Ethiopia is a tragedy for the whole of Africa

Ethiopia is a tragedy for the whole of Africa

War in Tigray unleashed old hatreds and brought low a growth model

This week, Ethiopian federal troops retook the town of Lalibela © Solan Kolli/AFP/Getty

(ft)–Ethiopia’s war in Tigray was meant to be over by Christmas. Last Christmas. Instead a year has rolled by during which all sides have committed appalling human rights abuses. Only this month, details emerged of an alleged summary execution of 49 civilians by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. Equally credible reports have found evidence of civilian massacres and mass rapes perpetrated by Ethiopian federal troops and their Eritrean and Amhara allies. Despite a recent retreat by the TPLF that has boosted federal troops, the war, which started in November 2020, trundles on. Fortunes have oscillated wildly, with one side and then the other appearing to hold the upper hand. A few weeks ago, the TPLF, once seemingly down and out, staged a blitzkrieg comeback and threatened to march on Addis. Now it has been driven back again, partly thanks to federal air power.

This week, federal troops retook Lalibela, a city of rock-hewn churches in Amhara, in what the TPLF claims was a tactical retreat aimed at preparing the ground for a ceasefire. One can only hope it is so. Before this conflict began, the east African country of 110m people was among the most promising prospects on the continent. During almost three decades of effective, if highly authoritarian, rule, a TPLF-dominated government pursued a development path pioneered in East Asia. Building on high savings and investment rates, it chalked up years of double-digit growth and impressive social advances. Ethiopia was one of the few African countries with a coherent manufacturing strategy. Once associated with famine, it had a shot at reaching middle-income status. Today Ethiopia is torn apart by ethnic hatreds and age-old vendettas.

The TPLF tried to solve the “ethnic question” by giving regions more autonomy, including the right to secede. But that pact failed to hold as ethnic groups, led by the Oromo and Amhara, rebelled against Tigrayan dominance. In 2018, Abiy Ahmed, an Oromo, emerged as a supposedly conciliatory force. The hope was his premiership would graft a tolerant liberal democracy on to the TPLF’s developmental state. As prime minister, Abiy’s vision of a united Ethiopia has clashed with nationalist sentiment in the country’s 10 ethnically constituted regions. Abiy compounded his problems by purging Tigrayans from power, putting him on a collision course with TPLF diehards who refused to concede that their days running the country were over.

Even if you accept the dubious premise that the TPLF are no more than terrorists, Abiy’s government has undermined its case by allowing its soldiers and their allies to run rampant. Whatever crimes the TPLF have committed, it is incumbent on government forces to abide by basic norms of warfare. Addis has even enlisted troops from Ethiopia’s old enemy, Eritrea, to help crush its own people. If there is one winner from all this, it is Isaias Afwerki, the wiley Eritrean dictator. Calls by the international community for negotiations have thus far fallen on deaf ears. Both sides think their cause is just.

Until recently both sides seemed to think they could win. When the fighting eventually does end, it may be difficult to put Ethiopia back together again. Even if Abiy achieves the total victory he seems to believe possible, Tigrayans are unlikely to accept being part of a federal union. That the Ethiopian project should have so dramatically unravelled is a tragedy not only for Ethiopia but for a continent that looked to it as a plausible model of development. Those in search of an African success story will have to look elsewhere.