Ethiopia is currently facing a multitude of problems on a scale that we have never seen before. To say that such problems only come about once in a few centuries would not be an exaggeration. In the last five decades, the country has gone from one crisis to another. The current predicament is perhaps the most challenging one and has many observers worried about whether we can overcome it. We believe many Ethiopians are now recognizing this, and they are terrified.
In part 1 of this two-article series, we will discuss how Ethiopia got into this predicament, the situation we are currently in, and what we should do in the interim. In the second article, we recommend mid-to-long-term strategies and what Ethiopians should do to take the country out of these cycles of crisis.
Both the short and long-term solutions require concerned people to act, in great numbers. At this point, inaction means a decision to accept the unacceptable. The omen in front of us cannot be removed without a determined and sustained effort from all of us, together.
To world powers and friends and partners of Ethiopia, you should be as alarmed as we are. It is time to put immense pressure on Ethiopian politicians to bring them to talk to pull the country back from its crisis, and potentially the brink of anarchy.
As an interim solution, we call for the establishment of a national unity government. We believe, Ethiopians, friends of Ethiopia, and all concerned bodies should demand it.
Much of this article was written earlier this year but held-off due to the global virus pandemic. This two-part article is fairly long. We hope you will bear with us since we have so much to talk about.
On May 27, 1991, a group of men was assembled in London, United Kingdom, to decide the fate of the country of Ethiopia. With all but the exception of one, the Derg Prime Minister Tesfaye Dinka, they had more regional and/or secessionist views in their background. One of them, Isaias Afwerki, was not only determined to secede his soon-to-be-formed country (Eritrea) but was also longing to see Ethiopia weak and divided. This meeting was called by the then-US Assistant Secretary of State Herman J. Cohen, who served as a mediator. Other attendees included Meles Zenawi, the leader of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the now-defunct Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), and Lencho Letta, the then Deputy Secretary-General of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF).
The conference was meant to explore ways in which to set up a transitional government in Ethiopia and discuss other issues for a new order in the region. However, the meeting was overtaken by events on the ground in Addis Ababa. Word had reached Cohen that Lieutenant General Tesfaye Gebre Kidan, acting President of Ethiopia at that time, had lost control of the remaining government in Addis Ababa, which was under imminent threat of a complete breakdown of law and order. Herman Cohen then recommended that the EPRDF forces move into Addis Ababa immediately and establish control there. They were backed by Eritrean People’s Liberation (EPLF) forces, which were already in the vicinity of Addis Ababa. And so, began the nearly three-decade-long rule of the EPRDF over Ethiopia. During this time, Isaias Afwerki is said to have declared that he had given Ethiopia a one-hundred-year assignment.
Now, three decades later, Ethiopia finds itself divided amongst many ethnic lines, each increasingly more distrustful of the other. Communities that lived in peace and harmony for centuries, regardless of their differences or misgivings, now find themselves insecure and unsure of the future. Ethiopia is being torn and threatened from many sides. Consider the following:
- Roads connecting cities and towns have become more and more treacherous. Now, in some locations, just a handful of people can stop vehicles and make demands.
- Brazen crimes, including killings, abductions, rapes, and even bank robberies (hitherto unheard-of in Ethiopia) are taking place in some cities and towns, and in full view of citizens.
- In the last two years, virtually all parts of the country have seen some level of ethnic violence, including Oromia, Southern Ethiopia, Amhara, Benishangul-Gumuz, and Dire Dawa.
- In 2019, Ethiopia became home to the highest number of internally displaced people in the entire world. By some accounts, close to 3 million Ethiopians fled their homes and towns seeking protection.
- More than 10 zones in the SNNPR (Ethiopian southern region) are now demanding statehood or other related status. Sidama Zone has already managed to become a state, after some campaign, sharing the city of Hawassa as its capital with the rest of the SNNPR.
- Oromo activists are claiming ownership of Addis Ababa, a highly multi-ethnic city made up of about four million residents who hail from virtually every corner across Ethiopia.
- Border and identity disputes are simmering in the background, in some parts of the country; particularly worrisome is the dispute between Tigray and Amhara, which could explode at any time, but there are also disputes between Oromia and various neighboring states.
- Militia forces are mushrooming throughout the country, some of which are independent of state institutions. Now, almost every state is arming itself as if there is no national army. The twin killings of state leaders in Amhara and military leaders in Addis Ababa in June last year shows how far we have come, compared to just a few years ago.
- Some universities have become deadly grounds for students. Reports of torture, abductions, rapes, and killings, including some thrown from heights, have come out – and as a result, tens of thousands of young Ethiopians are now deciding to stay home.
- Once-mighty religious institutions, such as the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the Islam Council, are now pleading for peace, security, and the rule of law, not only to protect the average citizen from violence but also to protect themselves. A few years ago, the mere sight of a cross or a crescent would instill a solemn moment in anyone’s mind – but not anymore, with some people.
- After years of repression, civil societies and the media in Ethiopia remain underdeveloped and weak. They are of no help, regarding the worsening situation in the country.
