Prof John Harbeson
Ethiopia’s very existence as it has been known for more than a century may well be at stake most immediately because of the civil war in its Tigray region between the central government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). At this writing, by unilaterally declaring a ceasefire at the behest of its interim administration in Tigray, conditionally accepted by the TPLF, the Ethiopian government has appeared tacitly to concede that it has been unable to defeat the TPLF’s Defense Forces (TDF), after an eight-month campaign.
Not clear at this writing is how well Abiy’s government will itself observe, and/or persuade its Amhara militia partner to observe, the ceasefire, potentially leaving the militias of two founding communities of the ancient empire, Amhara and Tigre, to fight it out.
The war has prevented even reliable estimation of the scale, let alone effective amelioration, of a catastrophic on-going humanitarian crisis, including credible charges of genocidal conduct by all parties. Well over half the region’s population is severely food insecure. Famine looms and has begun for 400,000 especially in areas where the war has greatly inhibited humanitarian access.
The war has generated at least two million internally displaced Tigrayians. 65,000 war victims have spilled into Sudan, resurrecting a long quiescent boundary dispute with Ethiopia and overlaying a larger confrontation with Sudan and Egypt which fear critical water losses as Ethiopia begins to fill its nearly completed Grand Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile.
Ethiopia began a dramatic transition to democracy in 2018, in a country that had known almost nothing but imperial, autocratic rule throughout its two millennia history. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s regime pledged unprecedented liberalizing measures besides democratic elections: inter alia releasing political prisoners, welcoming political exiles home, freeing the media, allowing opposition parties to form, appointing an opposition woman to lead the election board and women to half the cabinet posts.
These political liberalization measures alone, however, have not served to reform the underlying imperial structure of the historic Ethiopian state. Perhaps two-thirds or more of the communities and land that constitutes contemporary Ethiopia were annexed by the conquests of Amhara emperor Menelik II’s armies at the end of the 19th Century, even as his armies inspired the quest for independence throughout colonized Africa by defeating Italian armies invading from what is now Eritrea at Axum in 1896. This victory allowed some post-imperial vision of a shared Ethiopian nationhood to take root silently, notwithstanding the other conquests, as suggested inter alia by the empire’s survival during the long interregnum (1913-1930) between the reigns of Menelik II and Haile Selassie (1930-1974) and by its endurance despite the Italian occupation (1936-1941).
The current civil war has highlighted weaknesses that imperiled the empire’s survival. On the one hand, while the empire’s principal partners, Amhara and Tigre, continued as such before and following Menelik’s conquests, the partnership was tested by a very serious Tigrayan revolt in 1943 against Haile Selassie’s centralizing governance of the empire, and by famines in the early 1970s and again in the mid-1980s that the government allowed to disproportionately affect Tigray, prompting formation of the TPLF that would overthrow the military regime (1974-91) leading a four-party coalition in 1991.
On the other hand, three systematically authoritarian administrations over ninety years have given Menelik’s conquered communities little reason to continue to associate with each other in one post-imperial Ethiopian political community. Haile Selassie’s reign (1930-74) offered the façade but little of the reality of political and economic modernization, and the military regime (1974-91) ruled with unmitigated brutality.
The TPLF-led EPRDF coalition government (1991-2018) achieved remarkable GDP growth but systematically and autocratically violated its own confederal constitution which had offered all ethnic communities a high degree of political self-determination.
Thus, what Abiy’s reforms crucially did not do was establish democratically organized processes by which the historically annexed ethnic communities could determine on what terms, if any, they might still be prepared to be governed in one political community of their own creation and to amend the Constitution to acceptably balance central and regional government powers. By prioritizing parliamentary elections instead, Abiy has left this fundamental task unaddressed and all communities without a framework to establish a democratic Ethiopian state to replace the imperial edifice.
Had he followed the preferred course, Abiy, the TPLF, and the other coalition partners might have created a framework within which to reconcile their differences over forming a new governing party and whether the pandemic justified postponing the scheduled elections.
The TDF mutiny against government armies and all that has followed might have been preventable. As it is, however, in combination with serious, periodic violence throughout the country, quite apart from Tigray, the ultimate risk has become not just that a post-imperial democratic state may be unattainable but the existing Ethiopian state itself may prove unsustainable.
— Author is a professor of Political Science Emeritus as well as a professorial lecturer for the African Studies Program, Johns Hopkins University.