toward Tigrayan political leaders. In addition to reducing their disproportionate power, he sought to subject them to accountability for economic and political crimes of the EPRDF regime.

The Tigrayan leaders in turn started to boycott and sabotage his government. Unsuccessful coup and assassination plots emerged. When Abiy unilaterally postponed national and regional elections because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Tigrayan leaders not only condemned the move as a power grab (as did their other ethnic counterparts in Ethiopia), but proceeded to hold elections in the Tigray region in September 2020. In October, fearing the federal government’s response as well as escalating tensions with the Amhara and Oromo, the Tigrayan leaders started seizing military depots in the Tigray region.

Abiy responded with military force against the Tigrayan leadership, deploying national troops into the region. At first, the military response seemed to be crushing the TPLF leadership, and Prime Minister Abiy refused negotiations with them, insisting on arrests and prosecutions.

Other claimants to power and resources in Ethiopia also took advantage of the conflict. Long resentful of Tigray’s decades of dominance, neighboring Amhara, home to the second-largest ethnic group and the ruling elite during the monarchy that ruled the country until 1974, seized parts of Tigray. Ethnic conflict over local resources, such as agricultural land, water, and access to revenue distributions from Addis Ababa, broke out in the other parts of the country.


However, even though regional actors, such as Eritrean forces, entered the Tigray battlefield in support of Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) — with Eritrea and TPLF long defining each other as determined enemies — military fortunes changed.

Despite seeming ENDF successes in the initial weeks of the push into Tigray, the TDF insurgency became entrenched and increasingly effective by spring 2021. Repression of local populations by ENDF and severe human rights abuses perpetrated against the Tigray population also by Eritrean forces were one factor in the entrenchment and growing heft of the TDF. Pre-existing TPLF military capacities were another.

The ambitions of Abiy and the ENDF to simply crush the Tigray rebellion militarily had all along been misguided. Yet the extent of ENDF’s routing is significant. The federal Ethiopian military forces had long been considered one of Horn of Africa’s most potent military actors, a favorite U.S. counterterrorism ally and the lynchpin of anti-Shabab efforts in Somalia. The likely ENDF quagmire in Tigray instead fairly rapidly turned into an ENDF defeat, albeit a temporary one.

The exposed weakness of ENDF has both local and regional implications. In Ethiopia, the ENDF meltdown does little to deter violent rebellions elsewhere in the country (such as Oromia and the Somali region), which Abiy had presumably intended with his mailed-fist response. In fact, the ENDF defeat may tempt more aggressive moves by various unsatisfied ethnic groups. Regionally, it may reinforce counterproductive dependence of Abiy’s government on foreign reinforcements, particularly Eritrean forces, that are dangerously regionalizing the conflict. And it raises profound questions about anti-Shabab efforts in Somalia, already weakened and struggling.

With the departure of ENDF from Tigray, Tigrayan forces rapidly pushed into the Afar and Amhara regions, on August 5 seizing the important town of Lalibela, home to rock-hewn 13th century churches. In Afar, the TDF seek to take over the crucial land route to Djibouti, a vital artery for landlocked Ethiopia. Suppositions abound that the Tigrayan forces even entertain ambitions to march on Addis Ababa. Like Abiy before, they exhibit little willingness to undertake compromise negotiations, asking instead for the formation of a transitional government and Abiy’s resignation. Neither Abiy nor his power constituencies in Addis Ababa or broader constituencies among the Amhara and Oromo are willing to consider such concessions.

In large parts of the country, strong anti-Tigrayan sentiments dominate and have locally broken out into anti-Tigrayan ethnic violence.


Crucially, Abiy’s resort to ethnic militias as a key response of the weakness of ENDF is dangerous and will likely prove deeply counterproductive. Ethnic militias and paramilitary forces were forming across Ethiopia even before last fall’s TPLF rebellion.