- Ethiopian governing and opposition political parties also remain weak and fragmented. Many are only regionally focused, and some have questionable ties to foreign powers, including Eritrea.
- The federal government, which at the beginning was considered a godsend by many Ethiopians, is now increasingly viewed as a partisan force and criticized for its inability or unwillingness to enforce the rule of law uniformly. Ethiopians are unsure whether what they hear is the same as what is actually happening on the ground.
- Even more troubling is the fate of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces. Given the accelerating ethnic division in the country, some of us question whether our national army can (and will) stay whole and united. If god forbid, Ethiopia ever loses this vital institution, it may mark the point of no return. This will make the task of holding Ethiopia together immensely difficult and may require considerable foreign involvement and decades of painstaking effort to accomplish.
- Ethiopia’s economy has been on a steady decline in the last few years. The outbreak of the novel Coronavirus this year is expected to have a devastating effect on the already weak economy, in addition to the lives that will be lost as a result.
The portrait painted above is not the portrait of a healthy country. Indeed, Ethiopia is facing a historic crisis like no other. Dealt with several blows in succession over the last half-century, the country is staggering, and the odds arrayed against it are massive, extensive, and intertwined. The question sitting in many of our minds right now is this: will we survive as a united country?
What is truly so heartbreaking about Ethiopia, however, is that its people are one of the most peace-loving, god-fearing, and patriotic people on Earth. They have lived side-by-side for centuries in crushing poverty, even in hunger, but never in the violence which so often comes with it. On travel sites and blogs, one thing that visitors say about Ethiopia over and over again is how safe the country was, especially when compared to many other African countries. And that has been the case until very recently, when Ethiopia ranked as one of the safest places to visit in Africa, on par with countries such as Botswana, Mauritius, and Rwanda.
Those of us who grew up in Ethiopia can readily attest to the fact that Ethiopians are people to whom mercy and forgiveness come so naturally, and to whom conflicts, big and small, are to be resolved naturally by negotiation. These are people who are deeply religious, yet tolerant of other religions, praying for peace and unity as they always have in the centuries before. For so long, they have lived together despite their differences, as proud Ethiopians, always rising in unison when attacked by foreign aggressors. Despite long odds, Ethiopians were able to repel colonizers and become the symbol of hope, independence, and freedom for the rest of Africa, a continent which ultimately bestowed-upon them with the highest honor it could possibly give: the seat of the African Union.
Now, as the cracks spread and deepen, Ethiopians everywhere are unsure where to even begin, in remedying these issues. The battle lines are unclear and blurry. Many are reduced to prayer for the survival of their country and the government that brought them to this situation in the first place. They are clinging to a party that ruled over them with an iron fist for three decades – a party with a checkered past of allegiance to them as people. What would have normally already led to a violent overthrow of the state in other countries – considering all the things that have happened over the last three decades – has many Ethiopians praying for its survival, out of not seeing a better choice.
So, what really happened?
In order to find out what really happened, one must first go back decades to examine some key facts. As we will elaborate-upon later, the root cause of Ethiopia’s problems is the country’s relative backwardness. Ethiopia has certainly made a lot of progress in recent years, but at the moment, it still remains one of the least-developed countries in the world. The country is poor, even by African standards. For example, Ethiopia ranks 35th in GDP per capita with purchasing power parity (PPP) out of some 55+ African countries. (PPP takes the purchasing power of the local currency into account when calculating GDP). Ethiopia’s GDP per capita PPP is about 10% of the average of the top 10 wealthiest countries in Africa and about 15% of the top 20. And if you consider the top 10 leading democracies in Africa, Ethiopia’s GDP per capita PPP is about 20% of these countries’ average. So, even by African standards, the country has a long way to go.
Low GDP per capita also means low standards in pretty much everything, including the development of state institutions, education, health, civil societies, and media. A country’s ability to withstand adversity also diminishes. Countries face all kinds of crises, sometimes homegrown, sometimes foreign induced. In the last 50 years, Ethiopia has received no less than five major shocks, including the Derg brutality; the civil war that followed; the Eritrean secession; the border war with Eritrea; and the ethnic politics of the EPRDF. The current instabilities may be the sixth and most challenging shock of all. Whereas stronger countries can deter or overcome such challenges relatively quickly, Ethiopia is currently struggling.
We do not believe that Ethiopia’s current problems stem from higher interethnic differences than many other countries. In fact, one can cite so many other countries around the world that have much larger ethnic and language differences than Ethiopia does. For example, Uganda, Libera, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon, India, and Indonesia are all more diverse than Ethiopia, according to diversity surveys. Even some major, developed countries are not without significant economic and political friction between states or groups inside them; but none of them have come close to the brink of anarchy or disintegration as a result.
