The first formal African Union-led peace talks between an Ethiopian government team and Tigray forces (since the war of 2020 with Tigray), in South Africa, scheduled from October 24, are happening at a time when Ethiopian forces and allies have made some gains in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region. For the rest of the world, the development spells some hope of reconciliation between the federal government and Tigray which was a prominent force in the country’s ruling coalition until Ethiopia’s current leader and Nobel Peace laureate (2019) Abiy Ahmed became the Prime Minister in 2018.
Ethiopia’s troubled history
The ethnic conflict, and several others preceding it, spotlight the rich, yet troubled history of Ethiopia which stands out in the African continent. From its origins in the Aksumite kingdom and a successor line of kings which eventually led to the ‘Solomonic line’, to a period of ethnic migrations marked by warfare, Ethiopia was an imperial state that gradually weakened over the course of the next two centuries with the emergence of regional and religious rivalries.
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It is the next phase — what is called the modern period from around the 1850s to the present — that would help situate the conflict. Here, there was a mix of warfare and nation-building under the reigns of the emperors, notably Menelik and later Haile Selassie, to the regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam, and later the Transitional Government of Ethiopia (TGE) under soldier-politician Meles Zenawi beginning 1991. It was during the Menelik reign that Ethiopia grew in size, with his moment of glory being the defeat of an Italian invasion force that was attempting to colonise the country. The first Italo-Ethiopian war and the Battle of Adwa (1895-1896) was a watershed moment in continental history that marked the defeat of a colonial force. Menelik’s astuteness enabled the Treaty of Addis Ababa (1896), where Italy recognised the country’s absolute independence. Haile Selassie who became the emperor in 1930, ushered in a phase of modernity only to be impeded briefly by the next Italo-Ethiopian war (1935-36). Following his return from exile to Addis Ababa in 1941, he commenced military and political changes that were the catalyst for social and economic development. However, these changes triggered his unpopularity which resulted in the overthrow of the Ethiopian monarchy in 1974.
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The Marxist dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam that swept in resulted in the Derg unleashing a reign of terror, also known as the Ethiopian Red Terror. Agricultural productivity fell and famine followed. Even though dissent was snuffed out, the regime was up against armed insurgencies, especially in the northern part of the country, the embers of which were burning since the 1960s. A major insurgency followed in the 1970s — in Tigray, where the Meles Zenawi-led Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), rebelled against the military government and its policies. It was the backing of the then Soviet Union and allies that propped up both the armed forces and the Mengistu government, but this support began to dissipate in the 1980s, influencing the course of conflicts with the Eritreans and Tigray. Within a decade, by 1991, there was much change: a majority of Eritrea was in the hands of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), while in Ethiopia it was the TPLF. The TPLF was a key constituent of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition. Following Mengistu’s exile in Zimbabwe (1991), the EPLF, in May, proclaimed the formation of the Provisional Government of Eritrea (PGE), while the EPRDF assumed control in Addis Ababa (capital city of Ethiopia). It needs to be mentioned that Ethiopia and Eritrea would have to maintain good ties, mainly for economic reasons.
The formation of modern Ethiopia
The spectrum of political, economic, and security problems that confronted Meles Zenawi (Ethiopia) and Isaias Afwerki (Eritrea) paved the way for a strategy that essentially incorporated reconciliation and democratisation, social and economic development, and, importantly, ties with the western world.
