By Professor John Harbeson
As Ethiopia’s civil war has resumed, a new initiative has surfaced under African Union auspices to resolve this most enduring, multi-faceted, and costly conflict in sub-Saharan Africa’s modern history. At its epicenter is a two-year-old war between the Ethiopian government of prime minister Abiy Ahmed and the leadership of one of its component regional states, Tigre, bordering Eritrea to the north and led by the Tigre People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
At issue, ultimately, is nothing less than on what plausible terms a contemporary Ethiopian state may sustainably exist. The core problem is how to successfully nudge the parties to negotiate a permanent ceasefire and then build upon these negotiations to address the more fundamental question of how to construct a viable Ethiopian state on which lasting peace in the region clearly and directly depends.
As befits the magnitude and complexity of the issues bearing on this question, the African Union has involved a “troika” of high-level African co-facilitators, including former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, whom the AU had already engaged, plus newly emeritus Kenya president Uhuru Kenyatta, and Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, deputy president of South Africa during the term of Thabo Mbeki and a United Nations Deputy Under Secretary General from 2013 to 2021.
The talks began at the end of October and, at this writing, were at least briefly extended by a day, though their prospects remained tenuous at best. Ethiopian president Abiy Ahmed signaled a willingness to participate, stipulating that negotiations should proceed without pre-conditions. The Tigre People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), with whom the Ethiopian has warred for two years, agreed to join these talks, having insisted that unrestricted humanitarian assistance and basic services, largely blocked by Abiy’s government, should be restored to the regional state over which the TPLF has presided. The posture of Eritrea, Abiy’s ally in the war, remained unclear.
This latest peace initiative had been preceded by a five-month-old fragile détente now shattered by a return to war. The first intimations of a possible opening for a ceasefire had occurred earlier
when negotiations leading to a potential permanent ceasefire emerged because Ethiopia would withdraw its blockade of humanitarian assistance and essential services to Tigre. In contrast, Eritrea, which had joined the ENDF side in the war, would withdraw its forces from that region. The two sides would enter into direct negotiations hosted by retiring Kenya president Uhuru Kenyatta. This prospect evaporated when a massive resumption of the war occurred on August 24 at the Amhara town of Kobe near the Tigrean border. Since then, Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) have captured several important Tigrean towns.
It has remained unclear what, if anything, may have transpired since then to lend plausibility to this new South Africa-based initiative in the wake of the sudden collapse of this earlier reported progress and the return to war. But even if this new initiative were to gain traction, it remains profoundly unclear what the status of the Ethiopian state would then become were the parties to agree to a permanent ceasefire. Appeals to ethiopiawinet (Ethiopianess) as a basis for longer-term peace and unity, as advocated by Abiy’s government, have left unaddressed, even unarticulated, on what bases the country’s numerous predominantly ethnic communities might assent to be governed together, most of whom were brought into the empire by the conquests of penultimate Amhara emperor Menelik II (1889-1913). Despite the country’s pre-civil war continent-leading economic development, little has occurred to suggest that socioeconomic terms for a post-imperial Ethiopian state might at least partially supplant ethnic identities.
No country-wide nationalist movement has arisen to replace the historic empire comparable to those elsewhere in Africa organized to replace European imperialism. The hobbling legacies of the Ethiopian empire have been recognizable and rendered more complex by the current country-wide conflicts. Abiy’s vision of a more centralized state has gone nowhere, having evoked memories of the centralizing, authoritarian reigns of emperors Menelik II and Haile Selassie (1930-1974), frustrating at the same time Oromo bids for self-determination for its 35% of the population suppressed by the 20th Century emperors. Tigreans resented the passage of the crown to these emperors, one factor in TPLF leadership of the previous four-party Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front dictatorship (EPRDF1991-2018).
A crucial element is an Amhara-Tigre war over fertile territory in the west of the country fueled by authoritarian regime changes, including the brutal military regime (1974-1971). The EPRDF’s 1995 dispensation of a confederal constitution affording all ethnically defined communities maximum self-determination might have proven viable had this TPLF-led EPRDF regime not shattered its legitimacy by sustained authoritarian rule, overriding its key terms.This account barely touches the surface of the complex, continuing, largely unmediated ethnic rivalries mostly attributable in one way or another to shared continuation rather than replacement of historic imperial, authoritarian rule.
Prof Harbeson is a professor of Political Science emeritus and a prefessorial lecturer for African Studies at Johns Hopkins University.