Ethiopia had been poor and nearly isolated for much of Emperor Haile Selassie’s rule as well as during the centuries before when the country made little progress in all aspects of development. Although proud and united, it remained underdeveloped, poor, and hungry. For so long, few Ethiopians would venture outside of their country to bring badly needed modernization. The country was led mostly by people who owed their power to birthright, or otherwise who held allegiance to those who did. Peace prevailed for a long time but at the cost of stagnation. After more than 40 years of rule, things did not continue as intended. Then came a cohort of army officers, the Derg, who violently seized power in Addis Ababa. These officers knew very little in pretty much every aspect, including in governance and international diplomacy. They soon began to toy with socialism and all sorts of novelties in their governance. More tragically, they also unleashed a terror campaign – appropriately named the “Red Terror” by the government – with a cruelty never before seen in Ethiopian history. The country suffered immensely. Tens of thousands died due to various instruments of terror; hundreds of thousands more fled the country. Many were raped, tortured, or killed en route to their destinations. The exact number of Ethiopians who suffered all kinds of fates, at home and abroad, is unknown, but it could be in the high hundreds of thousands, if not millions.
That period also led to a highly unstable Ethiopia – partly due to the unwise decisions of the Derg, and partly due to changes in global geopolitics. In 1991, the country suddenly found itself at the mercy of secessionist and/or regional forces, which saw very little beyond securing and consolidating their own personal and group power. That was the beginning of the preeminence of ethnic nationalism as we know it today, one which sent Ethiopian nationalism into a deep coma.
Following that London meeting in 1991, the country’s fate was decided by a group of forces that many Ethiopians felt showed little concern for Ethiopia’s long-term interests. A country of some 50 million people (at that time) – about 8% of the African population – was relegated to a landlocked status, making it the largest-such country in the world. Ethiopia’s new status was sold to the public as a non-event, using catchphrases such as “gimel metecha”, which were thrown around rather callously in order to trivialize the mighty sea. Some politicians who echoed that sentiment are still prominent in Ethiopian politics today.
As some had feared, this did not go without consequences. Today, by some accounts, the country pays $1.5-2 Billion USD in port fees to Djibouti alone. This might look small at first glance, but it is quite significant when compared to the country’s total export revenue. Between 2012-2017 (the good years in Ethiopian exports), the average export revenue earning for Ethiopia was about $3.8 Billion USD per year. Assuming the mean value of port fees, the Djibouti port expenses were thus more than 45% of all export earnings. When all import-export revenues are added, for the same period of 2012-2017, the Djibouti port fees account for 10% of that figure. This means that Ethiopia paid about 10% of all import and export commerce to Djibouti. And this expense does not account for the costs of delays and inefficiencies when dealing with a sovereign country and navigating the tenuous routes leading to the sea. In the world of business competitiveness, this levy is catastrophic, bearing in mind that many Asian economies rise and fall on margins of 10% or less.
On the political front, the country went on to be ruled by a “coalition” of ethnic parties under the umbrella EPRDF. The country was divided into regions known as “Kilil”, based on language and ethnicity, and it didn’t matter whether the Ethiopian people wanted that arrangement or not. Suddenly people were being identified as ethnic persons of one group or the other – even on their ID cards. The state media was suddenly awash with the names of the various states: Benishangul-Gumuz, Gambella, Somali, Tigray, SNNPR, Amhara, Oromo, etc. Many Ethiopians went on to resent such divisions and, today, blame it for the various ethnic conflicts that Ethiopia is currently going through.
It must be noted that federalism by itself was not, and is not, the problem – because federalism is not something of a novelty that is only unique to Ethiopia. On the contrary, today, there are no fewer than thirty modern countries that have federal systems, including Australia, Canada, Germany, and the United States. Likewise, the presence of regional parties was also not the issue. So many countries in the world have them. What was different in Ethiopia’s case was the absence of truly national political parties, parties that could promote national interests to balance regional interests, and the institutionalized ethnic division that followed. The dominant political parties that existed during much of the EPRDF’s reign were ethnic, and the environment for the truly national parties was extremely harsh and challenging. Aspiring politicians had no choice but to join one of these regional parties, or they would be relegated to sit on the sidelines. A few chose to brave the daunting political environment, and they paid a heavy price; some fled the country.
The first seven years of EPRDF rule were perilous times for Ethiopia. For one thing, the economic and political arrangements with Eritrea were murky. Although Eritrea had gained independence by that point, it continued to share the Ethiopian currency as usual. It also continued to trade and do business inside Ethiopia – as usual. There were reports of unfair (even thuggish) practices by the Eritrean regime during that time, including that of manipulating exports, counterfeiting currency, and even becoming a security threat to Ethiopian citizens.
A far more consequential development, however, was what happened to the military-security establishment. Little-noticed at the time, and for some unknown reasons, the EPRDF government demobilized much of the country’s armed forces, ostensibly for economic reasons. By 1998, Ethiopia had about 50,000 people in its defense-security establishment, support staff included, against Eritrea’s 200,000+. When Eritrea announced a new currency at the end of 1997, it wanted to continue trading pretty much as usual, with 1:1 exchange parity. But by then, there were enough people inside the Ethiopian government who had become increasingly concerned about the whole arrangement with Eritrea, and who now felt otherwise. The opposition against Eritrea had grown.
Then, suddenly, the issue of a small border town called Badme took front and center stage. The Eritrean strongman, Isaias Afwerki, knowing that he had about 4:1 military advantage, saw little downside to playing hardball tactics in fulfilling his objectives, including conducting cross-border military operations, which ultimately led to a two-year war between the two countries.
