When Abiy Ahmed became Ethiopia’s Prime Minister in April 2018, hopes were high that the former Army intelligence officer would bring a new dawn to the country known for its ethnic fault-lines. Early on, he reached out to the political opposition, lifted curbs on the media and made peace with Eritrea — moves that won him the Peace Nobel in 2019. But things fell apart rather quickly. Last week, Mr. Abiy declared war on the country’s Tigray region, which is ruled by the powerful Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) , in response to its attack on a federal military base in Tigray. The militia-turned-party, which was part of the coalition that brought an end to the military dictatorship in 1991, had played a dominant role in the country’s ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front. After Mr. Abiy came to power, he purged the TPLF from senior government positions. His push to concentrate more power in the hands of the government alienated the TPLF further. When the federal government postponed the general elections in August to 2021 citing the coronavirus pandemic, Tigray politicians accused him of a power grab and held elections, in September, in the region, in defiance of Addis Ababa. Rising tensions led to an outburst last week, with the attack on the base.
The Tigrayans, who make up roughly 6% of Ethiopia’s 110 million people, have traditionally enjoyed outsized influence in the government whereas the Oromos, the largest ethnic group, have complained of marginalisation. Mr. Abiy, an Oromo, has said his mandate is to place Ethiopia’s interests over the regions and correct the uneven distribution of power. But his actions often produced unintended consequences. In the Oromo region, his critics complain that he is trying to grab more powers for the federal government, while the Tigrayans accuse him of taking away their rights. Earlier this year, deadly protests broke out after the singer Hachalu Hundessa, an Oromo, was shot dead in Addis Ababa. Now, with his decision to bomb Tigray, Mr. Abiy has declared war on his people at a time when ethnic tensions are running high. He may be trying to send a strong message to the rebel politicians of the Tigray region that patience is wearing thin. But if he thinks a military campaign would solve the conflicts between ethnicities and regions, he could well be mistaken. The regions, largely divided on ethnic lines, have militias that cut their teeth in the struggle against the junta. Instead of bombing his own country, Mr. Abiy should reach out to regional political leaderships, especially the TPLF, find common ground, and run the country peacefully by restoring the balance between ethnicities and regions and decentralising the federal government.