ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — The announcement last week that the government was about to launch a military operation into one of the country’s regions came, to put it lightly, as a shock.
Not only was it very far from the emollient statecraft that won Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed the Nobel Peace Prize last year, it also seemed to shatter the purpose of his premiership. When he rose to power in 2018, Mr. Abiy promised to guide Ethiopia into a new era of peace, prosperity and national reconciliation.
But on Nov. 4, he dispatched the Army to Tigray, one of the country’s 10 semiautonomous regions and home to roughly 6 percent of the population, accusing its leaders — with whom he has increasingly sparred — of attacking a government defense post and attempting to steal military equipment.
And in the days since, Mr. Abiy imposed a six-month state of emergency on the Tigray region, declared its legislature void and approved a provisional replacement. As fighting raged, the internet and telephone networks have been shut down. Hundreds are reported to be dead.
This is a tragedy. Ethiopia stands on the cusp of civil war, bringing devastation to both the country and the wider region. While the situation is volatile and uncertain, this much is clear: Mr. Abiy’s political project, to bring together the nation in a process of democratization, is over. And much of the blame must be laid at his door.
After years of persistent anti-government protests, economic troubles and widespread unrest, Mr. Abiy took over a country on the brink of collapse. At least one million people were internally displaced in 2017, according to the United Nations, as the country was shaken by protests from Oromo and Amhara ethnic groups, who together make up nearly two-thirds of the population. Presenting himself as a reformer, the avalanche of changes promised by Mr. Abiy, who took over in April 2018, seemed to avert the worst of the country’s problems.
But Mr. Abiy overreached. His first cardinal mistake was to sideline the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, for decades the most powerful political force in the country, in the peace he brokered between Ethiopia and Eritrea. By pushing the Tigrayan leadership aside as he sealed his signature achievement, Mr. Abiy made clear the limits to his talk of unity.
That was a taste of what was to come. Last year, Mr. Abiy moved to dismantle the old political order. Going beyond his original remit, he proposed reconfiguring the coalition that had ruled the country for 27 years — the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Front, or E.P.R.D.F., which itself comprised a gamut of regional parties — into a new, single party.
The T.P.L.F., which founded and dominated the coalition, was not keen on the change — but Mr. Abiy went ahead with it regardless, creating a rift with the Tigrayans and undermining the country’s delicate political settlement. Far from minimizing the fallout, Mr. Abiy exacerbated it, removing all ministers from the T.P.L.F. from his cabinet.
By the time the new party was announced, in November 2019, the damage was done. The T.P.L.F., angered by the whittling away of its power and concerned that the country’s federal system was under threat, had not joined. They weren’t alone in their disquiet. In Mr. Abiy’s own region, Oromia, many were skeptical of the new order, while southern Ethiopia splintered into disorder, as multiple administrative zones demanded self-rule. After coming to power on the promise of unity, Mr. Abiy had alienated and frustrated key components of his coalition. Suddenly, he looked vulnerable.
The coronavirus changed the calculus. The all-important national election, scheduled for August, was postponed; the focus became how to mitigate the damage wrought by the pandemic. But the political problems didn’t go away.
In the summer, thekilling of a popular Oromo musician — whose perpetrators the government claims were acting under the orders of an armed opposition group, the Oromo Liberation Army, and the T.P.L.F. — set off widespread violence against minorities in Oromia and police killings of protesters, in which at least 166 people died. It also led to a major crackdown against opposition political leaders, including Mr. Abiy’s former ally and now fierce critic, Jawar Mohammed.
Then in September, the Tigray region went ahead with its elections, in defiance of the government’s orders. Since that act of subversion, tensions between the government and the leaders in Tigray, simmering for two years, have been high. Last week, they spilled out into open conflict.
Whether or not it escalates into a civil war, it will leave an indelible mark on Ethiopian politics. What was already a deeply polarized country will become more divided still. But most importantly, it could crush the hopes of a democratic transition. Free speech, civil liberties and due process may fall afoul of the turn to militarism and repression.
In Tigray, the possibility of civilian casualties, indiscriminate attacks and protracted conflict could further deepen grievances; in a region with a long history of resistance to the central state, that might lead to an insurgency. The consequences for the wider region, if the conflict were to spill out to Eritrea, Sudan and Djibouti, could be severe.
Judging by Mr. Abiy’s moves over the past week, not least the replacement of the foreign minister and the leaders of the entire security sector with trusted loyalists, he is not inclined to de-escalate. The leader who once committed “to toil for peace every single day and in all seasons” has been acting more like a commander in chief than a prime minister.
Mr. Abiy has come a long way. War, he memorably said as he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, was “the epitome of hell.” Now he looks ready to meet it.
Tsedale Lemma (@TsedaleLemma) is the editor in chief of the Addis Standard.
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