Abiy has now enlisted militia support and reinforced their formation in Afar and other regions of Ethiopia.

However, the militias will prove to be a loose cannon. Traditionally, anti-insurgent militias require central government reinforcement, lest many such groups succumb to defection pressures or are crushed by potent rebel forces: Afghanistan and Mexico provide many an example.

Moreover, like elsewhere around the world, many of the Ethiopian ethnic paramilitary forces have intense local agendas, some directly clashing with Addis Ababa’s. After initially fighting TDF, many of the militias popping up around Ethiopia will turn against the capital, as well as against one another, in their conflicts over resources and power distribution, even though some are likely to accommodate with TDF.

Already, in various parts of Ethiopia, local recruits are refusing to join ENDF, preferring instead to sign up with state paramilitary or special forces, such as the notorious Liyu Police in the long restive Somali region. Numbering hundreds to thousands, such forces can easily discard Addis Ababa’s control.


Meanwhile, the risks of inter-ethnic slaughter are growing significantly. In Ethiopia, a complex multi-sided ethnic civil war would become a massive humanitarian catastrophe and have disastrous effects on the wider Horn of Africa, pulling in regional patrons from the Middle East and beyond.

Already, the humanitarian crisis in the Tigray region is dire, with a blockade by Addis Ababa and, to a lesser extent, insurgent and militia attacks hampering food and medicine delivery. Addis Ababa unconscionably revoked the operating licenses of two major humanitarian actors — Doctors without Borders and the Norwegian Refugee Council — accusing them of siding with the TPLF. Some 400,000 people are in famine-like conditions, another 4.8 million need urgent assistance, and these numbers will grow in September when harvests fail.

Washington’s calls on the Tigrayan forces to withdraw from Amhara and Afar are unlikely to be heeded unless the United States is ready to threaten and impose punitive actions against the Tigray leadership, in the form of visa bans, sanctions, and criminal indictment portfolios. The threat of such sanctions may also be needed against actors in Abiy’s government and regional militia leaders to force their forces back into their home areas and ensure the delivery of humanitarian aid. Cutting non-humanitarian aid to Ethiopia may soon become a tool Washington should also exercise, though Addis Ababa can retaliate by withdrawing forces from Somalia, thus giving al-Shabab more power and room amidst multifaceted crises in the country.

Even so, realistically Washington has little capacity to halt militia formation and the fissiparous unraveling they set in motion. And Abiy is unlikely to stop relying on them unless the Tigrayan forces return to Tigray and compromise negotiations begin. Even then, the militias have already been unleashed.

1 thought on “Dangerous trends in Ethiopia: Time for Washington’s tough love

  1. To Madame Vanda Felbab-Brown,

    I read your article but found it disappointing in that you miss the true nature of Ethiopia in your analysis. Your policy prescriptions for your government are even more disappointing than your errors of fact about the nature of the conflict in Ethiopia.

    The Addis Abeba versus TPLF–you call them TDF–rivalry? Is that all you discovered in your research about Ethiopia? How about your accusatory identification of “the violent rebellions in Oromia and Somalia”? Did you consider who and what precipitated these “violent rebellions” or did you buy into the false History they teach about Ethiopia in your Ivy League Schools which casts the people of the South, specially the Oromo as Savages who needed the ‘enlightenment’ of the Abyssinians/Habeshas?

    All Empires, regardless of the skin color of the masters, it turns out, share the same characteristics. Please see if you can go back and check the history of Ethiopia to see if it fits a colonial model. You may just be surprised that the the reality of the lives of the people of the South and their relationship to the Center may confirm the Colonial narrative you have not been made aware of…

    Lastly, your ‘tough love’ policy recommendation as a response by the U.S. government to the Liberation movements in the Empire is condescending and conceited. You really think the Oromo Liberation Army is going to STOP fighting because your government is going to deny its leaders a Visa to come to the U.S., or because you propose for the U.S. government to impose other punitive measures?

