How Abiy’s Effort to Redefine Ethiopia Led to War in Tigray
MEKELLE, Ethiopia—(worldpoliticsreview)—-During the past two years, whenever Haileselassie, a wood trader in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia, placed an order for supplies from the capital, Addis Ababa, he would lie awake at night, restless with worry. “I don’t sleep,” he told me in late October, sitting at the back of his shop in the central market of Mekelle, Tigray’s capital. “I don’t believe it will arrive safely.”
By then, insecurity and lawlessness had spread in different parts of Ethiopia, and tensions between Tigray and Amhara, a larger region that neighbors Tigray to the south, had decidedly worsened. The roads, Haileselassie said, had become dangerous, and trucks belonging to some of his friends had been attacked and looted. As a result, his business was struggling, as Mekelle’s market grappled with supply shortages. “I’m very, very worried,” he admitted, clearly agitated as he tapped his foot under the desk.
When we spoke, Tigray was at peace. Now, it is at war, and ordinary residents of Mekelle like Haileselassie are trapped at the heart of it. In September, Tigray held parliamentary elections in defiance of a central government decision to postpone all voting indefinitely during the coronavirus pandemic. Tensions escalated in the weeks that followed the vote until the early days of November, when forces under control of the region’s ruling party, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, or TPLF, attacked nearby camps housing federal troops. The federal army responded by marching into Tigray from the west and the south, supported on the ground by thousands of Amhara militiamen and in the air by fighter jets and helicopter gunships that pounded Tigray’s parched and rocky territory from above.
Within little more than a month, the fighting is believed to have killed thousands and has driven more than 47,000 refugees into Sudan. Both sides are thought to have committed atrocities, and, in at least one case, possible war crimes. The TPLF has fired missiles at Amhara and even into Eritrea, which borders Ethiopia to the north, threatening to transform the conflict into a regional war.
Ethiopia’s federal government calls its actions in Tigray a “law enforcement operation,” with strictly limited and achievable goals. It promises an end to operations once Abiy’s forces have captured the “criminal clique” at the top of the TPLF—some 64 individuals, including Debretsion Gebremichael, the region’s state president—and put them on trial. A transitional regional administration will be installed, it says, and order restored. On Nov. 28, Abiy declared victory, perhaps prematurely, after his troops captured Mekelle and the TPLF leadership fled to the surrounding mountains.
Even if the conventional war between the TPLF and Abiy’s ruling Prosperity Party does come to a quick end, almost no impartial observers believe this will put an end to the underlying strife that caused it. The crisis is much too far-reaching and complex for that. At its heart is a naked quest for power, as well as a bitter tussle over ideology, that touches all of Ethiopia. It is a fight not just to control the Ethiopian state, but to define its identity.
The Third Revolution
Abiy took office in April 2018, on the back of mass protests in Ethiopia’s two most populous states: Oromia, his home region, and Amhara. The demonstrators were driven by a wide range of grievances—frustration with authoritarianism and corruption, ethnic marginalization, unemployment and landlessness—and at times expressed demands that were contradictory. But they agreed on one important thing: that the TPLF, which dominated the then-ruling coalition of ethnic-regional parties, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front, was much too powerful and ought to be toppled. Abiy, an ambitious apparatchik from the EPRDF’s Oromo wing, signaled solidarity with the protesters and ultimately became their standard-bearer—and, after thrusting his way to the top of the coalition, their instrument for the TPLF’s downfall.
“What they did is take a political dispute and turn it into a question of law and principle on which they cannot compromise. And then it became a fight to the death.”
The first few months of his premiership were characterized by dizzying activity. Political prisoners were released, exiled dissidents were welcomed home and long-censored journalists were unmuzzled. Radical plans to liberalize the historically state-managed economy were unveiled, and state-owned enterprises were put up for sale. Abiy also made peace with neighboring Eritrea after 20 years of frozen conflict, for which he won a Nobel peace prize a year later.
Just as important, though rather less remarked on at the time, was the way his reforms steadily chipped away at the TPLF’s dominance. This began when Abiy announced staffing changes and reforms to the military and intelligence apparatus, in which Tigrayans, who constitute less than 10 percent of the country’s population, wielded outsized influence. The attorney general later directed authorities to arrest former senior officials from the intelligence services—including the former deputy chief of national intelligence—that had been accused of human rights violations, most of whom were Tigrayan.