The bloody war with Eritrea resulted in tens of thousands of people dead on both sides. Billions’ worth of properties was destroyed. The economies of both countries were at a standstill for two years and beyond. And although Ethiopia came out militarily victorious in that conflict, this military victory turned out to be anything but a victory for Ethiopia. After his major defense lines were decisively destroyed, Isaias Afwerki called the United Nations, uncharacteristically pleading for peace after having rebuffed all peace offers for nearly two years. By many accounts, Ethiopia was in a position to deal his regime a serious blow, perhaps even a fatal one. He didn’t have to worry much longer, however; soon after, Meles Zenawi had also called Ethiopian forces to stop all operations.
To add insult to injury, in the arbitration that followed, Ethiopia was ill-represented, per documents disclosed later by the Hague Boundary Commission. Following the ruling, Meles Zenawi and his ministers quickly declared victory (fraudulently), sending millions of Ethiopians into days of celebrations. In fact, Ethiopia had lost. Keen Ethiopian observers – especially those in the diaspora – were enraged by both the conduct of the war and its conclusions. (President Isaias Afwerki lived for another day, after causing some 80,000 citizens’ deaths on both sides – only to resurrect himself two decades later as a peacemaker and a key ally of a new Ethiopian Prime Minister and, in a great irony, to receive a heroes’ welcome in Addis Ababa.) Thus ended a troubling period in Ethiopian history, with Meles Zenawi coming out unscathed – in fact, stronger – despite what he did and did not do. Ethiopians are still having difficulty calling his conduct up to this point by its right name: treasonous.
The period from 2000-2015 was a period of rapid economic development and relative peace, but it was also a period of increasingly authoritarian rule. On the economic front, the country saw rapid expansion. According to World Bank data, the economy grew by an average of 9% during that period; and by double-digits in ten of them. The GDP PPP grew from $32.73 Billion USD to $163.53 Billion USD, and the GDP per capita PPP rose from $621 USD to $1,518 USD. People may dispute the exact magnitude of this growth, the causes behind it, or its uniformity across the country, but it was a remarkable growth, nevertheless. With some exceptions, this period was also a fairly peaceful period in Ethiopian history. There were several instances of unrest and/or clashes, but certainly nothing like the chaos we see today. This period also saw the nation playing international roles beyond its borders as well as initiating audacious projects such as the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).
On the political front, the period from 2000-2015 was a time of increasingly authoritarian rule. Elections became formalities, more so than in the beginning. The system – which was designed so that the Ethiopian majority could not win – guaranteed almost all of the seats in the Ethiopian parliament to the ruling party. With the exception of the 2005 elections, when the opposition won a significant portion of seats in parliament and in the Addis Ababa city administration (but were later denied), the government retained very high majorities in parliament. For example, the EPRDF (and its allies) won all but 12 seats in 2000; all but one seat in 2010; and all seats in 2015. In the early 2010s, the EPRDF felt invincible. Deluded by power, it saw it’s 100% wins in parliament not in shame, but with pride, and as an affirmation of ‘love’ from the Ethiopian people.
This period was also an increasingly challenging time for Ethiopian opposition politicians and journalists. Many went in and out of jail, for no reason other than mildly-stated views. Many were forced into exile. Whereas much of this history is well-documented, what is less appreciated is the economic and social penalties that some Ethiopians paid during this period. Holding different views than the government also brought high social costs along with it. At one point, the label “opposition” earned one pariah status and persona non-grata in the society at large. One Tigrayan opposition figure said: “Even our kids could not get someone to marry.” Businesses shied away from hiring or doing business with those who were perceived to be opposing the government, for fear of being labeled as opposition themselves. Some were economically ruined as a result and gave up politics for good. Many stayed dormant, only to resurrect themselves years later.
Following the sudden death of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in 2012, the ruling coalition party EPRDF, which had been built by him and for him (as one said), was never the same. After holding one of the greatest funerals that the country has ever seen, and with an outpouring of grief fitting only to a beloved king, the ruling party was leaderless. Under Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn as its head, the party began to fragment from the inside, while facing challenges from the outside. His TPLF minions went on to wallow for a few years after vowing to take his vision to greater heights, not knowing how the state was crafted and sustained, and always believing in ‘Revolutionary Democracy’ and the ‘constitution’ as the basis of their success and their savior – to no avail. Soon, they were all gone, unceremoniously, even the generals who once thought of themselves as some of the greatest warriors who had ever lived.
The period of 2015–2017 was a period of fractious authority, with Hailemariam Desalegn as its head. The country saw demonstration after demonstration, especially in the largest two states of Ethiopia, Oromia, and Amhara. By that point, the Ethiopian people had had enough. The EPRDF was invincible no longer. That led to the resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, and the rise of Abiy Ahmed as Prime Minister in April 2018.