    Part of the problem I see with “Experts” such as yourself is you have never been in the company of or exposed to the children of the people of the South in those exclusive Ivy League Schools you went to. As we say in our communities in the West, almost all of us, the people from the South who have now made our homes in Europe, Australia, the USA, etc., escaped Ethiopia through BALE NOT BOLE International Airport, including yours truly here…The good news is that some of us have, by the grace of G*D, managed to raise our own kids steeped in their immigrant parents history and culture as opposed to the “Official” version of Ethiopian history! AND, the best part, they are finally beginning to show up at Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, MIT, Brown, Berkeley etc…Hope you get to meet one of these kids soon!
    When you do, here is a test you should give them so you can tell if they are actually descendants of immigrants from the Colonized people of the South?
    Your question : Where are you from? The answer will be, Oromia, Somali, Sidama, Afar etc, NOT Ethiopia… In the meantime, I hope you get to read this essay written almost forty years ago, which clearly shows the nature of Ethiopia as an Empire, and why it CANNOT be reformed, no matter what anyone does, other than through national liberation movements which will RECONSTITUTE a NEW relationship between nations in the Horn of Africa!

    Good luck on your next research!

    The Kindling Point #6
    By Hordhoofa Q. Loltu
    April, 1985

    “The media attention to the famine situation in Ethiopia has caused many people,
    even total strangers to the area, to talk about or write articles about their ideas for what would be necessary to bring peace and prosperity to the region. During the last two or three weeks I have read everything I could find, watched interviews with the experts on television, and had conversations with a lot of different kinds of people about what they think should happen to end the suffering in Ethiopia.

    It is not too surprising that everyone’s solution perfectly fits his or her interest.

    1) The Military Junta and its supporters say, “If there could be a decisive military victory, then the regime could turn its full attention to solving the problems of the country. All that is needed is more time and more billions of dollars worth of arms. The only reason that there has not been a satisfactory military conclusion is that the 3 billion dollars in armaments was not yet enough for bringing the ‘final solution.’

    2) People involved in international humanitarian and relief aid agencies say, “Give more aid! Give aid until the people are self-sufficient and can stand on their own two feet. But do not ask us how they are going to be able to get there, because that is not our area.[of expertise] We are not in development or politics, and becoming self-sufficient involves too much politics, planning, and spending. As long as the salaries that we receive for our ‘selfless’ assistance work are large enough to maintain a high living standard at home when the trouble is over, we will be there with bandages, butter oil, and protein supplement biscuits.”

    3) Representatives of intergovernmental institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund that finance and advise on economic development, say,
    “More economic development and expert advice is what is needed, especially high-yielding variety seeds, some of the remarkable new fertilizers developed from petroleum, the latest technology (appropriate, of course) and programming that requires a few years of consultation from an expert counterpart either from the West or trained in one of the West’s top institutions of higher learning.”

    4) Politicians, administrators and bureaucrats in countries that have not supported this government say, “The entire problem in Ethiopia is its new superpower alignment! If only this regime could only realize the terrible mistake it made to switch its alliance to the U.S.S.R., and decide to transfer its superpower allegiance back to the West right away, all sins could be forgotten and things could be shaped up in a reasonable period of time. All that is needed is ‘proper’ political advice and the West’s technical help instead of the East’s.”

    5) Intellectuals, academics and various potential candidates for a new bureaucracy say, “The entire problem in Ethiopia is a problem of mismanagement! If this regime were only replaced by a new administration functioning in place of the current bureaucracy, then the resources and potential of ‘our country’ could be made to blossom.It is our turn to go into the Ministerial Offices and try our recipe for managing this situation. If we had our chance, everything could be saved and our frustration would be ended! Anyone who opposes this Mengistu government should be called ‘progressive’ and counted as an ally, because he can help to put us in control.”