The upheaval also extended to the civil service and state institutions like Ethio Telecom, where the new administration removed staff, many of whom were Tigrayan, and replaced the Tigrayan COO. Abiy even shook up the TPLF’s stranglehold over key sectors of the economy, most notably when he restructured the Metals and Engineering Corporation, or Metec, a military-industrial conglomerate led by former Tigrayan generals, and ordered high-profile arrests of its leadership for alleged corruption.
For much of his first year in office, these moves made Abiy outstandingly popular. A young intellectual I spoke with in late 2018 described the whirlwind of that period as Ethiopia’s “third revolution.” He likened the arrests of Metec officials to the high-water mark of the country’s first revolution in 1975, when a coalition of students and Marxist military officers, having overthrown the feudal order of Emperor Haile Selassie, nationalized all of Ethiopia’s land. The second revolution, in his view, occurred in 1991, when the EPRDF in turn ousted the Marxist dictatorship that overthrew Haile Selassie, known as the Derg, and introduced a new constitutional settlement that divided Ethiopia into nine ethnic-based regions, each with the right to secede.
If Abiy’s reforms were also a revolution, it scarcely appeared to be one the TPLF would embrace. But Tigrayan resistance was neither immediate nor wholesale. Some powerful TPLF figures were implacably hostile from the outset—notably Getachew Assefa, the former head of national intelligence who was removed by Abiy two months into his premiership. But others took a more pragmatic view. In Mekelle, Abiy was even welcomed by a large and enthusiastic crowd when he visited shortly after taking office. “Ninety-six percent of Tigrayan people were happy to see Abiy in power,” recalled Dawit Kebede, a Tigrayan journalist who was arrested a week after we met in November, presumably for criticizing the government on social media.
One of Abiy’s first acts upon taking office was to pardon and release several officials and businessmen who had been charged with corruption, with Tigrayans prominent among them. Azeb Mesfin—the widow of Meles Zenawi, the long-ruling prime minister and TPLF leader who died in office in 2012—had been purged from the TPLF’s own politburo a few months earlier, but Abiy somewhat restored her reputation by putting her on the board of Metec. Debretsion, who became Tigray’s acting president in early 2018, seemed conciliatory and willing to work with the new administration. At the biennial EPRDF congress that October, he and Abiy put on a show of unity, and Debretsion was handed responsibility, at least on paper, for normalizing trade ties with Eritrea. At that congress, the TPLF voted for Abiy to remain chairman of the EPRDF coalition.
But that detente came to an abrupt end once the arrests began a month later. The new and much more antagonistic phase in Abiy’s relationship with his former comrades was not just due to the strong anti-Tigrayan slant of Abiy’s anti-corruption drive—after all, Tigrayans had dominated the purged intelligence services and Metec. It was also because key Abiy allies seemed immune from prosecution, making the campaign seem like a witch hunt directed against Abiy’s political opponents, particularly the TPLF.
This is certainly how it was perceived in Tigray, a view exacerbated by national media coverage of the Metec arrests that was sharply critical of the Tigrayan officials involved, and sometimes even subtly insinuated that all Tigrayans were worthy of suspicion. That inflamed fears of persecution among ordinary Tigrayans, while some in the upper ranks of the TPLF began to worry about selective prosecutions for past crimes that might leave them either in prison or penniless—while their old allies in Addis Ababa scooped up the spoils.
By the end of 2018, Debretsion was already speaking in public about Tigray’s willingness to defend itself militarily against Abiy’s overreach, and by the end of the following year, he had accused Abiy’s government of working “to destroy the people of Tigray.” Almost all senior TPLF officials and many TPLF-connected businessmen left Addis Ababa for the ostensible security of Mekelle in the intervening months. Most significantly, when Abiy merged the multi-party EPRDF coalition into the Prosperity Party, a unified pan-Ethiopian party, in December 2019, the TPFL refused to join.
Writing in Foreign Policy in November, Kassahun Melesse, an Ethiopian academic at Oregon State University, spelled out the material aspect of this power struggle. “It is a fight over who gets to dominate the commanding heights of the country’s economy,” he argued, “a prize that Tigray’s regional leaders once held and are determined to recapture at any cost.”