The Current Landscape
After all the previous letdown, the Ethiopian people were longing for a historic figure to rescue them from despair and misery – someone who would bring them unity and glory once again. And they saw one in Abiy Ahmed. Initially, Abiy Ahmed delivered, with soaring speeches to the delight of millions of Ethiopians. He spoke of love, forgiveness, and unity (Medemer). The land was awash with Abiymania. No single leader in modern Ethiopian history was received with so much adulation, praise, and open arms than Abiy Ahmed was. Abiy Ahmed stickers began gracing cars, windows, and walls, posted by the people, spontaneously, and not by the government. Even the highly critical diaspora community was not immune to this phenomenon. It came out in droves to cheer the young prime minister, and for a while, it seemed that Ethiopia had finally had its leader, it’s Nelson Mandela.
The euphoria did not last long, however. Soon, differences started appearing between talks and deeds and gaining steam in the months that followed. As the dead were piling and the displaced were heading to makeshift camps in great numbers, Ethiopians became increasingly unsure whether to believe the hearts he had once touched or their eyes and ears.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed did not change his messages for the most part. But that didn’t matter. People couldn’t help but see the reality, and it wasn’t pretty. The lop-sided grab of federal positions by one ethnicity; the deteriorating law and order situation; the mass displacements by the millions; the selective justice which favored one group over the other; and the long silences which followed tragic events all did not sit well with many Ethiopians. The Ethiopian people were devastated, yet again.
Numerous initiatives were launched, which began and ended with just announcements. The ministries, commissions, and appointments that were announced at a dizzying pace – all meant to correct previous wrongs – did not turn out to be as people had hoped they would be. The new ministry of peace presided over conflicts and large-scale displacements. The independent broadcasting commission was neither independent nor broadcasting. The reconciliation and boundary and identity commissions never lived up to their names. The new prosecution and security chiefs appointed came only to disclose – and not change – previous injustice (in which they were also part of). The Prime Minister’s press office was completely remade in bright colors, but that did not bring about the desired outcome: transparency.
Things only got worse from there. The Prime Minister began giving speeches at odds with one another, depending on the audience. Some of it was there from the beginning as well, but things are getting starker as we write. For example, his speech earlier this year in Bale, Oromia, which was meant to appeal to the base of human instinct – hate – was highly divisive and low, even for regionalist Ethiopian politicians, let alone for someone who just received a Nobel Peace Prize only a few months prior.
People are now questioning whether Abiy is the one to get them out of this plight. Others are going a bit further. They are convinced that much of this was all a grand deception against the Ethiopian people only to secure power. And although some are still hopeful and are wishing for the best, many now fear the worst. The prospect of the entire situation going into another autocratic rule or growing out of control and leading to anarchy and lawlessness is in everyone’s mind.
Compounding the problem, there are no regional leaders with the stature and foresight to help improve or stabilize the situation. Many of them seem to be preoccupied with protecting what is left of their own personal power while the country is going downhill. Instead of making a concerted effort to strengthen their governments, both central and local, they have instead been fighting over minutiae, sometimes on baseless issues. Some have even succumbed to extremist ideologies, just to gain local support – no matter the cost to the country at large. In the process, they have managed to make a once-peaceful people resentful against one another. As a result, some regions now have an unresolved identity and boundary issues, which are due for escalation at any time.
A significant portion of the lawlessness in Ethiopia centers in and around Oromia state. This is partly because of its size – about 35% of the Ethiopian population – and partly due to the local political situation there. Oromia is home to various groups, including armed groups, which are playing varying degrees of influence at the national and local levels. The defunct Oromo Democratic Party (ODP), now part of the governing Prosperity Party (PP), is from Oromia. The OLF, both its civil and armed wings, the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), and the Oromo National Party are also from Oromia. Additionally, there are different personalities who are unaccountable to no one, but who have followers all of their own. Completely oblivious to the great fortune that came their way, these Oromo groups are playing both sides of the ruling divide to maximize power – unwisely. Almost all these groups have a strong regionalist bent. Notable tragedies that happened in Oromia were downplayed or even suppressed, such as the abductions of more than a dozen girls in Oromia last year. To our knowledge, none of these groups came out to condemn such acts. All of this makes the situation in Oromia multidimensional, complex, and extremely worrying to Ethiopian unity and stability. It is worrying because these Oromo groups have a stronghold on Ethiopian national politics today. Anything good and bad that happens there is likely to also be reflected on the national stage, including inside the military-security establishment of Ethiopia – the one institution that Ethiopia can ill-afford to lose. There are also boundary and identity claims emanating from Oromia, such as ownership claims over Addis Ababa, and the various disputes it has with almost all its neighboring states.
