Few leaders have seen their fortunes turn as dramatically as Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the Nobel laureate now accused of human rights abuses whose officials asked residents to secure the capital against a potential assault by rebel forces.
What went wrong, according to close observers, was Abiy’s failure to navigate the deep ethnic divisions that have consumed Africa’s second-most-populous nation since the 1960s. Now, isolated by the US and Europe, his own future suddenly looks much more tenuous.
It’s just a month since Abiy won elections and less than a year since he declared military victory over the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the ethnic-based party whose forces now threaten Addis Ababa and which dominated Ethiopia until Abiy took office in April 2018.
It’s also just two years since the former military officer won the Nobel Peace Prize for signing a treaty with neighboring Eritrea, to end a stalemate that followed a 1998-2000 border war. At the time, he was hailed in the US and European Union as the best hope for bringing democracy and a market economy to Ethiopia, as well as to spread stability in a turbulent neighborhood that runs from Sudan to Somalia.
Abiy’s reforms have since stalled. Not only are the TPLF now seizing swathes of territory from outmatched federal forces, a wider civil war could be unfolding. The Oromo Liberation Army, a guerrilla force drawn from former ethnic Oromo supporters, has joined the attack on the government.
“Abiy inherited a fragile country and handling issues like the Oromo nationalist demands and protests that brought him to power was a really big challenge,” said William Davison, senior Ethiopia analyst at the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank. “To do all that without causing friction required a lot of political skill, which the prime minister proved not to have.”
Creating a more unified national state from an ethnically fractured one -- a process Abiy calls “synergy” -- had support at the start, says Davison, whom the government has expelled from the country without explanation. But “he tried to create a party around himself to the exclusion of anyone who has different views, returning Ethiopia to a system in which much of the opposition is criminalized.”
Even in Addis Ababa, ethnic divisions would make any attempt at civil defense a bloodbath, said a businessman in his 40s who runs trucks to Amhara, the province north of the capital now largely occupied by the TPLF, and who asked not to be identified.
Mehdi Labzae, a researcher from the French university Sciences Po, said that this week in Bahir Dar, capital of Amhara province about 300 miles northwest of Addis Ababa, he saw large numbers of buses carrying militia fighters to the front lines of the conflict with the TPLF.
US State Department spokesman Ned Price urged all sides to show restraint at a daily briefing Wednesday. He said Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman, special envoy for the Horn of Africa would visit Thursday and Friday amid concern at “the growing risk to the unity and the integrity of the Ethiopian state.”
The seeds of conflict were sown early, marked for many Tigrayans by the peace deal with Eritrea, which they saw instead as a military alliance between Abiy and the TPLF’s mortal enemy, Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki. Eritrean forces later played a central role in the government’s military operations in Tigray.
For some Oromo, it was the day before Abiy got his peace prize, when he opened the refurbished palace of 19th century Emperor Menelik II. The prime minister’s office said at the time it should symbolize Ethiopia’s “ability to come together for a common goal.”
Yet Menelik is remembered by many Oromo as a warlord whose troops mutilated Oromo women. They, like the TPLF, saw Abiy’s appeals for unity as a cynical bid to centralize power.
“Abiy betrayed the Oromo nationalist cause,” said Awol Allo, a senior lecturer at the Keele University in the UK and a staunch supporter of Abiy in his early days. “While he was invoking these liberal ideas for the economy and democracy, he was also consolidating power.”
A turning point came in December 2019, when Abiy dissolved the former, ethnically based ruling coalition known as the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front. The Prosperity Party that Abiy created in its place had a pan-Ethiopian vision and, according to Allo, as a result also had little chance of competing against the nationalist parties that dominate in Ethiopia’s 10 ethnically based provinces. That, Allo said, forced the prime minister to suppress opposition and centralize power further.
Conflict was triggered after Abiy delayed elections scheduled for last year, citing the Covid-19 pandemic. The TPLF decided to go ahead with the vote in Tigray regardless.
On Wednesday, the United Nations published an investigation that accused government forces -- as well as the TPLF and troops Abiy enlisted from Eritrea -- of abuses that could amount to war crimes during their yearlong conflict.
The US suspended duty free access for the country’s exports on Tuesday. The EU had cut budgetary aid late last year and investors are fleeing.
The yield on Ethiopia’s $1 billion of Eurobonds rose 158 basis points on Wednesday to a record 16.31 percent, up from 6.09 percent when Abiy took office.
Abiy remains in power and may well survive. But a military analysis by Janes, a defense publication, assessed his toppling as increasingly likely unless he negotiates with rebels he has designated as terrorists.
The prime minister showed little sign of doing so Wednesday, saying in a statement to commemorate the start of the Tigrayan conflict that: “We will bury this enemy with our blood and our bones, and uplift Ethiopia’s dignity.”