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Imperial ambition is the main hurdle to peace in Ethiopia


The continued downplaying of Oromo concerns will only breed more violence.

Civil war in northern Ethiopia has raged for close to 20 months. The belligerents accuse each other of starting the conflict. Regardless of the never-ending blame game, the war’s devastating effects are unquestionable.

The late March truce, while a step in the right direction, has been slow to produce results, with woefully insufficient aid reaching Tigray despite Tigray forces satisfying federal authorities’ precondition by withdrawing from Afar.

As that volatile truce plays out, and aid reaches Tigray convoy by convoy, a no-less-serious war has flared again in Oromia, building on decades of discontent.

The Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), now a registered party, had been engaged in a rebellion against successive Ethiopian governments since the 1970s.

In 1991, it helped topple the Derg regime along with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF).

A couple of years later, Isaias Afwerki, hailed as a liberator at home and abroad, declared Eritrean independence following a referendum. To the dismay of everybody, however, within a decade, Eritrea had become a pariah state in the Horn of Africa under Isaias’ autocracy.

In 1991, the OLF and TPLF formed the Ethiopian Transitional Government, which laid the ground for the 1995 federal constitution. That brought respite, at least temporarily, after a long civil war—even if it became a bone of contention in the decades to follow.

Due in part to differences on the degree of regional autonomy and democracy, disagreement ensued between OLF and TPLF.

Near absolute control of state power by the TPLF, and subsequent attacks on the OLF’s military bases forced the latter out of the transitional government. OLF resumed its protracted guerrilla war, which led repression in Oromia to once again become the norm.

In 2011, OLF and its youth supporters under Qeerroo Bilisumma Oromoo (Oromo Youth for Freedom and Democracy) declared a popular uprising against the central government’s ‘tyranny’.  Beginning in 2014, the movement grew into a formidable force and enjoyed the support of activists like Jawar Mohammed, who was instrumental in electrifying the youth.

In 2018, internal tensions that accompanied the popular uprising led to a change of leadership within the ruling coalition. On 2 April 2018, Abiy Ahmed was sworn in as prime minister, soon promising to steer the country to peace and prosperity.

OLF moved to end a protracted war by declaring a ceasefire on 12 August 2018, handing its 1,300 combatants to the government, and transferring its headquarters to Addis Abeba from Asmera on 15 September 2018. OLF later became a legally registered political party.

Yet, the war in Oromia continued due to the mismanagement of the transition by Abiy’s government. Since 2018, the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) is leading the armed rebellion after it split from the OLF.

Today, huge swathes of Oromia—including Wellega, Guji, and West, North, and East Shewa Zones—are impacted by the OLA, and the state response is brutal.

On 22 April in West Shewa’s Abuna Gindeberet district, a government drone strike killed 20 civilians. In Ada’a Berga district, there were government extrajudicial killings of 46 civilians on 28 April, as well as mass killings in Warra Jarso district.

Beyond Oromia, Gumuz militants and unidentified groups are engaged in a series of armed clashes in the Benishangul-Gumuz region. The Amhara and Southern Nations security forces have wreaked havoc there. Hundreds of thousands are displaced, families dispersed, and communities disrupted.

The recent horrific video that overwhelmed social media of security forces burning Gumuz and Tigrayans alive in Benishangul-Gumuz demonstrated the level of brutality. We cannot sink any lower.

In Amhara, the war with Tigray region and, to a lesser extent, the conflict with Qimant groups seeking autonomy has been devastating.

Political unrest in Somali region as a result of the rivalry between the ruling party and Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) is noticeable. In Gambella, armed groups are building up their rank and file.

The country is ablaze and, sadly, it appears that peace is not currently achievable.

Imperial ambition

A core driver of the instability is that, for the last three years, Ethiopia has seemed to be striving to recreate an imperial dispensation.

In the past, the country was characterized by the dominance of, primarily, Orthodox Christian Amharic-speaking highlanders. The state strove to build a nation-state out of many nationalities, where one dominant language, religion, and culture would hold sway.

The process gathered pace in the late 19th century. Emperor Menelik II’s army invaded autonomous peoples in the south, who lost their material and spiritual independence. Imperial rule and nation-building became the order of the day.

Emperor Haile Selassie I advanced the project, reducing cultural, linguistic, and religious diversity in the name of modernization, particularly via the education system.

As a result, as Christopher Clapham writes, “Although Ethiopia has continuously formed a multi-ethnic political system, participation in national political life normally required assimilation to the cultural value of the Amhara core.”

In the 1980s, the Derg continued the homogenizing process in a different manner.

With its fall in 1991, the coming to power of the transitional government, and the institutionalization of ethnonational federalism through the 1995 constitution, cultural preservation and the right to self-rule were recognized.

Even if there were subsequently huge failures in democratic progress and protection of human rights, Ethiopia did largely escape its imperial embrace for more than two decades.