Reclaiming its former political supremacy is probably not part of the TPLF’s plan. “We want our share of power at the center, but basically we want to be left alone,” Getachew Reda, a senior TPLF official, told me in March. “I’m a hard-headed realist. I know there’s no appetite for a TPLF-dominated government in Addis Ababa again.”
But there is little doubt that self-preservation, both to protect the TPLF’s economic interests and to avoid criminal prosecutions of its leaders, plays an important role in the party’s calculations. “What they wanted was protection for what they had, and impunity—just like everybody else,” said Adem K. Abebe, an Ethiopian constitutional expert based in The Hague, in an interview.
Jawar Mohammed, an Oromo opposition leader who is now on trial for allegedly orchestrating deadly violence in June, made the same point a year ago, when he and other Oromo leaders were trying to persuade Abiy to strike a deal with the TPLF to bring them back into the fold. What the TPLF want, Jawar told me at the time, was “no more trials [and] guarantees that their assets won’t be expropriated.”
Now that war is underway, the TPLF’s fears that Abiy would go after its economic assets are being realized. On Nov. 17, the Federal Attorney General Office announced that it had frozen the bank accounts of 34 businesses linked to TPLF leaders. It is highly likely that when the war is over, at least some of these companies will be taken over by the ruling party, either directly via its large endowment funds or indirectly by allied companies. “A host of other actors are ready to fill the vacuum created by the TPLF’s departure,” said a prominent Ethiopian political analyst who asked to remain anonymous due to concerns over personal safety amid the conflict. These opportunistic individuals include “Oromo affiliates of the regime, and the Amhara and Gurage business classes in particular,” the analyst said.
A Real Threat—or a Scapegoat?
But power and wealth are only part of the story. The current conflict is also a reckoning over Ethiopia’s recent past and a contest to determine its future.
On the outskirts of Mekelle in October, in a large but sparsely furnished house that he’d only recently moved into, Ethiopia’s former foreign minister and TPLF member Seyoum Mesfin reeled off statistics from the political era that ended when Abiy took office. “Double-digit growth, nonstop. Thirty million farmers lifted above the poverty line. Thirty new universities,” he fumed. “We achieved miracles!”
For TPLF veterans like Seyoum, who were architects of the 1991 revolution, Abiy could have used his own revolution to build on this legacy of unprecedented prosperity. Instead, they argue, he has based his legitimacy on denigrating it, using the TPLF as a scapegoat for everything that has gone wrong since he assumed power and before: political instability, recurring bouts of deadly ethnic violence—like that which followed the murder of an Oromo musician in June—and, in some parts of Ethiopia, rampant lawlessness.
The war in Tigray is a fight not just to control the Ethiopian state, but to define its identity.
“All Ethiopia’s problems—past, present and future—were ascribed to us,” seethed Wondimu Asaminew, Ethiopia’s former ambassador to Somalia, over coffee in October.
In 2018, Abiy condemned that era as “27 years of darkness.” Since the war began, his government has doubled down on this narrative, rewriting those years of EPRDF coalition rule as a purely TPLF project. “The TPLF’s three-decade rule is characterized by egregious violation of human rights, corruption and self-enrichment at a grand scale,” his office stated on Nov. 14. State broadcasters have amplified the message.
They have also accused the TPLF of undermining Abiy’s administration by financing instability. A TV documentary broadcast on state-run channels four days after the outbreak of the current fighting claimed that the “TPLF has not slept for three years,” because it was busy “trying to destabilize the country.” Police officers interviewed in the program said they had seized weapons intended for use in violent plots against the government and apprehended suspects who had been “directly assisted at a high level by TPLF officials.” Speaking to parliament on Nov. 30, Abiy further claimed that all of the 113 incidents of violent unrest he said had occurred since he took office were financed by the TPLF, in order to “give an impression the new administration is weak.”
There are reasonable grounds to believe that elements within the TPLF, or TPLF-affiliated actors within the state security apparatus, may have played a role in some of those outbreaks of violence. But the sheer sweep of the allegations, and the absence of solid evidence, suggests that Abiy’s Prosperity Party may simply be demonizing political opponents, a practice that characterized both the EPRDF and Derg eras.
