By Professor John Harbeson
Conflict and the most serious and flagrant abuses of fundamental human rights have continued to roil Ethiopia notwithstanding a cessation of hostilities pact signed in November 2022 by the forces of the principal combatants, the forces of the government of prime minister Abiy Ahmed (ENDF) and those (TDF) of the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) based in the north of the country adjacent to Eritrea. The pact ended a two-year war in which between 700,000 and 800,000 have perished, although Eritrea, whose forces entered the war on the side of the ENDF, has not been a party to the agreement, and their current posture has, charitably, remained ambiguous at best. Conflict continues elsewhere in the country, notably in Oromia, the country’s most populous region. The Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) is an armed opposition group, a spin-off from the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) which has fought for at least self-determination for fifty years. Some of its fighters have been drawn into the Tigrean war by Eritrea.
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Abiy’s government has allowed resumption of basic services, canceled its designation of the TPLF as a terrorist entity, attempted negotiations with the OLA and designated a transitional leader for Tigre’s post-conflict government. But the ongoing humanitarian crisis has remained overwhelming, one of the world’s worst, its ultimate scale yet to be determined, both sides standing accused of war crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and potentially genocide. By the war’s termination, UNICEF estimated 29.7 million, perhaps 25% of the country’s citizens, needed humanitarian assistance, 874,000 having become refugees, and at least 50,000 having sought refuge in Sudan.
As profound as the Ethiopian political and humanitarian crisis has remained, media coverage of it has appeared to be largely eclipsed by the horrendous near civil war being waged by the rival generals in Sudan. Nevertheless, commentators on the situation in Ethiopia have routinely observed that the continued existence of the Ethiopian state, as it has been known for well over a century, may hinge substantially on how effectively the remaining multiple, serious dimensions of the conflict are, or are not, addressed. Ethiopia’s multifaceted crisis is interwoven with other enduring crises elsewhere in the Horn of Africa, notably Somalia.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.
Despite its importance and pre-war influence in the region and the continent as one of the strongest and fastest growing economies in the Global South as well as Africa, Ethiopia’s political trajectory has long been distinctive within the continent, especially over the last three decades. Coinciding roughly with the end of the Cold War, Ethiopia’s rapid economic growth had rendered it what some have termed a “developmental state.” By contrast to most of the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, it has not participated in the unprecedented political democratization that has washed over most of Africa’s states with all its still uncertain long-term outcomes. Instead, its socioeconomic development surge has been built on a foundation of continued autocratic rule, its 1995 constitution notwithstanding.
This defining contrast reflects a crucial dimension of Ethiopia’s political trajectory over the last century that differentiates it from the political pathways of other sub-Saharan countries from colonialism to independence over roughly the same period. Ethiopia has never experienced a significant nationally subscribed, grassroots-driven political liberation movement comparable to the nationalist independence movements experienced by most sub-Saharan Africa countries during their respective campaigns for liberation from European colonization.
Instead, relieved only by short, unstable interregna, Ethiopia has endured unrelieved autocratic rule: under emperors Menelik (1889-1913) and Haile Selassie I (1930-1974), a brutal military dictatorship (1974-1991), and a Tigrean-led Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF,1991-2018). The EPRDF delivered a constitution in 1995 upholding a very high degree of self-determination for the country’s ethnic communities conquered by Menelik. But the EPRDF ruled autocratically with scant reference to its own constitution until it fell apart internally in 2018 in response to popular protest of deteriorating economic circumstances. It was replaced by Abiy Ahmed who has attempted to govern a multiethnic coalition as the Prosperity Party (PP), excluding the TPLF, with which it has been at war from 2020-2022.
What Ethiopia has missed is what nationalist movements and retiring colonial powers somehow accomplished. One, by yielding gradual measures of democratic rule to the nationalists, they gained African tacit acceptance of colonial governing structures as legitimate independent states that they would rule. Two, in the process they gained degrees of acceptance by ethnic communities to being governed as one country, one people. Ethiopia has experienced neither political transformation.
Notwithstanding the magnitude of establishing effective transitional processes to uplift the multitudes of the war’s victims, including bringing to justice those guilty of inflicting war crimes, and crimes against humanity, the tasks of reconciliation must include some means for establishing on what terms, if any, Ethiopia’s peoples may be prepared to live together under one political root together, thereby finally to define a legitimate post-imperial Ethiopian state.
John Harbeson is a Professor of Political Science Emeritus as well as a professorial lecturer for the African Studies Program, Johns Hopkins University.