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Tackling ethnic tensions can help avoid Ethiopia becoming the Yugoslavia of Africa

Corrado Čok

Published: Updated:

Ethiopia is not the first country to attract the gloomy epithet of “Yugoslavia of Africa.” Yet, it is the country that most resembles the Balkan federation at its nadir. With over two million people internally displaced, ethno-nationalist violence is spiralling out of control across Ethiopia.

Like in the former Yugoslavia, ethnic conflict is the by-product of the governance system. Ethiopia relies on a similar federal structure made of ethnic-based regions, which enjoy the right to secede and veto power on relevant policy matters, including constitutional amendments.

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The ability to veto any policy submissions requiring approval is paralyzing government, which now walks on a knife edge. The only way the country can get out of its quagmire and move forward is through all parties and stakeholders holding proper discussions.

The power-sharing system was designed by the Tigrayan leadership in 1994 to protect its prominent position vis-à-vis the Amharas and Oromos - the country's largest ethnic groups - inside the party-state of the past thirty years, the Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).

The situation changed in 2018, when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali rose to power backed by an alliance between Amhara and Oromo elements of the party. As part of his ambitious reform program, he replaced the EPRDF with the non-ethnic Prosperity Party.

A tank damaged during the fighting between Ethiopia's National Defense Force (ENDF) and Tigray Special Forces stands on the outskirts of Humera town in Ethiopia on July 1, 2021. (File photo: Reuters)
A tank damaged during the fighting between Ethiopia's National Defense Force (ENDF) and Tigray Special Forces stands on the outskirts of Humera town in Ethiopia on July 1, 2021. (File photo: Reuters)

By absorbing regional ruling parties and limiting their autonomy at a local level, the Prosperity Party became an attempt to overcome Ethiopia's ill-fated system and centralize power. But despite its premises, the party could not reverse ethnic politics.

When Abiy came to power, ethno-nationalist groups were already mobilizing to demand more resources and representation within the federal system and, in some cases, to fight against other ethnic groups in disputed areas. This, of course, has put severe pressure on the Prosperity Party and its regional components.

Among all crises, the conflict in Tigray is by and large the most catastrophic and consequential.

In June, a large-scale offensive by the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF) overwhelmed Ethiopian, Eritrean and Amhara forces, causing heavy losses and forcing them to withdraw from most of Tigray, including the capital Mekelle.

Abiy swiftly declared a unilateral ceasefire to meet international pressure on the dire humanitarian situation, but at the same time, he mobilized new forces from other regions to block the TDF. However, the Tigrayan leadership continued its advance further into Amhara and Afar territory to push Abiy to the negotiating table.

Despite the push for independence, the TPLF - the leading party of Tigray - opted to seek a political settlement that paves the way to a political transition within the federal system. In the meantime, armed clashes have already displaced about 300,000 people and the humanitarian situation will likely worsen as the conflict intensifies.

The Tigray crisis is impacting Ethiopian politics. With the TDF advancing in its territory and recently capturing the holy city of Lalibela, the Amhara state is under siege.

In recent years, young Amhara nationalists from the National Movement of Amhara (NaMa) began raising their voices against the federal government over their perceived marginalization. Their discontent has mounted even further since March, after a wave of violence between Amharas and Oromos caused several hundred casualties and raised tensions between representatives inside the Prosperity Party. On top of that, the Oromo Liberation Army - Oromia's largest insurgent group - declared it entered into a military alliance with the TPLF, in a move that boosts pressure on the federal forces and the Amhara region.

Addis Ababa police officers holding the Ethiopian national flags, take part in a parade to display their new uniforms, and their readiness for the upcoming Ethiopian parliamentary and regional elections, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, June 19, 2021. (File photo: Reuters)
Addis Ababa police officers holding the Ethiopian national flags, take part in a parade to display their new uniforms, and their readiness for the upcoming Ethiopian parliamentary and regional elections, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, June 19, 2021. (File photo: Reuters)

Following the clashes with the Oromos, Ahmara nationalists blamed federal authorities for their inability to protect their people. Now, as the TDF advances such malaise will likely grow further, especially if the government makes territorial concessions to the TPLF in disputed areas as part of a future settlement.

Another conflict to monitor is the one between Afars and Ethiopian Somalis. The animosity between the two regional governments has grown since 2019 over the disputed areas of Gadamaytu, Undafo’o, and Adaytu. Over the past months, tensions escalated into conflict with attacks on civilians conducted from both sides by regional security forces. Protests over the security situation even blocked the Djibouti-Addis Ababa railway last month. It acts as a critical trade route for landlocked Ethiopia.

These and other smaller conflicts are inflaming inter-ethnic relations across Ethiopia unhindered. While ethno-nationalist factions generally oppose independence, and recent demonstrations supporting Ethiopian unity confirm this trend, their scramble for primacy within the current system is sufficient to make the situation explosive.

Consequently, the Prosperity Party and Abiy's leadership are now in question. Their intertwined fate will much depend on the government's ability to find a stable settlement on Tigray while not losing support from the Amhara leadership, a key constituency of the prime minister.

Besides, Abiy Ahmed is also besieged by international and economic pressures. US President Biden strongly urged on Addis Ababa to end the conflict in Tigray and improve the humanitarian situation in the region, even threatening sanctions.
Tensions with Egypt and Sudan over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam peaked once again in July over the second filling of the dam.

On the economic front, the country is struggling with the effects of COVID-19 and the war in Tigray, which severely affected the tourism and construction sectors. As a result, inflation and unemployment have dramatically increased, while the GDP is expected to grow by a mere 2 percent this year, after a 9.4 percent average over the past decade. These factors have put the country's finances under strain and increased the urgency of debt restructuring.

In such a context, much-needed constitutional reform simply cannot happen. The spread of ethno-nationalism is making inclusive national dialogue extraordinarily complicated, if not impossible. Regional veto power then is set to paralyse any institutional process and the prime minister seems to lack the political clout to overcome it.

What he could do instead is create the conditions for future dialogue. This would first require a settlement with the Tigrayans that does not upset the Amhara leadership. Once settled, reining in other regional conflicts should rank high on top of the list.

Such moves would also loosen international and economic pressures on Addis Ababa. Its next steps will decide to what extent Ethiopia will go down the road of the former Yugoslavia.

Read more:

Sudan’s PM Hamdok says will keep pushing for peace in Ethiopia

Explainer: Why the crisis in Ethiopia’s war-torn Tigray is deepening by the day

France suspends military cooperation with Ethiopia as Tigray conflict intensifies

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.