Yet, Abiy has used imperial nostalgia to legitimize his rule and centralize power. High-ranking officials have venerated the old days. The effigies and statues of Menelik II and Haile Selassie were symbolically erected in the imperial palace.

There were art nights sponsored by the ruling party and its associates celebrating those days with poems and speeches.

Abiy’s statement that “there is no border but boundary” and “there are no peoples but people in Ethiopia” was understood by many as presaging the dismantling of ethnonational federalism in favor of either geographic federalism or a unitary arrangement.

To many Ethiopians, all this suggested a return to an assimilationist agenda.

Many fear that the alliance and ideological alignment of the ruling party with Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice Party (Ezema) led by Berhanu Nega—which stands against the multinational federal arrangement—is another indicator of its ideological orientation.

Imperial ambition is also manifested in the expansionist and irredentist tendencies of Amhara elements. This group claims territories in Tigray, Oromia, and Benishangul-Gumuz regions as “ancestral lands.”

Following the eruption of the Tigray war, Amhara forces have now forcefully annexed Tigray’s territory.

One incursion and occupation by Fano militants took place on 29 March at Qorke in Fentalle District of East Shewa Zone, killing 26 militiamen and two federal police officers.

A Fano leader in Wello said that unless the issue of Welkait, Raya, and Addis Abeba are resolved in their favor and the current federal arrangement is dismantled, they would not refrain from turning Ethiopia into a Syria-like disaster.

Hegemonic stance

Imperial ambition accompanies a hegemonic disposition, and has led to a party structure that precludes alternative approaches. In Ethiopia, hegemonic sentiment promotes the dominance of one politico-cultural group over others.

The late 2019 establishment of a unitary ruling party, the Prosperity Party, with a structure that is at odds with federalism is somewhat problematic, given the underlying ethnonational political mobilization. While the federal arrangement does not necessitate a parallel party structure, the unitary ruling party agitates those who oppose Abiy’s centralizing agenda.

One of the Prosperity Party’s founding leaders said its primary aim is to blur ethnic lines in favor of an Ethiopian identity. The EPRDF, Prosperity Party’s precursor from which most of its leaders are drawn, also promoted a hegemonic ideology, expressed via ‘democratic centralism’ and ‘revolutionary democracy’.

Is Prosperity Party, therefore, suffering from confusion or imperial nostalgia? Given the behavior of party leaders, including the glorification of centralist Ethiopia by some factions, it may be both.

The Prosperity Party era has seen the continued quashing of alternative ideas. The incarceration of key opposition leaders and the subsequent overwhelming dominance of the 2021 elections attest to this, and have led to today’s chaos in Oromia.

Virtual reality

Oromia has not seen sustained peace for four decades, due in part to low-intensity guerilla warfare by OLF. In 2018, even though the OLF opted for peaceful struggle, the Ethiopian government did not want to give recognition and space for it—and, fatefully, its armed wing, the OLA.

A formal process of demobilization, disarmament, and reintegration (DDR) was brushed aside for political purposes. That was an abrogation of the Asmara Peace Deal of of 7 August 2018, in which the government agreed to open up the political space and reintegrate the OLA.

These failings led to the resumption of armed conflict between government forces and OLA. Despite several campaigns, the scale of the fighting has grown to engulf swaths of western and central Oromia, Guji zones, and Western Harerge.

An Oromia parliamentarian said that 392 rural towns and villages are out of the government’s hands. The conflict has led to hundreds of thousands of people being displaced from the Wellega zones.

However, the government does not seem to want to recognize the extent of the problem in Oromia. While there are at least some nascent peace talks with Tigray’s leaders, there is denialism of the Oromia issue.

This is an absurd approach to a restive region that has 40 percent of Ethiopia’s population and is responsible for a large share of the country’s economy. The failure to acknowledge the war, let alone try and end it peacefully, fuels conflict.

Meanwhile, violence against the registered Oromo political parties, OLF and Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), has been a hallmark of Ethiopian politics in the last three years, another manifestation of hegemony and the denial of pluralism.

Although some of the parties’ leaders were recently released, senior OLF figures still languish in detention. Court orders to set them free have been ignored by police. The chairman of OLF, Dawud Ibsa, was until recently under house arrest for more than a year.

Eritrean ambition

Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki’s ambitions in the Horn of Africa in general, and Ethiopia in particular, are almost as critical as the ongoing denial of Oromo political rights.

Before and during the liberation of Eritrea, the EPLF and TPLF, despite some ideological differences and high-level mistrust that led to a falling out from 1985 to 1988, kept close ties and managed to topple the Derg in 1991.

After Derg’s downfall, differences surfaced.

On top of economic rivalry, the prime area of contention was Isaias’ ambition to be in total control. As he considered himself the senior partner, the TPLF leadership was supposed to seek and take his guidance. TPLF, itself eager for regional political and economic dominance, rejected Isaias’ mentality and ambitions.

The animosity culminated in the so-called ‘border conflict’ centered on the seemingly useless strip of land, Badme, during the 1998-2000 Ethio-Eritrean War. Isaias was defeated and left with deep grudges against TPLF, alert to opportunities to come.