“The TPLF is not a ‘clean’ organization,” said the Ethiopian analyst who asked to remain anonymous. “But it is also a political party with solid ideological underpinnings and clear political programs, as well as significant support in Tigray.”
And it was disagreements over those fundamental ideological underpinnings that, perhaps more than anything else, put the two sides on a course to war.
“Abiy doesn’t belong to any nation or nationality,” said Sebhat Nega, smoking on the terrace of Mekelle’s Planet Hotel before war began. At 86 years old, Sebhat is a founding father of the TPLF and one of its chief ideologues. Abiy, he said, “doesn’t have an identity: He’s not Oromo, he’s not Amhara, he’s not Tigrayan, he’s not Sidama.”
The reflection is not so much about Abiy’s personal biography as his politics. Variously known as pan-Ethiopianism or unitarism, his approach challenges the notion that Ethiopia is not one country, but a collection of many—an uneasy amalgam of different nations and nationalities forged together by Emperor Menelik II in the late 19th century. That view of Ethiopia formed the basis of the federalist system that the TPLF played a lead role in establishing in the early 1990s.
Semir Yusuf, a senior researcher for the Institute for Security Studies’ Horn of Africa program, calls this an “ontological question.” It is a dispute over the foundational precepts of Ethiopian nationalism, history and statehood, and it runs through almost all of Ethiopia’s ongoing crises—not just the federal government’s fight with the TPLF, but also Abiy’s troubled relationship with the Oromo opposition, the historic rivalries between Amhara and Tigray, and the vexed question of regional statehood for myriad ethnic groups in the country’s south.
The TPLF, for its part, insists on regional autonomy, a position that is shared by many opposition parties in southern Ethiopia and that forms the basis of the 1995 constitution, which grants semi-sovereign powers to ethnically defined regions. In the view of Abiy and his supporters, by contrast, ultimate sovereignty resides with the central state, not the regions. To them, Abiy does have a political identity: Ethiopian. The merging of the EPRDF into the Prosperity Party was a milestone in this respect, turning what was once a coalition of regional ethnic parties into a unified national one.
Whether this unified Prosperity Party poses a threat to the federal constitution is hotly disputed. According to Abiy, his vision is of “an inclusive, multinational, democratic and prosperous Ethiopia.” Zadig Abraha, a senior party official who was himself once a TPLF member, says the Prosperity Party represents the “full realization” of federalism, not its demise. It is true that the EPRDF, despite a formal commitment to federalism, itself governed firmly from the center, often disregarding the views and interests of peripheral states. There are many who also believe the TPLF’s defense of the federal system is not entirely genuine, and note the irony in it accusing Abiy of doing the very things for which it had itself been criticized for so many years.
Still, there is little doubt that Abiy does want to make changes to the constitution. He has hinted, for instance, of a desire to introduce an executive presidency. His influential attorney general, Gideon Timothewos, who views the constitution as tragically flawed, is said to be mulling amendments.
Many of Abiy’s allies champion such reforms, particularly those in Amhara, where the federal constitution has always been deeply unpopular and where there has been mass mobilization to support the government in its war with the TPLF. “I hope the government will now have the guts to listen to our plea and revise the constitution,” said Bellete Molla, chairman of the National Movement of Amhara. Aregawi Berhe, a former founding member of the TPLF who has since become one of its fiercest critics, assured me that a constitutional reform process “will start as soon as the TPLF leadership is defeated.”
Another important regional player seems to agree. Isaias Afewerki, Eritrea’s president since the country seceded from Ethiopia in 1993, once fought alongside the TPLF against the Derg, when he was the rebel leader of the Eritrean liberation movement. The relationship between the two was already difficult by the late 1980s, but after a border war broke out in 1998 between the new Eritrean state and the TPLF-dominated Ethiopian government, any residual comradery evaporated, becoming a bitter and highly personal grudge. Isaias has also long been a strident critic of the federalist arrangement, and in February, gave a lengthy interview on Eritrean state TV in which he extensively criticized Ethiopia’s constitutional order.
“The system of ethnic federalism applied in Ethiopia for the past 20 years and more by the narrow clique is bankrupted now,” he said, in a not so veiled reference to the TPLF. “In our language, it is called ‘game over.’ And Ethiopians have said ‘enough.’”