    These proposed solutions all have two things in common: 1) They are all extremely self-serving. For all, Ethiopia is a mirror they can hold up to themselves to see their ambitions and opportunity. 2) None of them address or take any steps to solve the central problem that has brought Ethiopia to the disaster we see. They are all proposing reform of one kind or another.

    I, for one, am against reform to solve the problems of an empire. No reform can be good enough. The United States had all the opportunity it needed during the Haile Selassie years to reform Ethiopia in any direction it chose, but at the end, hundreds of thousands of people were literally starving to death. The
    Soviet Union has tried its formula during the past decade. It has become extremely clear that theirs is also a disastrous failure. Now millions of people are literally starving to death. Things are simply not working and it is going to take more than time to make matters improve. Ethiopia’s present course of action–to grab as much as possible from both sides of the East-West confrontation with promises to both is proving to be the worst option of all for the people. Until the basic diagnosis of the disease that Ethiopia is suffering from is recognized by any of the groups I have just mentioned, nothing they do will even help, let alone cure the country of its agonizing misery. They can merely stretch out the suffering. Only with a clear diagnosis can the proper steps be taken by anyone to bring health to the region and its people. I believe, however, that if they recognize a correct diagnosis, most of these groups could contribute in some way to a proper healing. But not until then.

    The nations in the Ethiopian empire are suffering from a parasite attached to them, a tapeworm–the tapeworm of a colonial ruling elite. Take the case of the Oromo nation. This tapeworm invaded the living system of the highly productive Oromo Nation and began to suck all the nutrients necessary for life away from the vital organism without contributing anything to the survival of the host. After its invasion, this tapeworm set up points of sucking all products away from the Oromo people for its own and others’ consumption.

    Almost everything that has kept Ethiopia afloat throughout the history of this empire since the invasion and conquest has come from Oromia–gold,coffee, ivory, skins, and even the slaves. (The slaves that Ethiopia was famous for were certainly not Abyssinians, but captured and sold by Abyssinians from the colonial areas such as Oromia.) If you go down a list of everything that has been exported as Ethiopian, and then look at a map of where that product comes from, you will see that the items come from Oromia. This tapeworm established itself through winding roads that linked garrison posts, trade centers, and customs points to the emperor’s palace, and through the railroads, to Europe and beyond. These posts became the points where the Neftennas drew the lifeblood out of the Oromo nation and became fat at the expense of the people who were made into tenants and slaves to feed them. But the parasite produced nothing on its own. The more help this colonial tapeworm got from outside, the more it grew fat and tried to improve its method of bleeding the producers, not improve the life of the conquered people.

    You simply cannot nurse a person back to health who has a tapeworm in his gut. A tapeworm like any parasite survives only by drawing the life away from another. THat is its nature. It cannot survive in any other fashion. The relationship between a tapeworm and its host is the perfect example of an antagonistic relationship. You CANNOT reconcile a parasite with the one that it lives off of. It can only live by taking from another. Unless the victim is made free of that parasite, nothing that is done for it can contribute to its survival. The more assistance or food that goes to the victim ignoring the problem, the fatter the tapeworm gets, the sooner the body dies.

    This is the true nature of the relationship between the parts of the Ethiopian Empire. It is a situation that CANNOT be reformed. Everything done for the victim, even if it is done with the best intention, will make the situation worse in the long term.

    Let me add a footnote here. When I think of the generous, well-intention-ed humanitarian aid being sent by the public in Europe and the U.S. to help the famine victims in Ethiopia, it distresses me. It is exactly like feeding someone with a tapeworm in his gut. All the food in the world cannot cure him until his real problem is acknowledged. For school children to send their lunch money and old people on public assistance to sacrifice to feed a parasite unknowingly, is an outrage!