In the north, the TPLF is threatening more autonomy, if not secession, if it does not get its way. Despite numerous opportunities that came its way to rehabilitate itself on the national stage, the TPLF sadly seems to have chosen the role of a spoiler rather than that of a builder. The TPLF has been whipping up fear and resentment amongst the Tigrayan people, over the conditions that it created in the first place. The people who have been on the receiving end of historic liabilities are now being asked, once again, for a fresh allegiance – and this time, for the great leap to nowhere. New promises are being made, despite the unfulfilled promises of the last 45 years. The very same people who have seen the least amount of freedom in the last 30 years are now heading into an even more authoritarian rule as we write these words, having been warned in no uncertain terms that “you are with us or against us.” It must be noted that, after all the sacrifices, the Tigrayan people are still waiting for the chance to speak their conscience freely and elect their own representatives to any office. Ruled by the same people, the average 50-year-old Tigrayan has never been able to exercise that right in their entire life. If that is liberation, then we don’t know what servitude means. Now, like in other places, local military build-up continues unabated, with slogans thrown around only fitting in pre-war times. What is truly stunning, however, is how little the TPLF has tried to mend relations with the Amhara people, given the enormous significance of that relation to both states, as well as to Ethiopia itself. Tensions with Amhara state have been left to simmer for so long, due to the arrogance and ignorance of both state leaders. Now, these two northern states consider Eritrea more of a friend than they do each other.
During the initial stages of EPRDF rule, if there was one ethnic group inside Ethiopia that was more unhappy with ethnic politics, it was arguably the Amhara. By saying this, we do not mean that this group wholly owns that cause or thought. We are just talking about the relative magnitude here, in an otherwise distributed resistance across Ethiopia. Many Amhara never seemed to like the very idea of division along ethnic or linguistic lines. Some even detested having the label “Amhara” on their state, for a very long time. Detractors saw that stand as a ploy by the Amhara to renew dominion over others, often labeling them as “chauvinistic”. All-Ethiopian-minded elements had hoped that Ethiopia’s second-largest ethnic group would at last play a moderating influence over the regionalist euphoria going on elsewhere. Years later, however, the state would begin to succumb to the regionalist sentiment which had swept the country. After years of hesitation, they had their moment and joined the fray. With the creation of groups like NaMA (National Movement of Amhara), the Amharas declared that they would no longer sit by the wayside while others were out advancing their own interests – thereby signaling that the last domino had fallen. Now, NaMA and ADP, the ruling regional party, are closer in outlook than they may appear on the surface. In organizational strength, however, the ADP group is a shadow of its former self, with some questioning whether there is anything left there at all. As in Tigray and elsewhere, local military buildup continues unabated in the region, which at some point went as far as killing its own leadership – a murky development that has yet to be fully explained.
In Southern Ethiopia, a lot has happened over the last two years. The region saw hundreds of thousands of its people dislocated due to ethnic violence. Many died; many lost their homes and properties, and many became victims of physical and/or sexual violence. What is striking, though, is that a lot of it happened without much international notice. The ruling group, formerly Southern Ethiopia People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM), now part of PP, is almost non-existent, weakened by a series of divisions from within, which came about partly due to further ethnicization of the south, and partly due to coordinated Oromo nationalist influence. After some campaign, the Sidama secured a referendum for statehood and became a state. Others hope to follow suit, such as the Wolaita and 9 others of the 13 zones which make up the SNNPR. Should a few of these demands go through, it will lead to the eventual dissolution of the southern state. It is unknown what this will mean to the governance and unity of the country. It is also unknown what roles these new leaders mushrooming in the south will play in Ethiopian politics. Some are expected to align themselves with regional forces (primarily from neighboring Oromia), their mentors and protectors.
In the rest of Ethiopia, we are seeing the on-and-off border clashes (e.g. Somali and Oromia, Benishangul-Gumuz, and Oromia), ethnic clashes (e.g. Southern Ethiopia and Oromia), and religious clashes (e.g. Somali, Dire Dawa, Harari, and Oromia). But overall, some of the outlying areas of Ethiopia seem to have been relatively peaceful when compared to the center – and especially compared to Oromia. But they, too, have all the elements needed for unrest, should the turmoil continue in the bigger states such as Oromia.
The deteriorating economic situation is of great concern. Between 2017 and 2019, the Foreign Direct Investment in Ethiopia fell by more than 35%. Export revenue fell from $5.5 Billion USD in 2015 to about $2.67 Billion USD in 2019 – a drop of more than 50%. This is before the reduced mobility due to security concerns nationwide and, more importantly, the outbreak of the Coronavirus this year. Both are expected to accelerate that decline further. If things continue as they are, the country may go into economic contraction in the not-too-distant future, which will make the unemployment situation far worse than it was a year ago. And if the central government continues to weaken, we fear more troubles ahead on multiple fronts. Instability amplified by a weak economy can combine to form a deadly mix that the country may not easily come out from. For example, if inflation skyrockets, perhaps due to poor economy-driven loose central control, this will make the bad situation extraordinarily difficult. Among other things, it will mean a large-scale wealth transfer from the poor and the middle class into the well-to-do, and the speculators and outlaws, leaving millions more in poverty. If the situation goes further into anarchy, we may even enter hitherto uncharted territory. As we will discuss later, during the height of anarchy in Somalia, the warlords were printing money in billions, rendering the Somalia shilling worthless. We fear that such a scenario, however implausible at this current juncture, could unfold here if lawless forces inside Ethiopia get the upper hand.
