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Ethiopia: An Elusive Post-Imperial State


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By Prof John Harbeson

A “Permanent Cessation of Hostilities Agreement,” negotiated in Pretoria on November 2, 2022 appears to have ended a nearly two-year civil war between the Federal Democratic Republic Government of Ethiopia (FDRE) and Tigre regional state forces of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Subsequently, with the assistance of the Africa Union (AU), senior commanders of the two sides met to initiate implementation of the Agreement, and the AU established a monitoring, verification, and compliance mission in the Tigrean capital, Mekelle, on December 29 to support the process. The Agreement has committed the FDRE to urgent relief of an all-encompassing humanitarian crisis, created by the war, involving most of the Tigray region, including massive internal displacement of persons who have spilled over into Sudan.

As welcome as is the Agreement and are indications that it has held and been at least gradually implemented, it is inherently fragile because it exposes the underlying singular fragility of the Ethiopian state itself notwithstanding its near quarter century of continent-leading levels of economic growth.

First, the war has unleashed egregious human rights violations throughout the region, for which both sides bear heavy responsibility, The Agreement promises “protection of civilians” and “respect for the norms and principles enshrined in the FDRE Constitution” but includes no framework or specific process for holding the parties accountable for these violations of international law and the 1995 Constitution. 

The enduring legitimacy of that Constitution is questionable given systematic overriding of its terms by prime minister Abiy Ahmed’s government, after a brief moment of liberation when it first came to power in 2018, as well as by the preceding four-party Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front government (EPRDF, 1991-2018) led by the TPLF.

Second, Eritrea,  which attacked the TPLF in de facto collaboration with the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF), is not a party to the Agreement and the alignment of militias from neighboring Amhara region, allied with the ENDF, has not been entirely clear and is not addressed specifically in the Agreement. 

These issues may continue to fester until Ethiopians enjoy fair democratic opportunities to establish the terms with which they may wish to share membership in an Ethiopian state, given that most of country’s many ethnic communities may share little beyond their being incorporated in the same nation-state.

To discourage other ethnic communities from seeking to follow Eritrea’s path to the independence it won from Ethiopia in 1993, the Constitution devolved a high degree of authority to ethnically defined regions and subregions but does not contemplate or address how subnational militias that have arisen since are to relate to the Constitution’s provision for “only one national defense force.”  

More fundamentally, a few months after coming to power, Abiy broke with the TPLF, and attempted to unite the other parties in the EPRDF coalition within his new Prosperity Party (PP). Animated by fierce opposition to abuses of the former TPLF-led EPRDF administration, the PP has been committed to strengthening central government authority beyond what the 1995 Constitution envisaged over strong opposition party objections. 

However, Abiy’s call for “national dialogue” has resulted in no provision for a conference to negotiate any needed revisions to the Constitution, especially over this state-defining issue that more than any other is responsible for significant instability and low-level violence suffusing most regions of the country. Notably, Abiy’s government  has proven unable to prevent violent ethnically fueled attacks by the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), at root animated by this issue, in Abiy’s home Oromo region, the country’s largest ethnic community representing approximately 35% of the country’s population. 

Third, imagining its eventual full implementation, the Agreement essentially restores the overall political status quo ante which. on its face, begs the foregoing and all other fundamental issues continuing to render Ethiopia a fragile state notwithstanding its economic record. The Agreement provides for the cessation of all military action by each of the signatories; demobilization, disarmament and reintegration of TPLF combatants; restoration of all Ethiopian government authority throughout the Tigray region; and  re-establishment of Tigrean representation in federal institutions on terms established by the country’s Constitution. 

However, the driving force leading to the Agreement appeared to have been neither any constitutional reform to address the foregoing and other issues perpetuating state fragility, nor even the military situation on the ground, but instead the scale and increasing urgency of the humanitarian crisis.  The FDRE effectively embargoed all public services and humanitarian assistance in Tigre during the war. 

The Agreement has ended the embargo and commits the federal government to full restoration of services and unhindered access to all in need of humanitarian assistance. Of course, the distinct possibility remains that ending the humanitarian crisis may prove elusive to the extent that issues preventing Ethiopia from overcoming  its underlying fragility remain unaddressed at the same time. 

These issues may continue to fester until Ethiopians enjoy free and fair democratic opportunities to establish on what terms and with whom they may wish to share membership in an Ethiopian state, given that most of country’s many ethnic communities may share little beyond their being incorporated in it by the conquests of emperor Menelik II (1889-1913) and being subjected to authoritarian rule ever since. ( 

— Prof Harbeson is a professor of Political Science Emeritus and a professorial lecturer for the African Studies Program, Johns Hopkins University.


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