If Ethiopia descends into chaos, it could take the Horn of Africa with it

If Ethiopia descends into chaos, it could take the Horn of Africa with it

As conflicts rapidly unfold in Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia and Yemen, the US, UK and European states are being sidelined

Ethiopian army forces preparing to cross the border into the Tigray region last week. Photograph: AP

(theguardian)—The Ethiopian army’s assault on Tigray province marks a serious backwards step by the country’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, who has been feted internationally as a moderniser and Nobel peace prize winner. Abiy calls it a “law enforcement operation” – but he risks being blamed for an expanding refugee emergency and a burgeoning region-wide crisis.

An even bigger fear is the break-up of Ethiopia itself in a Libyan or Yugoslav-type implosion. The country comprises more than 80 ethnic groups, of which Abiy’s Oromo is the largest, followed by the Amhara. Ethnic Somalis and Tigrayans represent about 6% each in a population of about 110 million. Ethiopia’s federal governance structure was already under strain before this latest explosion.

While it’s easy to point the finger at Abiy, Tigray’s leadership – the Tigray People’s Liberation Front – is just as much at fault for allowing political rivalries to degenerate into violence. Tigrayans dominated Ethiopia’s politics in the decades following the 1991 overthrow of Mengistu Haile Mariam’s Soviet-backed Marxist dictatorship.

But after the death in 2012 of Meles Zenawi, an authoritarian leader who achieved impressive economic advances, the TPLF lost its grip on power. Since Abiy took over in 2018, Tigray’s leaders have complained of being marginalised and victimised. A lethal attack this month on a federal army base in Mekelle, Tigray’s capital, triggered the intervention.

The fighting has brought predictable US and EU calls for an immediate cessation amid concerns that Ethiopia’s democracy as well as its territorial integrity are at stake. Elections, already postponed due to the pandemic, are due next year. But neither side is listening. Such deafness reflects the west’s declining influence and neglect of the Horn of Africa. This is the geopolitical backdrop to the Tigray emergency.

Interviewed in Addis Ababa in 2008, Meles told me he welcomed British and other foreign assistance but spoke passionately about Ethiopians’ right to set their own path. “We believe democracy cannot be imposed from outside in any society… Each sovereign nation has to make its own decisions and have its own criteria as to how they govern themselves,” he said.

In rejecting outside calls to cease fire, Abiy likewise stresses self-determination. He argues he is trying to build a shared national identity and common citizenship transcending the ethnic politics which, his supporters say, have held Ethiopia back. Abiy’s critics say this is shorthand for a new dictatorship of the centre.

If Abiy’s approach is proven wrong, the mistake will be his own. Analysts suggest the offensive is unlikely to bring the swift victory he predicts, partly because the national army comprises many Tigrayans and other minorities that could follow the TPLF’s example. The longer it goes on, the more probable that instability will spread within Ethiopia and beyond its borders.

The Amhara region adjacent to Tigray was reportedly bombed last week. Neighbouring Eritrea has also come under fire. Its president, the reclusive dictator Isaias Afwerki, is said to be backing Addis Ababa out of enmity for the Tigrayans who led a war against Eritrea that took 20 years to settle. This was the peace-making feat that helped win Abiy his Nobel prize.

While it’s easy to point the finger at Abiy, Tigray’s leadership – the Tigray People’s Liberation Front – is just as much at fault for allowing political rivalries to degenerate into violence. Tigrayans dominated Ethiopia’s politics in the decades following the 1991 overthrow of Mengistu Haile Mariam’s Soviet-backed Marxist dictatorship.

But after the death in 2012 of Meles Zenawi, an authoritarian leader who achieved impressive economic advances, the TPLF lost its grip on power. Since Abiy took over in 2018, Tigray’s leaders have complained of being marginalised and victimised. A lethal attack this month on a federal army base in Mekelle, Tigray’s capital, triggered the intervention.

The fighting has brought predictable US and EU calls for an immediate cessation amid concerns that Ethiopia’s democracy as well as its territorial integrity are at stake. Elections, already postponed due to the pandemic, are due next year. But neither side is listening. Such deafness reflects the west’s declining influence and neglect of the Horn of Africa. This is the geopolitical backdrop to the Tigray emergency.

Interviewed in Addis Ababa in 2008, Meles told me he welcomed British and other foreign assistance but spoke passionately about Ethiopians’ right to set their own path. “We believe democracy cannot be imposed from outside in any society… Each sovereign nation has to make its own decisions and have its own criteria as to how they govern themselves,” he said.

In rejecting outside calls to cease fire, Abiy likewise stresses self-determination. He argues he is trying to build a shared national identity and common citizenship transcending the ethnic politics which, his supporters say, have held Ethiopia back. Abiy’s critics say this is shorthand for a new dictatorship of the centre.

If Abiy’s approach is proven wrong, the mistake will be his own. Analysts suggest the offensive is unlikely to bring the swift victory he predicts, partly because the national army comprises many Tigrayans and other minorities that could follow the TPLF’s example. The longer it goes on, the more probable that instability will spread within Ethiopia and beyond its borders.

The Amhara region adjacent to Tigray was reportedly bombed last week. Neighbouring Eritrea has also come under fire. Its president, the reclusive dictator Isaias Afwerki, is said to be backing Addis Ababa out of enmity for the Tigrayans who led a war against Eritrea that took 20 years to settle. This was the peace-making feat that helped win Abiy his Nobel prize.

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