On June 28, 2021, Ethiopia woke up to a new reality. News from the country announced that the TPLF has taken over Mekelle, the capital of the Tigray after capturing other towns in the north of the region. The news continued to report that the Eritrean forces in the region left and went back to their country, but the biggest bombshell was the declaration of the Federal Government of Ethiopia of a unilateral ceasefire in the region and the ordering of the federal forces to leave the region.
The news took most people by surprise as the FGE, which in December 2020 even refused to hear from the various mediation committees appointed by the African Union and others, appears to have been defeated. But is it so? Or are there other factors at play? Or are new strategies being deployed in the conflict, which appears to threaten the very existence of the country, and fear of its balkanization as happened in the old Yugoslavia? is
In this respect, we must look back into what really Ethiopia is, as a country. The name goes back to 1932 when Emperor Haile Selassie officially took over the throne of old Abyssinia and renamed it “Ethiopia”. It is one of the two countries in the continent that was never colonized by Europeans except for a brief period during the second World War, when Fascist Italy, still mad at its defeat by Abyssinia in 1896 in the battle of Adwa, took over the country. This ended after the Second World war and Ethiopia, whose name is no different from Sudan which means roughly the land of “Black People” in Greek and Arabic respectively, reverted to its old imperial power, which used to send Ambassadors to Europe and Christendom from the Middle Ages and onwards. Abyssinia represented itself as a Christian Island in an ocean of Muslims, never referring to the ancestral and spirit worshippers of Africa prior to the European colonization, which bordered it on the South and Southwest. Abyssinia, indeed, was the only country from Africa, which was sitting at the table of the “Scramble for Africa” in Berlin in 1884.
Its most recent history is marked by the conflict with Somalia, the collapse of the old imperial regime its relationship with Communist Soviet Union, the famine and drought, which killed over half a million in 1984, which prompted the collapse of the communist regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam eventually, and the arrival of the TPLF or the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front in 1991, running the country until its was kicked out through a peoples revolution in 2018, that brought in the current regime under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.
PM Abiy Ahmed entered the scene with a revolutionary mindset, and soon after arrival in power, made peace with Eritrea, which was at war with Ethiopia for many years. A new breeze appeared to be blowing in the region, which earned PM Abiy Ahmed a Noble Peace Prize in October 2019, when he put to an end the 20-year stalemate with Eritrea. PM Abiy Ahmed also worked with the Federal President of Somalia, Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo, and the three leaders of Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia, found themselves at the same table at peace for the first time in centuries. A new grouping appeared to be under formation, and the Cushitic Alliance, as it was touted, represented a good omen for a region that only knew constant and continual conflicts among these three states of the Horn of Africa.
The peace did not last long and on November 4th, 2020, TPLF militias attacked the Northern Command Bases and Headquarters of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (“ENDF”) in Tigray Region, thus starting a bloody war, which has killed, maimed, displaced, and starved thousands of people and soldiers from both sides, even attracting Eritrea to get involved by sending its troops to join the conflict on the side of Ethiopia. This was after a long-simmering tensions between Ethiopian authorities under PM Abiy Ahmed and defiant authorities of the Tigray region. The United Nations even reported that Somali forces training in Eritrea were part of the conflict in Tigray, a report which was denied by the Somali Federal Government vehemently.
As was expected the ENDF defeated the TPLF militias and chased away the Tigray authorities; thus capturing, and maintaining a tough military presence in the region, with the help of Eritreans. The conflict was further complicated by the simmering tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia on the issue of filling the Grand Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile by Ethiopia. Egypt sought the assistance of Sudan in its opposition to the filling of the GERD without an international agreement in place, an agreement which still remains unreachable, due to the intransigence of both sides, where one (“Egypt”) claims to be fighting for its very existence and the other (“Ethiopia”) for its god given rights to do what they need to do on its rivers in its territory.
Many analysts and political commentators are now wondering what is happening in the country and why the Ethiopian authorities made such a sudden about-face change. Have they really been defeated and if so, why are they saying they can take it back again any time and within a short period of time? Are there other forces at play, which have not been disclosed? It is known that the Americans and the Europeans were mad at Ethiopian authorities and discontinued much of the financial aid they were extending to the country. Is this related to their fear of massive human loss as a result of the conflict or a mass exodus of Tigrayans that will end up in their countries or is this related to other factors not disclosed to the general public? The fact is that the PM and his government must have done something that angered the West.
In this respect, PM Abiy Ahmed must come up with new strategies on how to appease the Americans and the Europeans, while preserving his rule of the country. Is PM Abiy Ahmed, perhaps, appeasing the Tigrayans on the fear that the Amhara in the country, who have gained tremendous power in this conflict, could threaten him, or challenge him? Walking away from Mekelle was not taken lightly, we must presume.
In the country, multiple forces are in display, with Amhara smiling at themselves for their newly found military might, the Oromos working hard to maintain their new power in the country, while at the same time keeping at bay some of their own who are bent on replacing PM Abiy Ahmed and finally the Tigrayans who may have reached a deal under the table with the Prime Minister. For the first time in the country’s history over the past century, the Somali State on the East of the country remains the calmest, although it used to be the source of most of Ethiopia’s troubles.
The roles of the neighbouring countries such as Kenya, Djibouti, South Sudan are not clear. Somalia at present prefers to stay on the sidelines. They have too much to chew anyway, as a result of their long-delayed election process and the incomplete reconciliation process among its population. Sudan has made its side clear. They would not disappoint Egypt, its neighbour to the north, which has a lot of interest in weakening Ethiopia to keep it away from affecting the flow of the Blue Nile waters.
Ethiopia today is at a dangerous crossroads. Where does it go from here and what is PM Abiy Ahmed doing? A few years ago, the country was sitting at the table of fast-growing nations, its economy was booming, and its population were jubilant at the country’s performance and its old story. Today there seems to be a shadow overhanging the nation and its ethnic federalism which was keeping it together over the past three decades is crumpling as evidenced by the Tigrayan mess. The nation is no longer at ease or received well, as it edges to becoming a pariah in the family of nations. The West has discontinued almost all aid and the East are not declaring their support either, although their presence and especially the Chinese is quite evident.
PM Abiy Ahmed must have noticed that the cow is not as well as it should have been and his rule is at a precipice and his government must re-arrange the multiple dragons within the state, balancing them, against each other, if his rule has to survive. This perhaps explains the sudden unexpected moves he recently made. How he will succeed in these moves will have to be seen. But one must note that despite the tremendous progress the country made in the recent years, curtailment of the necessary freedoms and human rights, did not help and keeping together many different peoples conquered by force in the past within the same state, is not an easy matter, anymore.