    Until a proper relationship is established and a proper foundation is laid, there is no chance that even the most elaborate program or inputs could benefit the people who are suffering. Most of the assistance will make the parasitic groups fatter and cause the people to suffer more in the long run. I remember reading about the introduction of motor cars into the Arab World when oil was discovered there. It seemed logical to bring automobiles to where the gas was produced. But there was no local system for refining and delivering gasoline through service stations, there were no road system laid down, there were no repair facilities. The Sheiks who acquired the Cadillacs and the Mercedes could only get around in them by forcing the peasants to carry the cars around the streets for them on their backs.

    This same thing is being planned and is happening today in Ethiopia in another form under the reform program put forward by the government and economic consultants for “increased agricultural development and resettlement to eliminate famine.” Huge State farms and resettlement sites are being introduced which are designed to use modern equipment and improved technology. It may seem logical to bring large agricultural programs to an area suffering with large food shortages. But the labor is to come from unwilling local people who have to be threatened to leave their homes and farms to move to state farms, famine victims who are given no alternative to starvation, and people who are rounded up in the city streets without warning and trucked out to the site. Setting up a state farm or resettlement in an area where no roads, services, or any improvement exist (except those designed for better exploitation), is like sending a Mercedes to a country without petrol, repair garages, or highways–the work load to be carried by the peasants and increase their sweat and suffering.

    These projects aimed at reform through economic improvement are nothing more than status symbols for a parasitic colonial government; they do not function. They are being imposed on the country by force, without any foundation prepared for them. They are showpieces being carried on the backs of slave laborers, and they are not harmless status symbols either. Their very existence swells the Ethiopian tapeworm (the bureaucracy). It makes it fatter and increases its ability to suck more of the lifeblood from the producing peasants. Peasants have to leave their homes and farms to enter these places. There they are more victimized than ever before.

    The Ethiopian colonial system is structured to live off of the resources of the colonies. That relationship has only one cure. (I do not know what the cure for a tapeworm is called in English, but in [Afaan] Oromo we call it ‘heeto.’) That cure is a national liberation struggle. It cuts off that parasitic relation by attacking the colonial system itself until it dries up and is discarded. This cure brings health and nutrients directly to the suffering victim. In order for health and prosperity to come to that area, the Ethiopian colonial system itself has to be destroyed. That does not mean destroying the individual persons who are involved in it and benefiting from it (the neftennas and their supporters), it means eliminating the relationship. Those individuals inside the colonial system are then forced by the realities to abandon it and to enter into a different one, one which is a productive contributor to the community of nations in its own righ. When this happens the cure will be complete.

    Reform is an attempt to improve the social and political conditions inside a system of government without a radical change to the structure. Since anything that goes to the root is considered to be radical, I guess I am forced in this case to be radical. When a fatal disease which requires radical steps is diagnosed for a patient, the family is forced to endorse them in order to save a person. There comes a time to recognize that treating one part or one symptom of a problem at a time will not be enough. In this case, more arms, more aid, more advice, more programs, new faces in the offices, etc., are being proposed. But none of these will solve the problem; they will only make the situation worse.
    I am completely convinced that anything less than a restructuring of the entire relationship among the parts of the Ethiopian empire will only make the problem worse in the long run. Ethiopia as we have known it must cease to exist.

    This solution requires that the Amharas and other neftennas have to construct a different way of relating to the Oromos (and other people in the empire, for that matter). They are going to have to deal with those nations that occupy the Horn of Africa with them as their neighbors and fellows and not as tenants and slaves. Amharas are going to have to identify themselves as such and start to find ways of functioning as a productive organic unit. For them to deny the domination and bloodshed now and refuse to acknowledge the source of the problem will only stand in the way of good neighborliness in the future.

    One thing is absolutely certain. No peaceful, workable solution can be found to the dilemma of disaster in the Ethiopian empire that does not directly address the Oromo position and correct it. The Abyssinians who came as neftennas are unwanted, uninvited dinner guests who have stayed too long feeding off of the Oromos and not contributing anything to the survival of their hosts.

    Hordhoofa Q. Loltu

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