Finally, we also worry about foreign influence in Ethiopian affairs. We know that many of the current players in Ethiopian politics have come from bases in Eritrea. We also know that the Ethiopian leader himself has an unusually close, yet unknown, relationship with Asmara. The issue here is not the resumptions of relations between the two countries. That is a welcome development for both Ethiopia and for Eritrea, two of the closest people on the African continent. Peace between them is also great for the region, and today’s international order also demands it. What worries us is the risk that comes with weak leaders in Ethiopia. Having witnessed numerous deals that the public knows little about, we have reason for concern. In fact, there are already disturbing signs coming out of Eritrea as we write. Earlier this year, President Isaias Afwerki declared, ominously, that he will not sit by idly in Ethiopian affairs, as Ethiopia is too important for Eritrea and the region. The Eritrean President made this statement following PM Abiy visit to Asmara. It will be naïve to think that such statements were thrown around without some measure already in place. By now, we should be too familiar with what happened in the 1990s. It should not be repeated.
Lessons from History
The people of Libya, Syria, and Somalia are not longing for democracy and fairytale governments, these days. If there is one thing that they all want desperately, it is a stable government that guarantees the unity of their respective countries and maintains the rule of law – whatever that rule of law is. After years of uncertainty in their daily lives – the insecurity, abductions, rapes, and killings – they are conditioned to think far more modestly than they did several years ago.
Libya is now a war theatre for various international forces and mercenaries. Russia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Egypt, and other African countries are involved, some with boots on the ground. These forces are not there to liberate the Libyan people, but to exploit them for years to come. Many Libyans now question whether they made a mistake in getting rid of Muammar Gaddafi – the autocratic leader who once ruled them with an iron fist, running a vast network of prison cells and assassins, with wanton abuse of power, corruption, and nepotism.
In Syria, the world has seen one of the worst cruelties ever witnessed in human history. What originally started as a peaceful protest campaign against the minority regime of the Assad family, which ruled Syria since 1971, soon descended into armed conflict and chaos. The country saw brutality on a historic scale, from chemical weapons use to beheadings, to medieval torture. A country of 21 million in 2010, now 18 million, went through a period of anarchy and lawlessness that no one could have even imagined just a decade ago. Various pockets of the population suddenly found themselves at the mercy of local warlords who had their soldiers do pretty much whatever they wanted, including killings, extortions, conscriptions, rapes and forced marriages. Syria is still going through bloodshed but is also under foreign influence, primarily Russia, Iran, and Turkey. Those who managed to survive, mostly women, are facing incredible economic and social challenges, including finding men to marry – because so many men have died or fled the country. More than 5 million Syrians are now scattered around the world.
Somalia is going through a decades-long, painstaking process of putting the country back together. Things are not easy, as Somalians are finding out, after decades of anarchy with hundreds of militia groups roaming the country, with tolls, extortions, abductions, rapes, crooks, and warlords printing money in the billions and rendering the Somalia shilling worthless. Even with help from numerous nations – and billions of dollars in assistance each year – things are moving at snail’s pace. By the time the country is up on its feet, if that ever happens at all, a full generation will have passed without ever knowing a normal state.
These countries, and others like them, share three common factors: 1. All these countries were ruled by autocratic governments prior to the chaos; 2. There was an absence of developed institutions, like good government institutions, credible opposition, functioning media and civil societies; and 3. they had significant ethnic divisions. We fear that Ethiopia also has all three of these elements at play, and we would like to caution Ethiopians and friends of Ethiopia of the potential perils which lie ahead.
Ethiopia should not travel that very same path, unknowingly, into a far more tragic situation given its huge population, which is nearly 9% of the entire African population. We can’t see the future, but even if there is a small chance of going into such a situation, Ethiopian citizens are well-advised to do all that they can to eliminate that eventuality. Whereas fighting for democracy, justice, equality, and fairness are all noble causes and should be fully supported, we believe that Ethiopians must also separate the small issues from the big ones. If the price for perfect justice, democracy, and settling of old grievances (big and small) is the loss of a unified and strong Ethiopia, then that price is not worth paying. Ethiopians do not have to look back in time and wish they had done more to save their country – just as the people next door are doing right now.
Ethiopians should not have to go through decades of devastation at home, forcing their young men and women to seek refuge around the world yet again. Ethiopia should not become the domain of other countries – like Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen are, right now. Ethiopia should not fail its neighbors, after having served as the anchor of stability for so long in an otherwise troubled region. Ethiopia should not fail the African continent that once saw it as the light of freedom and bestowed upon it the highest honor it could, the seat of the African Union. The descent into anarchy will certainly mean the loss of the African Union at some point and the failure Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project which once instilled so much pride across all of Ethiopia.
We do not really know what comes next for Ethiopia. But we know a great many Ethiopians are worried about their country right now. Churches and mosques have been holding daily prayers for peace and stability. Hundreds of public forums have been held throughout the country over the past two years to discuss issues around unity and stability. So far, however, we are nowhere near normalcy. The country is still going from one kind of crisis to another, and many are now asking: Will this situation get out of hand at some point? Or, have we crossed that threshold already? Or, will good finally prevail and things get back to normal? There are different lines of thought at this moment. Some feel that all will be well in the end and that we will back to normal. Others claim that we have already failed. And still, others think in-between. We don’t really know. What we do know is that the magnitude of risk in front of us is unacceptably high and something must be done by all concerned Ethiopians.