He was always charismatic and persuasive but also “quite merciless and vindictive,” says Andebrhan Welde Giorgis, an exiled former Eritrean ambassador and comrade of Isaias.

When Abiy came to power and entered into conflict with TPLF, Isaias saw this situation as a godsent opportunity to instigate the war that ultimately began in November 2020.

Since the war began, TPLF was briefly dislodged, Tigray was decimated, and contested territories such as Humera, Badme, and Zalambessa were occupied. Recently, there have been unconfirmed reports that Isaias’ forces have withdrawn. However, his grudge is not yet satisfied, and thus the resumption of Tigray-Eritrea conflict is highly likely. The recent heavy fighting between Tigray Defence Forces (TDF) and Eritrean forces attests to this.

The Eritrean dictator’s attitude towards the political arrangement in Ethiopia is also worth noting.

Isaias sees federalism—especially ethnic federalism—as anathema to his own style of governance. Eritrea has about nine ethnic groups that have some interest in self-rule. But Eritrean leaders, mainly coming from the dominant Tigrinya and Orthodox Christian cultural background, are against such a dispensation.

It is public knowledge that part of the discord between Isaias and former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was over Ethiopia’s multinational federalism. Abiy, as soon as he came to power, has shown an inclination to undermine this system. Many believe that is one of his goals in creating the Prosperity Party.

It is the same with democracy. In 2010, Isaias referred to democracy as a “commodity” that he never promised to Eritreans. Such attitudes informed the tripartite alliance attempted between Isaias, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohammed (Farmajo), and Abiy. Farmajo, who is no longer in power after losing last month’s election, tried to do away with federalism, while Abiy has exhibited centralizing tendencies.

Regional fragmentation

The Ethiopian federal government’s control over some regions is shaky. In addition to Tigray, Amhara is moving away from Addis Abeba, and the recent government crackdown on Amhara activists and Fano fighters is widening the gap.

Sentiments in Amhara vary.

Some groups agitate, especially recently, for Amhara nationalism, propagating the idea that Amharas should work for ‘Amharaness’, not ‘Ethiopiawinet’. They have an uncompromising stance on Welkait and Raya, which were part of Tigray for at least the last 30 years. Some elements have broken with Abiy by supporting US sanctions, a deviation from the prevailing Amhara position.

The growing militaristic tendencies of the Fano militia in the last three years as a result of the Tigray war, armed conflict in Oromia, perceived Amhara victimhood, and elite nationalist agitation is also worth noting by those strategizing how to achieve peace in Ethiopia.

Fano has become an important component in Amhara’s security system. They have allied themselves with regional special police in the Tigray campaign. There were also several reports that they crossed into western, eastern, and northern Oromia to ‘rescue’ Amharas from OLA.

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All this is taking place in the context of a ‘regional arms race’, particularly in Amhara, Oromia, and Afar. The special police, which are arguably unconstitutional, are increasingly furnished with combat weapons.

The growing power of regional governments means that they have growing influence on the center’s decision-making on the conflicts in Oromia, Tigray, and elsewhere. For example, the Amhara position on Welkait and Raya has to be considered if the federal authorities want to avoid a backlash.

Arguably, this influence could be seen when, days after declaring a ‘humanitarian truce’ on 24 March, the federal government stated a new precondition for aid delivery: the total withdrawal of TDF from Afar.

It is also important to note that Eritrea’s government has a role in this fragmentation of regional forces. It was recently reported, for example, that Eritrea has trained 60,000 Amhara regional forces in Western Tigray.

Peaceful hurdles

When we consider the prospect of peace in Ethiopia, imperial ambition precludes peace since Ethiopian unity is presented as indestructible and omnipotent, and there is often little concern for the identity and existence of sub-state groups.

When this attitude is entrenched into government structures, it is even more harmful. The Prosperity Party approach of forging a unitary structure on top of highly fragmented identity politics is problematic, and reflects Abiy administration’s imperial ambitions.

Above all, the neglect shown by the ruling party and the international community towards Oromo concerns is abhorrent and counter-productive. Sidelining Oromia and its opposition actors, who helped bring Abiy to power, cannot bring peace.

Likewise, Isaias’ ambitions in the Horn, his meddling in Ethiopian affairs, and his grudge against Tigray’s elite cannot be ignored by supposed peacemakers.

Instead, a holistic approach, where the concerns of each and every actor are considered, is the only way out. This means ending the wars in Oromia and Tigray through genuine peace talks, and launching a truly participatory national dialogue.

Only an inclusive and transparent process, which counteracts any lingering imperialistic ambitions, can ensure peace in Ethiopia.

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This is the viewpoint of the author. However, Ethiopia Insight will correct clear factual errors.

Main photo: Amhara Fano militia fighters in Lalibela, after TDF fighters were driven out by government forces and allies; 2021; AFP.

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