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Ethiopia and the Risk of Balkanization, Or Worse

Ethiopia and the Risk of Balkanization, Or Worse
 Dominique Moïsi
Distinguished Senior fellow

In recent years, Ethiopia has been lauded as an example for its economic growth, unprecedented in Africa. Today, the country is on the brink of a guerrilla war that could drag on and affect all neighbouring countries.

Africa had fared rather well during the Covid-19 pandemic. But as 2020 comes to a close, the continent is threatened less by the virus than by the recklessness of men. War has now returned to this giant of the Horn of Africa, despite Ethiopia having become a source of great pride and hope for the entire African continent in recent years. In 2019 its Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for ending the conflict with Eritrea. Ethiopia is the continent's most populous country after Nigeria, with 108 million inhabitants (60% of whom are under 25 years of age). It is also the country that has experienced the highest economic growth — nearly 10% each year over the past decade. The country was hailed as a model by all observers who spoke out against Afro-pessimism and pointed to the positive attributes of the African continent, despite its ethnic divides, global warming, and the economic conditions of the majority. 

"More equal than others"

Alas, this all already seems to belong to the past. Since November 4, 2020, Ethiopia has fallen into a civil war that, if things take a turn for the worse, could morph into a regional war. In the aftermath of the American elections — perhaps taking advantage of the fact that the world's attention was, even more than usual, diverted from Africa — Ethiopian federal forces launched an offensive against the "rebels" of the northern province of Tigray. Was the Nobel Peace Prize winner, behind his veneer of reformer and democrat, just “a man who wanted to be King”?

The country was hailed as a model by all observers who spoke out against Afro-pessimism and pointed to the positive attributes of the African continent

Did he use the all too real ethnic divisions as a political weapon? In Ethiopia, the Oromos make up 35% of the population while the Amharas, on whom Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed relies, account for 28%. The "rebellious" Tigrayans make up just over 6%. However their political weight is far greater than their numbers.

Having decisively contributed to overthrowing the communist dictatorship and subsequently holding power in Ethiopia for two decades, might they have felt "more equal than others"?

Their behavior has sparked resentment from other ethnic groups, and frustration in the Tigray province, when power at the national level eluded them following the 2018 electoral victory of Abiy Ahmed in Addis Ababa.

Will the Tigray region cling to the federal status of the country now that it no longer controls it? The postponement of regional elections initially scheduled for this summer — officially due to Covid-19 — has been seen by provincial leaders as a pretext to backtrack on the country's federal status. Does the Ethiopian constitution not stipulate that each region has the right to self-determination and could even secede peacefully? Would the Amharas, the minority that supports the current Prime Minister, want to abolish the federal system in favour of a much more centralized administration? 

A future guerrilla war

Evidently ethnic divisions and rival political projects are dangerously intertwined in Ethiopia. We risk finding ourselves on a path of escalating violence, harkening back to the vendetta: each ethnic group seeking its revenge, each massacre leading to more carnage. The UN has pointed out that this context gathers all the ingredients for a humanitarian catastrophe. From 1974 and the overthrow of Haile Selassie, to 1991 and the fall of the "red dictatorship" that succeeded him, Ethiopia has experienced war and famine, causing the death of several hundred thousand people.

Haven't the lessons of recent history been enough? Unfortunately, no vaccine has been found to stave off the ever-present temptation of resuming civil war or ethnic cleansing.

In launching its offensive against Tigray and having just seized its capital Mekele, has the federal government overestimated its strength and underestimated the resilience of its adversaries? Defeated in Mekele, the rebels could return to guerrilla warfare from the mountains surrounding their capital — a strategy they successfully used against the communist dictatorship more than 30 years ago.

We risk finding ourselves on a path of escalating violence, harkening back to the vendetta: each ethnic group seeking its revenge, each massacre leading to more carnage.

Ethiopia has been considered a stabilizing force in the Horn of Africa. This status has allowed its capital Addis Ababa to become home to the African Union headquarters, carrying out peacekeeping operations on behalf of the UN in Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan.

But who will impose peace in Ethiopia, if its Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed loses his wager of winning a quick war? Could it be that Ethiopia is about to become the equivalent, for today's Africa, of what Yugoslavia was for Europe in the early 1990s: a country on the brink of disintegration?

One major difference so far is that in the Balkans, the conflict did not extend beyond the borders of the former Yugoslavia. In the Horn of Africa, the risks are greater. Unlike Ex-Yugoslavia, Ethiopia does not share a border with the European Union, but with a country like Eritrea instead, which used to be part of Ethiopia and has very bad relations with the province of Tigray which it borders. Eritrea's capital, Asmara, has been repeatedly targeted by rockets fired from Tigray.

Moreover, 40,000 Ethiopians have sought refuge in Sudan, a country that is completely unprepared to accommodate them. The only state actor that might welcome the rising tensions in Ethiopia is Egypt, its main rival for control over the waters of the Nile.

Might there be a "Nobel Peace Prize curse" similar to “the oil curse"? From Myanmar to Ethiopia, from Aung San Suu Kyi to Abiy Ahmed, does the prestigious award go to the head of some of its recipients, giving them a sense of impunity and power that can lead to excess or recklessness?

Courtesy of Les Echos, where the article was published on 29.11.2020.


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