Looking forward, there are at least five potential scenarios ahead of us. These scenarios are by no means the only outcomes that we can think of. We are presenting a few of them here. This is not to forecast the future, but to show our fellow Ethiopians what can possibly happen. Out of the five potential scenarios listed below, we believe only one of them, the first, should be the preferred outcome for all Ethiopians.
- National Unity – Here, the leaders in Addis Ababa get the foresight to call a national dialogue amongst (almost) all Ethiopian parties and distinguished personalities, with the intent to form a national unity government. This should normally happen before the elections, now that the virus pandemic has altered the timing. The pandemic makes the need for such a government even more compelling. For this scenario to materialize, however, those in power will have to realize the enormity of the risk that the country faces at this moment. There must also be a sense of willingness on all sides to forget past differences and enter a new beginning. This will also require more equitable distribution of federal power and respect for one another, going forward. This may also need mediation and considerable pressure from foreign governments and partners.
- Dominant Center – Here, the ruling party drives to unite the country by coercive means (using all instruments at its disposal, including economic pressure and force). For this to happen, the ruling party will have to muster a considerable military power and/or ruling skills to have all regions align to its will. In this scenario, there is a potential for considerable bloodshed, as well as foreign interference. Further, the government that emerges out of this scenario will likely be as autocratic (and corrupt) as any government in the last few decades has been, if not more.
- Weak Center – In this scenario, the ruling party is unable (or unwilling) to unify all regions in one of the two ways listed above. As a result, some regions become semi-independent, including Tigray, but possibly others. In this scenario, the simmering tensions between some states transforming into regional wars cannot be excluded. The central government, being weak, can prove to be highly dysfunctional in the management of the country’s affairs. Foreign influence in Ethiopian affairs becomes much more likely.
- Decentralization – The current Ethiopian rulers are unable (or unwilling) to work towards a united Ethiopia and focus more on regional objectives. In this scenario, the Oromos drive towards maximizing power and privilege, while disregarding others. In turn, this will force other regions, including the Amhara, to fend for themselves, leading to a much more decentralized country. Here, the chance for several regional wars to settle border and identity disputes and anarchy is considerable.
- Coalition Rule – Although slim, there is also a chance that, following the upcoming elections, an assortment of regional parties can form a ruling coalition. In order for this to happen, however, a lot of unlikely events will first need to take place: first, Ethiopia holds a relatively free election; second, the PP fails to win majorities in Oromia, Amhara, and Southern Ethiopia; third, the PP concedes the loss and allows other parties to form a government; and fourth, the numerous parties manage to agree upon a common platform, as well as a leader, to form a government. If, despite these long odds, a coalition government forms, it is unclear how it will maintain unity and power for very long, as well as ensure law and order across the country, without having a reliable military-security apparatus of its own. This can be a short-lived government and, perhaps, a step towards the outcome of scenario 4 discussed above.
Of course, none of these scenarios may happen, or something in-between may materialize. However, our message here is that we can end up in one of several undesirable outcomes unless we navigate events carefully. That is the main message here. We believe Ethiopians should demand an outcome along the lines of the first one discussed above – a national unity government – as should all foreign partners, diplomats, and friends of Ethiopia, who must be as concerned as we are. There – If there is one thing we can do right now, collectively, to stop the slide into more autocracy or anarchy, this will be it. We believe this may require an international mediation, as has been done successfully in many countries, including our neighbor Sudan, ironically with our help. As part of the settlement, we also believe that all state militias that have mushroomed over the last two years be disbanded. The new government must also guarantee the right of all Ethiopians to move freely and live and do business throughout Ethiopia.
The formation of a national unity government will likely achieve at least three objectives: 1. It will bring peace and stability to the country, which is crucial especially as we enter a more difficult economic time due to the global pandemic; 2. It will make the country less susceptible to foreign influence and threat; and 3. It will create a better ground for new political forces and civil societies to flourish, creating a more conducive environment for further democratization.
It must be stressed here that the postponement of the upcoming elections due to the virus pandemic is an additional reason – not the main one – that makes the need for a national unity government even more compelling. A government that cannot maintain the rule of law and is still struggling to pull the country together has little rationale to continue to rule beyond its term under the guise of the state of emergency. And let’s not forget this government is a continuation of the EPRDF government that ruled Ethiopia for three decades, since May 1991.
Ultimately, to us Ethiopians, everything is in our hands. We need to act to shape our destiny. And that is what we will discuss in Part II of this document. There, we discuss in some depth what we Ethiopians should do to reverse decades-long of slide into division and disunity. We articulate that the only way to come out of this period in our history is for Ethiopians at home and abroad to organize and run a determined but peaceful civil movement under a few core and structural issues to promote unity, stability, the rule of law, and basic freedom in Ethiopia. It can be done. Stay tuned and stay safe.
God Bless Ethiopia!
Ethiopia United International