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In the interim government formation, the EPRDF chose political groups that led to the establishment of the TGE. There was an EPLF-EPRDF agreement over the use of the Aseb port linked to a referendum on Eritrean self-determination. The government was made up of the offices of the President, the Prime Minister, a multi-ethnic Council of Ministers and a Council of Representatives which was to draft a Constitution. Political representation saw the presence of the Oromos, the Tigrays and other groups. A significant aspect of the ‘National Charter’ was a recognition of ethnicity to enable local and regional governance under the umbrella of a ‘federated Ethiopia’. It was a bridge to create a viable government and allow representation to ethnic groupings. As a part of administration, the TGE came up with autonomous regions (between 10 to 12) linked to ethnic identification, and two multi-ethnic cities, one of them being Addis Ababa. The largest ethnicities, namely the Amhara, Oromo, Somali, and Tigray, had their own regions. Each region had districts or weredas, resulting in several hundred weredas across Ethiopia. The central government oversaw defence, international diplomacy, economic policy, and monetary issues, while the weredas were concerned with legislative and judicial matters. Thus, the regions created were: Afar; Amhara; Benishangul-Gumuz; Gambella; Oromia; Sidama; Somali; South West Ethiopia Peoples’ Region; Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region (SNNPR); Tigray, and Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa, the cities. A 2019 referendum in the Sidama region of SNNPR resulted in a Sidama region (2020), while a South West Ethiopia Region followed in 2021. The Zenawi administration initiated a market-oriented economy which saw the appearance of private participation.
Some of the issues the TGE confronted were the addressing of human rights records and rehabilitating a vast band of ‘armed forces’ and former military personnel which resulted in clashes between government forces, former soldiers and insurgent groups. There was a refugee issue too, of a south Sudanese presence in the western Ethiopian region.
Towards a resolution
In 2018, the world pinned its hopes on Abiy Ahmed who became the Prime Minister that year. His swearing-in was well attended and he was seen as having the potential to give new direction to the EPRDF coalition. The ‘statement of motivation’ of the Nobel Peace Prize conferred on Mr. Abiy is significant: “for his efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation, and in particular for his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea”. The long-drawn conflict over nearly 20 years may have ended, but ethnic politics and overcoming economic hurdles are issues that the Nobel Laureate and Ethiopian reformist confronts, especially as in 2020, a year after being awarded the Nobel Prize, Tigray in the north erupted in conflict with government forces, triggering charges of Ethiopia’s gruesome human rights violations against Tigrayans. A number of commentaries, one of them by Dr. M. Venkataraman, Department of Defence and Strategic Studies, University of Madras, highlight how ethnic tensions result from power play. The Tigrayans, trying to control the country, and who form about 6% of the population, consider Tigray to be the cradle of Ethiopian civilisation, and therefore the heirs of the culture. The Amhara, the country’s second-largest group, have dominated Ethiopian politics. And the Oromo, the country’s largest group, express discontentment over land issues.
Dealing with tensions with the Tigrayans following political changes in 2019, the formation of the Prosperity Party (the ‘successor’ countrywide party to the EPRDF; the TPLF did not to join), and, as a result, independent elections in Tigray, led Mr. Abiy to form an alliance with Eritrea and seek support from the Amhara, tapping into ‘past grievances with the Tigrayans’. This has also led the U.S. to allege “ethnic cleansing”, a charge that has been denied. The Tigray conflict has the potential to pinch Ethiopia hard with the freezing of western aid, but this could be overcome by looking to China and West Asia.
Chinese presence is prominent in infrastructure creation such as buildings, roads and bridges and even in rail linking and creating port access. In contrast, the Indian presence, which strengthened during the Haile Selassie era, is seen more in human resources such as the education services. However, amidst the ‘focus’ on ‘unity amidst ‘diversity’, the Abiy government once again confronts conflicts between the country’s ethnic factions: Amhara and the Tigrayan conflicts over territory, Oromo groups and the brutality of militias against the Amhara. Also linked to the Tigrayan tensions is the mega hydroproject on the Blue Nile, the 6,450 MW Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, or GERD, which will be Africa’s largest hydroelectric facility. It is a few hundred kilometres away from the Tigrayan border and upstream and east of the border with Sudan. There is a threat of regional disquiet with Sudan and Egypt which depend on the Nile and fear restrictions to water use. The conflict with Tigray worries the world as it could spill beyond the borders and ignite a crisis in north-east Africa. Thus, much rests on what happens in the South Africa talks.