The peace agreement Isaias signed with Abiy in 2018, the details of which were never made public, was seen by the TPLF as part of a conspiracy to weaken its political dominance or ultimately topple the party. One month before the war began, Abiy gave Isaias a tour of an air force base in the town of Bishoftu in the Oromia region, setting off alarm bells in Mekelle. Three months before that, Abiy had visited the Sawa military training camp in Eritrea, reportedly the first-ever foreign leader to do so. The fear that Eritrean troops would enter Tigray at Abiy’s invitation—as they are reported to have done in large numbers in recent weeks, though the Ethiopian government denies this—seems to have prompted the TPLF to take a more aggressive stance in the runup to the war. It may have even inspired the party’s fateful decision to attack the federal military camps in Tigray on Nov. 3.
Ethiopia’s future may look like episodes from its past: a pitiless struggle that concludes only when a victor emerges who can exercise effective hegemony.
“Isaias is now the mentor of Abiy,” Seyoum, the TPLF veteran, told me in late October, repeating what he and other senior TPLF figures were loudly proclaiming on Tigrayan TV in the week before the war. “Isaias is not for federalism in Ethiopia. He is scared it will spill over into Eritrea, so he never wants it to succeed here.”
Changes to the constitution need not spell the end of federalism. There is widespread support among political parties across the spectrum for revisions of various kinds, and negotiations might eventually produce a settlement that commands majority support. But in the TPLF’s eyes, the existential threat to its most important legacy is very real. “This is about defending our right to self-determination,” Debretsion told Reuters in November. TPLF leaders might also fear that by weakening federalism, Abiy could effectively end their hegemony in Tigray, the one region that has been clearly beyond his writ. In this sense, the TPLF’s struggle in defense of federalism is also a campaign to save itself.
By the start of this year, there were strong signs that the Prosperity Party and the TPLF were on a path toward armed confrontation. The arrival of COVID-19 accelerated the collision. When Abiy postponed the elections, the TPLF was the only opposition party to oppose the decision from the outset. It began accusing the prime minister of using the pandemic as an excuse to overstay the constitution’s five-year term limit, and in so doing to lay the groundwork for one-man rule.
The legal reasoning of this accusation was dubious, as the constitution is ambiguous on what to do should a national emergency make holding elections impossible. But the TPLF leaders were correct that the Prosperity Party overreached by unilaterally deciding how to proceed, without deliberating first with the opposition. After the TPLF organized its own regional elections in September, in which it won a landslide victory, each party levied impossibly high demands on the other: The Prosperity Party insisted that the TPLF void its election results, and the TPLF insisted Abiy give way to a caretaker government. When, of course, neither side capitulated, the TPLF and Abiy’s government each declared the other illegitimate and both made military preparations for an eventual confrontation.
“The constitutional issues could have been readily resolved,” Alex de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation and professor at Tufts University, told me in an interview. The technical disagreements over how to proceed with elections were really a cover for that fundamental, ideological battle about how to divide power. “What they did is take a political dispute and turn it into a question of law and principle on which they cannot compromise. And then it became a fight to the death.”
The prospects for mediation or dialogue are now vanishingly slim. The federal government knows it has the military advantage and will seek to press it home. Meanwhile, atrocities committed during the fighting so far, especially a massacre of 600 civilians allegedly committed by a TPLF-aligned militia in the town of Mai Kadra, have so poisoned the well that many Ethiopians will accept nothing less than a total victory by Abiy. The same is true of the Nov. 3 TPLF attack that precipitated the war, which many Ethiopians saw as an unjustifiable betrayal.
“That was a paradigm shift,” said an Ethiopian analyst with contacts in both camps, who also requested anonymity in order to speak openly. “I don’t think many people will accept any future for the TPLF in Ethiopian politics after that.” Equally important, though, is whether ordinary Tigrayans will view the aerial bombardment of the region by the federal military, and the wholesale blocking of food and medical supplies for almost a month, in a similar way. Many surely will.
Ethiopia’s future, then, may look like episodes from its past, including the civil war that ushered the EPRDF into power in 1991: a pitiless struggle that concluded only when a victor emerged who could exercise effective hegemony. This may deliver what political scientists call an “imposed settlement,” and with it, a measure of stability. But the danger is that such a resolution could sow the seeds of grievance from which the next round of violence will one day emerge.