Ethiopia: An Elusive Post-Imperial State

Ethiopia: An Elusive Post-Imperial State

The recent abrupt shattering of a fragile five-month-old truce has punctuated the restarting of Ethiopia’s third year of civil war between the federal government of prime minister Abiy Ahmed and that of the Tigre region, led by the Tigre Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF). 

The return to war has effectively sidelined a confederal constitution enshrining self-determination for Ethiopia’s many ethnic communities. That constitution was established by the Tigrean-led four-party Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF, 1991-2018), which had overthrown a brutal military regime (1974-1991) that, in turn, had ended the 44-year regime of Ethiopia’s last emperor, Haile Selassie/  By its pervasive centralized, authoritarian rule, the EPRDF effectively delegitimized its own constitution. 

The persistence of the present civil war continues to risk the very survival of Africa’s second most populous state. Fundamentally at issue is not just negotiation of a democratically established constitution but on what terms, if any, might Ethiopia’s ethnic communities reach terms on which to share membership in a post-imperial Ethiopian state itself as a foundation for engaging in constitutional dialogue.

The war has directly engaged people with homes totaling at least 75% of the country’s land area and nearly that proportion of its linguistic communities. The war has drawn in several of Ethiopia’s neighbors:  Eritrea, which may have rejoined the conflict on the side of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF), Sudan, with land issues exacerbated by the conflict and Ethiopian refugee populations enlarged by it, and Kenya, whose retiring president is a potential mediator of the conflict along with Africa Union-appointed former Nigerian president, Olusegun Obasanjo.  

A lengthy drought affecting much of the Horn of Africa has endangered the country’s two-decade record of strong economic growth even as it has undermined food security for perhaps half of Ethiopia’s 113 million citizens and nearly all of the Tigre region’s roughly seven million persons. The principal combatants, the ENDF and its Amhara region allies and the forces of the Tigre region’s Tigre Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF), share responsibility for an overwhelming humanitarian crisis exacerbated by massive, very likely genocidal comprehensive human rights abuses, including extensive Internal population displacements.

The war and the humanitarian catastrophe have been inseparably intertwined. The TPLF has made lifting the Ethiopian government’s nearly complete blocking of humanitarian assistance and resumption of essential services to Tigre a condition for agreeing to participate in a national dialogue to end the war. In contrast, Abiy ‘s government has refused, insisting instead on negotiations without preconditions. Perhaps tellingly, one observer has speculated that Abiy has refused because his government’s blockade is the only means it has at hand to bring the TPLF to the table. The TPLF objects to President Obasanjo as the mediator, preferring retiring Kenya president Uhuru Kenyatta.

At issue is not just negotiation of a democratically established constitution but on what terms Ethiopia’s ethnic communities might reach terms on sharing membership in a post-imperial Ethiopian state itself as a foundation for constitutional dialogue.

Efforts to establish (and now) re-establish a truce as a foundation for a national dialogue in search of lasting peace have appeared not to take into account how fundamentally different Ethiopia’s circumstances have been from those of most other post-colonial sub-Saharan African states. On the one hand, colonial rule elsewhere in Africa disrupted traditional societies forcing them to come to terms with European imposed socioeconomic, cultural, and political change. Nationalist movements succeeded, to varying degrees, in reconciling diverse ethnic communities to living together as one political community within colonially designed states. 

The circumstances under which they negotiated independence with retiring colonial powers essentially obliged them to accept rather than fundamentally reform these states. Over the last decade, 2021 Afrobarometer data seemed to show declining support for those independence bargains. Citizens in 31 countries reported that only 39.7 % identified mostly or totally with their nation-states as opposed to their residual ethnic communities, down from only 47.8 in 2013. 

On the other hand, Ethiopia’s more than 80 distinct ethnic communities have never experienced any such national independence bargain, as at least two-thirds of present-day Ethiopia was incorporated into the country by the conquests of the penultimate emperor, Menelik II, who ruled from 1889-1913, sustained by the final emperor, Haile Selassie I (1930-1974). 

A genuine grassroots revolution in 1974 provoked by the emperor’s attempt to conceal and ignore severe drought and famine conditions was first pre-empted by a military coup and then suppressed by it under a brutal authoritarian regime (1974-1991). The successor EPRDF regime offered a constitutional dispensation purporting a high degree of self-determination that was subsequently undermined by its own highly centralized authoritarian rule. 

Thus, Ethiopia has experienced no movement analogous to independence movements elsewhere to establish, first, on what terms, if any, its people might live together under one roof to be able then to negotiate a workable constitution and end the civil war. 

Afrobarometer’s 2021 data show only 28.3 percent of Ethiopians identify wholly or mainly with the present state while 43.7 percent half do and half don’t, stark testimony to the difficult path to a sustainable post-imperial Ethiopian state.  ( 

— 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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